Book Review: The Raft Is Not the Shore by Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan

It’s true. The same person whose last two book reviews were on Crazy Rich Asians and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, now presents you with her thoughts on … a conversation about political activism in the context of Buddhist-Christian awareness?!?


Did I mistakenly pick up this book thinking it would give me tips on adventure/survival skills? Nope. An ongoing conflict for me has been reconciling my political activism – specifically my rage against social injustice – with a spiritual practice. While I agree with the viewpoint that anger is an emotion that should be avoided due to its corrosive nature, I also strongly oppose the idea of being indifferent to the suffering of others. I hoped these conversations between two spiritual teachers would help me find an answer to this conundrum.

A note about the format. The book is comprised of the transcripts of recorded conversations between Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, and Daniel Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest that took place in 1974, around the end of the Vietnam war. The former was exiled for his actions against the war, while the other was imprisoned for the same. Usually I’m not fond of this format; however, the back-and-forth style conveys a sense of intimacy between these two, and is an excellent model for reasonable dialogue. Neither is lecturing, both are curious, and the respect is evident. The reasonableness in the tone of these two in discussing the very things you are not supposed to bring up at a dinner party – religion and politics – is an excellent example of how to hold valuable discourse.

In some areas the discussions got a little too out there and hippy-dippy for me. The first chapter is entitled “Memory, Eucharist, Death.” So yeah, once they start presenting thoughts on what Jesus really meant by “This is My flesh,” and what we are really ingesting, I tend to zone out. I’m a cultural Catholic, because…Filipino, but I just see it as a ritual. Like putting up a Christmas tree. The only satisfactory explanation I’ve heard for what the body of Christ “really” meant was in the book/movie Alive about the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes, and they resorted to cannibalism to survive. One of the survivors basically said “Hey, Jesus gave His body so we could have eternal life, and our friends who died in the crash gave us their bodies so we could live. [We should totally eat them.]” That seemed practical to me.

The book tackles a wide range of topics, and one of the more interesting ones was on self-immolation, something I knew little about other than to think “Dude, that’s intense.” But TNH throws out some ideas for the reader to mull over, which even if I didn’t completely buy, provided some information about the act and certainly added some nuance to my opinion. In the chapter entitled “Communities of Resistance,” Berrigan touches on a sense of Jesus being in constant movement and the concept of action, which is a message that resonates with me. I do spend time contemplating and reading about spiritual matters, but I prefer to keep my feet moving in spiritual action.

Ultimately, this book gave me much solace and confirmation that my passion for justice and my anger at certain political structures did not have to give way for spirituality; that neither necessarily excluded the other. As the Foreward states so well:

“At last I had a world where spirituality and politics could meet, where there was no separation. Indeed, in the world these two holy teachers described all efforts to end domination, to bring about peace and justice, are forms of spiritual practice.” — bell hooks

Earlier this year I attended a conference to learn effective strategies to address systemic racism. At times the work to be done seemed overwhelming, but many of us left hopeful as well. We were sent off with two words that best summed up the essence of this book and what a life in the pursuit of social justice feels like: Love and Struggle. I particularly like the idea of “And.” If you have a similar question or enjoy theological discussions or would like to know the payoff to the story that begins “A Vietnamese monk and a Jesuit priest meet in a Paris suburb…” then this is a must read.

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