The Other Side of Silence

Road to Emmaus covera chapter from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

by Jim Forest

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
— George Eliot, Middlemarch

There are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence.
— St. Benedict, The Holy Rule

We cannot find God in noise or agitation. Nature: trees, flowers, and grass grow in silence. The stars, the moon, and the sun move in silence.
— Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Voices. Voices. Listen, my heart, as only
saints have listened: until the gigantic call lifted them
off the ground; yet they kept on, impossibly,
kneeling and didn’t notice at all:
so complete was their listening. Not that you could endure
God’s voice — far from it. But listen to the voice of the wind
and the ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, “Duino Elegies”

One of the hallmarks of pilgrimage is an attitude of silence and attentive listening, a state of being for which few of us are well equipped. We have been shaped by a society in which noise is normal and its absence disorienting.

If our medieval ancestors were to visit us, perhaps the biggest single shock that the world of the third millennium would pose for them would be the unrelenting noise that most of us endure. The noise of traffic. The noise of sirens. The noise of jet planes overhead. The noise of television and radio. The noise of machinery. The noise of over-loud conversation. The canned music pumped out of loudspeakers in so many stores. The thin ghostly sounds emitted by earphones. The noises made by mobile phones as they announce incoming calls, followed by the noise of one-way conversations.

We live in a world of noise in which millions of people have not only acclimated themselves to noise but become sound addicts. Many of us depend on continuous noise. For almost any urban person, silence is a stunning experience. For many, it’s frightening. We all know people who keep a radio, television, or music player on continuously. I recall a friend in New York who lost his job as a radio announcer on a popular station for broadcasting ten seconds of silence. His station manager said that, more than anything else, their audience depended on the station to provide constant sound. Even one second of silence meant listener distress and an urgent search for sound on another station.

Part of the asceticism of being a pilgrim is to search out places that encourage inner quietness and contemplative listening: churches, concerts, plays, museums, woods and parks, remote places, wilderness areas, monasteries, beaches and deserts.

Silence is not silent. It is more than the absence of noise. If you manage to escape the cacophony of urban life, you quickly discover that nature isn’t silent. There is a torrent of sound even at midnight on the driest, most remote desert: breezes scraping the sand, the tireless conversation of insects, the tidal sound of one’s own breathing, the drumming of one’s heart, the roar of being. What a pilgrim’s walk can provide is the silence that comes from doing without sound-generating devices, being attentive rather than speaking, praying rather than engaging in chatter. So long as our heart keeps beating, we will never hear absolute silence, but by avoiding distractions and listening to what remains, we discover that the door to silence is everywhere, even in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. To listen is always an act of being silent.

Yet finding places of relative silence can help a pilgrim discover inner silence. As the poet Bob Lax, who in his later years made his home on the quiet Greek island of Patmos, once put it in a letter to a friend:

The thing to do with nature … is to listen to it, and watch it, and look deep into its eyes in a sense, as though you were listening to and watching a friend, not just hearing the words or even just watching the gestures but trying to guess, or get a sense, or share the spirit underneath it, trying to listen (if this isn’t too fancy) to the silence under the sound and trying to get an idea (not starting with any preconceived formulation) of what kind of silence it is.[i]

There are as many kinds of silence as there are varieties of ice. Some forms of silence are of God’s own making. Others are hostile to the spiritual life. Starting at the icy end of the spectrum, here’s my list:

Deadly silence: This is the almost murderous silence of people who refuse to speak to a spouse, a parent, a child or a neighbor: silence used as a weapon, silence meant to annihilate. One often witnesses it in teenagers in that period when nearly everything a parent says or does inspires homicidal glares. Not everyone outgrows it. Many a marriage has died of deadly silences.

Guilty silence: In which our failure to speak makes us silent collaborators in injustice or cruelty.

Ominous silence: This is the intimidating, belittling silence of a teacher or boss waiting for you to respond to a question they know you cannot — or dare not — answer.

Proud silence: This is the malignant silence of the person who regards himself as too important to speak to lesser mortals, at the same time communicating the message that the other, being so insignificant, had best shut up.

Anxious silence: This is the silence of fear, the silence of the paralyzed tongue. You are in the presence of someone with power over you and find yourself made dumb. Or you are face-to-face with someone famous and find your tongue has turned to wood.

Awkward silence: This is the strained, embarrassed silence of being with strangers and not having a clue what to say.

Graveyard silence: A silence in which nothing makes as much noise as your own heart beat. There is also the silence of the tomb, where every conversation has been interrupted by terror, calamity, or death.

Meek silence: This is the silence of respect, modesty and humility. It’s not bad advice to keep silent unless what you have to say is more interesting than silence.

Dumbfounded silence: This is the silence of awe — an awareness of the presence of God, of fathomless mystery, of the unspeakably beautiful.

Consoling silence: Faced with suffering or bereavement, words seem both inadequate and profane. What one has to say is best said with the eyes, tears, and mute gestures.

Enamored silence: The silence of love. No words seem equal to what you want to say. Each word or phrase you think of saying sounds like the dull noise of counterfeit coins.

Prayerful silence: This is a silence attentive to God’s presence, a human silence that participates in the divine silence. It is a silence that marks many experienced pilgrims.

Last but not least, evangelical silence: The Greek word for the Gospel is evangelion — good news. There are times when silence is better than words in communicating the truths that are ultimately beyond the reach of words. In a world of constant noise and endless verbal disputes, silence can sometimes communicate truths that are beyond assertion and argument.

An story of evangelical silence: Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria, one of the principal cities of the ancient world, once traveled to the monastic colony at Skete in the Egyptian desert. The younger monks were distressed that their elder, Abbot Pambo, had nothing to say to their august and powerful visitor. “Say a word or two to the bishop,” they urged him, “that his soul may be edified in this place.” Abbot Pambo replied: “If he is not edified by my silence, there is no hope that he will be edified by my words.”[ii]

One can imagine that Archbishop Theophilus, a man who had heard endless words from the many people courting his attention, returned to Alexandria shaken by his encounter with a community of men who had completely resigned from chatter. The monks made no effort to convince him of anything or win any favors. For the length of his stay, their august guest was simply a fellow Christian who, in a climate of silence, found himself freed from the heavy burden of being an Important Person with all the words and gestures that importance involves. He was a visitor in a household of tranquil prayer. The monks bathed him in their own quietness.

One of the early saints who emphasized the place of silence in spiritual life was St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who died as a martyr late in the first century. In a letter written shortly before his death, he said:

He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.[iii]

Far from being a God who insists on being heard, overpowering the noise of the world with a heavenly roar, our creator seems chiefly to speak to us so quietly that the normal environment for hearing is inner silence. The prophet Elijah experienced God’s voice as being like a whisper. Elijah was hiding in a cave near what later became the city of Haifa. God made himself known to Elijah not in a rock-shattering wind, or in an earthquake, or in fire and lightning, but in “a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)

The benefits of silence were stressed by St. Anthony the Great, the founder of desert monasticism. He wrote:

When you lie down on your bed, remember with thanksgiving the blessings and providence of God. Thereupon, filled with good thoughts, you will rejoice in spirit and the sleep of your body will mean sobriety of the soul; the closing of your eyes a true acknowledging of God, and your silence, brimming with awareness of all that is good, will wholeheartedly and with all its strength glorify almighty God, so that praise will rise to the heavens from your heart.

Another desert saint, John Climacus, a sixth century abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the barren wilderness of Sinai, stressed the role of silence in prayer in his guidebook to the spiritual life, The Ladder of Divine Ascent:

Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage, custodian of zeal, a guard on our thoughts, a watch on our enemies, a prison of mourning, a friend of tears, a sure recollection of death, a painter of punishment, a concern with judgment, servant of anguish, foe of license, a companion of stillness, the opponent of dogmatism, a growth of knowledge, a hand to shape contemplation, hidden progress, the secret journey upward.[iv]

Silence is not something that can be measured with scientific instruments nor does it exclude all conversation. Spoken words can communicate divine silence just as silence can be a voice of enmity. As another of the great desert saints, Abba Poemen the Shepherd, said:

One man seems silent of speech, but is condemning other people within his heart — he is really talking incessantly. Another man seems to talk all day, yet keeps his silence, for he always speaks in a way that is useful to his hearers.

No community of people is more aware than poets of the limitations of words. In a letter to a younger poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe. Most experiences are unsayable. They happen in a space that no word has ever entered…[v]

Silence is an essential dimension of icons, which serve as wordless translations of the Gospel. It’s part of what distinguishes iconography from ordinary painting. Just as many paintings create an illusion of three dimensions, so can an artist suggest sound, even an eruption of noise. Stand attentively before a painting of a great battle done by a skilled artist and you can hear the explosions, the clash of weapons, the cries of wounded soldiers. Stand before an icon and you find yourself enveloped in deep silence, a silence that seems to contain the breath of the Holy Spirit. Take enough time and a good icon will help quiet your mind. As you move beyond intellectual exploration of an icon’s content, it may awaken a longing to pray. It may even assist you in resolving a problem you have been struggling with.

As Thomas Merton wrote to his Greek friend, Marco Pallis, thanking him for the gift of a hand-painted icon:

How shall I begin? I have never received such a precious and magnificent gift from anyone in my life. I have no words to express how deeply moved I was to come face to face with this sacred and beautiful presence granted to me…. At first I could hardly believe it…. It is a perfect act of timeless worship. I never tire of gazing at it. There is a spiritual presence and reality about it, a true spiritual “Thaboric” light, which seems unaccountably to proceed from the Heart of the Virgin and Child as if they had One heart, and which goes out to the whole universe. It is unutterably splendid. And silent. It imposes a silence on the whole hermitage. … [This] icon of the Holy Mother came as a messenger at a precise moment when a message was needed, and her presence before me has been an incalculable aid in resolving a difficult problem.[vi]

Merton brought an icon with him on what proved to be his final journey, his pilgrimage to Asia in 1968. Though traveling light, like so many pilgrims before him, he regarded an icon as essential baggage. He knew from repeated experience that icons radiate a “Thaboric” light — an intimation of the uncreated light the three apostles experienced on Galilee’s Mount Thabor when the transfigured Christ silently revealed to them his divinity.

Merton’s journey in the final weeks of his life was a time of silence and prayer, except in those brief periods when he was in conversation, and even then, prayer shaped the conversations. How appropriate that the few material possessions shipped back with his body included his beloved icon of Christ and his mother. “Traveling” icons — small icons mounted on cardboard or a thin piece of wood, or relief icons cast from bronze or some other metal — are part of the pilgrim tradition.

A pilgrimage without prayer is no pilgrimage at all. There is no prayer without silent, attentive listening. The invitational silence of an icon helps the pilgrim to keep praying. Place an icon next to your bed at night. In the daytime be aware of it in your pocket or backpack. It provides a quiet but insistent reminder of what the journey is all about.

Pilgrimage is an hour-by-hour school of inner listening that combines movement with seeing, attentiveness and prayer. Whether on the way to the market or on the way to Jerusalem, you see whatever there is to see: other people, traffic, garbage, flowers, weeds, wildlife, the natural world. You hear all the sounds the world around you is pronouncing: bird songs, the wind, cars, buses, trucks, planes overhead, the conversation of people along the way, the sound of your feet on various surfaces. Little that you see will imprint itself as a long-term memory. Most that you hear will come in one ear and go out the other. Mainly what we see and hear as pilgrims passes through us like light passing through glass, yet to pay attention is to be in a moment-to-moment state of communion.

Prayer, too, is rarely remembered. It is the unusual event, not the routine, that carves a place in memory. Prayer, to the extent that it becomes ordinary, is no more memorable than breathing.

I recall a conversation about silence with our daughter Wendy when she was four or five years old. She said, “You know what those little sounds are that you hear when you’re all alone?”

“What sounds?” I asked.

“You know, those sounds you hear when you’re alone.”

“What’s that, Wendy?” I replied.

“That’s God,” she said.

* * *

[i] Letter to Jubilee magazine staff, quoted by Jim Harford in his book Merton and Friends; New York: Continuum, 2006, p 105-6.

[ii] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, Benedicta Ward, translator and editor, London: Mowbray; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications; p 81.


Epistle to the Ephesians, Chapter XV: Exhortation to confess Christ by silence as well as speech. See the online collection of writings of the Apostolic Fathers:

[iv] The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 11: On Talkativeness and Silence; Paulist Press, p 158.

[v] Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, letter one; translation by Stephen Mitchell; New York: Modern Library, 2001, p 4.

[vi] Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love, pp 473-74. In Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton (Jim Forest, Orbis Books), there is a chapter on “Merton and the Christ of the Byzantine Icons.”

Bob Lax’s Circus of the Spirit

Bob Lax
Bob Lax

The Catholic Worker / January-February 2016

Bob Lax’s Circus of the Spirit

Review by Jim Forest

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

By Michael McGregor
Fordham University Press, 2015, 472 pages, hardcover, $35

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton recounted his memories of Bob Lax during their student years together at Columbia University. Lax was “a gentle prophet” who seemed to be meditating “on some impenetrable woe,” a born contemplative who could “curl his long legs all around a chair, in seven different ways, while he was trying to find the right word with which to begin.” Lax possessed “a natural, instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God.” Lax saw Americans as a people “longing to do good but not knowing how,” waiting for the day when they could turn on the radio “and somebody will start telling them what they have really been wanting to hear and needing to know…. somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy.” As Michael McGregor relates in this hard-to-put-down biography, in the course of Lax’s long life he became a quiet voice telling his readers about the love of God in language that is never hackneyed or crazy but is lean, surprising and drawn from deep wells.

It happens that Pure Act appears just as a 136-page anthology of Lax’s poetry and journal writing has been published by Templegate: In the Beginning was Love. The editor is my friend Steve Georgiou, who, like McGregor, also knew Lax in his later years and whose vocation as teacher was given its shape in large measure thanks to his mentor on Patmos.

Lax was one of the several friends who witnessed Merton’s baptism and it was Lax who, as the two of them were walking along Sixth Avenue not long afterward, asked Merton what he wanted to become. For Lax, the question wasn’t so much what to become as who to become. It was obvious to both of them that “Thomas Merton the well-known writer” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English” were not good enough answers. “I don’t know,” Merton finally said. “I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

“What do you mean,” Lax responded, “you want to be a good Catholic?” Merton was silent — he hadn’t figured that out yet. “What you should say,” Lax went on, “is that you want to be a saint.” That struck Merton as impossible. “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax. “I can’t be a saint,” Merton replied with conviction. To be a saint, he imagined, would require a magnitude of renunciation that was light years beyond him. But Lax pressed on. “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”

It is not stretching the truth to say that both Lax and Merton spent the rest of their lives attempting to become the persons God created them to be — not aiming for capital S sainthood, complete with holy cards and a niche on the church calendar, but run-of-the-mill saints who have a talent for disappearing.

I met Lax at the Catholic Worker in Manhattan in 1961 and found him to be as lean as an exclamation mark, as tentative as a question mark and quiet as a comma. He occasionally came down for Friday night meetings and one evening read aloud some of the amazing poetry that eventually became part of his most treasured book, Circus of the Sun (now the first section of Circus Days and Nights). His circus poetry has ever since been a special love of mine, joyfully re-read more or less annually.

The Catholic Worker was a natural place for Lax to be. He had an affinity for the marginal and for those drawn to them. Earlier in his life he had been part of the community at Friendship House in Harlem. One winter Lax and Tom Cornell shared a $28-a-month apartment on Avenue A that seemed even colder inside than it was outside.

Another aspect of Lax’s affinity for the Catholic Worker was that he was a pacifist and had been one since his student days. Lax was one of those people who would far prefer to die than to end anyone’s life. When draft registration began shortly before the US entered World War II, both Lax and Merton declared themselves conscientious objectors. “Why,” Lax joked, “should I kill strangers when I have been so shy and polite about not killing unpleasant acquaintances?”

In that period of his life when our paths first crossed, Lax was editor-at-large of Jubilee magazine, an eye-opening, photo-intensive Catholic monthly that took an interest in people, places and topics widely ignored by the Catholic press as a whole: eastern Christianity, the works of mercy, lay communities, Christian art and artists, Church life in Europe, Asia and Latin America… No issue of Jubilee was ugly or boring, each issue a voyage of discovery.

One of the joys of life at that time was occasionally walking up to the Jubilee office and having a visit with Lax in his small white-washed cubicle that had, now that I think of it, something of a Greek look about it.

It was no surprise when not long afterward Lax made Greece his home, first Kalymnos beginning in 1964, an isle then famous for its sponge divers, and a decade later the monastic island of Patmos, where he remained until shortly before his death in 2000. By then Lax was something of a hermit, if one understands that many hermits are, as Merton was, intensely social people whose doors open both to friends and strangers nearly every day. But, apart from the cats who found Lax to be a good provider, Lax preferred to live alone.

Lax was born in Olean, New York in 1915 into a Jewish immigrant family. His remarkable mother, Betty, was both a founder of the local synagogue and a member of the Methodist and Presbyterian choirs, a combination that anticipated the wide spiritual reach of her son. During the Depression, Lax enrolled at Columbia where he formed life-shaping friendships with Merton and Ed Rice (later to found Jubilee), the poet Mark Van Doren (one of his professors) and radical abstract artist Ad Reinhardt. Lax also met his first holy man, a Hindu monk named Brahmachari who seemed far less interested in converting Christians to Hinduism than in converting Christians to Christianity. (It was thanks to Brahmachari’s influence that Merton read Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.)

Lax was eventually to give up much that his talents, education and background equipped him to do, but in the years following graduation from Columbia he was on the staff of The New Yorker (where some of his early poetry was published), wrote film reviews for Time, and endured a period of script-writing in Hollywood. What he mainly learned in those years was how unhappy he could be attempting to be someone he was not.

The circus had been where he got the clearest glimpse of who he really was. While at The New Yorker he had met the Cristianis, a renowned family of acrobats. The poems knit together in Circus of the Sun were mainly works that had grown out of traveling with their small circus when it was on tour in western Canada. Joining in, Lax proved to be a natural clown.

While not drawn to a fulltime circus life, he was attracted to walking the high wire of voluntary poverty while gradually learning to write a lean poetry which in many cases was a trickle of slim words or thinner syllables cascading down the page. It was a poetry of contemplation in which the word “you” may mean yourself or God or the secret places where the one disappears into the other.

Michael McGregor — who knew Lax well — has written a book I’ve waited a long time to read. It’s a story with many surprises and much beauty. McGregor has the biographer’s gift of not only keeping careful track of Lax’s long pilgrimage, both physically and spiritually, but of bringing the reader into a space in which Lax is permanently alive and well. It’s a luminous story told with love and skill.

* * *








— Bob Lax
Circus Days and Nights
Overlook Press, p 110

* * *

Getting Into the Stream: a visit with Thich Nhat Hanh in Fontvannes

Thich Nhat Hanh 1974 Paris (Jim Forest)
Thich Nhat Hanh, summer 1976 (photo: Jim Forest)

by Jim Forest

Doing some tidying up of papers yesterday, I came upon a copy of a letter I sent forty years ago to the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, New York. At the time I was editor of Fellowship, a monthly magazine of peacemaking published by the FOR.

June 9, 1976 / Fontvannes, near Troyes in France

Dear co-workers in Nyack:

Let me try to bring you up to date on the visit with our friends at Fontvannes.

The three principal residents here, Nhat Hanh, Phuong and Sudarat (the last a spirited young Thai woman who is preparing for work in Thailand similar in character to what the School of Youth for Social Service was doing in Vietnam), have an extremely solid communal life and one which, at the same time, seems unbelievably productive not only in the quality of the work but also in the quantity. They demonstrate well that time put into developing the human dimensions of common life and work pays off in what they, as a group, are able to accomplish. The cheerful name they have given the community is The Sweet Potatoes—Les Patates Douces.

The work is of several kinds. There is an extensive garden — and it is the primary source of the vegetables we eat. There is at least a large head of lettuce at both the afternoon and evening meals each day. And such lettuce! I’ve never eaten its equal. Remarkable. And there are carrots, onions, cabbage, various herbs, spinach, tomatoes, etc. But it all takes a good deal of time, mainly Thay’s time. (“Thay” is the Vietnamese word for teacher and is what Nhat Hanh is normally called within the community.) It‘s eye-stopping to notice him in the garden, often wearing an enormous Mexican sombrero, a startling substitute for the conical hat farmworkers wear in Asia, but it serves the same purpose quite well. His garden work is more demanding than it might otherwise be as Europe is suffering a very dry year; for England, the Herald Tribune reports, it is the worst drought in four centuries. Thus Thay was out last night, under the half moon at 1 a.m., watering the plants. He was very pleased when we saw him on waking this morning, because, he reported, the water pressure was so much stronger in the middle of the night than it is during the day. Besides the watering, there is the work of keeping the soil soft and comfortable for the roots. The soil here, even in more generous weather, is a challenge as it is mostly clay and seems generally of a mood to become hard as clay in a kiln. (When I’m back I can show you the blisters turned callouses on my hands, mute evidence.)

There is also the work of building the house. This dwelling was a barely habitable ruin when they first found it but for that reason it was extremely cheap, along with its (I would estimate) half acre of land on a steep bit of hillside. Bit by bit they have done remarkable things with it. No longer do mice run over one’s sleeping bag at night. The floors are no longer earth but cement, and now over that there is linoleum, and over other parts, in Vietnamese fashion, raised platforms covered either with bamboo mats or rugs. Though it isn’t needed during these August-like days, the fireplace is fixed and works well. There is a very beautiful meditation room with a small altar over which a photograph of a Quan Yin statue hangs (Quan Yin is the Bodhisattva who personifies compassion). An adjacent former stable, rather small, has been renovated and now serves both as a printing shop and as a room for Thay. That is to say, in one corner there is a bed and along one wall there are bookshelves. But the main impression the room gives is of a very crammed print shop — a press as one goes in, large and new, great quantities of paper, a large iron paper trimmer that looks like an old Franklin press, a device for making plates for the press, and an old but hard-working typesetting machine; and in between all these things, stacks of pages waiting to be collated, books under weights while the glue dries, and old yogurt jars now serving as glue jars, with tooth brushes sticking out of them which are used in applying the glue.

At the other end of the house is a kitchen and bathroom added two years ago. These adjacent rooms have a flat roof, unlike the very steep tiled roof over the rest of the house. In the attic they have, last year, divided the space into several rooms but it provides little protection from extreme temperatures.

And now there is another addition under construction, a large rectangular space out from the kitchen. Two of the villagers, and sometimes more, are up helping with this as their time allows, and Thay and Sudarat were at it bright and early this morning. Sudarat is particularly excited about the project because she wants to be able to build houses in Thailand. She has quickly become skilled in basic masonry. The new space will hold tools and equipment, provide storage space for paper and the books they are printing—and space, too, for one of their cottage industries: making maysing, a traditional Vietnamese candy, produced mainly in Hue, and beloved by Vietnamese in a special way. (When our artist friend Vo-Dinh received a box, we learned, he was so delighted and so overcome with nostalgia that he could barely bring himself to let anyone else in his family share it!) Once or twice a month they make another batch, singing as it is made. And in each small box they insert an explanation about maysing, telling the story of how they sing while making the candy and why the “company name” they have chosen for maysing is La Maison de la Demi-Sourire (the House of the Half Smile), the half smile being an element of the community’s meditative practice.

They encourage the maysing eater to read Nhat Hanh’s manual on meditation, The Miracle of Being Awake. So, a la Gandhi, they turn even these small projects of self-support into vehicles of teaching. (In a more subtle way, there is teaching on the box itself: a Vietnamese color woodcut of a fish leaping above the water and gazing at the reflection of the moon in the water. The image is really like a zen koan, a seemingly unanswerable question that draws the one who struggles with it toward enlightenment. Not exactly a Tide detergent box!)

But the main project here is the La Boi Press. La Boi: The Vietnamese words for the type of leaf on which the teachings of the Buddha were first written down. The La Boi Press has actually been twice-founded. La Boi was first begun by Thay in Saigon. It was one of the principal elements of the movement for socially-oriented Buddhist renewal that Nhat Hanh and Phuong have been so important a part of. Almost all of Thay’s books have been published in Vietnam by La Boi, sometimes, however, under pseudonyms, particularly since the banning of his writings by the Thieu government. But—in the ironies of “liberation” — the La Boi Press itself has been banned by the revolutionaries and apparently all its books were burned in those great bonfires of “corrupt” texts that were translated into smoke last year. One of the books to be thus recycled was the just-published first Vietnamese edition of The Miracle of Being Awake. [The English-language trade edition has the title The Miracle of Mindfulness.] Only today is the Vietnamese text again in print. A few feet from where I sit the glue is drying on the spines of the first few copies.

Their publication technology is, by any standard, labor intensive. Books are normally printed on very large sheets, 32 pages to each side of a sheet, then machine folded and trimmed into 64-page signatures, then the signatures machine collated and bound, a very rapid process in which the considerable expense involved is a result of costly equipment, the high salaries paid to those skilled in using such equipment, and, not least, the profit of the company. Here the main expense is time. Phuong sets the type and makes the plates for the press. Thay prints on the letter-size stationary the machine is designed to handle — two pages to a side. With its 120 pages, the Vietnamese edition of Miracle requires 60 plates and 60 passes through the press. To print 350 copies, Thay was at the press for much of the last two days. But printing is really the easier part of the process. Collating the sheets by hand comes next — 60 piles of sheets are put in available spaces on the floor. Then in groups of five or six copies, the backs of the books are scored with a hack saw, a rather demanding physical labor, but the groves add considerably to the holding strength of the glue. And then the gluing of the pages, the addition of the cover for each book, and finally the trimming.

But the final results are very attractive and the monetary expense very little. With their extremely limited financial means, the community is able to produce a durable, presentable product. In six months time, they have established a book list of fifteen titles, an extraordinary accomplishment for three persons with many other tasks.

first English-language edition; the title of the trade edition is "The Miracle of Mindfulness"
first English-language edition; the title of the trade edition is “The Miracle of Mindfulness”

What they are accomplishing with this immense physical labor is really of immeasurable importance. In Vietnam itself, doubtless, there are already various underground presses struggling against enormous odds to keep open some channels of uncensored communication, but it seems wildly unlikely that anyone is able to do much there at present to keep the literary or religious heritage alive. Of course it is still only a slight hope that some of the books printed here in France will find their way to Vietnam, at least for some time. The censorship of mail in and out of the country appears to be extremely rigorous. As the official cultural publication for all of Vietnam, Van Boa Nghe Thuat, published in Hanoi, says in the first issue of 1976, the “new colonialists” (that is, the Americans) made “use of religion” as a weapon, spreading “pessimistic thought” as a principal political force. “The reactionary anti-Communist band, disguised as religious people, work actively in the cultural field, using such slogans as ‘actualized religion,’ ‘bringing religion to life,’ ‘the religion of the poor,’ ‘using love to overcome hatred’ — all key points in the machinery of neo-colonialist culture … adapting religion to the American puppet policy.” Which is to say, the place of religion in the post neo-colonialist Vietnam will be to stick strictly to “cultic activities” — ceremonies inside religious buildings. Thus no books about “engaged Buddhism.” Nothing critical of the society. Doubtless if some Buddhist group emerges who will be seen as “patriotic”, that is, fully supportive of the government, they will be free to publish their support as much as they want. Only cheerleaders allowed.

I cannot help but write of the situation with bitterness. As Jean Lacouture, Le Monde‘s Vietnam correspondent and for so long one of the most enthusiastic journalistic voices of support for the Vietnamese revolution, says in his most recent reports from Vietnam, “one cannot speak so well of the victors as those who struggled for victory.” For while the Vietnamese government never ceases to reaffirm its commitment to reconciliation and national accord, in reality no one is allowed a public voice or a public role or access to a printing press who hasn’t proven to be completely loyal to the government and its ideology.

from the first English-language edition of "The Miracle of Being Awake"
from the first English-language edition of “The Miracle of Being Awake”
It is interesting to note that the new La Boi Press here in the French countryside, despite its editors’ deep anguish with the suppression of the religious press in Vietnam and the destruction of many literary as well as religious works, is not publishing anything critical of the Vietnamese government. They are enlivened with the hope that, over an extended period of time, their publishing work will not only be useful and encouraging to other Vietnamese exiles but that a respect toward the work will emerge from the Vietnamese government as it realizes, at last, the constructive and reconciling purpose of the project.

At times the hopes that Thay and Phuong express seem to me terribly naive. What is happening in Vietnam has happened in too many other countries. In the name of the people and of national security, governments both of the left and the right have restricted religion to the narrowest and most ineffectual roles, not hesitating to oppress and imprison those religious activists who, like Gandhi, insist that there is not and can never be a wall between religion and politics, in the sense of public life. But the only kind of politics that is welcomed from religious quarters is obedience. Vietnam, in this area as in so many others, seems no different than Chile, the Soviet Union, China or Brazil.

On the other hand, Thay and Phuong’s almost miraculous ability to remain hopeful even in the most hopeless situations makes me think again about what Jesus said about “the mustard seed” of faith: the tiniest seed becoming so large a plant, the smallest bit of genuine faith being able to move mountainous obstacles. Not that faith is magical, as if one with faith can order the universe around. But, in faith, one enters into a dialog with creation itself, in the way that Abraham is shown conversing with God, arguing, even bargaining, for the sparing of the city. So perhaps, in the mustard seed of the hope that surrounds me here, in that faith they have in the possibility of adversaries being slowly transformed, I am seeing something that is far rarer in the world than thousand carat diamonds, the kind of transforming faith that does move impossible loads, that does “shift mountains.” It’s a quality, I realize, that we desperately need in our own peace movement, in which so many of us act for peace but do so in a kind of sour obedience to values we are certain will never be accepted by anyone else. We seem, at times, to be perversely nourished by bad news and by rejection, in a cantankerous, Jonah-like way, not bargaining with God for the city’s salvation and transformation but egging on God’s wrath. But that quality, so familiar to me in the American dissident scene, is completely absent here.

On Friday Phuong goes into Paris in response to an invitation received earlier this week to discuss “national affairs” with the Vietnamese ambassador. She has no idea what has prompted the invitation, but goes in the hope that, at last, there will be news that the Buddhists will be allowed to renew their interrupted work with Vietnamese orphans and their adopted parents. Perhaps she even harbors the hope that she and Thay will be allowed to return home, an immensely unlikely prospect given the number of persons (like the novelist Doan Quoc Sy, one of the more recently arrested in Saigon) who are of similar convictions and who are now among the estimated 300,000 (this figure from various sources, including Jean Lacouture and the Agence France Presse) “students” being “re-educated” in Vietnam. But whatever her hopes are, she prepares for the encounter in a way very expressive of the atmosphere of the community. She plans to bring with her a newly-printed copy of Phep La Cua Su Tinh Thuc — The Miracle of Being Awake. And she is considering, as well, a gift of Vietnamese herbs, grown in the garden from seeds sent here by Buddhist monks in Vietnam. I try to imagine meeting in a similar spirit with some of the Americans officials who have imprisoned me and my friends.

What makes all this possible — their ability to work so well and so productively without the deterioration of community, their ability to function so creatively and hopefully — is clearly the meditative element in their lives. The method of their meditation practice is the subject of Thay’s book, The Miracle of Being Awake.

Usually, the community has tea together at about 10:30 at night and then starts sitting in a room lit by a single candle at 11. The sitting lasts about 40 minutes, beginning with Thay’s quiet chanting alternating with the ringing of a very sonorous bell and ending with a silent walk inside the house when it’s too dark or cold, but outside when the moon is bright and the air comfortable, as it was last night.

Thay says that meditative sitting ought to leave the individual feeling very deeply refreshed, if he or she sits comfortably and quietly follows the body’s breathing, not being attached to passing thoughts or moods. I was so exhausted last night, and suffering a headache after leaning over this typewriter yesterday writing the first two pages of this letter, that I was somewhat amazed with myself for joining in the meditation period. I was tempted to lie down.

I think what drew me to try, despite everything, was Thay’s explaining to me the last part of a poem he wrote several years ago and which I helped to translate into English while with him in Paris during the summer of 1972. The poem is called “Getting Into the Stream”:

Each monk has a corner of the mat
a place to sit
for meditation.
There, monk, sit still on it.
The spinning earth carries us all along.

The place you sit is like a seat on a second class train.
A monk will eventually get off at his station
and his place will be dusted for another.

How long is the monk to sit in the lotus position
at his corner of the mat?
Sit still on it anyway. .
Sit as if you will never give it up,
as if there is no station to arrive at.
The engine with its flames will carry you along.

Each monk will sit in the lotus position
at his corner of the mat.
The monk will sit like an ancient enormous mountain.
The mountain is still there
but like the monk is on the turning earth.
This train of ours
this fire-filled engine
is hurrying ahead.

This morning
the monk sits as usual
on his corner of the mat
but he grins.
“I shall not sit here forever,”
he tells himself.
“When the train arrives at the station
I will be elsewhere —
a corner of the mat
or an armful of grass
I am sitting down
just one more time.

Last night, over tea, keeping as still as possible so as not to jar my headache, Thay explained that enlightenment is irrevocably initiated when, in Buddhist terms, you “get into the stream.” For the Buddha, the endpoint of being carried along in the stream, finally to the point of being beyond birth and death, came when he decided that he would sit one more time and, even should he die and rot on the spot, not get up again until, as Thay says, “he got it.” A buffalo boy saw him getting ready to sit and was filled with awe at the Buddha’s beauty. He gave the Buddha the gift of a handful of grass. It was on that grass, the Buddha sat through the night. On seeing the morning star before dawn the next day, his illumination occurred, the point that Buddhists describe as “no return” was reached.

Meditation in the community is approached with that sort of life-and-death seriousness. It isn’t something that should be done whenever there is some extra time. It has priority over meals and over every aspect of work.

So I too sat with the community last night, worn out, and got up an hour later feeling as if I had been thirsty and had been drinking from a mountain stream. Thoughts had come and gone during the time. I had frequently strayed into mental noise and the mind’s calendar and its bulletin board department, yet I found myself letting go of the mental habits quietly and calmly each time I realized what I had drifted back to. Certain thoughts and reflections seemed to drift by. I noticed them, sometimes looking at them closely as at a postcard. Some were interesting and helpful. I let them all go by. When the meditation bell rang it seemed much too soon. I wanted to keep sitting. But we walked out into the garden, each following a different path, feeling the bricks of the pathway, enjoying the grass pushing up through the crevices, seeing the moonlight on the lettuce. I found myself silently singing a Gregorian alleluia verse.

It is in this element of the community’s life that its spirit is renewed. And my guess is that no element of life is more necessary for peacemakers in general — and nothing so undervalued by us, nothing more likely to be seen as a kind of luxury or pious affectation. But without it, here at least, not only the work but the hope that work expresses would be inconceivable. It would fail because they are dragged back, nearly each day, by so much very painful news. Not only are they no more welcome in “liberated” Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City — than they were welcome in Thieu’s Saigon, but it is just as painful to bear the news of imprisonment and suppression after the American withdrawal and the collapse of the Thieu’s regime. And it is painful to see the collapse of the values in whose name the revolution was fought, albeit a familiar pattern in other societies. So many people dared hope that this revolution would be different, that these victors would do something unique in history and allow, within a revolutionary society, a space for diversity.

But I see even now I speak in too despairing a way. I am reminded by the hope that nourished these “sweet potatoes” that, even now, in the spiritual resources that evolved in Vietnam in the midst of its long agony of occupation and war, that there are many others like these few, that they are similarly nourished in their inner life, even in prison and “re-education” camps, and that they will quietly but stubbornly — like Phuong, with gifts in hand — make themselves felt in the future of Vietnam, and perhaps, I can’t help but hope, where we live as well.

Much love,


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other Nhat Hanh-related links:

Only the Rice Loves You

Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh