The Raft Is Not the Shore is a profound and inspired exchange between a gentle Buddhist monk and teacher from Vietnam Nhat Hanh and a Christian dissident Daniel Berrigan, originally published in the 1970s, but, sadly in many ways, striking in its relevance to the current international crisis in the Middle East. Unlike a mere theological conference, where matters revolve around "conceptual" issues, pedantic scripture exegesis and other superficial attributes of "knowing the way," Nhat Hanh and Berrigan's dialogue is a true sharing of religious experiences and personal insights that invites the reader to "be on the way". Akin to the saints whose greatness both admire, their own lives serve as a moving example of containing the Good in the very movement to it.
Revolving around many of the issues related to the Vietnam War and how it affected religious life in both Vietnam and America, the book focuses on such eternal dilemmas as the meaning of life and death, retaining wholeness in the face of living in modern society, and the role of a religious person in the world, as well as discusses resistance to violence, dogma and conformity. It offers a unique exchange of perspectives on suffering and spiritual life, which, in the true spirit of ecumenism, affirm that faith is ultimately in the heart and that peaceful meditation and listening to each others' stories of suffering is a viable alternative to national strife and terrorism.
Both authors believe that no doctrine, whether religious or philosophical, should be treated as the absolute truth, but rather serve only as a guiding means for developing awareness, tranquility and opening one's heart to others. They see organized religion as an institution parallel to society and oftentimes as bankrupt, complacent and antihuman as to make an individual's true spiritual quest by necessity one of perpetual resistance. Since both Nhat Hahn and Berrigan attempted mediating between Israelis and Palestinians without taking sides, they bring a freshly unbiased and much needed perspective on how to prevent the nation states from "protecting" the well-being of their citizens through sacrificing the lives of these very citizens. The book is full of memorable stories from the Diamond, Lotus and Heart Sutras, the Bible, contemporary life of Vietnamese monks and nuns, and religious communities of resistance in the United States. One of them relates the curious rites to which the Le Dynasty emperors in Vietnam were bound in times of major national disasters: since it was believed that emperors caused calamities by not having pure enough hearts, they were expected to confess their sins publicly, eat vegetarian meals and sleep on a mat for a while, to atone for their misguided leadership. Would it be a gross misunderestimation not to expect the same from a Texas rancher?
Written over 25 years ago, this book is so fresh it's scary. Their discussion of the situation in the middle east offers a much needed window on the spiritual dimensions of the problem of believing that violence ever ultimately solves anything. I would recommend this book to anyone seeking spiritual guidance and salve during this difficult time after the World Trade Center attack. Nhat Hahn is very task oriented, Berrigan very heart oriented, a great mix. It is a true ecumenical dialog, which enlightens.