It is usually the scene of political sparring, but a good hour of calm descended on Stormont’s ornate Senate Chamber on Tuesday morning when a Vietnamese Zen master addressed an invited audience of politicians and guests.
Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, a slightly built 85-year-old zen monk known as Thay (teacher), spoke in soft, almost soporific, tones — a nightmare for any sound recordists.
All the same, you could have heard a pin drop as people strained to hear him, most of them smiling contentedly. Even Conall McDevitt, the notoriously hyperactive SDLP MLA, chilled visibly.
“I am so relaxed, that rarely happens to me, but you have left me in a state of great relaxation,” Mr McDevitt told Thay while grinning broadly.
Conor Murphy of Sinn Fein listened intently and was obviously left with a strong impression, saying: “He is clearly a very spiritual character.”
Thich Nhat Hanh has been a Buddhist monk since he was just 13 and has practised meditation ever since. He was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King and taught religious studies at US and Vietnamese universities, as well as leading anti-war protests in both countries.
His main mission now is to build peace through mindfulness and close attention to our basic activities. The key, he believes, is being at peace with yourself, and then extending that peace to your relationship with others.
He told of week-long retreats for Palestinians and Israelis in Plum Village, his headquarters in the Dordogne region of France.
Compassionate listening to each other’s concerns, without answering back, went on for days.
The attitude of the listener, he said, should be that “it was not my intention to make you suffer; it was because I did not understand”.
The same, he said, could happen on a larger scale here. Such deep listening sessions, or storytelling, could be televised.
There would be obvious legal problems if we all let our uncensored suffering loose on the airwaves. In cold print it seems like wishful thinking, but Thich Nhat Hanh had a persuasive manner, and listeners were left feeling that something like this could be tried.
Martina Anderson, the Sinn Fein junior minister, said that yesterday’s process had helped her.
She told how she had become interested in his teachings when Buddhist monks visited Durham jail when she was an IRA prisoner there.
To prove the point, she produced one of the 100 books Thay has written, complete with an old prison visiting pass as a bookmark, and proceeded to read her favourite passage from it.
Thich Nhat Hanh stressed that you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practise deep listening and compassion. “There are wise and compassionate people in all traditions who can do this,” he said.