9 min read

Human beings are not our enemy

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh that reads, "even if you are sure, check again"
Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

I’ve always thought the calligraphy “Even if you are sure, check again” was quite cheeky. Sometimes it makes me smile and laugh, and other times I feel insulted 🙂. Either way, it usually helps me to see a blindspot within myself, and it encourages me to think about how I might reframe my understanding of a situation. Often, when I notice a stronger first reaction to it, I know I have some work to do. It helps me to look a bit deeper into myself and the world around me, in order to discover something I haven’t yet seen, as I do my best to walk a path towards compassion and understanding.

I felt I needed to return to this calligraphy (which is framed in my parents-in-law’s house) as more violence breaks out in the world – this week, between Israel and Hamas. These few words can be a very deep and needed teaching to help reveal a closed and rigid way of thinking.

As I explore its applicability at this moment, I want to begin with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, “Recommendation”, which he wrote in 1965. He wrote it for young people in Vietnam who risked their lives during a time of war by not taking a side (which resulted in them being seen as an enemy by both sides) as they worked to support refugees and villages affected by fighting.

I think the poem is a helpful guide as we consider how to react to recent atrocities we have witnessed.


Promise me,
promise me this day,
promise me now,
while the sun is overhead
exactly at the zenith,

promise me:
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 disembowel you,
remember brother, remember:
man is not our enemy.

The only thing worthy of you is compassion –
invincible, limitless, unconditional.
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,
(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.

Alone again,
I will go on with bent head,
knowing that love has become eternal.
On the long, rough road
the sun and moon will continue to shine.

You can find this poem published in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Call Me By My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh, it is also reproduced, along with Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on it, here on the Plum Village website.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Commentary on his poem

In his book, Thich Nhat Hanh – who we affectionately call Thay (pronounced “tie”), which is Vietnamese for “teacher” – explains that he wrote this poem in 1965 for young people in the School of Youth for Social Service. The School of Youth and Social Service (SYSS) was a grassroots relief organization of 10,000 volunteers, based on the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action, that worked for rural reconstruction and to relieve the suffering of war in Vietnam.

The SYSS stayed neutral during the war, refusing to take a side, and many were killed for it. In his commentary, Thay says,

”Our enemy is our anger, hatred, greed, fanaticism, and discrimination against men.”

If I utilize the metaphor of thinking of each of these mental formations (anger, hatred, greed, fanaticism, etc.) as seeds in my consciousness, I know that if I water those seeds within myself, they will only grow bigger and stronger. It’s like a neuropathway in my brain – what fires together, wires together. The more I allow myself to speak and act from a place of anger, the more likely it is for anger to arise in the future. Thay encouraged his students, even as they were the brunt of hatred and violence, to not fall victim to these feelings and to prevent hatred from growing within their hearts.

Thay encourages us in his commentary,

"You must meditate on compassion in order to forgive those who kill you.”

He says, “Even if you are dying in oppression, shame, and violence, if you can smile with forgiveness, you have great power… If you die with compassion in mind, you are a torch lighting our path.”

As I read these lines, I remember Thay’s friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I remember images and video of non-violent protesters in the United States bearing so much violence during the Civil Rights movement. I recall how powerful it is to see oppression on full display. If protesters had fought back against the white policemen and military that used water hoses and brutal violence against Civil Rights protesters, I think the narrative would have been quite different. Empathy and compassion are quick to rise in me when I think of these images. This was a torch lighting a path in our society. This torch of compassion needs to be lit over and over in our society.

Thay writes,

”When there is a mature relationship between people, there is always compassion and forgiveness. In our life, we need others to see and recognize us so that we feel supported.”

A poem still so relevant

I’m writing this post less than one week after Hamas launched a strike on Israel on Oct 7, 2023. This strike was rooted in decades of displacement and violence by the Israeli government. War also continues to rage between Russia and Ukraine, and I’m sure that these two conflicts are not the only violence in our world today. Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem may be over 50 years old, and yet I find it and Thay’s commentary still so relevant today as I grapple with my reaction to the violence I am seeing in the news and feeling in my heart.

I was raised Jewish, and I went to temple weekly as a young person. I have the collective trauma of the Jewish people, from the Nazi holocaust and other persecution, within me. I have recognized a response in my body and nervous system throughout this week as war is raging.

I recognize my response because I’ve felt it before. When I first entered Germany on a trip to a Plum Village centre about 10 years ago, I had a strong feeling of unease, tension, and fear come up just from being surrounded by the German language. I wasn’t in any perceived danger, and yet my body responded as if I was. I realized that this response was passed to me by my Jewish ancestors. Recognizing this response in me again this week, I wanted to take some time to reflect.

Over the last week, I have also seen a diverse range of posts on social media. Some of my Jewish relatives have posted images with sentiments of “I stand with Israel”. I saw a post that a muslim friend reshared that referred to the Hamas attack as an act of liberation, as an act against the oppressors of Israel. I also saw posts from Plum Village friends and some Jewish family calling for peace and compassionate action. I thought to myself, who is right, and where is the place for compassion?

I can recognize in myself that it would be easy to simply stand with “my tribe”, but who is my tribe? Is it my Jewish ancestors? Is it my friend from school and his family, ancestors, and friends? Is it the Plum Village community of peace activists that I have spent more than a decade training with?

I can feel a pull in my body to take the “side” of my Jewish ancestors and yet, I know that when that mental formation arises, I need to check again. I recognize a feeling of division within me. On the one hand, my ancestors, and their pain, and on the other hand my training of compassion and understanding.

Currently, the strongest feelings are of sadness. Sadness that so many turn to violence, Hamas and Israel (along with the United States) alike.

As Thay so elegantly put it in his commentary, I feel a pull to try to do the work to “see and recognize” all human beings so that they may feel supported.

Even if you are sure, check again

When I pair the words, “even if you are sure, check again” with Thay’s poem Recommendation, I remind myself to check again when I feel a call to “stand with” Israel and to think of Hamas as my “tribe’s” enemy. I am encouraged to check again when I notice thoughts arising that are based in fear, resentment, and anger. I am encouraged to check again when I consider who is the perpetrator and who is the victim.

I do not and will never condone violence of any kind. This I feel quite confident in. As I learn to “check again,” I find a useful way of doing this is to check with my body. How does my body feel when I have a certain thought or feeling? Do I feel at ease and like I can rest with this thought, or do I feel tension, unease, and constraint? There is no ease within me when I consider violence as a response to violence.

The road to peace and safety is not a road of violence. This will only sow more seeds of violence.

Larry Ward, at a mindfulness retreat that I recently attended, encouraged us to consider,

"Are you conflating protection with safety?"

In protection there can be tension and fear, but in safety there should be ease and rest.

Thay’s poem and commentary inspires in me the aspiration to learn to include everyone in my heart of compassion. Over the coming weeks, I hope to learn to recognize what is arising for me in the present moment and to care for that in a way that waters the seeds of care, compassion, and understanding. I hope that we can all avoid watering the seeds of hatred and violence.

Dear reader, I invite you to recognize who your ancestors are and how they manifest within you in this present moment. As you recognize feelings that arise, especially ones of fear and anger, can you observe those feelings with care and a bit of distance? I like to practice saying,

hello my dear anger, I know you are there, I know you are a part of me and I will take good care of you.

I recently listened to this episode of the podcast The Way Out Is In that was a conversation with Kaira Jewel Lingo (a former nun of Plum Village for 15 years) about white supremacy and racial healing. Her mother is of African American descent, and Kaira Jewel described beautifully how she holds the feelings that arise within her when she is proxy to racism in the United States. I highly recommend having a listen – as many of us work with collective trauma that manifests in our bodies, we can learn from each other and walk the road of healing together.

Concluding with love and hope

I am constantly inspired by the compassionate action I see in the world around me.

While there is so much fear and violence at this time, there is also compassion and love. We cannot forget that.

I can feel the love transmitted to me from teachers, friends, and family. Whenever I can, I tap into that love. I can feel the miracle of looking out of my window in Toronto, Canada and seeing the sun streaming through the trees and onto the ground below. I can sit, right where I am, and experience a feeling of safety and ease. I remember that there are so many conditions at this moment for happiness. I do not need to become lost in despair. This does not mean that I am complacent, that I do not take action to speak out against what is wrong. We all have to speak out and do our part to address violence and oppression in our world, this is not something to simply accept as part of the human condition. We can choose compassion and love.

It may not always be easy to see how, but I am confident that we can. If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh could do it, so can we. I hope that this post is one drop in a river of compassionate action in the coming times.

Dear reader, what action can you take in the direction of compassion and understanding? It can be something as small and simple as, checking again, even if you are sure.

Below is a short metta meditation (explanation of metta here) I am practicing with:

May we be as safe as possible

May we find ease in whatever ways possible, big or small

May we be able to look at ourselves and each-other with the eyes of understanding and love

Below is a photo from 1967 with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. where Thich Nhat Hanh’s line from the poem above, “man is not our enemy” was used on a banner in protest against war in Vietnam:

Photo from the Associated Press

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This is my first post after a hiatus over the summer, I hope to return to regularly posting on this blog over the coming months (maybe every other week – I am not sure). Either way, I look forward to connecting with you, dear reader, as we continue to walk this path of life together.

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