[Talk given in Moscow at the Church of Sts Cosmas & Damian and at the Conference “Memory, Forgiveness and Reconciliation” in March 2013.]
I often think of a remark made by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who led the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain for many years: “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”
Not many of us do well in becoming living translations of the Gospels, but there are those who do so in a remarkable way. From time to time the Church canonizes some of those who provided heroic examples of Christian discipleship.
Why does the church canonize certain people? It is certainly not for the sake of those who are honored in that way. Canonization is not for them but for us who are still struggling in this world. The memory of their works and lives needs to be passed on from generation to generation in order to encourage others — for example us — to follow in their footsteps. It is one of the ways the Church declares, “This is sanctity. This is the path to eternal life.”
To make sure we remember, the Church gives us a calendar of saints that serves as a memory device. Each day of the year, we are invited to recall certain names and from time to time may be inspired to explore the events that lie behind a particular name. These stories are not only challenging but healing. Most of all they help heal us of the fears that so often hold us prisoner. St Paul remarks that the love of money is the root of all evil; one might add to that the driving force behind the love of money is fear — fear of death, fear of poverty, fear of powerlessness, and finally fear of the Other. The Greek theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, observed:
“The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”
Saints are people whose lives are not fear driven and who are able to embrace the Other. As we discover saints with whom we can identify in some way, especially if the saint’s life is told credibly, we find ourselves freer to follow Christ. The saint’s choices help bring the Gospels to life and can inspire us to open doors that fear had locked.
The majority of saints are martyrs — people who gave up their lives in bearing witness to Christ’s resurrection and the paschal values of the Kingdom of God. It seems no single country has produced so many martyrs as Russia. It did so mainly in the twentieth century during the Lenin and Stalin years. Poland also produced numerous martyrs during the same century, some because of Hitler, others because of Stalin.
There were also many “new martyrs” in West. Let me briefly speak about two of them, Mother Maria Skobtsova — now St Maria of Paris — and St Alexander Schmorell. My wife and I had the privilege of attending both of their canonizations.
Let’s look first at Mother Maria, or Elizaveta Pilenko, as she was earlier in life. Born in 1891, she grew up in the south of Russia near the town of Anapa on the shore of the Black Sea. Her parents were devout Orthodox Christians whose faith helped shape their daughter’s values, sensitivities and goals. As a child she once emptied her piggy bank in order to contribute to the painting of an icon for a new church. But her father’s death in 1905, when she was fourteen, so upset Liza that for a time she no longer believed in God.
When Lisa was fifteen, Lisa, the family moved to St Petersburg where she found herself drawn to groups advocating radical social change, but found that the people who talked about change did very little to help those around them. “My spirit longed to engage in heroic feats, even to perish, to combat the injustice of the world,” she recalled. No one she knew was actually laying down his life for others. She and her friends also talked about theology, but their theology floated in clouds far above the actual Church. There was much they might have learned, she reflected later in life, from any old woman praying in church.
Little by little, Liza found herself drawn toward the religious faith she thought she abandoned after her father’s death. She prayed and read the Gospel and the lives of saints. It seemed to her that the real need of the people was not for revolutionary ideas but for life in Christ. She was beginning to embrace a truth that the French writer, Leon Bloy, put in these words: “There is only one sadness: not to be a saint.”
If we had time, I would tell you all that happened to her during the revolution and the civil war — the collapse of her first marriage, the beginning of her second, her becoming a mother, her near execution, the three-year journey into exile that took her to Georgia, Istanbul, Yugoslavia, and finally to Paris, which she and her family reached in 1923. By then she was the mother of three.
In the hard winter of 1926, her daughter Anastasia died of influenza. This tragedy marked a major turning point in Liza’s life. It became clear to her that she must devote the rest of her life to Christ’s commandment, “Love one another.” It was to be a love without exceptions. She felt called to become “a mother for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”
In 1930, Liza was appointed traveling secretary of the Russian Student Christian Movement, work which put her into daily contact with Russian refugees in cities, towns and villages throughout France. It was in this period of life that she began to envision a new type on community, “half monastic and half fraternal,” which would connect spiritual life with service to those in need, in the process showing “that a free Church can perform miracles.” She had come to understand that Christ was present in the least person. “We ought to treat the body of our fellow human being,” she wrote, “with more care than we treat our own.”
Her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy, aware that Liza’s marriage had collapsed, was the first person to suggest to her the possibility of becoming a nun, not a nun living away from the world and its problems, but in the middle of Paris, helping people who had no one to turn to. If the diaconate for women had still existed, probably he would have ordained her to that role. In 1932 Liza was professed as a nun. For the rest of her life she was known as Mother Maria.
From the beginning, Mother Maria’s plan was “to share the life of paupers and tramps.” With financial help from her bishop, she rented a house. Donated furniture began arriving, and also guests, mainly young Russian women without jobs. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and slept in the basement. Mother Maria’s credo was: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” With this recognition came the need “to venerate the image of God” in each person.
It was far from an easy life. Often there was no money at the end of the day, but then the next morning one or several gifts arrived. Mother Maria sometimes thought of the old Russian story of the ruble coin that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.
Mother Maria was certain that there was no other path to heaven than participating in God’s mercy. As she wrote, “The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked: Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the prisoners? That is all I shall be asked.”
The last phase of her life was a series of responses to World War II and Germany’s occupation of France. The work of Mother Maria and her community of co-workers greatly increased and so did the dangers they faced. Early in 1942, Jews began to knock on the door asking Father Dimitri Klepinine, chaplain of the community, if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The community assisted countless Jews and others in danger in finding safe places of refuge.
In July came the mass arrest of 12,884 Jews. Almost 7,000 Jews a stadium for bicycle races not far from Mother Maria’s house of hospitality. Thanks to her monastic robes, she was able to work for three days in the stadium, managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of trash collectors who smuggled the children out in trash bins.
Early in 1943, the long-expected event happened: Mother Maria was arrested along with Father Dimitri, her son Yuri and one other friend and collaborator, Ilya Fondaminsky. All four of them died in concentrations camps.
Mother Maria was sent to the Ravensbrück camp in Germany, where she endured for two years. One fellow prison recalled that Mother Maria “was never downcast, never. She was full of good cheer .… She was on good terms with everyone. She was the kind of person who made no distinction between people no matter what their political views might be or their religious beliefs.”
By March 1945, her condition was critical. The last day of her life was the day before Easter. The shellfire of the approaching Russian army could be heard in the distance. Accounts vary about what happened during the last hours of her life. According to one, she was simply one of those selected to die that day. According to another, she took the place of a fellow prisoner, a Jewish woman.
Although perishing in the gas chamber, Mother Maria did not perish in the Church’s memory. Soon after the end of World War II, essays and books about her began appearing, in French and Russian. There was also a Russia film. Two biographies were published in English, and little by little her essays were made available in Russian, French and English. In May 2004, along with the three others arrested with her, she was canonized at the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky in Paris. The 20th of July each year as the day of their remembrance. One finds her icon in more and more churches, a veneration that not only crosses jurisdictional lines but lines of ecclesiastical division. The cardinal-archbishop of Paris attended her canonization. She is the one Orthodox saint of modern times who is on the calendar of the Catholic Church in France.
Now to say a little about another saint who died in the same period, Alexander Schmorell, who grew up in Munich and was executed there.
Were this conference happening in Germany I would not need to tell very much of his story. Alexander Schmorell was one of several Munich University students who, in the Hitler period, formed an anti-Nazi resistance group known as the White Rose. Today it would be hard to find a German over the age of twelve who hadn’t heard of the White Rose and wouldn’t recognize the names of Schmorell and the other five core members, all of whom were guillotined in 1943. Hundreds of streets, squares and parks are named in their honor. Postage stamps have celebrated their memory and movies have been made that put the drama of their lives on the screen. In Munich there is a museum in their memory. Alexander Schmorell is the first of the six to be formally recognized as a saint, an event that was given a great deal of news media attention in Germany.
But for us who are non-Germans, the White Rose martyrs are not so well known. What did they do? What makes them patrons of inter-Christian dialogue, and even dialogue that reaches beyond the borders of Christianity to other faiths?
In the spring and summer of 1942, while a medical student at Munich’s Maximilian University, Schmorell and two fellow students co-founded the White Rose. Schmorell was a member of the Russian Orthodox parish in Munich where he attended the Eucharistic Liturgy regularly; friends recall he always had a Bible with him. The other two founders were also devout Christians — Hans Scholl, a Lutheran, and Willi Graf, a Catholic. Before long several others joined, including Hans Scholl’s sister, Sophie. At age twenty-one, she was the youngest member of the group and its only woman.
Why did the group christen their endeavor the White Rose? It was a name proposed by Schmorell. The reference was to a story by Dostoevsky, Schmorell’s favorite author. In one chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, “The Grand Inquisitor”, Christ comes back to earth, “softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him.” He is suddenly present among the many people crowding Seville’s cathedral square, the pavement of which is still warm from the burning of a hundred heretics the day before. At this moment it happens that an open coffin containing the body of a young girl is being carried across the square on its way to the cemetery. They pass Jesus. “The procession halts, the coffin is laid on the steps at [Christ’s] feet. He looks with compassion, and His lips softly pronounce the words, ‘Maiden, arise!’ and she arises. The little girl sits up in the coffin and looks round, smiling with wide-open wondering eyes, holding a bunch of white roses they had put in her hand.” This merciful action completed, the Grand Inquisitor, having witnessed the miracle, orders Christ’s arrest. He is outraged at the boundless freedom Christ has given humanity.
In this remarkable story, the white rose serves as a paschal symbol, a sign of Christ’s victory over death. The adoption of the name White Rose was the group’s way of declaring their Christian conviction that He who has defeated death can also lift us from our graves — not only the grave to be dug at the end of our lives but the grave of fear so many of us live in here and now.
What the White Rose members did was simple but astonishingly dangerous: they wrote, mimeographed and widely distributed a series of leaflets that called on ordinary people living in Hitler’s Third Reich to resist Nazism. This was civil disobedience at the most hazardous level.
How did a handful of students find the courage not only to open their eyes so widely to the hell which Germany had become, but decide it was worth risking their lives to call on Germans to take part in resistance?
First of all it came from the completeness of their faith. For them Christ was not a mythical figure from the past whose bones were carefully hidden by his disciples in order to pretend his resurrection. He had given himself for the life of the world and on the third day had truly risen from the dead.
The actions of the White Rose also drew inspiration from a brave sermon given by August von Galen, Catholic bishop of Münster, in which he denounced Aryan racism and the Nazi euthanasia program that resulted in killing those regarded as unfit or unproductive. “These are men and women, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters!” von Galen declared. “Poor ill human beings. Maybe they are unproductive, but does that mean that they have lost the right to live? … If one adopts and puts into practice the principle that men are entitled to kill their unproductive fellows, then woe to all of us when we become aged and infirm! … Then no one will be safe: some committee or other will be able to put him on the list of ‘unproductive’ persons, who in their judgment have become ‘unworthy to live.’” (Von Galen spent the rest of the war under house arrest and was listed by Hitler for eventual execution following the anticipated Nazi victory. In 2005, von Galen was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.)
The first White Rose action was clandestine distribution of von Galen’s sermon, a sermon which had been reported in no German newspaper.
In the first leaflet of their own authorship, the group declared, “It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes — crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure — reach the light of day?”
The second leaflet contained the only known public protest by any German resistance group specifically against the Holocaust: “By way of example we want to cite the fact that since the conquest of Poland 300,000 Jews have been murdered … in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history.” (In light of the final Holocaust death toll, the estimate of 300,000 seems relatively small. The same month the leaflet was published, June 1942, the “final solution to the Jewish question”— factory-style mass murder — began to be implemented.)
Theology not only motivated the group but was expressed in their texts. “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie,” declared the fourth leaflet. “When [Hitler] says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must consider the struggle against the National Socialist state with rational means; but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed … to understand the metaphysical background of this war. … We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.”
There were six White Rose leaflets in all. With each, circulation widened, distribution mainly in plain envelopes with typed addresses sent in small quantities from widely scattered post boxes. To get the leaflets into Austria, Schmorell made train trips to Salzburg and Vienna.
For nine months the Gestapo failed in its efforts to find those responsible for the leaflets. It was only on February 18, 1943, as Sophie and Hans were leaving copies of the latest leaflet in the atrium of their university, that they were spotted by a custodian and the Gestapo summoned. Another member of the group, Christoph Probst, was arrested soon after. Four days later the three they were both tried and beheaded. Probst was baptized a Catholic just a few hours before his death. Three other arrests and executions followed. Alexander Schmorell and Kurt Huber were beheaded on the 13th of July, Willi Graf on the 12th of October.
In his last letter to his family, Schmorell wrote: “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God? Never forget God!”
Thanks to a witness, we have an account of his last words: “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.”
At Schmorell’s canonization last year at the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, the icon carried into the center of the church shows him as the tall, brown-haired young man he was, wearing the white robe of a physician with a Red Cross arm band, his left hand raised in a gesture of greeting, the other holding a thin blood-red cross with a white rose. He is standing against a gold-leaf background representing eternity and the kingdom of God.
Schmorell and his co-workers, in common with countless other brave Christians of the past century, provide an example of ecumenical witness to Christian values that transcends theological disagreements, encourages common action by Christians despite ecclesiastical divisions, and warms the climate for dialogue aimed at expanding areas of agreement and obtaining greater Christian unity. Those who follow the way of the Cross, not in theory but in praxis, are more likely to find the love that opens locked minds and institutional hearts, the love that breaks down the dividing wall of enmity.
I traveled and at times lived with Thich Nhat Hanh in the late sixties through the early eighties. Here is an extract from a memoir I have been writing plus extracts from various letters in which Nancy and I relate a few stories about him. The autobiographical text is a work-in-progress and should not be reproduced without my permission.
* * *
As 1967 began I was dividing my work time between the Catholic Peace Fellowship — I was its co-secretary — and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which had appointed me “Vietnam Program Director.” I was given an office at the FOR headquarters in Nyack, a town on the west bank of the Hudson River about an hour’s drive north of Manhattan. For fifty dollars the FOR sold me a battered Volkswagen “bug” for the daily commute from East Harlem and, as I had no license, paid for me to take driving lessons.
Initially my FOR job meant taking a Catholic Peace Fellowship project we had launched in October 1966 called “Meals of Reconciliation” and building it into a major FOR program meant to reach, as in fact it did, hundreds of churches and synagogues all over the USA.
The original stimulus had come from a letter Merton had sent me four years earlier:
It seems to me that the basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretends to arrogate entirely [to itself]…. This is the necessary first step along the long way … of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics themselves. Is this possible? … At least we must try…. Hence the desirability of manifestly non-political witness, non-aligned, non-labeled, fighting for the reality of man and his rights and needs … against all alignments.
Our hope was that Meals of Reconciliation would help those involved move beyond a Cold War mentality, beyond ideology and politics, and enter the human dimension.
It was all very simple. Participants gathered for a semi-eucharistic evening meal — rather than bread and wine, rice and tea were served plus, when it was possible, examples of Vietnamese cookery. The project’s overriding goal was to shrink the distance between America and Vietnam, focusing on the immense suffering American bombs were causing explosion-by-explosion in Southeast Asia.
Meals of Reconciliation introduced those taking part to elements of Vietnamese literature, poetry and music. It was a culture, a way of life, which was being targeted and the destruction was heartbreaking. “Blessed are they who mourn,” Jesus declared. We hoped those taking part in one of the might leave in a state of mourning that could widen and deepen their anti-war commitment.
No two Meals of Reconciliation were identical. Menus varied though always rice and tea was at the core. When it was possible people who had been in Vietnam gave brief talks or, when there were no actual witnesses, accounts from observant journalists were read aloud. There was a handbook I had edited that included various suggestions plus a selection of possible readings, including poetry. The poet whose work was invariably used at Meals of Reconciliation was Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk whose name was all but unknown at the time.
Thich Nhat Hanh had begun building a relationship with the Fellowship of Reconciliation after meeting FOR Executive Director Al Hassler when Hassler made a trip to Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City) in 1965. A friendship between Hassler and Thich Nhat Hanh quickly took root that deeply influenced both men’s lives and eventually played a major part in helping an unknown Buddhist monk become a world-renowned teacher of mindfulness.
One of the key figures in Vietnam’s peace movement, Nhat Hanh was also the leading figure in the development of “engaged Buddhism,” a pathway that linked insights gained from meditation and the teachings of the Buddha to situations of suffering and injustice. He was founder of a movement of service in Vietnamese villages, the School of Youth for Social Service. One of the precepts of a rule Nhat Hanh had written called on his disciples “not to avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”
Hassler arranged a series of lectures at Cornell University (through which invitation Thich Nhat Hanh’s US visa was obtained) and followed that up with a series of meetings for Nhat Hanh with senators, congressmen, newspapers editors, various religious leaders, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr., and even Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
In May 1966 Thomas Merton welcomed Thich Nhat Hanh, accompanied by FOR staff member John Heidbrink, to the Abbey of Gethsemani. The two monks stayed up into the night, sharing the chant of their respective traditions, discussing methods of prayer and meditation, comparing western and eastern aspects of monastic life, and talking about the war.
Thich Nhat Hanh is “a perfectly formed monk,” Merton said to his novices the day after the two-day visit ended, telling them that his Vietnamese guest’s arrival was really the answer to a prayer. In meeting Nhat Hanh, Merton felt he had met Vietnam.
“What is the war like?” Merton had asked his guest. “Everything is destroyed,” Nhat Hanh replied. These three words, Merton told his novices, were the answer of a true monk — not a long-winded analysis but just the essence: “Everything is destroyed.”
One aspect of their conversation concerned the formation of young monks, a process that in Vietnam begins not in a novitiate classroom but in the monastery kitchen and gardens where the novice may feel he is nothing more than an unpaid laborer ignored by everyone. Unbeknownst to the novice, in fact the apprentice monk is being quietly watched by an elder who, once he has come to know the novice without exchanging a word, at last reveals himself as a spiritual parent. Only then does spoken conversation and guidance begin.
Monastic formation, whether Buddhist or Christian, has much to do with discovering the significance of “insignificant” moments and the most routine activities: washing dishes, cutting vegetables, pulling weeds, sweeping floors, waiting in line, walking from here to there. It is an attitude Nhat Hanh sums up in one word: mindfulness. For example, it doesn’t help to rush from a “less sacred” to a “more sacred” part of the monastery where, once you arrive, you change gears and move and behave more reverently. “Before you can meditate,” Nhat Hanh told Merton and Merton told his novices, “you must learn how to close the door.” Aware of how often they ran to the church in order to be on time to chant the monastic offices, leaving behind them a trail of slammed doors, the novices laughed.
Nhat Hanh, Merton told the novices, is an example of a true monk who cannot ignore a social crisis in the world around him but is “professionally involved” simply because a monk sees and hears. “A genuine monk has an orientation toward peace and a reverence for life,” Merton said. “He tries to save whatever he can.”
Soon after the visit Merton wrote a letter to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo proposing the award go to Thich Nhat Hanh. Martin Luther King Jr. had already made a similar nomination. “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” wrote Merton. “He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, fluent in English and French, became a voice for all those Vietnamese who were victims of all sides in the war but whose sufferings were mainly due to the high-tech Goliath-might of the US military.
I had met and briefly spoken with Thich Nhat Hanh when he first visited Shadowcliff, the river mansion in which the FOR was housed, and immediately was enchanted not only by what he had to say about his homeland but by his entire manner. His voice was as gentle as a windbell. He spoke slowly, quietly, carefully, sparingly. His wide open eyes were as receptive and unguarded as I imagined the eyes of Jesus or the Buddha might be. No pretense, no self-importance, no rhetoric. Afterward I said to Al Hassler, “I could lidten to this guy for hours even if he were reading aloud from the telephone book.” Al laughed. “Me too!”
Al Hassler was the person who normally accompanied Thich Nhat Hanh wherever he went but occasionally another staff member might have that privilege. One evening, when Al was not feeling well, I was pressed into the job. I was to pick Nhat Hanh up at an apartment near Columbia University and take him by subway to a small gathering at a ritzy apartment in mid-town Manhattan.
The event we attended was, for both Nhat Hanh and me, a waste of time. The principal guest was a Hindu guru whose ego could have filled every floor of the Empire State Building. He wore a pale saffron robe and pale saffron sandals, had a box of pale saffron kleenex at his side, and every sentence he pronounced about the path to enlightenment seemed made of pale saffron words. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him drive off afterward in a pale saffron Rolls. I don’t recall Nhat Hanh saying a single word while we were there but his expression was one of discomfort.
Slipping away at the earliest possible moment (lying to our hostess, I said Thich Nhat Hanh had another engagement), we took the elevator down and returned to the street. I suggested perhaps a cup of tea wouldn’t be a bad idea. Nhat Hanh agreed. We found a nearby neon-lit café. And there it was they I decided to ask a question of a Zen master that I thought only a Zen master could answer.
A little background: Not many weeks before, while visiting a friend at the University of Oklahoma, I had tried LSD, an experiment way off my beaten track. I liked neither marijuana nor hashish (both made me feel vaguely paranoid) and avoided them. I wasn’t interested in drugs. But I had heard a little about LSD. This not-yet-illegal drug had been seriously described by my friend in Oklahoma as “a shortcut to enlightenment.”
The night-long experience had indeed, to use a hard-core sixties phrase, “blown my mind.” For perhaps eight hours I dived into my own subconscious brain in which eternity was an experience rather than a concept. I was able to watch a sound drift slowly into my head and observe how my own neurons received that sound and eventually made decisions about it, deciding it was, for example, a word or a note of music or a dangerous noise that required my moving away. Just to hear a simple sentence was a major event. The editorial, sorting-out part of the brain was a bright, colorful metropolis calmly making sense of all the data my senses were providing, at the same time comparing this and that, taking a fresh look at relevant memories, making some wild guesses, considering what if any response might be required to the events going on around me. Slowly coming out of the experience at dawn, feeling I had lived an infinity of lifetimes, I wondered indeed if this was enlightenment.
Now I was face to face with one of few people who would know, but to ask seemed risky. Might a real Zen master be scandalized by such a question? A shortcut to enlightenment? What impertinence! But what the hell, I decided. I’ll never have another chance to find out. And so I asked.
Nhat Hanh’s eyes widened in surprise, but there was no trace of irritation. Looking back, I think he was astonished that there were people involved in anti-war protest who were interested in such a topic. “Please tell me what you experienced,” he said. I did my best and have rarely been listened to so attentively. When I finished, Nhat Hanh said, “Perhaps it is not enlightenment — no drug can do that — but you are on the way.” He told me he had once tried marijuana but would never do so again — he had been unable to sleep for days afterward.
There was a deep sense of connection, an almost audible click.
Then he asked if in the future I would accompany him in his travels whenever Al Hassler was unavailable. “If you say yes, you have to be good at saying no. Every third day for me is a day of mindfulness. On those days under no circumstances will I give any talk or participate in any meeting, no matter how important it may seem. On those days I need someone who can be a stonewall. Can you do that? Others have said they could but in actual practice could not. For them proposed events were too important.”
I assured him I was good at saying no. I could say no to the president or to the pope. I liked the word “no.”
In the months that followed we traveled thousands of miles together. I had many opportunities to say no to TV interview requests, meetings with important people, opportunities that, on any other day would have been very worthwhile. My no was waterproof.
It was from Nhat Hanh that I first became aware of walking as an opportunity to repair the damaged connection between the physical and spiritual. In conversation Nhat Hanh had sometimes spoken of the importance of what he called “mindful breathing,” a phrase that seemed quite odd to me at first. Breathing is breathing — we learn it in the first minute of our lives. Yet I was aware that his walking was somehow different than mine and could imagine this might have something to do with his way of breathing. Even if we were late for an appointment, he always walked in an attentive, unhurried way.
It wasn’t until we climbed the steps to my sixth floor apartment in East Harlem that I began to understand. Though in my late twenties and quite fit, I was always out of breath by the time I reached my front door. Nhat Hanh, on the other hand, seemed rested. I asked him how he did that. “You have to learn how to breathe while you walk,” he replied. “Let’s go back to the bottom and walk up again. I will show you how to breathe while climbing stairs.” On the way back up, he quietly described how he was breathing. It wasn’t a difficult lesson. Linking slow, attentive breaths with taking the stairs made an astonishing difference. The climb took one or two minutes longer, but when I reached my door I found myself refreshed instead of depleted.
Traveling together, Nhat Hanh was always the first to wake. His nights were short. When he decided it was time to wake me, he would sit at the foot of whatever bed or couch I was using and quietly say, “Zheem! Zheem! [Jim! Jim!] The ginger tea is ready.” Indeed there was a pot of tea in his hand, the perfume of fresh ginger in the air, a happy smile on his face and a teasing look in his eyes.
Almost every night there was an invitation for us to have a meal with a family that had played a part in whatever Nhat Hanh was doing locally but almost always the response I had to make was, “No thank you — Thich Nhat Hanh is too tired.” We would be brought to wherever we were staying, say goodnight to our hosts, then when they had left look for a Chinese restaurant, the simpler the better.
By now Thich Nhat Hanh was becoming “Thay” (pronounced Tie), the Vietnamese word for teacher. I was never short of questions and Thay was happy to respond both with words but also drawings or calligraphy. “Do you know,” he asked, “how to write your name in Chinese?” I had no idea. “Look. This is the sign for a tree.” He drew in my notebook a cross with two root-like diagonal lines descending right and left from the intersection. “Then you draw it again and you have a forest. Two trees! Add to the sign for forest the sign for zen, you have a zen forest, which is the sign for monastery.” “What about the word for monk,” I asked. “Very simple. He drew the sign for a human being and placed it over a dot. “The dot means nothing. A monk is a person standing on nothing.”
Thay was certainly a teacher for me but sometimes the roles were reversed. Thay was extremely curious about Christianity, not only as a theory or theology but how it is lived. Thus I often told him stories about Christian saints that I held in especially high regard — Francis of Assisi, for example. We also talked about the Buddha — a man who had found out, as Thay explained, how to be completely awake. Thay thought Jesus was also someone who was fully awake.
Even though our meals were almost always very simple (the only exception I recall was at Korean restaurant in Seattle), they were playful. Thay, wanting me to become comfortable in using chopsticks, liked to make me practice lifting melting ice cubes out of glasses of water. Much laughter.
Thay noticed things that I hardly saw and took absolutely for granted, as happened one day at the University of Michigan. He had been invited to give a lecture on the war in Vietnam to be followed by a poetry reading. Waiting for the elevator doors to open to go up to the lecture hall, I noticed Thay quietly gazing at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Then he said “You know, Zheem, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.” So simple but so startling a comment. He was right. More than a tool of social coordination, the clock had become a religious object in our world, a symbol of secular social unity, a symbol so powerful that it could depose another.
One day we were in San Francisco and found ourselves walking in a seedy district, the Tenderloin. In fact we were passing a sex store with wide windows and startling photos. Embarrassed, I pretended I didn’t see the store, imagining Thay would do the same. But no. He stopped, calmly gazing at the nothing-not-revealed pornography. Then he pointed to a sign in the window that read, “You must be 21 years old and able to prove it to enter this store.” “Jim,” asked Thay, “are you 21?” I noticed his smile and realized the question was about the advantages of being a child. “No, I’m not 21.” “Good,” said Thay. “Neither am I. We don’t have to go inside.”
One evening, while speaking at a large Protestant church in St. Louis about what the war was doing to Vietnamese peasants, Nhat Hanh awoke not understanding or grief but the white-hot rage of one man in the audience. In the question period he stood up and spoke with searing scorn of the “supposed compassion” of “this Mister Hanh.” He asked, “If you care so much about your people, Mister Hanh, why are you here? If you care so much for the people who are wounded, why don’t you spend your time with them?” At this point my recollection of his words is replaced by the memory of intense anger overwhelming me. The stranger’s anger had become my anger, only directed at him. When the man finished, I looked toward Nhat Hanh in bewilderment. What could he or anyone say? The spirit of war itself had suddenly filled the room, and it seemed hard to breathe.
There was a prolonged silence. Then Nhat Hanh began to speak — quietly, with astonishing calm, even with a sense of personal caring for the man who had just damned him. Thay’s words seemed like rain falling on fire.
“If you want the tree to grow,” he said, “it does not help to water the leaves. You have to water the roots. Many of the roots of the war are here, in your country. To help the people who are to be bombed, to try to protect them from this suffering, I have to come here.”
The atmosphere in the room was transformed. In the man’s fury we had experienced our own furies; we had seen the world as through a bomb bay. In Nhat Hanh’s response we had experienced an alternate possibility: the possibility — here brought to Christians by a Buddhist and to Americans by an “enemy” —and counter-violence of overcoming hatred with love, of breaking the seemingly endless chain reaction of violence that had tortured human history.
But after his response, Nhat Hanh whispered something to the chairman and walked abruptly from the room. Sensing something was wrong, I left the book table at which I was stationed and followed Thay outside. It was a cool, clear night. Thay stood on the sidewalk at the edge of the church parking lot. He was struggling for air like someone who had been deeply underwater and had barely managed to swim to the surface before drowning. I had never seen him like this. It was several minutes before I dared ask him how he was or what had happened.
Thay explained that the man’s comments had been terribly upsetting. “I wanted to respond to him with anger. So I had made myself breathe deeply and very slowly in order to find a way to respond with calm and understanding. But my breathing was too slow and too deep.”
“But why not be angry with him,” I asked. “Even pacifists have a right to be angry.”
“If it were just myself, yes,” said Thay. “But I am here to speak for Vietnamese peasants. I have to show those who came here tonight what we can be at our best.”
It isn’t easy to describe the influence Thay had on me. Partly it was simply helpful guidance about what I would call prayer and Thay would call mindfulness. He helped carry me, a Christian, into the deeper waters of my own faith, never suggesting that I would do better as a Buddhist. In contrast with Dan and Phil Berrigan, Thay exerted no pressure to do anything, to do more than I was doing, to struggle harder to end the war in Vietnam. But because of Thay, Vietnam was no longer a distant country but a country of kites, flutes, ancient festivals, children and parents, a country as close as Thay’s voice, a voice I could easily hear whether Thay was present or a thousand miles away.
When I was invited to be part of the group that would carry out a Catonsville-like burning of draft records, part of the reason for saying yes was my love of Thich Nhat Hanh and all the Vietnamese people he represented.
* * *
The Hidden Ground of Love, letter dated 8 December 1962, p 272.
* * *
stories from the 70s…
I sometimes think of an evening with Vietnamese friends in a cramped apartment in the outskirts of Paris in the early 1970s. At the heart of the community was the poet and mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. An interesting discussion was going on the living room, but I had been given the task that evening of doing the washing up. The pots, pans and dishes seemed to reach half way to the ceiling on the counter of the sink in that closet-sized kitchen. I felt really annoyed. I was stuck with an infinity of dirty dishes while a great conversation was happening just out of earshot in the living room.
Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was suddenly facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since — more than three decades of mulling.
But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”
That sentence was a flash of lightning. While I still mostly wash the dishes to get them clean, every now and then I find I am, just for a passing moment, washing the baby Jesus. And when that happens, though I haven’t gone anywhere, it’s something like reaching the Mount of the Beatitudes after a very long walk.
* * *
stopping at a butcher shop
I recall going with Nhat Hanh and Phuong to one of the Paris airports to pick up a volunteer who was arriving from America. On the way back, the volunteer stressed how dedicated a vegetarian she was and how good it was to be with people who were committed vegetarians. Passing by the shop of a poultry butcher in Paris, Nhat Hanh asked Phuong to stop. He went inside and bought a chicken, which we ate that night for supper at our apartment in Sceaux. It’s the only time I know of when Nhat Hanh ate meat.
* * *
A lesson in perception
I often think about how Thich Nhat Hanh uses the image of one river/two shores as a way of attacking dualistic perception: Standing on a river bank, I see two shores, the shore I am standing on and the shore facing me, on the other side of the river. Two shores — you see them with your own eyes — two! But in reality there is only one shore. If I walk from where I stand to the source of the river and continue round that point, the “other side” becomes this side — the two-ness was created only by bending it. In time I will be on the opposite embankment, facing the spot where I was formerly standing, and I will have never crossed the stream to get there and I will never have changed shores.
* * *
“The miracle is to walk on earth”
In the seventies, I spent time in France with Nhat Hanh on a yearly basis. He was becoming better known then — his home had become for many people a center of pilgrimage. One of the things I found him teaching was his method of attentive walking. Once a day, all his guests would set off in a silent procession led by him. The walk was prefaced with his advice that we practice slow, mindful breathing while at the same time being aware of each footstep, seeing each moment of contact between foot and earth as a prayer for peace. We went single file, moving slowly, deeply aware of the texture of the earth and grass, the scent of the air, the movement of leaves in the trees, the sound of insects and birds. Many times as I walked I was reminded of the words of Jesus: “You must be like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Such attentive walking was a return to the hyper-alertness of childhood.
Mindful breathing connected with mindful walking gradually becomes normal. It is then a small step to connect walking and breathing with prayer.
I was reminded of the original title for his first English-language book on meditation, “The miracle is to walk on earth.” (This was published as “The Miracle of Mindfulness.”)
* * * Small b buddhists and small c christians…
“Small b buddhists can talk with and cooperate with small c christians but it is difficult for big B Buddhists and big C Christians to find common ground.” Thay said this on the day he led a retreat for the staff of the International Fellowhip of Reconciliation in Alkmaar, Holland, in 1982.
* * *
Cooking with Nhat Hanh: a story told by Nancy Forest:
I came to the Netherlands in April of 1982 with my daughter Caitlan, who was five years old at the time. Jim and I were married shortly after that. We had been friends for many years in the US. Both of us worked together at the headquarters of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, New York, and Jim move to Holland in 1977 to serve as general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). We had kept in touch during those five years. Jim was Cait’s godfather.
Shortly after I had moved here, Jim told me Thich Nhat Hanh would be coming to Alkmaar to visit. I had never met Nhat Hanh, but of course I had heard a great deal about him, and I knew how close Jim and Nhat Hanh had been over the years. Jim said Nhat Hanh would be coming to our house, and that the IFOR staff would be coming over as well to meet with him.
It was a beautiful day in May. First the staff arrived and took seats in our living room, then Nhat Hanh himself arrived, dressed in his brown robe. A hush fell over the staff members, and everyone was apparently in awe of this man. I remember feeling nervous that he was coming to our house, nervous about hosting this event. After he had sat down, the room fell silent and a sort of Zen silence fell on the room. It was hard for me to tell what to make of the atmosphere in the living room that day, but it made me uncomfortable.
In the meantime, Cait, who had just been given her first bicycle and was practicing riding it in the parking lot behind our house, kept running in to tell me how far she was advancing. So you have this room full of awestruck adults sitting there with what appeared to me glazed looks on their faces, and my little daughter running in, breathless with excitement.
After Nhat Hanh finished speaking with the staff, Jim came up to me and told me he had invited him to dinner. This was a little more than I could handle. I went into the kitchen at the back of the house and started chopping vegetables. I remember feeling that I really had to get out of that living room, that there was something definitely weird about what was going on there. It didn’t feel genuine, while the vegetables were certain genuine and so was Cait.
After a few minutes, Nhat Hanh came into the kitchen and, almost effortlessly, started helping me with the vegetables. I think he just started talking to me in the most ordinary way. He ended up telling me how to make rice balls — how to grind the sesame seeds in a coffee grinder, to make the balls with sticky rice and to roll them in the ground sesame seeds. It was lots of fun and I remember laughing with him. The artificial Zen atmosphere was completely absent. Cait kept coming in, and Nhat Hanh was delighted with her.
This was my first Zen lesson.
— Nancy Forest
* * *
And this also comes from Nancy…
Notes of a conversation with Thich Nhat Hanh on August 21, 1984 at the Plum Village in France
(Thay was outside sitting on a stone.)
Nancy: Do you have a moment to talk?
Thay: Yes, please. Sit here on a stone.
N: I’ve felt rather out of it here. I’m not a person from one of the Zen Centers, and I’m not an old friend, like Jim.
T: (very emphatically) No, no! You are wrong. Maybe you are better than Jim!
N: (I tell him my “North Pole” experience — how, when I was young, I had a profound experience of standing at the point on the globe where all lines converge and intersect — an overwhelming experience of being at the absolute Center.)
T: It’s true we are each, as you say, like the North Pole. (He takes a stick and places it at the edge of his stone.) We are each on the edge. We are each separate, and each one of us has everyone within us.
N: How can that be?
T: (He holds up a leaf.) As this leaf holds within it everything – all the sun, all water, all earth.
N: But it also makes you realize we do everything alone. Everything, every step – alone. Walk through life alone. Die alone.
T: Yes. I told the people in the Zen Centers in America, “Meditation is a personal matter!” (He smiles.) That means meditation is an exercise in being alone – in realizing what it is to be alone. There is a story in Zen Buddhism about a monk. His name was (pause), “The Monk Who Was Alone.” He did everything alone – eat alone, wash dishes alone – everything. They said to him, “Why do you do everything alone?” He said, “Because that is the way we are.”
N: (I tell him how, lately, I’ve been reading so many things which all seem to pertain to this event. How I pick up a book or read an article, and it all connects. I tell him at first I thought it was a coincidence that so much of what I read is connected.)
T: (Smiles and shakes his head.) It’s no coincidence.
N: I’ve read some of Merton. And about the Hasidic Jews. And the story of the Fall in the Bible – Adam and Eve. About how, before the Fall, Eve just stood in her place, and walked in the garden. God had given them everything they needed, and it was all good. Eve didn’t know what evil was. Then when she was tempted to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, she decided there wasn’t enough for her, just standing there – even though she didn’t have any idea what “evil” was. So by eating, she destroyed the garden.
I’ve thought a lot about that here – walking slowly through the woods.
T: But you know – good and evil are just concepts. Maybe even the serpent was good, and the apple. All good. It’s like this stick. I can say, “This half is good, this half is evil.” They’re all concepts. Maybe Eve was even good after the Fall. You say “before the Fall – after the Fall.” It’s all the same.
N: The Hasidic Jews always are dancing. It’s all holy, everything. But after Eve ate the apple, we don’t know if she really was able to know good from evil – we only know she was ashamed.
N: Merton said Eve wasn’t good before the Fall and bad afterwards. He said she was her True Self before the Fall and not her True Self afterwards.
T: And he also said, “Everything is Good.” (He smiles and stares at me) – and he said that in Bangkok! (Long pause.) You know, if you are really able to understand this, you can look at all the nuclear weapons and … (very long pause – his eyes scan the distance) … and smile.
* * *
Nhat Hanh believes that meditation has a healing effect by helping people let go of the pains of history and planting the seed of peace. The following excerpts were selected from his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, A Manual on Meditation:
“Is family life easier than being a bachelor?” I asked. Allen didn’t answer directly. But I understood. I asked another question: “A lot of people say that if you have a family you’re less lonely and have more security. Is that true?” Allen nodded his head and mumbled something softly. But I understood. Then Allen said, “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks. “But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I o through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!” Allen smiled as he spoke. I was surprised. I knew that Allen hadn’t learned this from reading any books. This was something he had discovered for himself in his own daily life.
Washing the dishes to wash the dishes
Thirty years ago, when I was still a novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task. During the Season of Retreat when all the monks returned to the monastery, two novices had to do all the cooking and wash the dishes for sometimes well over one hundred monks. There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks, and that was all. Cleaning such a high stack of bowls was a chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold. Then you had to heat up a big pot of water before you could do any scrubbing. Nowadays one stands in a kitchen equipped with liquid soap, special scrubpads, and even running hot water which makes it all the more agreeable. It is easier to enjoy washing the dishes now. Anyone can wash them in a hurry, then sit down and enjoy a cup of tea afterwards. I can see a machine for washing clothes, although I wash my own things out by hand, but a dishwashing machine is going just a little too far! While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly:
Why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.
The cup in your hands
In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship, later for the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down an d drinking tea with everyone also. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way — to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week.
If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes , the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While of other thing, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus, we are sucked away into the future — and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.
Eating a tangerine
I remember a number of years ago, when Jim and I were first traveling together in the United States, we sat under a tree and shared a tangerine. He began to talk about what we would be doing in the future. Whenever we thought about a project that seemed attractive or inspiring, Jim became so immersed in it that he literally forgot about what he was doing in the present. He popped a section of tangerine in his mouth and, before he had begun chewing again. He was hardly aware he was eating a tangerine. All I had to say was, “You ought to eat the tangerine section you’ve already take.” Jim was startled into realizing what he was doing. It was as if he hadn’t been eating the tangerine at all. If he had been eating anything, he was “eating” his future plans.
A tangerine has sections. If you can eat just one section, you can probably eat the entire tangerine. But if you can’t eat a single section, you cannot eat the tangerine. Jim understood. He slowly put his hand down and focused on the presence of the slice already in his mouth. He chewed it thoughtfully before reaching down and taking another section.
Later, when Jim went to prison for a activities against the war, I was worried about whether he could endure the four walls of prison and sent him a very short letter: “Do you remember the tangerine we shared when we were together? Your being there is like the tangerine. Eat it and be one with it. Tomorrow it will be no more.”
The Essential Discipline
More than thirty years ago, when I first entered the monastery, the monks gave me a small book called “The Essential Discipline for Daily Use,” written by the Buddhist monk Doc The from Bao Son pagoda, and they told me to memorize it. Ut was a think book. It couldn’t have the thoughts Doc The used to awaken his mind while doing any task. When he woke up in the morning, his first thought was, “Just awakened, I hope that every person will attain great awareness and see in complete clarity.” When he washed his hands, he used this thought to place himself in mindfulness: “Washing my hands, I hope that every person will have pure hands to receive reality.” The book is comprised entirely of such sentences. Their goal was to help the beginning practitioner take hold of his own consciousness. The Zen Master Doc The helped all of us young novices to practice, in a relatively easy way, those things which are taught in the Sutra of Mindfulness. Each time you put on your robe, washed the dishes, went to the bathroom, folded your mat, carried buckets of water, or brushed your teeth, you could use one of the thoughts from the book in order to take hold of your own consciousness.
The Sutra of Mindfulness say, “When walking, the practitioner must be conscious that he is walking. When sitting, the practitioner must be conscious that he is sitting. When lying down, the practitioner must be conscious that he is lying down……No mater what position one’s body is in, the practitioner must be conscious of that position. Practicing thus, the practitioner lives in direct and constant mindfulness of the body….” The mindfulness of the position of one’s body is not enough, however. We must be conscious of each breath, each movement, every thought and feeling, everything which has any relation to ourselves. But what is the purpose of the Sutra’s instruction? Where are we to find the time to practicing mindfulness, how will there ever be enough time to do all the work that needs to be done to change and to build an alternative study Joey’s lesson, take An’s diapers to the laundromat, and practice mindfulness at the same time?
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen Buddhist monk, scholar, poet, and a political figure from Vietnam. He actively opposed the war in Vietnam. In 1966, he came to the United States a spokesperson for monks who felt that reconciliation was possible in Vietnam, if the U.S.A. Stopped its war effort. He was the Chairman of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris talks that produced the peace accords later. After the Vietnam was, he organized efforts to rescue boat people fleeing the new regime.
In the United States he was welcomed by antiwar groups on college campuses. He was supportive of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, when the American civil rights leader declared his opposition to the war. After Dr. King won the Noble Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King recommended the same award be given to Thich Nhat Hanh.
Thich Nhat Hanh lives in Plum Village, a small Vietnamese Buddhist community, in the southwest of France. He is the author of The Miracle of Mindfulness, A Guide to Walking Meditation, Being Peace, Peace In Every Step, The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life and many other books.
On pilgrimage in Asia in 1968, Thomas Merton was both far from home and at the same time very much at home. His at-homeness on the far side of the planet shines through the remarks he made while in Calcutta, ten time zones east of his monastic community in Kentucky: “My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one, but we imagine that we are not. So what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”
Merton’s insight is not a poet’s wishful thinking. The human race is indeed one family — not only the Book of Genesis but our DNA confirms it. We are one and every one of us lives at the same address: the third planet out from a single star we call the sun. We are at home on this planet no matter where on the globe we happen to be. We are and always have been one. The only problem, as Merton points out, is that we imagine our differences are more important than what we have in common. Those differences become the fuel of wars. Our challenge is indeed to recover our original unity. Countless lives, and the health of our souls, depend on it. It’s quite a challenge.
From an early age, one of Merton’s major concerns was war, the cruelest expression of our failure to live in unity. World War I is the main reference point in the opening sentences of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain:
On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers. Not many hundreds of miles away from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in rainy ditches among the dead horses … in a forest without branches along the river Marne.
In the population of Europe and North America, Merton was one of the rare men of his generation to refuse to take part in war. Instead, after a great deal of thought, conversation and prayer, he decided to seek recognition as a conscientious objector. In the end he became a monk instead — thus part of a fragment of the U.S. population automatically exempt from conscription.
What stood behind his conscientious objection? For Merton the question of overwhelming importance was not political or ideological but simply what would Christ do — what weapons would he carry, what flag would he march behind, who would he kill, who would he bless to kill? In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton expanded on his decision in a text that must have startled many readers, appearing as it did just after World War II and in the early days of the Cold War:
[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, “Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Not many Christians, still fewer Catholic Christians, were struggling with such questions or making similar decisions.
Nor were many Christians making significant contact with people of other religions. In The Seven Storey Mountain, parts of which seem parochial by today’s standards, Merton makes a point of drawing attention to non-Catholics who played key roles in his spiritual and intellectual formation.
One of the influential people was a Hindu monk, Bramachari, who had been sent from his ashram in India to take part in a Congress of Religions in Chicago. In fact he had arrived too late for that event but stayed on in America anyway, living from the hospitality of friends. Merton had been part of a small welcoming committee when Bramachari arrived in Manhattan in 1938. In the weeks that followed the two of them spent a great deal of time together. Merton was deeply impressed by Bramachari’s deep kindness. “He was never sarcastic, never ironical or unkind in his criticisms: in fact he did not make many judgments at all, especially adverse ones. He would simply make statements of fact, and then burst out laughing — his laughter was quiet and ingenuous, and it expressed his complete amazement at the very possibility that people should live the way he saw them living all around him.”
Bramachari gave Merton life-changing guidance: “He did not generally put his words in the form of advice, but the one counsel he did give me is something that I will not easily forget. ‘There are many beautiful mystical books written by the Christians. You should read Saint Augustine’s Confessions and The Imitation of Christ…. Yes, you must read those books.’” Reading The Imitation of Christ in his apartment on 114th Street, Merton started praying again “more or less regularly.”
It’s not altogether surprising that, thirty years after their encounter in New York, that Merton, now in Bramachari’s homeland for the first time in his life, should be speaking about the bonds that unite us even as wars are being fought.
The theme of peace and human unity is one of the golden threads running through Merton’s writing throughout his adult life.
Through letters and very occasional visits at the monastery, Merton built relationships with various people outside the monastery who were involved in efforts to end wars and to prevent a nuclear holocaust. I was among the beneficiaries of his affection and care. During the last seven years of his life we exchanged letters on a more or less monthly basis.
The greater part of his correspondence to me been published in The Hidden Ground of Love. Of these, the letter that has been most widely circulated and has had the most impact on others was without doubt one he sent me in February 1966. The text has often been published with the headline “Letter to a Young Activist.” I would like to quote from that letter and briefly comment on these extracts.
By way of background, let me explain that the letter to which Merton was responding expressed the exhaustion, bordering on despair, I was then experiencing in my work. I was at the time secretary of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which several friends and I had founded the previous year. Merton was a member of our advisory board. Much of Fellowship’s work was focused on ending the Vietnam War and promoting conscientious objection. While in many ways our efforts were going well, the Vietnam War was getting worse by the day. It was to continue nearly another decade, not ending until 1975.
Merton’s letter began:
Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.
I wasn’t until I received Merton’s letter that it had occurred to me that peace work is of its nature apostolic work — quite a dignity and also quite a responsibility. It was not an altogether comforting linkage. The apostles, few of whom died of old age, experienced a great deal of failure and ridicule.
As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.
The shift from focusing not on the satisfaction of measurable results but rather on the value, rightness and truth of the work we were doing required a major shift of perception. We had to think of counseling prospective conscientious objectors in terms not merely of assisting them in their refusal to participate in a manifestly unjust war but, far more significantly, of assisting in the shaping of vocations in which the works of mercy were the main event.
And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
That last sentence has been for me one of the most important insights that I ever received from Merton. It sums up incarnational theology. Words and slogans and theories are not nearly as important as how we see and relate to each other. In the context of peace work, it suggests getting to know, as best we can, the people and culture being targeted by our weapons. (Along these lines, in 1967 the Catholic Peace Fellowship began to develop “meals of reconciliation” during which Vietnamese food was eaten by participants and Vietnamese poetry read aloud.)
You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.
Movements require words and use slogans to sum up goals. These have their place but it’s secondary. In a talk to his novices, Merton once said, “He who follows words is destroyed.” One of Merton’s main contributions to many people who were involved in peace efforts was the witness given by his contemplative monastic life in which prayer and meditation were integral elements of every activity, with each day having a liturgical and sacramental foundation.
The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.
For me the last few words — “after all [satisfaction] is not that important” — were especially helpful. It’s not that important that we personally get to see the results of our efforts, however worthy our goals may be. Here Merton suggests what I think of as a cathedral builder’s attitude, a metaphor that easily comes to mind as I live just a minute’s walk from a cathedral whose construction began in 1470 and which wasn’t completed until 50 years later. As cathedral construction goes, half-a-century was relatively fast. Those who laid a cathedral’s foundations knew they wouldn’t live to see their building roofed; perhaps their grandchildren would have that satisfaction.
The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.
Building an identity in one’s work is so basic an element for all of us living in a career-driven, results-oriented society that it’s hard to imagine another way of identifying ourselves. Asked who we are, we tend to respond with information about what we do. It’s not easy to think in other terms and indeed any more basic answer (what would that be?) might be embarrassing. But if what you do is rooted in attempting to follow Christ, in trying to live a life in which hospitality and love of neighbor is a major element, a life nourished by the eucharist, that foundation may not only keep you going in dark times but actually, ironically, make your work more effective.
The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths.
In my own case the problem was less making myself the servant of a myth than the servant of an ideology, both pacifism and even Christianity. Our myths so often are packaged as ideologies — closed systems of ideas and concepts.
If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion….
It is after all Christ’s truth that matters, a truth we experience from time to time but which can never be adequately expressed in words or be obtained by movements and causes. Trying to live within Christ’s truth certainly doesn’t mean we will live an undented life, a life free of disappointments, but it may help prevent disappointment from becoming despair.
The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand…
The end of the letter circles back to its beginning: not to live a results-driven life but to have confidence that God will somehow make use of our efforts even though we ourselves will probably not live long enough to see them bear fruit.
Referring back to the book Bramachari successfully urged Merton to read years before he found his vocation as a Trappist monk, it all has to do with the imitation of Christ.