During the war in Vietnam we young Buddhists organized ourselves to help victims of the war rebuild villages that had been destroyed by the bombs.
Many of us died during service, not only because of the bombs and the bullets, but because of the people who suspected us of being on the other side. We were able to understand the suffering of both sides, the communists and the anti-communists. We tried to be open to both, to understand this side and to understand that side, to be one with them. That is why we did not take a side, even though the whole world took sides.
We tried to tell people our perception of the situation: that we wanted to stop the fighting, but the bombs were so loud. Sometimes we had to burn ourselves alive to get the message across, but even then the world could not hear us. They thought we were supporting a kind of political act. They didn’t know that it was a purely human action to be heard, to be understood. We wanted reconciliation, we did not want a victory.
Working to help people in a circumstance like that is very dangerous, and many of us got killed. The communists killed us because they suspected that we were working with the Americans, and the anti-communists killed us because they thought that we were with the communists. But we did not want to give up and take one side.
The situation of the world is still like this. People completely identify with one side, one ideology. To understand the suffering and the fear of a citizen of the Soviet Union, we have to become one with him or her. To do so is dangerous-we will be suspected by both sides. But if we don’t do it, if we align ourselves with one side or the other, we will lose our chance to work for peace. Reconciliation is to understand both sides, to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then to go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side. Doing only that will be a great help for peace.
During a retreat at the Providence Zen Center, I asked someone to express himself as a swimmer in a river, and then after fifteen minutes of breathing, to express himself as the river. He had to become the river to be able to express himself in the language and feelings of the river. After that a woman who had been in the Soviet Union was asked to express herself as an American, and after some breathing and meditation, as a Soviet citizen, with all her fears and her hope for peace. She did it wonderfully. These are exercises of meditation related to non-duality.
The young Buddhist workers in Vietnam tried to do this kind of meditation. Many of them died during service. I wrote a poem for my young brothers and sisters on how to die nonviolently, without hatred. It is called “Recommendation”:
promise me this day,
promise me now,
while the sun is overhead
exactly at the zenith,
Even as they strike you down
with a mountain of hatred and violence; even as they
step on you and
crush you like a worm, even as they dismember and
remember, brother, remember: man is not your enemy.
The only thing worthy of you is compassion —
Hatred will never let you face the
beast in man.
One day, when you face this beast alone, with your
courage intact, your
eyes kind, untroubled (even as no one sees them),
out of your smile will
bloom a flower.
And those who love you
will behold you
across ten thousand worlds of
birth and dying.
I will go on with bent head,
knowing that love has become eternal.
On the long, rough road,
the sun and the moon
will continue to shine.”