In Vietnam during the French Indochina War, Thich Nhat Hanh made an unlikely connection with a French soldier.
In 1947 I was in Hue, living and studying at the Buddhist Institute at Bao Quoc Temple, not too far from my root temple where I had been ordained into monastic life and where I normally lived. This was during the French Indochina War.
At that time the French army was occupying the whole region and had set up a military base in Hue. We often heard gunfire around us between French and Vietnamese soldiers. People living high in the hills had set up small fortresses for protection. There were nights when the villagers shut themselves in their homes, bracing themselves against the barrage. In the morning when they awoke, they found corpses from the battle of the previous night, and slogans written in whitewash mixed with blood on the road. Occasionally monks would travel the remote paths in this region, but hardly anyone else dared pass through the area—especially the city dwellers of Hue, who had only recently returned after having been evacuated. Even though Bao Quoc was situated near a train station, hardly anyone risked going there, which speaks for itself!
One morning I set out from Bao Quoc for my monthly visit back to my root temple. It was quite early; the dew was still on the tips of the grass. Inside a cloth bag I carried my ceremonial robe and a few sutras. In my hand, I carried the traditional Vietnamese cone-shaped straw hat. I felt light and joyful at the thought of seeing my teacher, my monastic brothers, and the ancient, highly venerated temple.
I had just gone over a hill when I heard a voice call out. Up on the hill, above the road, I saw a French soldier waving. Thinking he was making fun of me because I was a monk, I turned away and continued walking down the road. But suddenly I had the feeling that this was no laughing matter. Behind me I heard the clomping of a soldier’s boots running up behind me. Perhaps he wanted to search me; the cloth bag I was carrying could have looked suspicious to him. I stopped walking and waited. A young soldier with a thin, handsome face approached.
He allowed the lives of all living beings to fill his heart, and he saw the senselessness and destructiveness of war.
“Where are you going?” he asked in Vietnamese. From his pronunciation, I could tell that he was French and that his knowledge of Vietnamese was very limited.
I smiled and asked him in French, “If I were to reply in Vietnamese, would you understand?”
When he heard that I could speak French, his face lit up. He said he had no intention of searching me, and that he only wanted to ask me something. “I want to know which temple you’re from,” he said.
When I told him I was living at Bao Quoc Temple, he seemed interested.
“Bao Quoc Temple,” he repeated. “Is that the big temple on the hill near the train station?”
When I nodded, he pointed up to a pump house on the side of the hill—his guard post apparently—and said, “If you’re not too busy, please come up there with me so we can talk for a little while.” We sat down near the pump house and he told me about the visit he and five other soldiers had made ten days earlier to Bao Quoc Temple. They had gone to the temple at ten that night, in search of Vietnamese resistors, Viet Minh, who were reportedly gathering there.
“We were determined to find them. We carried guns. The orders were to arrest and even kill if necessary. But when we entered the temple we were stunned.”
“Because there were so many Viet Minh?”
“No! No!” he exclaimed. “We wouldn’t have been stunned if we had seen Viet Minh. We would have attacked no matter how many there were.”
I was confused. “What surprised you?”
“What happened was so unexpected. Whenever we did searches in the past, people would run away or be thrown into a state of panic.”
“People have been terrorized so many times that they run away in fear,” I explained.
“I myself don’t make a habit of terrorizing or threatening people,” he replied. “Perhaps they are so frightened because they have been harmed by those who came before us.
“But when we entered the Bao Quoc Temple grounds, it was like entering a completely deserted place. The oil lamps were turned very low. We deliberately stomped our feet loudly on the gravel, and I had the feeling there were many people in the temple, but we couldn’t hear anyone. It was incredibly quiet. The shouting of a comrade made me uneasy. No one replied. I turned on my flashlight and aimed it into the room we thought was empty—and I saw fifty or sixty monks sitting still and silent in meditation.”
“That’s because you came during our evening sitting period,” I said, nodding my head.
“Yes. It was as if we’d run into a strange and invisible force,” he said. “We were so taken aback that we turned and went back out to the courtyard. The monks just ignored us! They didn’t raise a voice in reply, and they didn’t show any sign of panic or fear.”
“They weren’t ignoring you; they were practicing concentrating on their breath—that was all.”
“I felt drawn to their calmness,” he admitted. “It really commanded my respect. We stood quietly in the courtyard at the foot of a large tree and waited for perhaps half an hour. Then a series of bells sounded, and the temple returned to normal activity. A monk lit a torch and came to invite us inside, but we simply told him why we were there and then took our leave. That day, I began to change my ideas about the Vietnamese people.”
“There are many young men among us,” he continued. “We are homesick; we miss our families and our country a lot. We have been sent here to kill the Viet Minh, but we don’t know if we will kill them or be killed by them and never return home to our families. Seeing the people here work so hard to rebuild their shattered lives reminds me of the shattered lives of my relatives in France after the Second World War. The peaceful and serene life of those monks makes me think about the lives of all human beings on this earth. And I wonder why we’ve come to this place. What is this hatred between the Viet Minh and us that we have traveled all the way over here to fight them?”
Like me, he was becoming more aware of the absurdity of the killing, the calamity of war, and the suffering of so many young people dying in an unjust and heartbreaking way.
Deeply moved, I took his hand. I told him the story of an old friend of mine who had enlisted to fight the French, and who had been successful in winning many battles. One day my friend came to the temple where I was and burst into tears as he embraced me. He told me that during an attack on a fortress, while he was concealed behind some rocks, he saw two young French soldiers sitting and talking. “When I saw the bright, handsome, innocent faces of those boys,” he said, “I couldn’t bear to open fire, dear Brother. People can label me weak and soft; they can say that if all the Vietnamese fighters were like me, it wouldn’t be long before our whole country was overtaken. But for a moment I loved the enemy like my own mother loves me! I knew that the death of these two youngsters would make their mothers in France suffer, just as my mother had grieved for the death of my younger brother.”
“So you see,” I said to the French soldier, “that young Vietnamese soldier’s heart was filled with the love of humanity.”
The young French soldier sat quietly, lost in thought. Perhaps, like me, he was becoming more aware of the absurdity of the killing, the calamity of war, and the suffering of so many young people dying in an unjust and heartbreaking way.
The sun had already risen high in the sky and it was time for me to go. The soldier told me that his name was Daniel Marty and he was twenty-one years old. He had just finished high school before coming to Vietnam. He showed me photographs of his mother and of a younger brother and sister. We parted with a feeling of understanding and friendship between us, and he promised to visit me at the temple on Sundays.
In the months that followed, he did visit me when he could, and I took him to our meditation hall to practice with me. I gave him the spiritual name Thanh Luong, meaning “pure and refreshing peaceful life.” I taught him Vietnamese—he knew only the few phrases that he’d been taught by the military—and after a few months we were able to converse a little in my native tongue. He told me that he no longer had to go on raids as he had previously done, and I shared his relief. If there were letters from home, he showed them to me. Whenever he saw me, he joined his palms in greeting.
One day, we invited Thanh Luong to a vegetarian meal at the temple. He accepted the invitation happily, and highly praised the delicious black olives and the flavorful dishes we served him. He found the fragrant mushroom rice soup my brother had prepared so delicious, he couldn’t believe it was vegetarian. I had to explain to him in detail how it was made before he would believe it.
There were days when, sitting beside the temple tower, we would delve into conversations on spirituality and literature. When I praised French literature, Thanh Luong’s eyes lit up with pride in his nation’s culture. Our friendship became very deep.
Then one day, when he came to visit, Thanh Luong announced that his unit would be moving to another area and it was likely that he would soon be able to return to France. I walked him to the gate under the arch of the three portals of the temple and we hugged goodbye. “I will write you, Brother,” he said.
“I will be very happy to receive your letter, and to reply.”
A month later, I received a letter from him with the news that he would indeed return to France, but then go on to the then French colony of Algeria. He promised to write to me from there. I have not heard from him since. Who knows where Thanh Luong is now. Is he safe? But I know that when I last saw him, he was at peace. That moment of profound silence in the temple had changed him. He allowed the lives of all living beings to fill his heart, and he saw the senselessness and destructiveness of war. What made it all possible was that moment of complete and total stopping and opening to the powerful, healing, miraculous ocean called silence.
Excerpt from At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press; 187 pp., $24.95 (hardcover).