Practicing Peace

Thich Nhat Hanh's talk to young people in Florence

We are very happy to share this talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, on 21 April 1997. 

In the presence of the Mayor of Florence, Thay addresses a large group of young people and offers practical ways to cultivate peace at home and in school, care for anger, touch the wonders of this moment and learn to listen deeply and speak lovingly. 


A talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on 21 April 1997 in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Dear Friends, I would like to invite you to do a meditation on peace. It’s very easy. Even the very young ones can do it. We have only to breathe in and breathe out three times.

Sitting next to me is the Mayor of your city. When you breathe in, you look at him, and you say silently, “This is the mayor of my city,” and you smile to him. When you breathe out you say, “I will support him in making our city a peaceful city.” Because you know that his intention is to make the beautiful city of Florence also a city of peace. And for that he needs a lot of support from the citizens of this city. So remember, breathing in you look at him and you recognize him as your mayor, and the most wonderful way to recognize his presence is to smile to him with loving-kindness. And when you breathe out you can still continue to smile and you say silently, “I support him.” And we shall do it together three times.

This is not talking about peace. This is practicing peace.

It is a wonderful idea to have a peace temple built in the city, but we all hope that during the process of building the peace temple, a temple of peace is built in the heart of every one of us. To build a temple of peace in our heart, is that possible? Yes, it is possible – because I have done it. In order to build the temple of peace you have to destroy the temple of hate. In order to build the temple of peace you have to destroy the temple of anger. I have practiced during 55 years in order to destroy the temple of anger and to build the temple of peace in my heart. And the practice of mindful breathing has helped me a lot.

When we build the temple of peace in ourselves it helps to build the temple of peace in the people also. I have many students of meditation who are very young and they practice the meditation of peace very well. Even if they are only 7 or 8 years old, they can bring a lot of happiness to their family and their school. You might not know it, but even the very young ones can make their parents and their teachers happy.

Young people are very fresh, like flowers. Their freshness is the best gift they can offer to their parents and teachers. That is why we have to learn how to stay fresh all day long. In fact I always look at young people as flowers. But in order to keep flowers fresh, you have to put them in fresh water. Parents and teachers have to help us to remain fresh, because when irritation and anger become something real in us, we are about to lose our freshness. That is why when irritation and anger are about to be born in us, we have to know how not to allow them to be born. And if irritation and anger are already born, we should know how to take good care of them. If we do not know how to take care of our irritation, our anger, they will be very destructive to us and to the people around us.

I would suggest that today you go to your parents and you ask this question: “What do you do when you get angry?” And tomorrow you may go to your teacher and ask the same question. I think that some of your mothers and fathers and teachers are going to tell you of their experience. Some of them know what to do and what not to do when they get angry.

But you will be surprised to find out that many of them do not know what to do and what not to do when they get angry. And your question may embarrass them.

In fact it is wonderful if parents and children can sit calmly together and discuss peacefully what they should do and what they should not do when they get angry. In my spiritual tradition, that is Buddhism, we call that kind of discussion ‘dharma discussion’. Dharma means ‘the way’. Dharma discussion means discussing about the way to deal with our anger. You have witnessed the circumstances when your parent or your teacher gets anger. When they get angry, not only do they suffer within themselves, but you suffer also. And you are eager to learn how to help them – and yourself. That is why I suggest that the next time that you see your father, your mother, or your teacher get angry, you try to practice mindful breathing. You breathe in and you tell yourself,

Breathing in I know that they are angry.

When you breathe out, you tell yourself,

They suffer.

This is a very wonderful practice, very effective.

Breathing in I know that my father is angry.

Breathing out I know that my father is suffering a lot.

If you breathe in and out three times in this way, compassion will be born in your heart. Because when you know that someone is suffering, you do not get angry at them. If you can do that, their anger and suffering cannot get into your body. You can still remain fresh, you are not infected by their anger. You want to love your parent, you want to love your teacher, and sometimes you find it is very difficult to love them, especially when they get angry. When someone gets angry, they do not look beautiful or pleasant. It is very easy for us to get frustrated and angry with them. But if you know how to practice breathing in and out mindfully, and nourish the awareness that the person in front of you is suffering, you will be able to have compassion towards that person, and you will be able to remain fresh. You will be able to remain in the state of non-anger.

Non-anger is wonderful. We should practice in order to preserve our non-anger twenty-four hours a day. You might not know it, but our non-anger is the basis of our happiness. Remember the times when you were angry. In those moments, it was like you were being burned by a kind of fire; you seemed to be about to explode, like a bomb. You were practically in hell. And if you now compare it to the time when you are not angry, your non-anger is a kind of paradise. I am confident that in this very moment you have non-anger within you. In this very moment you are really in paradise. In fact, when you are in paradise, you should enjoy your paradise. The paradise of non-anger. But many of us are not able to enjoy our paradise.

Paradise is not something very far away, very abstract. Paradise, for me, is something that we can access very easily and quickly.

I would like to invite you to touch the paradise of colours and forms:

Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes.

Breathing out, I smile to my eyes.

Today you may try this meditation of touching paradise. It is springtime; everything is beautiful outside. You sit in the grass, and you breathe in and out and you just become aware of your eyes. When you breathe in and out and you get in touch with your eyes, you will get the insight that will help you to touch the paradise of forms and colours. You will see that you have eyes still in good condition. You only need to open your eyes to see all kinds of forms and colours around you. There is a festival of forms and colours going on around you. To me, that is the part is the paradise of forms and colours. There are those of us who have lost their eyesight; they cannot see anything at all. They do not remember the lines on the faces of their beloved ones. In order to be able to remember the lines on the face of their son, they have to ask him to come over and they have to rediscover him through their fingers. For people like them, to be able to see colours and forms again is to practically go back to paradise. When we breathe in and out and we become aware that we still have eyes in good condition, we know that the paradise of colours and forms is available to us. And we know that we have one basic condition for our peace and happiness: the existence of our eyes. You just sit there on the grass, and you look around, and you can be extremely happy because you are in touch with your paradise. Another boy sitting next to you also has eyes in good condition, but he cannot enjoy the paradise of forms and colors. He thinks that sitting on the grass and looking around is very boring. He is very eager to go into the living room and turn on the television. And he will find the television programme – with all the noise and shooting – more pleasant. During the time he watches television, a lot of toxins and poisons – like violence, strong emotions, despair – will enter into his heart through the program he is watching.

Imagine a mother with her daughter sitting on the grass and enjoying the beauty of Spring around them. A mother who is able to help her daughter enjoy the paradise of forms and colours, is a mother who knows the art of peace education. There are many young people who are able to enjoy the beauty of nature around them. In Plum Village – where I live and practice – I always like to take the hands of young children while we practice walking meditation. Walking meditation is to work very slowly and to enjoy every step you make. You walk but you are not anxious to arrive anywhere, because with every step you are able to touch Mother Earth deeply. Every step helps us to nourish ourselves with the peace and beauty of nature. After half an hour of walking in this way, we feel happier, stronger and more peaceful inside ourselves. For me it is wonderful to take the hand of a child and to walk like that. I profit from the freshness and innocence of the child. The energy of freshness and innocence penetrates into my body and nourishes me. And a child always profits from the peace and stability that are in me. In the beginning, children might have the tendency to walk faster, but after a few minutes they are able to slow down and enjoy walking with me. Many of them have told me later on, “Thay, it is wonderful to work with you!” I always look at them and say, “It is wonderful to work with you too!”

Now I would like to speak to you about toothache. When you have a toothache, you suffer, especially if that happens during the night, because during the night you cannot go to the dentist. When you suffer like that, you get a kind of enlightenment. You think that not having a toothache is wonderful. So you would be able to appreciate your non-toothache. For me, non-toothache is my second paradise. I think all of us here in this hall are in the paradise of non-toothache. Do you enjoy your non-toothache now, or do you need a toothache in order to appreciate the non-toothache. Non-toothache is our happiness. But many of us do not have the capacity to enjoy our happiness, because we do not realise that elements of happiness are present here and now. We are always in the habit of running and running, because we believe that our happiness is somewhere in the future. That is why the practice of happiness is to go back to the here and now and to recognise the elements of happiness that are already available to us in this moment.

I think that school is our second home. There are children who are happy in their family, and if they can also be happy in school they are lucky, because they have two families. But there are young people who are not really happy in their family. Their parents are not happy together, and if your parents not happy together, there is no way that you can be happy. In that case you have one hope: that when you go to school, you may have comfort from your teachers and your fellow students. If that young person does not feel happy in school either, their life will be full of suffering. That is why I always hope that teachers in school have the time to enquire about the happiness of their students at home.

I think that in school, students have to study too much. Our teachers ask us to do too many things. Our teachers make us extremely busy. They never have a chance to ask us whether we are happy or not. I think that teachers should take the time to ask each student how things are at home. I think our student is also our child, and we have to care for their wellbeing. I think that teachers in school have to help their students to suffer less. If the student suffers a lot in their heart, they cannot do well in mathematics, geography and so on. The teachers have to love their students. I have learnt during my practice of Buddhism that you cannot love unless you understand the person that you want to love. If the husband does not understand the wife, he cannot make her happy. If the mother does not understand the son, she cannot make him happy. The same thing is true with the teacher and the student. If the teacher does not understand the suffering of the student, they cannot love and help the student. That is why I hope that in the 21st century, teachers will have time for private consultation with each of their students. If the student is not happy at home because there is no loving parent, the teacher will have to play the role of a loving parent. I know that many teachers have that good intention, but in order to play the role of a good parent for your student, you have to learn and train yourself for the work. And the teacher would also have to find the time to get in touch with the parents of the student, so that they can work together to help the young person. In order for this to be possible, I think that both teachers and parents need more time. Now, both parents and teachers are extremely busy; neither side really has time to take care of the child. But the young generation is the hope for the future, and if we do not have enough time to take care of the young generation, then no matter what we try to do for our city – for our nation – our work will not bear fruit.

I think there must be ways in which teachers come together to discuss this very important topic. In my experience, to love your teacher and to have your teacher love you, is a very wonderful thing. I am a monk. I do not have a family, but I have so many students, and I love my students very much – and many of them also love me very much. My happiness is made of that love to a very great extent. If I am happy with my students and my students are happy with me, it is because we both practice in order to keep the communication between us alive, possible, easy. When teachers and students can talk to each other, can communicate with each other easily, the situation cannot get too bad. But when communication has become difficult, there will be suffering on both sides, and it will only increase.

My students and myself are able to communicate with each other easily because both sides try to practice what we call deep listening and loving speech. Deep listening means you listen deeply, with compassion within you. When you see someone suffering deeply, you know that that person has not been able to communicate. They cannot talk to their partner; they cannot talk to their children or friends. They feel completely isolated, and cut off from everyone around them. The only person willing to listen may be their psychotherapist. If you want to help them to suffer less, you have to practice compassionate listening. Compassionate listening means to listen with only one intention: to help the other person suffer less. You do not listen in order to judge or to criticize. You listen only to give the other person the opportunity to share from their heart. That person might be someone very close to you, like your parent or your spouse. They may have suffered quite deeply because no-one around them has been able to listen – including you. But if you really love them, you must be able to sit down and listen to them. You sit very quietly. You listen with one hundred per cent of your presence. The other person may say very unjust things, wrong things, but you still sit quietly and listen. Because your intention is to help them suffer less: that is why you are able to sit still and listen. Listening in this way for one hour, you will help them to feel much better. They may say something that makes you very angry; they may judge you, or condemn and blame you. But if you are still able to sit quietly and listen attentively, it is because you have trained yourself in the art of compassionate listening. And during the time you sit and listen, you always practice breathing in and out and remember just one thing: listening like this is to help them suffer less. The secret of success is that during the whole time of listening, you keep your compassion alive in you. And when they ask your opinion, you will use what we call loving speech. Loving speech means that you can say everything that is in your heart, on the condition that you speak calmly. And for this you have to train yourself. During your speech, if you feel irritation coming up, you should stop right away. You say, “Excuse me, may I continue another day, because now I’m not in good shape.” Not to speak when you feel that irritation, that is the principle of the practice. Please believe me, the practice of mindful and calm breathing is a very important way to train yourself to speak with loving-kindness. I think it is crucial that you discuss the issue of communication with your teacher and your parents. If communication between you and your parents can be restored, if communication between you and your teacher can be restored, you will have a future.

Today I have just tried to introduce the issue, but the practice of peace should continue every day in our life. I am very happy today to address the young people in the city and I am grateful for the presence of the mayor among us. I hope together we will be able to realise our dream to build a city of both beauty and peace.