Can you empathize with a killer?
This is a story called Call Me By My True Names by Thich Nhat Hanh from his book At Home in the World that offers us the opportunity to empathize with all people.
"In the early years of my exile in France, I learned of an eleven-year-old girl escaping from Vietnam with her family and other boat people. She was raped by a pirate, right there on her boat. Her father tried to intervene, but the pirate threw her father into the sea. After the child was raped she jumped into the ocean to commit suicide. We received the news of this tragedy one day while we were working in our Buddhist Peace Delegation office in Paris. I was so upset I could not sleep. I felt anger, blame, and despair.
That evening in sitting meditation, I visualized myself being born as a baby boy into a very poor fishing family on the coast of Thailand. My father was a fisherman. He couldn’t read; he had never gone to school or to the temple; he had never received any Buddhist teaching or any kind of education. The politicians, educators, and social workers in Thailand had never helped my father. My mother also couldn’t read or write, and she didn’t know how to raise her children. My father’s family had been poor fishermen for many generations—my grandfather and my great-grandfather had been fishermen, too. When I turned thirteen, I also became a fisherman. I had never gone to school, I had never felt loved or understood, and I lived in chronic poverty that persisted from one generation to the next.
Then one day another young fisherman says to me: “Let’s go out onto the ocean. There are boat people who pass near here and they often carry gold and jewelry, sometimes even money. Just one trip and we can be free from this poverty.” I accept the invitation, thinking, “We only need to take away a little bit of their jewelry; it won’t do any harm, and then we can be free from this poverty.” So I become a pirate. The first time I go out, I’m not even aware that I have become a pirate. Once out on the ocean, I start to see the other pirates raping young women on the boats. I had never touched a young woman; I had never even thought about holding hands or going out with a young woman. But then on one boat there is a very beautiful young woman, and no policeman there to stop me. I had seen other people doing it, and I asked myself: “Why don’t I try it, too? This is my chance to try the body of a young woman.” And so I did.
If you were there on the boat and had a gun, you might have shot me. But shooting me wouldn’t help me. Nobody had ever taught me how to love, how to understand, how to see the suffering of others. My father and mother were not taught this either. I didn’t know what was wholesome and what was unwholesome, I didn’t understand cause and effect. I was living in the dark. If you had a gun, you could shoot me, and I would die. But you wouldn’t be able to help me at all.
As I continued sitting, I saw hundreds of babies being born that night along the coast of Thailand in similar circumstances, many of them baby boys. If the politicians and cultural ministers could look deeply, they would see that within twenty years those babies would become pirates. When I was able to see that, I understood the actions of the pirate. When I put myself in the situation of being born into a family that was uneducated and poor from one generation to the next, I saw that I would not be able to avoid becoming a pirate. When I saw that, my hatred vanished, and I could feel compassion for that pirate.
When I saw those babies being born and growing up with no help, I knew that I had to do something so that they would not become pirates. The energy of a bodhisattva, a compassionate being with limitless love, grew inside me. I didn’t suffer anymore. I could embrace not only the suffering of the eleven-year-old child who was raped, but also the suffering of the pirate.
When you address me as “Venerable Nhat Hanh,” I answer, “Yes.” When you call the name of the child who was raped, I also answer, “Yes.” If you call the name of the pirate, I will also say, “Yes.” Depending on where I was born, and under which circumstances I grew up, I might have been the girl or I might have been the pirate.
I am the child in Uganda or the Congo, all skin and bones, my two legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am also the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to the Congo. Those poor children in the Congo do not need bombs; they need food to eat. But here in the US, we live by producing bombs and guns. And if we want others to buy guns and bombs, then we have to create wars. If you call the name of the child in the Congo, I answer, “Yes.” If you call the name of those who produce the bombs and guns, I also answer, “Yes.” When I’m able to see that I am all those people, my hatred disappears, and I am determined to live in such a way that I can help the victims, and also help those who create and perpetrate wars and destruction."