Only the Rice Loves You: a month with Thich Nhat Hanh In Paris

By Jim Forest

Thich Nhat Hanh, Paris 1975 (photo: by im Forest)
Thich Nhat Hanh, Paris 1975 (photo: by Jim Forest)

Note: The text which follows was written and published in the fall of 1972.

I have just returned from an extraordinary experience. I hardly dare try writing about it. Words sometimes seem a cruel instrument — little chance to use silences, a shaking voice, whispers, laughter, tears, body language. None of that here, Somehow it has to pass through the needle’s eye of a typewriter.

The experience was in Paris, with Vietnamese. I stayed for a month with the staff of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation, a group that has no role in the negotiations and is almost unheard of in the United States, even within the anti-war movement. If we think of Vietnamese Buddhists, at best we may recall that, yes, there were many monks and nuns in demonstrations in the streets of Hue and Saigon nearly ten years ago. Or perhaps there is a flickering recollection of a monk sitting prayerfully within a wrapping of fire, communicating wordlessly the agonies of his people.

But more recently, what was once often referred to as the “Buddhist movement” in Vietnam seems to have evaporated from Western sight. We seem to see only the people who carry weapons. Perhaps there is a half-conscious assumption that the extreme suffering of the war has been such that even the Buddhists, and even the monks and nuns, are under arms or finding other ways to support the military struggle of the liberation army.

In fact there is, in Vietnam, a huge nonviolent struggle that continues, despite arrests, torture, imprisonment, despite the drafting of novices and monks, despite the seemingly ceaseless waves of violence, despite homelessness, injury and death.

Why do we hear nothing of it? Or imagine it isn’t there? Perhaps because we, too, more than we know, are victims of the war, to the extent that we have difficulty either seeing or even imagining a way of life that doesn’t respond in kind. Even in many homes, and certainly in most schools, churches, and places of work, the only way of life we know is of coercion, manipulation, threats, punishments; we use goodness as a word for the obedient: a “good” child is one who obeys. The violence may be subtle, but it is the only mainspring we know much about. How, then, to imagine nonviolence?

It is hard to imagine. And if it is hard to imagine for ourselves, how much more so for those who have experienced violence without any padding? Many Vietnamese families have seen their homes burned or bombed not once or twice but five or six times. Thousands of young women have been driven into prostitution in order to protect their families from starvation. Many children and aged people have suffered extreme malnutrition, Countless have been killed, wounded, driven insane, How could anyone’s rage not hunger to turn the suffering back toward those who have caused it and who profit from it?

Yet I have just spent a month reading the letters and seeing the photos that have come from a few of those whose experience of violence has only deepened their resolve to have no part of violence, who would sooner die than pass on to others the suffering they have known and witnessed. And I have lived with several of the persons they have sent out of Vietnam to speak for them. If I can only dimly understand the mystery of their non-vindictive courage, at least I cart try to listen and watch and attempt sharing with others the privilege that has somehow been given to me.

I was able to go to Paris only because a friend had paid for the ticket and because the Community for Creative Nonviolence in Washington had loaned me some expense money. My charter flight having been a week earlier than expected, I hadn’t yet received a response to a letter to Thich Nhat Hanh asking for hospitality. He was the only person I knew in Paris. I didn’t have his phone number, couldn’t find it, couldn’t speak French, and couldn’t even read the directions on how lo use the phone. But as I had come to Paris to represent the Catholic Peace Fellowship at a meeting, I did have the address of the meeting place — the Quaker International Center on rue de Vaugirard. After a bus ride and miles of walking, I got there, and with the help of an English-speaking staff person, called the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation. I was told to come right over, and given instructions for the Metro ride underground.

The Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation: with such a name, I imagined their offices in Paris’ diplomatic quarter, something simple of course, in keeping with their Buddhist affirmation, but nothing resembling what I found.

Their office is in the north of Paris, in a North African section not unlike the East Harlem I had lived in in New York, except here the streets were much narrower and, in these areas, twisted like railroad wrecks. The address was 11 rue de la Goutte d’Or — the street of the Drop of Gold. The building, freshly white-washed, was barely twice the width of a Volkswagen bus. Inside was a squeezed circular wooden staircase, old worn grey wood that looked often scrubbed.

The Delegation’s offices were on the top floor. An office. A small grey room, several desks, and two windows looking out over rooftops toward old gothic St. Bernard’s with its flying buttresses and charcoal black steeple. The only decoration, other than the view, was a pair of pine cones that were hanging on the wall — simple, wooden flowers.

Two people were there. One was blond and looked vaguely familiar. She smiled and said, “Do you remember me?” “You look familiar,” I said uncertainly. “I’m Laura Hassler.” We laughed. I hadn’t seen her since she was dividing her time between being a Swarthmore student, being part of a folk singing group, and trying to oppose the war. That had been five years ago. More recently she had been working for the Committee of Responsibility in Philadelphia raising medical help for the war’s civilian casualties.

The other person, laughing too, was Cao Ngoc Phuong. I had heard of her: a professor of biology from the Universities of Hue and Saigon. She had been a leader of peace actions, which led to her imprisonment by Saigon authorities. Protest from academic figures in several countries resulted in her release. When friends in the government let her know that she was about to be arrested again because of her involvement in the underground peace press, she was smuggled out of Vietnam (no exit visa was possible). She had traveled internationally since then, speaking for the peace community she had been a part of. Nhat Chi Mai, a young Buddhist nun who burned herself as “a gift for peace,” had been one of her closest friends, But I didn’t know Phuong was in Paris or part of the Delegation,

She wore traditional Vietnamese clothing — black silk trousers with a slim brown dress, open along the sides to the waist for ease of movement in chairless, couchless, rice-matted houses.

Such a welcome. I had worn large holes through my shoes and socks in my long pilgrimage through the streets of Paris. The borrowed suitcase, though it had seemed light when packed, had given blisters to both hands. I had lost my sleeping bag. I couldn’t have been feeling more insecure. And now these two women, born on different sides of the planet, were both laughing at the sight of me in this tiny office in the African section of Paris.

An hour later, at sunset, they took me home, driving around the edge of Paris in washing-machine traffic, our vulnerable selves protected from disaster only by our tiny car, which seemed made of tin foil.

We survived, finally arriving at Maisons-Alfort, a town of brick houses, a few modern apartment buildings and many trees. We were just southeast of Paris, near the joining place of the Seine with the Marne.

The apartment itself, however, was in Vietnam. It was mainly a large room with rice mats on the floor, a small corner table covered with books and papers, other books in rows at the floor’s edge, and a neatly blanketed mattress on the floor beneath the windows (a view of houses, a parking yard for trucks, trees and sky), Off to one side was a small kitchen. In a closet-sized space there was a toilet, and across from that a bathroom that had largely been taken over by a mimeograph.

Thich Nhat Hanh was there.

He is the main exception I know to the saying, “Adults are nothing more than deteriorated children.” He seems a living illustration of Jesus’ teaching, “Unless you are like children, you cannot enter into perfection.”

But Nhat Hanh is not childish. One senses the years he has lived, and the deep toughness within his vulnerability, but his eyes are so uncallused. I saw around and in his eyes an absence of tension that only children seem to have, as if adult eyes were inevitably located within a muscular pentagon of anxiety and the genuine mark of adulthood were a tense set of sentry muscles around the place light enters the head. Nhat Hanh doesn’t have those sentries.

I had first met him six years ago. Under the sponsorship of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, we had traveled together throughout the country, meeting with huge groups and small ones, from businessmen to poets — anyone who would listen.

As I usually introduced him, I came in know — of necessity — the main facts of his life.

It was from Vietnamese students, however, that I learned that Nhat Hanh (despite the official condemnation of his poetry by the Saigon and Hanoi governments, the National Liberation Front and Radio Peking) is one of the most popular living poets in his homeland, in a culture where the love of poetry is a national trait. Though in underground editions, his books sold in the tens of thousands of copies.

Nhat Hanh had become a monk at sixteen, now thirty years ago. We had often talked about it in the past, and did again (this time on a tape for contemplatives in the US) during the stay in Paris.

“I was initiated into the monastic life by a master,” he recalled, adding that his master had died in the Tel offensive of 1968. “He didn’t give me things to learn — he just put me into community life. We didn’t begin by doctrine. We began by living the community monastic life. So the very morning I came, they asked me to carry the water and to work in the garden. But they recommended to me that I look carefully at the others, to see the way they do things. You know, at that time I already had received some education of a Western nature, so I thought the kind of education in the monastery was not very advanced, because they gave me something to learn by heart. Not theory, but practice.

“For instance, when you wash your hands, you have to raise in your mind a thought that goes along with washing your hands. You would think to yourself, ‘While I wash my hands, I wish that everybody would have clean hands capable of handling the truth.’ So whatever you do, you have to become concentrated on it with a thought, and this is how we are trained for meditation. You get stronger concentration of mind.

“They had me learn things by heart. I thought it wasn’t very advanced, but I finally found it very important. The most important thing is that they don’t want to initiate you with philosophy, theory, doctrine; they want to push you right away into life, into that kind of monastic life. You learn better that way.”

After the first four years in the monastery near Hue, he was sent to a Buddhist institute. He continued monastic life through to profession, and later became founder of a new monastic community.

In the early 1960’s, he studied and lectured at Princeton and Columbia. In 1964, when he returned to Vietnam, the war had reduced most of Vietnamese monasticism to rubble. Where the monasteries had physically survived, the monks had either fled for their lives or been forcibly evicted by the Saigon government (then under the leadership of a Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem). The monks could have re-banded into lest visible monastic communities, continuing life as before. But they didn’t. Increasingly, they became opponents of the war and active in helping the victims — activities which would, from the viewpoint of most Catholic monks, be seen as un-monastic.

Nhat Hanh explained, “Well, there is really not much division between the two kinds of life. The monastery is like a laboratory. A scientist, if he wants to do his scientific work, has to be in his lab; he has to refrain from such things as smoking, listening to the radio, chewing gum — things like that. It is not because these things are evil. But if you want to work for something, you have to stop doing those things which interrupt your work. So monastic life is a lab in which you work hard to obtain something. It is not an end In itself — it is a means.

“Now, as you know, the essence of Buddhism is compassion and wisdom. But if that compassion and wisdom are not translated into life, it would not be called compassion and wisdom!

“So it is not a problem of speculation. If a man who has some compassion and wisdom finds himself in a situation of suffering, he will do what his conscience dictates. The only thing we believe is that action should be rooted in a non-action base, which is the spiritual source of wisdom and compassion. For without wisdom and compassion action would only further trouble the world.”

Nhat Hanh’s voice was quiet, with pauses between many words.

“That is why conserving monastic life is very, very important. But monastic life is also for life. There is really not such separation between monastic and non-monastic life. The hard thing is trying to find the needed work while preserving your spiritual strength.”

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of those monks who has been able to preserve his monastic essence even in the most non-monastic circumstances. During the weeks with him in France, I was again struck by a deep calm and quiet in him that was like the mysterious, prayer-compelling silence within the ancient cathedral at Chartres, or which lingers In the ruins of monasteries.

Out of his “non-action” base, Nhat Hanh founded Van Hanh University in Sargon, named for a monk of the eleventh century whose followers initiated a nonviolent movement which resulted in discouraging the Chinese from invading Vietnam, a chapter in nonviolent history unknown in the West. The university, along with La Boi Publishing House, also founded by Thich Nhat Hanh, became an intellectual and spiritual base for “engaged Buddhism,” a religious philosophy which remarkably resembles what the Catholic Worker in America has called “applied Christianity.”

To supplement the academic format of the university, Nhat Hanh went on to found the School of Youth for Social Service as a faculty of the university. The School has become one of the principal channels for relief and direct action through which increasing numbers of young people have found a way to assist refugees, to help in village reconstruction, to set up emergency medical centers, to teach better methods of agriculture and sanitation, and even to begin small schools.

In 1966, with the character of the University and School established, Nhat Hanh was encouraged by his friends In the Unified Buddhist Church to speak in America and elsewhere in the West on behalf of the war’s main victims, the peasants. (Asked by one American why he hadn’t stayed in Vietnam, if he were so interested in ending the Vietnam war, Nhat Hanh responded, “We try to go to the root of problems. If you want to help a tree to grow, you do not water the leaves.”)

Hours after Nhat Hanh had left his room at the School of Youth for Social Service, a hand grenade exploded there.

Despite the horrors of the war, there had seemed to be a tremendous hopefulness In Nhat Hanh. My first impression of Nhat Hanh In Paris was that much of that hope had wilted. There seemed an unspeakable sadness in him, as if he were a rabbi at Auschwitz. I discovered from Laura, however, that his depression was recent, and had to do with two things: an event and tendencies within the peace movement.

There was a clue to the event in the room in Maison-Alfort: against one wall was a small, low table, black in color, a simple altar. On it was a candle, some flowers, the ash of burned incense, and a photograph. It was of Thich Tanh Van. A young face. Tanh Van was the director, since Nhat Hanh’s departure, of the School of Youth for Social Service.

Laura gave me a mimeographed sheet announcing Thich Tanh Van’s death. It said that on June 2nd (less than forty days prior to my arrival in Paris), Thich Tanh Van was returning from relief work in Suoi Hgne when his small car was hit by a US Army truck. Tanh Van was refused admittance to an Army hospital. Two days later he died. Thousands came to the funeral, said the announcement.

It continued:

“During its seven years of service, the School has been able to relieve very little of the suffering of the people, but it has shared their suffering of all kinds. Great numbers of Vietnamese civilians have been killed by the warring parties. Great numbers of Vietnamese peasants are suspected, kidnapped and liquidated. Eight of our workers have been kidnapped. Great numbers of peasants suffer from the bombs — seven of our workers disappeared under the bombs in Quang Tri in April, 1972, because of their efforts to rescue people trapped between the two lines of fire. Thousands of Vietnamese are killed accidentally by irresponsible American soldiers — car accidents, “mistakes” of military targets, etc. — and there are no damages paid to their families, and no discipline for the killers. This kind of suffering is the least known to the world outside Vietnam. It seems as though our colleague, Thanh Van, chose to share this kind of suffering with those who die the most ignored deaths.”

There was another paragraph:

“During the funeral service of Thich Tanh van, members of the School community stated that they do not blame anyone for their colleague’s death: ‘Thich Tanh Van’s life was for love and giving: his death should be for the same,’ they said.”

I learned that Thich Tanh Van had been Nhat Hanh’s most loved student and friend, closer than a brother, and that both Nhat Hanh and Cao Ngoc Phuong had been devastated by this loss. “He cannot be replaced,” Nhat Hanh told me later, on a day when he was showing me pictures of the School and Thanh Van.

On a later day I was told of a conversation that was going on within the delegation staff regarding what Thich Tanh Van might choose to be in his next incarnation. It was implicit that Thich Tanh Van had reached that rare degree of wholeness in which it would be possible for him to freely choose. Some thought Tanh Van would now leave the world of suffering forever and enter the “pure land” of complete peace and final liberation. Others said — and, in saying, transformed my understanding of the Buddhists response in Vietnam — that Thich Tanh Van would return to Vietnam, and not to a future, peaceful Vietnam, but to the Vietnam of the present where once again he would voluntarily share in the suffering.

Yet there was another source of depression. Four years ago, there had been much interest in the US in the Buddhists’ nonviolent struggle. Many Americans seemed to find a new source of energy for peace work in response to their awareness of what the Buddhists were doing without weapons in Vietnam.

Now peace activists had seemed without any interest in the Buddhists’ struggle, though it was continuing as intensely as ever. Many peace movement leaders, in the US and elsewhere, were openly critical of the Buddhist for putting primary emphasis on a cease-fire rather than the nature and composition of a future government in South Vietnam. One peace periodical went so far as to attempt connecting the Buddhist movement in Vietnam to the American CIA. Representatives of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation were not invited to several huge international peace gatherings (see WIN magazine, 9/15/1972). There was even a time last year when a pacifist leader informed Nhat Hanh that his invitation to speak at a rally had been withdrawn because he was “politically unacceptable.”

So, while Buddhist monks and nuns and lay people were in prison cells and tiger cages for their peace struggle, they were being made unwelcome in the world peace movement. While a leader of relief and peace work lay dead in Vietnam because there was no room for him in an American Army hospital, the American peace movement has quietly closed its eyes to the existence of the movement Thich Tanh Van had shared in making.

Cause for depression indeed.

One day an American war resister came to the office with several Europeans. A discussion evolved as to whether the Buddhists’ emphasis on a ceasefire did not actually help the American war effort; this was the American’s view, and one currently shared by a number of peace movement leaders in the US and elsewhere. Justice must come before peace, he told the delegation staff. He spoke of American imperialism and the history of deceit in Vietnam, as if these facts were unknown to the delegation staff. A ceasefire, he said, would merely be used by the Americans as an opportunity to entrench themselves more deeply. “Lives will be saved in the long run,” he said with assurance, “only if those who struggle for Vietnamese liberation settle for nothing less than absolute, unconditional US military withdrawal.” (The Buddhists, though with dwindling support from peace groups, had consistently made a ceasefire their first priority, even though they called for US military withdrawal, an interim coalition government and completely free elections as well. The ceasefire came first because the most crucial demand of the people was the right to continue living.) The American could not understand what he viewed as Buddhist indifference to the priority of liberation. In effect, he offered the familiar advice of all warriors throughout history: The way to peace is more killing; it’s sad, but there Is no other way.

Nhat Hanh’s usual feather-light voice was astonishing in its anger. “When you say that, it shows that you do not understand human suffering, that you are alienated from the feelings of those who are dying.” He spoke passionately of the way in which “the warring parties had created a wall of violence in which the peasants were trapped, caught in an agony that was endless so long as both sides relied on the same means.”

The visitors listened hard, the war no longer simply an abstract meeting ground of incompatible ideologies. In the urgency and pain of Nhat Hanh’s voice was implicit the conviction that explains every thought and action of those in the Vietnamese pacifist struggle; that every life is infinitely precious, that no one is replaceable, that no one’s life should be seized and destroyed so that another, in some theoretical future, might be given some leader’s idea of a “better life.”

Nhat Hanh’s voice calmed and conversation resumed. The farewell at the door, when the visitors finally left, was nearly tearful. Different people left the office from those who had arrived.

During the weeks we were together, the sorrow that I had sensed in Nhat Hanh and Phuong began to lift. Not that there hadn’t been moments of peace and even happiness, as when I arrived, but a new current gradually returned. I began to notice It over our meals together.

We were talking about rice one day. Laura had mentioned the Vietnamese saying, “Only the rice loves you.” I wondered if perhaps it would be better to say, “Of all foods, only the rice loves you,” for people might think the Vietnamese despair of love from any other source. But even in saying those things, I realized the words had to be left alone, a gift for meditation.

We talked about the rice we were eating. It hadn’t come from the food market but from a pet store. It was on broken grains of rice, not whole, and less than half the usual price — a good saving in a household where nearly everyone has at six bowls of rice a day. But the man at the pet store was puzzled by these huge purchases from the Vietnamese. “How do the birds you feed eat so much?” the shop owner asked Phuong. She told us her reply: “Well, they are very big birds.”

We laughed. Then Nhat Hanh offered me another bowl of rice. I shook my head no. He opened his eyes extra wide and said, “Don’t you want the rice to love you?” What could I say? He took my bowl, filled it, and handed it back, saying, “Special delivery!”

That night he was quiet again. He brought a book over and opened it for Laura and me. It was a reproduction of an old Zen master’s painting. Very simple: a dead twisted branch coming in from one side, and out of it, a new and fragile limb, very thin and covered with blossoms. There was no need to know the meaning of the Chinese words, or any words. A Christian might say it was a way of showing the resurrection: life rising out of death. A simple painting of hope, hope as experience, as evident in the gospel of trees as it is in the gospels of words, all oration affirming, if we listen: There is no death.

I remember some words of Nhat Hanh’s that were in the introduction to his play, “The Path of Return Continues the Journey,” about the assassination of four of the School’s workers in 1967. It had been written soon after Nhat Chi Mai’s death, an event that must have shaken Nhat Hanh deeply. Out of that shaking came the play, and finally its introduction. I read it on the way to Chartres my third day in France. It ends:

“Love enables us to see things which those who are without love cannot see. Who will be gone and who will stay? Where do we come from and where shall we go? Are the other shore and this shore one or two? Is there a river that separates the two sides, a river which no boot can cross? Is such an absurdly complete separation possible? Please come over to my boat. I will show you that there Is a river, but there Is no separation. Do not hesitate: I will row the boat myself. You can join me in rowing, too, but let us row slowly, and very, very quietly.”

All the while I was gazing at the Zen painting of the branches. Nhat Hanh turned the page. No word had been spoken. This time there was a painting of a monkey with large eyes and a face that seemed, in its few brush strokes, full of expectation. There was an oval shape in the water, just beyond the monkey’s reach. The Chinese ideographs along side were translated in text at the bottom of the page:

The monkey is reaching for the moon In the water.
Until death overtakes him, he’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and disappear in the deep pool,
the whole world would shine with dazzling pureness.

I said to Nhat Hanh that it seemed to me that I had let go of the branch several times, and several times entered into dazzling pureness. That day, I think, Nhat Hanh had let go of the branch again; some new corner in his rebirth process had been turned. The seed had fallen into the ground, died, and now there was a bit of green breaking open the ground’s surface.

The next day Nhat Hanh asked if I would draw a picture for a new poem he had written. He gave me the English words:

Excitedly the sky gives birth to a new dusk.
The blue-eyed bird hops among crystal leaves.
Awakened from forgetfulness
my soul gives birth to a new dawn.
The lake of mind silently reflects a peaceful moon.

Nhat Hanh’s hand had certainly let go of the branch. There was a new momentum about him and in all of us. Perhaps Thich Tanh Van’s reincarnation was partly in ourselves.

The new sense of hope, of possibility, didn’t dilute, however, the painful words that came each day in envelopes from Vietnam. In particular there were detailed reports from the senior nun trying to help the refugees coming to Buddhist centers near Hue, fleeing U.S. obliteration bombing in Quang Tri province. B-52 raids were reducing towns and villages, and finally Quang Tri itself, to splinters. Those who were escaping did not dare go to Saigon-government refugee camps because these were often the target of attacks from the liberation army, which didn’t want the people to believe Saigon could offer them security even as refugees. But the Buddhist centers — schools, pagodas and monasteries — while being relatively safe from bomb and mortar attacks, had nothing to offer materially other than what could be begged door to door in the city.

One Sunday morning, another letter from the nun arrived — a desperate appeal. There were now 15,000 people, she said, 3,000 more than reported in the previous week’s letter. Still there was no rice and not even tins of condensed milk for the infants.

In the same mail was one other letter. It bore the return address of a large religious relief organization. The letter’s author, though expressing regret for the refugees’ difficulties, suggested that the problem be referred to another staff member. “Could you write so-and-so?” he wondered. In fact, the Delegation had written so-and-so weeks earlier it had been his suggestion to address the present correspondent.

“I am really angry,” Nhat Hanh said, “I am really angry.” His voice was quiet, but the words shook. He held the agency’s letter in his hand. On the floor were scattered photos that had come with the nun’s letter. There was a picture of the tents in which the refugees were staying; many others were of a mass funeral. The one that haunts me was of an old woman. She was wandering aimlessly, with a nun unobtrusively watching. One trouser leg was rolled up. Though the woman had lived her many decades in a modest culture, she had forgotten her shirt. Much of her hair was gone. All her relatives had been killed in the bombing, the nun had written on the back. Now, though in a refugee center, she was wandering with vacant eyes calling their names.

Before losing her sanity, she had stood for days in an underground shelter up to her chest in water as the earth shook continuously with the explosion of bombs.

Each day the mail seemed to bring a different range of news. Some days there was news of the draft resistance efforts in which the Buddhists were playing so decisive a part. Huge numbers of draft-age men and boys had been put in hiding; but with the letters of success came the painful news of arrests. When resisters were found in a family’s house, the whole family was arrested. Thousands were being arrested. Many were being tortured with needles hammered through fingers, electric shock applied to genitals and other acts that sometimes resulted in death.

Shortly before I left, another harsh blow was struck: the Saigon regime, whose president and many assistants are Catholic, had ordered the drafting of monks and novices between the ages of 18 and 43, a step never before taken. Pagodas and other Buddhist centers, the correspondents reported, had been surrounded by police in several areas, and the monks taken away at gunpoint. There was no further news of their fate, but it is likely that, as pacifists, they refused induction and were now paying the penalty, as the government must have predicted in advance. A new step In “Vietnamization.”

One day the mail brought a letter from a Vietnamese boy in Philadelphia. He had been brought to the US several years ago by a medical aid group. A number of operations were carried out to gradually rebuild his bomb-shattered mouth and jaw, but the group had recently dissolved in favor of “more relevant” political activities. Interest In the boy had waned. But he wrote not to complain of these things, or even to mention them (we knew these facts only because Laura had known him when she was working in Philadelphia), but to ask the Delegation if there was anything they could do to find his grandmother, or at least to discover whether she was still alive. He mentioned the name of the last village he thought she had been in, and the name of the village chief. His letter was signed with his name and, beneath that, “Hoa Binh.” The words, In Vietnamese, mean “peace.”

So it went. Each day was shaped by such letters. Events were never simply black type on newsprint or bits of film on television; they came to us in personal letters often sent at great risk. “Dear Thich Nhat Hanh” or “Dear Cao Ngoc Phuong,” they began. Or more often, “Dear Uncle” (or Sister, or Brother, or Master), for it would be dangerous to write actual names in case the letters were intercepted before leaving Vietnam.

So even though the depression of the first two weeks had lifted, and we were able to laugh with each other over meals and eat more bowls of “special delivery” rice, there were still nights when I watched tears slipping down the side of Phuong’s face as she lay under the window on the blankets, staring through the ceiling, Laura reaching out sometimes to touch her foot or hand.

One night, after a long day of work, we had only a candle for light. Laura played the guitar and sang ballads, all very quietly, almost like a wind-bell. Then she told a story about a bear that awoke from hibernation to find himself in a factory. “Once upon a time,” she began, “I think it was on a Thursday…” And we all lay on the floor in the dark, turned into children again.

I said at the beginning it is impossible to write of these recent weeks in a way that doesn’t brutalize their reality. My words and the experience are as different as witch hazel is from good French wine. As Nhat Hanh once said to a student in Texas who wanted suggestions for books to read on Zen, “It is better to look into the eyes of a Zen master than to read all the books.” There is no way to tell you about Nhat Hanh’s eyes, or his voice, or the touch of his hand, or the way he cuts vegetables or says “air mail!” with a big smile when he presents a fourth (completely unsolicited) bowl of rice. Nor can I tell you much about Phuong’s tears, or her face when she is listening to an anti-war visitor explain how the war must continue so that liberation can be assured, or the compelling voice with which she sings traditional Vietnamese songs, or what it is like to hear her describe how monks and nuns, wearing saffron ceremonial robes above their usual clothes, formed a double column as an escape channel for peasants caught between lines of fire. I can’t even say much about my American friend Laura, who is paid nothing but given a place to live and meals to share in, who is able to be there because of the help of family and friends and savings, and who sings in a way that seems to make the universe whole again despite the Humpty Dumpty falls our eyes have taken during the day.

So I will try to say no more, at least not here or now.

Coming back, it was hard readjusting to knives and forks. Chop sticks are a gentler way to eat. Knives and forks felt like artillery pieces afterward, and many meals tasted like gunpowder.

I hope some of the people who read this will at least send some money to the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation to help the refugees who have found themselves treated as political objects by everyone except the Buddhists. Surely some of us could not buy some things, not eat some meals, not pay some bills and with the money saved do something to keep a few Vietnamese alive. God knows we do enough to help them die.

(Posted with the request that the readers will drop me a note about typos that crept in due to scanning)

copyright by the author

* * *