The Vietnam War was one of the worst periods in world history. Thousands of people lost their lives in the war and the ones who survived suffered from trauma that would never heal. Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh used to receive several letters each week from refugees all over Asia. These letters showed the suffering that the war had caused the people, and even though it was too painful to read, Thich Nhat Hanh did his best to assuage the pain.
Many of these refugees had fled Vietnam in boats, hoping to arrive at the shores of new land. But half of the boats never made it and perished in the ocean. These waters were often patrolled by Thai sea pirates who would plunder and pillage the boats. Thich Nhat Hanh recalls receiving a letter that spoke about one such victim, a twelve-year-old girl, who was raped by one of the Thai pirates. To end the pain, she jumped into the ocean and ended her life.
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When Thich Nhat Hanh narrated this story, he explained that as humans it is natural to feel anger and hate for the pirate. Who in their right mind would commit such a heinous crime? Many of you would have killed the pirate right there if you were on the boat. It is natural and easy for our hearts to empathize with the girl and feel hate towards the pirate. But Thich Nhat Hanh explains that if you take a moment to let go of your emotions and look at the situation with divine eyes, you will see it differently.
If you meditate upon it, you will realise that had you been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same horrible conditions as he was, you would probably also end up becoming a pirate. Many that are born along the shores of Thai fishing villages have very little means to survive and usually have a very painful childhood. A number of them grow up to become sea pirates not because that was their life’s dream, but because that is all life has shown them. As a species, we are responsible not only for taking care our ourselves but for others who need help. And if we hate the pirate for what he has become, then in the process we equally hate ourselves for not helping others and doing something to end other people’s misery.
This is not to say that the pirate was right. The pirate’s actions were wrong and what he did was unthinkable. But what it means is that good or bad are just characteristics associated with the persona of a human. We associate with the persona so much that we forget that this isn’t us. We are the divine within. We are the soul rather than the body. Whether it is a pirate, a terrorist, or a murderer, or whether it is a monk, a mystic, or a saint, each one of them is the child of God. The only difference is that some of them have lost their way because of the painful experiences life has thrown at them. To look at them as sinners is reasonable as a human being but to develop the ability to recognise them as also a part of the divine is one step taken towards enlightenment. To keep your heart open in even in hell is a sign of a divine soul.
Since every living being has spawned from the divine creator, in a way I am You and You are me. We might be playing different characters in an ephemeral life but we return to the same energy. Thich Nhat Hanh understood this and when he received the letter, he wrote a beautiful poem as a response. He explains that there are three characters in the poem: the pirate, the little girl, and himself. He says that all three characters are him. When he looks at the other characters, he looks at himself. He gave the title “Please Call Me by My True Names” to the poem. This is because despite being different characters, he is all of them and has many names, and each time he hears one of the names, he responds with a “yes”.
Here are the lines from Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem “Please Call Me by My True Names”:
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.
We are born on this planet with a consciousness that is self-aware and is more evolved than any other species known to us. But as a species, instead of using this divine gift in the expansion of our consciousness, we spend it on petty issues that divide us. This makes it incredibly difficult to see us as one. Ramana Maharshi once said “The greatest error of a man is to think that he is weak by nature, evil by nature. Every man is divine and strong in his real nature. What are weak and evil are his habits, his desires, and thoughts, but not himself.” What it means is that the human role we are playing, which is our false persona or our ego, can never be perfect. But our real self, which is the soul within, is created in the image of God and it is divine and flawless. If you look at others from this lens, you will see the divine within everybody, even the sinners. It then becomes easy to forgive others because you realise that we are all one. The sinners and the saints are the same sources of energy. Even The Bible speaks of forgiving the sinners because even though as humans we might be flawed, as our true selves we are divine. We just have to wake up and realise it.
Next time you witness atrocities being inflicted on the innocent by some people and you catch yourself overcome by hate and anger, close your eyes and remind yourself that you are all one. Even evil minds can change because they have light within them that they have not yet realized. It is merely unfortunate circumstances that have led them on a path of self-destruction, away from spiritual evolution and away from the capacity to show love. Realise that you cannot judge them and that with time, their wounds will heal and they will eventually see the light. Ask the creator to help these people see the light. It might initially be difficult to see everyone as part of the divine creator merely shaped by circumstances, but perhaps these words by Ram Dass will help you in the process:
“When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.
The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You are too this, or I’m too this.’ That judgment mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”
When you achieve a state of mind where you see everyone for who their true divine self is rather than their human persona, you will fall in love with the Universe. Boundaries will cease to exist and you will see no separation between anyone. When duality no longer exists for you, you will see that everything is perfect in nature and everything is related to the other in mysterious ways. You could be in the midst of chaos and still see God. When the door to love in your heart opens, you will find unconditional love for existence itself. At this moment, you will realise that you have finally arrived.