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Protesters Press Quietly for an End to War

Activist Cindy Sheehan joins peace advocate Thich Nhat Hanh as thousands march at L.A.'s MacArthur Park.

October 09, 2005|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

Thousands gathered in MacArthur Park on Saturday morning to advocate for peace -- but left banners and megaphones at home.

Activist mom Cindy Sheehan, whose summer vigil outside President Bush's Texas ranch crystallized antiwar sentiment, sat in silence with the others as Buddhist monk and longtime peace advocate Thich Nhat Hanh explained from an open stage: "We don't think shouting in anger can help. If you make people angry and fearful, then you cannot reduce violence and fear.

"When you speak to people, you should speak to them in a language they can understand. By doing that, we can turn our enemies into our friends."

Hanh, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., conceived and organized this "silent peace walk" as a "gift to the people of Los Angeles."

Peace must arise from within the self, he said, before it can spread out across the "collective unconscious" and put an end to conflict and war.

"Walk as if you kiss the earth with your feet, really tenderly, with all your love," he told the crowd. "If you know how to touch the present moment, you will touch the ultimate, you will touch God."

And so approximately 3,000 people rose quietly about 11:30 a.m. and followed Hanh through the cordoned-off streets surrounding the park.

Monks and nuns, many from Hanh's Plum Village monastery in France, walked slowly with the rest. Except for whispers and the occasional cellphone chime, it remained quiet for the nearly two-hour stroll, and even the dozen or so counterdemonstrators along the route let their anti-Hanh signs ("Down With Thich Nhat Hanh") do the talking.

Afterward, participants lounged on the grass surrounding the stage and ate lunch -- in silence.

Monks, nuns and others shared their food with those who had none. Hanh offered a blessing and suggested that each person eat as mindfully as they walked; "Chew each bite maybe 30 times, until the food tastes very good," he said.

"I've been to antiwar rallies where we carry picket signs and march, and it's very aggressive," said Michelle Thomas, a former actor from Westminster, sitting on a grassy hill after the stroll. "This wasn't one of those. I was actually able to feel in the present, something I've never been able to feel before. It just makes me feel that good things are possible."

Hanh's philosophy "is more pro-peace than anti-something," said Patrick Netter, an author who demonstrates fitness gear on TV, sitting nearby. "I'm not religious; I'm more interested in spirituality. What he says resonates with me. I think these things make a difference. Like when you drop a rock into a lake: Concentric circles spread out across its surface."

Ana Gonzalez felt more alienated than transformed, however. "I brought the flag of my country, Venezuela," said the sociologist from Van Nuys, "and one of the monks approached me and told me that I was forbidden to bring a sign. I knew you weren't supposed to bring signs, but this isn't a sign. I just want people to know that Venezuela is a nation of peace and love. I was seeking peace, but I was made to feel like an outsider."

Earlier that morning, before the masses arrived, Hanh sat in a small room in the park's community center chatting with his comedian friend Garry Shandling and a few monks and nuns.

"In France, we do peaceful walking, and people within 30 kilometers report that they feel the feeling of peace," he said. A few minutes later, Sheehan walked in and the two met for the first time. They embraced. And then Hanh continued: "I don't think shouting angrily at government can help us end the war. When we are able to change our own thinking, the government will have to change."

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