An essay about race relations in Vermont.
This essay first appeared in Seven Days on 15 December 1999

I came to Vermont in 1969 for a lot of reasons. I’d saved some money and I wanted to take a year off to write. As a city boy, I had that eternal dream of going to the country, to the wilderness. I came here also because I believed in Black Power.

During the school years 1967 through 1969 I taught at an all Black college in Pennsylvania. It was the late 1960s: assassinations, revolutions in Africa, riots in the streets of America, ghettos on fire. One Christmas vacation, one of our students was shot to death by the police in Trenton, New Jersey, for nothing more than standing on the street. Another student, an African, spent that same Christmas vacation in Sweden buying ambulances and sub-machine guns for the revolution back home in what was then called Southwest Africa.

Here in America, Black Power was at its peak. As the Self-Appointed Chairman, at the college, of the White Folks Auxiliary of the Black Power Movement, I sincerely believed that the time of “Black and White Together” was over; each race had to go take care of its own. My job was to deal with my own racism and the racism of my people.

I also felt it was my duty to get my white face out of that Black school. I believed that sincerely, but my exit from that world was not, rest assured, pure altruism. I took seriously–I approved of!–the militants who shouted, “Move on over, Mutha’, or we gonna move on over you!” Such slogans seemed to me to be the only appropriate response to ubiquitous white power and calcified white privilege. Thus my move to Vermont occurred in a public as well as a personal context.

But how, I ask myself now with hindsight, could moving to the whitest state in America be a way to deal with racism?

When I first came here a T-shirt popular at that time said: VERMONT: THE WAY AMERICA USED TO BE. In other words: clean, wholesome, community oriented, small, rural and . . . white.

I also ask myself, again with hindsight, how many of us white people, people like me–recently or not so recently immigrated–came here because it was easier NOT to confront the racial conflicts inherent in American life? Here in this land of whiteness we could relax, live with less stress, not have to confront daily the tensions inherent in a more ethnically and racially diverse place. How many of us escaped here to live simpler, cleaner, whiter lives?

By running to this bastion of whiteness 30 years ago, I had become, willy-nilly and only half-consciously, a part of the opening salvo in what became known as White Flight.

All these years later, I am still asking myself how we can, here in Vermont, deal with the issues of race and ethnicity when we live in what, compared to the rest of America, is essentially a segregated society.

The answer is coming to live with us.

In less than 20 years the majority of United States citizens will be non-white. Already more than half the population of California is non-white. Yet we white Americans still go about our business acting as if we don’t know these simple and inevitable demographic facts. We white people have always been a tiny minority of the world’s population, but our imperialism and ethnocentricity let us forget that.

Now however America increasingly looks the way the world really looks. White America knows this, if only half-consciously, and that knowledge propels rampant fear, more and more white flight from our cities and many other forms of ethnic and racial tension and reaction all across the country. We all know our white world is changing color.

Vermont is changing too. Between 1980 and 1990 the absurdly small non-white population of Vermont doubled; it went from .5% to 1%. My guess is, between 1990 and 2000 the non-white population here will have at least doubled again.

At the same time that non-whites arrive here in increasing numbers, Vermont also becomes more and more a place for rich white people, and with that increase comes a gentrified and self-satisfied smugness that settles down over this place, a smugness that can come only from gobs of white privilege, the Hidin’ Out In Honky Heaven mentality, so to speak.

It is easy to be white, liberal-minded and politically correct, in this bucolic and essentially segregated place. However, as Vermont begins to REALLY look like the rest of America and the rest of the world, how will Vermonters react?

I fear there may be serious trouble ahead when white privilege collides with a growing non-white population. The liberality of Vermonters is yet to be tested, but that test, it seems to me, is just around the corner.

Crisis, however, is also opportunity. As Vermont becomes more and more non-white we will have the chance to admit that the way we have lived here in the past is not only odd, but seriously at odds with the rest of the world.

The new millennium will offer us the chance to open ourselves to a bigger, more diverse and colorful life.

We will have the chance to admit that the segregated life we have lived here in the past has limited us severely. It has hurt us and made us small.

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill:
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.


This essay was delivered as the Cum Laude Address at The Chestnut Hill School in Philadelphia on April 8, 1999. It includes two short essays, “Sticking up for Larry Doby” and “Incident in Boston” which originally aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

When Robert Fles wrote to me about the Cum Laude talk he said, “if we were to suggest a topic, it would most likely be along the lines of the role of art and writing in society, but we’re most interested in what you’re interested in.

” I want to do both. I want to demonstrate the role of art and writing in society by talking about one of the things that interests me, consumes me, the most. I want to talk about race.

This talk is called SYMPATHY because I try to write out of a basic sympathy for the human condition. I want to write passionately and compassionately about us. Whether I am writing about poor white folks in northern Vermont, as I did in JUDEVINE, or about black folks in America, I want to approach my subject with sympathy. Through writing I want to help us achieve deeper understanding.

I want to begin by reading two little essays I’ve written. Both of these essays have aired as commentaries on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” I’ve come to think of these short radio commentaries as a new literary form, sort of a prose sonnet: tight, compact, carefully controlled and developed in less than three minutes, a new kind of strict form. This first one, called STICKING UP FOR LARRY DOBY, is a memoir of sorts. It aired the day before the All Star Game in July of 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball.

As everybody knows by now, 50 years ago this year Jackie Robinson became the first black man to enter white baseball. This total focus in the white media on Robinson to the exclusion of all the other black baseball pioneers has something to do with The Great American obsession with The Best, The Greatest, The First. It’s as if, since Jackie Robinson was first, nobody else even exists, and I am afraid everyone is now going to spend this year remembering Jackie Robinson and in the process they are going to forget, or never even hear about, all those other black baseball pioneers who entered white baseball shortly after Jackie Robinson and who also suffered plenty. Something as momentous as the integration of baseball doesn’t happen because of one person; it happens because of many people, just as the civil rights movement didn’t happen just because Rosa Parks refused to move the back of the bus.

Therefore, I want to remember someone who was second and hope that he will stand for all those others who were in their own suffering ways also second. I want to remember Larry Doby, who joined The Cleveland Indians only 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson had joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Larry Doby the second black man in white baseball and the first black man in the American league.

I can’t remember 1947, but the summer of 1948, when I was eight years old, is as clear to me today as the view right now outside my window, because during that baseball summer I acquired my first childhood idol, and the object of my adoration was the man who played center field for the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians, a 23 year old black man whose name was Larry Doby.

I don’t know why my first childhood hero was a black man. Maybe it was because I knew that Larry Doby was an underdog . . . like me, a painfully shy, skinny, good-at-nothing, ignored-by-everyone little kid from the streets of a working class neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. My father, who never made it past the seventh grade and who knew that he too was an underdog, said to me, again and again, “Stick up for the little guy, Bud.”

I knew nothing at the age of eight of the brutal details of racism in America, but I knew how I too often felt and I too often felt invisible. I knew how it felt no matter what I did never to be seen for who I really was. And therefore, when my friends talked about “that nigger Larry Doby” or their fathers said “If that black bastard strikes out one more time I’m gonna kill him!” I seethed with an almost uncontrollable rage, because Larry Doby stood for me, and I wanted to stick up for him, but I was too little and too shy.

One Sunday in February 1997 The New York Times ran an article about Larry Doby. He was 73 years old then. There was a picture. He gazes quietly at the camera, his right hand folded gently against his face, his forefinger extending up toward his round, bald head, a gentle, almost-smile in his eyes and on his mouth.

I looked into his face and I remembered that skinny, little white boy and his first real hero, a black man, and because I’m not little or shy anymore, I wanted to do what I couldn’t do back then; I wanted to stick up for Larry Doby, because in the summer of 1948, Larry Doby began to help me understand what it means to be invisible. He also taught me something about courage, perseverance and grace. Because of Larry Doby, I began to love and identify ever more strongly with the underdog, the little guy, and as my love increased so did my indignation and my rage and grief.

– – – – –
This second commentary more of a very short story and is called INCIDENT IN BOSTON.

Not long ago I was walking along the street in Boston when down a side street came an old man in a wheel-chair rolling right down the middle of the street and into three lanes of on-rushing traffic on Huntington Avenue.

Suddenly cars were swerving everywhere, horns blaring, tires squealing and drivers trying to weave around the old man and his wheel-chair so they could get going. I knew I should go after him, but, for some reason, I didn’t. I stood there and watched.

Then an old car with a bad muffler pulled out of the snarl of cars and to the curb and a young man hopped out and boldly walked into the traffic and up to the old man. The young man was wearing a knit cap and a sports sweatshirt of some kind and hugely baggy jeans and high topped sneakers. He took hold of the old man and his chair and gently wheeled him back toward the curb, then tilted the chair up and onto the sidewalk. He bent over the old man and said something to him. The old man nodded his head. The young man patted the old man’s shoulder and moved away toward his car.

Then the young man turned and looked straight at me and shouted, “Why didn’t you help him! What’s the matter with you! Why didn’t you help him!” I wanted to apologize, tell him I meant to, but it was too late; the young man was already in his car and driving away.

As I continued down Huntington Avenue that day feeling embarrassed and ashamed, I thought about that young man, that young black man, driving along talking to himself about how self-centered, indifferent and cold white people are.

And I also thought about how many white people would step away in fear, cross the street, if they saw that young black man coming down the sidewalk toward them, how they would step away from this Good Samaritan, this young black man who put himself at risk, who acted with compassion and was, in that moment, something I was not, a credit to his race–the human race.

– – – – –
I am working on a new book with the working title of DIFFERENT AS BLACK AND WHITE. The book will be a series of interviews with black friends about race relations in America. I want to turn now to this work in progress and read some excerpts from an interview WTM Johnson who lived not far from here in Glen Mills. Bill Johnson spent his life as a research chemist in private industry and later at the University of Pennsylvania and as a teacher at Lincoln University. In 1949, Bill Johnson was the first black chemist ever hired by the Dupont Chemical Company. Bill died of cancer a couple of months ago at the age of .

Bill Johnson’s life was a challenge to, a rebellion against the status quo. He stands solidly in the tradition of great American individualists who are willing to confront anyone, challenge anything for the sake of what they believe to be the truth. This attitude toward the world is, in Bill Johnson, absolutely consistent whether the subject is science, education, civil rights or politics.

Here are some excerpts from my interview with Bill.

“The poor people in this country for a long time to come are going to be Black people, because of the unchangeability of our skin color. I can’t understand why white people can’t see this. They continue to say, well, my parents came over here, they were immigrants, they couldn’t speak the language and all this stuff and they got along all right, why can’t you do it? Lady, can you change the color of my skin? Can you change my hair?

“And it’s also a matter of what color of the skin. One of the reasons that I’ve been as lucky as I’ve been is the color of my skin. If I were as dark as my grandfather, my problems and difficulties would multiply, which is a tragedy. Look at the clothing catalogues. The Black people in there they look damn near white. Black people know that. They notice that.

“I was going to tell you about some of my Army experiences in the Second World War. After I finished basic training in Georgia, I got my orders to go to Atlanta. I went to the big train station there and I noticed a whole group of German prisoners sitting in there under guard, so I just got in the line to convert my orders into a ticket. Pretty soon two MPs (Military Police) came over to me and asked to see my orders. I showed them my orders; and they said you’ll have to get over in this colored waiting room, so they marched me from there to the colored waiting room and here are these prisoners of war, the enemies we are fighting against, just sitting in this train station! Most white people have no idea how much racism Black people have suffered and how much anger there is in me.

“I can also remember something else. We were in Camp Swift, Texas. I think this may have been just after the war ended. We were a battalion, a Black battalion and two white battalions making up a regiment. And I can recall that one day they notified us that we were going to have a regimental track meet and that we were invited to participate. We heard about it that morning and the track meet was that day, so anyway we went out there–I was just a spectator–and we got there and we saw all these white guys runnin’ around out there in track suits and track shoes and our guys, some of them had to run in their army boots, just stripped down to their underwear, no equipment, nothing.

“They had two prizes, a company and a battalion prize. We won ‘em both. Our boys beat the shit out of ‘em. And do you know what does it? What drives you? Anger at the damn racism. That’s what drives you. Anger at racism. It was just two awards, a company award–we won that–and a battalion award–we won that. Our guys had fierce feeling. Those other guys were competing. We were protesting. Protesting against the goddamned racism that had blighted every life, had twisted our sense of loyalty to our country.

“I’ve had white people tell me, well, you’re educated and successful, you’re not bitter. I said, what do you mean I’m not bitter? I said, you have no idea how bitter I am. They want me to take all this abuse and not be bitter? Goddamnit, I am bitter. I’m angry. They have no idea of the depth of anger in me.

“I’m talkin’ about racism. We Black people live in a different world. Some of my friends, my white friends, the sensitive ones, know that and they don’t try to pretend it isn’t that way. But a lot of white people think that when a Black person has a decent job and all that, like me, that I’m one of them. Huhuh. No. I’m not one of them. Not at all. I come from a different planet. I’ve seen things and felt things and suffered things . . . they have no idea.

“This one white guy once, I guess he thought he was being nice, he says something like, I was glad that this happened for your race. Well, Goddamn, I thought I was a member the human race. There’s always that gap there, always that difference.

“At the University of Pennsylvania I’ve had people say, and I’ve heard this broadly, especially among young white people, well, I didn’t institute slavery, I didn’t deny employment to Blacks, I didn’t do these things, so why should you charge me with it? My answer is: you’re absolutely right, you didn’t do these things, and that’s a position that you have a right to take. But /fortunately for humanity there have always been a few people who assumed the responsibility for taking action, for putting themselves at risk to remedy injustices. /The only progress we have ever made toward a decent society, a decent world, has come from people who, although not compelled to do so, took the responsibility to make a fight for justice, to say yes, I have a responsibility to fix it, maybe I didn’t directly cause this problem, but I have a responsibility to try to remedy it. That’s my responsibility as a human being. We have an ethical responsibility to fight for justice.

“We didn’t contribute directly to building all the just aspects of the society either; we didn’t contribute directly to the creation of freedom of speech that we now enjoy, but we do have a responsibility to build on it, we have a responsibility to use our freedom and to fight not only for Black people but for women, homosexuals, justice for every other minority. The only sound basis for a good society is no discrimination at all, overt, covert, of any kind, against anybody. We’ve got to try to take care of every human being.”

– – – – –
Let me end where I began. For me important writing grows out of a sympathy, a passion and compassion for our human condition. Through writing I want to help us all achieve deeper understanding which I believe will lead to greater sympathy. This is the most important function for writing in society.

By way of ending, I want read a poem by one of the greatest poets America has ever produced, not one of the greatest African-American poets, one of the greatest poets: Paul Lawrence Dunbar, who was born in 1872 and died in 1906–a short life: 34 years. The poem is called:

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals–
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting–
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings–
I know why the caged bird sings!

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill:
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.



What white people and white privilege can learn from the overwhelming support for President Clinton during his Impeachment trial among Black Americans. First appeared in The Judevine Mountain Emailite #6, January 21, 1999

Why is it a large majority of Black Americans support The President in his Impeachment battle and what can we white Americans learn from this overwhelming support?


It is this particular vantage point: OUTSIDE, that qualifies Black Americans to see what goes on in America in a way almost all white Americans cannot. So when you hear some young white, male college student talking on the radio or Ken Starr and his cronies going on and on about “the rule of law,” understand that it is a question of WHOSE rule of law.

Black Americans know that the rule of law used to say that slavery was just fine and only two generations ago the rule of law prevented them from drinking at certain water fountains or sitting in the front of the bus. So much for the sanctimonious old white guy appeal to “the rule of law.” THE RULE OF LAW DEPENDS ON WHO YOU ARE AND WHO IS AFTER YOU.

Which is why, On Sunday December 13th at a newsstand in Canton, Ohio, when asked about what he thought of the attempt to impeach the President, Jack Mayle, a retired steel worker said, “It’s wrong. I’m an African-American and I recognize a lynch mob when I see it.”

It’s why when Noah Adams asked Dubra Lazard on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED recently: “What about the issue of perjury? As you know there are people in prison right now on charges of perjury,” it is why Dubra Lazard replied: “Yes, and they had to dig like ferrets in order to find enough people who were actually serving time for perjury in order to parade them before . . . the American people . . . . If you think about the O.J. Simpson case with the police officer [Mark Furman] who lied over and over and over. . . . He’s not serving any time for perjury; it was a big deal about his perjury and for some reason he could not be tried for the perjury.”

Proving yet again that we white folks had better listen when our Black brothers and sisters break it down for us, because they understand how the white world works–they know from painful personal experience about the essence and the mechanics of “the rule of law” in America–far better than we in our white privilege ever have or ever will.

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill:
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.


A little essay to try to counteract the hypocrisy afoot in the land regarding The President’s Sin.

First appeared in The Judevine Mountain Emailite #5, January 18, 1999

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel THE SCARLET LETTER is everywhere these days. You remember the story. Hester Prynne bears a child fathered by someone other than her husband and, as condemnation for her sin, is forced to wear the red letter A as a symbol of her adultery and shame.

Now the Republicans in the House of Representatives have said The President has to wear the scarlet letter also, for he must be punished for his sin and for lying about his sin. They argue there cannot be a double standard for justice, one for the president, one for the rest of us.

There also cannot be a double standard for honesty. We cannot insist the President tell all while the rest of us cower, hoping–as Henry Hyde and Bob Livingston did–that our own adulteries will not be discovered. We have absolutely no legal or moral right to know what we know about the President’s private life, but since Ken Starr, Linda Tripp and the Morality Police have forced all this on us, the only way out of this devious, hypocritical mess is for all of us to come clean now.

So, if you have had sexual intercourse, the President’s definition, with someone other than your wife or husband while you were married, or if you have had sex by the definition Ken Starr prefers, whatever that is, or if you have committed what Jimmy Carter, and Jesus, called “adultery in your heart,” by lusting after someone other than your spouse, then you too must confess. For the sake of our country. In the name of honesty. It’s only fair.

Let me begin. I have been married for 32 years. I am guilty of adultery by at least one of these three definitions. Any more than that I won’t say. We do not need to go into the lurid details Ken Starr lusts after. We can be discrete about this, but, in the name of what is right and just, we MUST do this.

Therefore, with this confession I join the President and put on my scarlet letter. I cut mine out of cardboard, painted it red and duct taped a safety pin to the back. Make yours any way you want, but join me, please. For the sake of honesty and unity, all of us who are guilty must step forward. And I mean ALL of us. I assume Henry Hyde and Bob Livingston will put on their scarlet letters, and I hope those in the media will do so as well. Think how nice the scarlet letter will look on Sam Donaldson’s black camel hair coat as he stands out in front of the White House or on Cokie Roberts’ blouse pinned there just above her left breast. I mean, of course, if they are guilty.

So, please, put on your scarlet letter, let it say that you too are fed up with this divisive, sanctimonious, self-righteous finger pointing.

If the President has to wear his scarlet letter, then so must we. Put on your scarlet letter. Let’s see how many scarlet letters there will be.

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from David Budbill:
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.


This essay about the tension between activism and the reclusive life first appeared in the January 1999 issue of Shambhala Sun and subsequently in a very condensed version the July/August 1999 issue of Utne Reader

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Matthew 6:6

When I was a boy growing up in the Methodist church in Ohio I remember hearing again and again that passage from Matthew. Even as a child I knew going into your room meant withdrawal, a place away from the world, a place where, even though as a boy I didn’t know these terms, one might enter into a state of meditation or contemplation. Thus prayer, and by inference religion itself, had some important things to say about removing oneself from the world in order to see the world and the self and God more clearly.

At the same time that this message came through to me, I was growing up in a family where my maternal grandparents had spent time in Africa as missionaries, and upon their return to America had taken a church in the heart of downtown Cleveland, in what came to be known later as “the inner city.” My grandfather was an exponent of Walter Rauchenbush’s “Social Gospel.” My grandmother was a medical doctor who ministered to the men in Cleveland’s factories and to the needs of their wives and children.

Thus I grew up understanding that the religious urge had, among other things such as the moral strictures requiring that I not play cards or go to movies on Sundays and in general be a “good boy,” the religious urge had a dual purpose: on the one hand withdrawal from the world for prayer, and hopefully enlightenment, and on the other hand engagement with the world in order to join in the battle for truth and justice and so forth.

As a child and young man my efforts at contemplative prayer were manifested for the most part by spending about half my life fishing. By the time I was in college my social conscience was fairly well developed and I was involved in political causes of various kinds. Looking back now over thirty years, one particular involvement comes to mind, because in it, it seems to me now from this perspective, lay the kind of naive goodwill that would later be dashed, as all naiveté must always be dashed, and lead to a crisis in my understanding of religion’s dual purpose: engagement and withdrawal.

It was 1961 and I was 21 and the leader of my college’s delegation to The National Turn Toward Peace Movement, a nationwide effort organized by college students to urge President Kennedy not to resume nuclear testing. There were thousands of students in Washington out in front of The White House, and students in front of every State House across America. You may remember this event. It’s the one where John Kennedy, seeing the demonstrators out in the November cold, had coffee and doughnuts sent out to them. A shrewd political move no doubt but one also from some other age.

I led a contingent to the State House in Columbus, Ohio. I remember my sign. It said: NO NUCLEAR TESTING. END POVERTY, HUNGER AND DISEASE. It was as if since tens of thousands of college students were getting together for the weekend to stop nuclear tests, we might as well get more done than that, we might as well, while we were organized and at it, also end poverty, hunger and disease.

The assassination of John Kennedy in 1963 began a descent out of that kind of naiveté for many people my age which I think continues to this day. Nevertheless, over the years that followed I worked as a street gang worker in Cleveland and Hoboken and was engaged in various ways in both the civil rights movement and the protests against the war in Vietnam.

Then from 1967 to 1969 my wife and I went to work at Lincoln University, an all Black college in southeastern Pennsylvania. Living as a part of a small minority of white folks in a predominately Black world two years after the Watts rebellion and the assassination of Malcom X and at the height of the Black Power movement was an experience that let me see the depths of racism in America, and see also white America’s recalcitrant unwillingness to do anything about that racism, that radicalized me for the rest of my life. During this time also, you will remember, the war in Vietnam increasingly disrupted American life as no war since The Civil War has done. Then it was 1968 and Martin Luther King was killed, then Bobby Kennedy and less than two months after that the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

That August as the streets of Chicago smelled of tear gas and blood from the cracked heads of demonstrators and all of America watched on TV as Abraham Ribicoff castigated Mayor Daily for his Gestapo police tactics and Daily responded, his hand cupped to his mouth, soundlessly, yet very clearly for all to see: “You motherfucker!”, it seemed to me that America had fallen into a state of total anarchy. I was done with anything political and ready for complete withdrawal, retreat into something smaller, more personal, and I wanted to get as far away from the center of America both physically and spiritually as I possibly could. Therefore, coming to the mountains–the mountains, the forest, the desert: the wilderness: all traditional places for retreat and withdrawal–seemed like a logical step. We came to northern Vermont to homestead, to start a new life, to escape a totally disintegrated society.

We had had our naiveté beaten out of us, but not our vanity, and we imagined we might not only start our lives all over again but perhaps even America all over again also. I went to work in the woods with my neighbors. My wife got elected to the local library committee, I got elected to the local school board.

By the time I moved to Vermont I was reading Lao Tzu’s TAO TE CHING. This tiny book of eighty little chapters half of which are about the way to personal enlightenment, the other half concerned with a vision of what the good society should be, became as important to me on a daily basis as The Bible had been to my parents and grand parents. My political activism transformed itself from trying to end all poverty, hunger and disease in a single weekend to trying to get the 4th grade teacher in one tiny elementary school in the mountains of northern Vermont to stop making kids sit in their chairs until they peed in their pants. There is a moral in this story, in this progress from the general to the specific. Any writer or Taoist can tell you what that moral is.

At about this time I discovered a book by Thomas Merton, who also, by the way, died in 1968, called THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT, a collection of Merton’s translations of the sayings of the 4th century hermit/monks who populated the deserts of Egypt, Arabia and Persia and who have come to be known as The Desert Fathers. In Merton’s Introduction to that book he says these men, who were the first Christian hermits, abandoned the cities of the pagan world to live in solitude because they saw society as corrupt beyond repair. They believed that to “drift along, passively accepting the tenets of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.” They regarded the society of their time “as a shipwreck from which each single individual . . . had to swim for his life.” They were, in other words, genuine anarchists “who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state.” They went into the desert, the wilderness, into solitude, in order to become mature in faith, which means, as Merton puts it “humble and detached from [the self], to a degree that is altogether terrible.”

“The Desert Father . . . could not risk attachment to his own ego, or the dangerous ecstasy of self-will. He could not retain the slightest identification with his superficial, transient, self-constructed self. He had to lose himself in the inner, hidden reality of a self that was transcendent, mysterious, half-known and lost in Christ.” The end of all this striving was “purity of heart”–a clear unobstructed vision of the true state of affairs [and] an intuitive grasp of one’s own inner reality as anchored, or rather lost, in God through Christ. The fruit of this effort was quies: rest . . . . The rest which these men sought was simply the sanity and poise of a being that no longer has to look at itself” because the self, in a real sense, is gone; it has become self-transcendent.

In order to achieve this selflessness the hermit had to abjure all pretension, all self importance–“a detachment from [the self], to a degree that is altogether terrible”–all artifice of any kind, including literary artifice. He had to become plain and simple and common, a common man among common men. In doing this, in leaving the world to save one’s self, one ends up helping to save the world by transcending the superficial, transient, self-constructed self and thus being able to see beyond the self and into selflessness, into what various eastern religions would call The Universal Soul, The One, The Tao, and what these Desert Fathers called “The Mystical Body of Christ.”

Well, words to strive for if not to live by. My own engagement with the world, the constant shuck and jive and hustle for money, the struggles of ambition and career and the conflicts of jealousy and resentment, anger and bitterness that always accompany such struggles, in other words, the dark and dreck, the sturm und drang of everyday life, leave me personally a lot further from the visionary insightfulness of quies than I would like to be.

I’ve been haunted by these ideas of Merton’s, however, ever since I first confronted them more than 20 years ago, and haunted by the questions inherent in what this kind of withdrawal into the self in order to escape the self in order to achieve selflessness has to do with anything, how it can be applied to the general good, to the active, engaged Social Gospel my grandfather believed in. In other words, even if I could achieve the selflessness of quies what earthly good would it do anyone beyond myself?

The answer is simple: the self who knows selflessness is better able to see “the true state of affairs,” as Merton puts it, and thus better able to step beyond the self and be helpful.

But. We are all so stuck in the practicality of our all American pragmatism, our can-do optimism–or at least we were. As Merton says in another of his books, a collection of essays called CONTEMPLATION IN A WORLD OF ACTION, “Let us start from one admitted fact: if prayer, meditation and contemplation were once taken for granted as central realities of human life everywhere, they are so no longer. They are regarded, even by believers, as somehow marginal and secondary: what counts is getting things done.” It’s true. How then does the contemplative, the one in withdrawal, in the wilderness, relate his or her efforts at insight in the quiet mountains to a world interested only in action and results?

Last year I read a wonderful book by Bill Porter called ROAD TO HEAVEN: ENCOUNTERS WITH CHINESE HERMITS. Porter had heard that there were still Taoist hermits living in the mountains of northern China. He began his search and everywhere he went people told him that there were none left, that the Cultural Revolution had wiped them out completely. Porter persisted and finally found someone who said, “Of course there are still hermits in China . . . .But when you meet them, you won’t know them. You won’t find them, unless they want to be found.” Slowly he discovered them–or they him–dozens of hermits, both men and women, living alone in huts and caves and sometimes in small groups scattered everywhere in the mountains. ROAD TO HEAVEN is mostly interviews with these hermits. These contemplatives and recluses share with the Desert Fathers and with all other hermits throughout the ages, I believe, the same qualities of simplicity, straightforwardness, lack of artifice, common sense, good will, ordinariness and delightful good humor.

I’ll quote at random from some of the interviews.

“Jen: Taoism teaches us to reduce our desires and to lead quiet lives. People willing to reduce their desires or cultivate tranquillity in this modern age are very few. This is the age of desire. Also, people learn much more slowly now. Their minds aren’t simple. They’re too complicated.”

“Hsieh: Lao-Tzu said to cultivate tranquillity and detachment. To be natural. To be natural means not to force things. When you are natural, you get what you need. But to know what’s natural, you have to cultivate tranquillity.” I think I can see the monk who said this laughing. I also note he says “get what you need” not what you want.

“Hsueh: You can’t be in a hurry. You have to be prepared to devote your whole life to your practice. This is what’s meant by religion. It’s not a matter of spending money. You have to spend your life. Not many people are willing to do this.”

“Q: What sutras do you study?
Kuo-shan: I can’t read. I never went to school. I just meditate.”

“Q: What sort of practice do you follow? Do you chant the name of the Buddha or meditate?
Chi-ch’eng: I just pass the time.”

“Hui-yuan: No I don’t plan to go down the mountain again. First I’m too lazy. Second, I’m too ill. I can’t walk so far anymore. I don’t want to go anywhere. I just eat and sleep and sit here all day.”

“Ch’en: What I’m telling you comes from my own understanding, not from books. People lose the Tao when they try to find it.”

In the early pages of ROAD TO HEAVEN, Bill Porter quotes an article on shamanism by Mircea Eliade saying that in central and northern regions of Asia the religious life of the people used to center around the shaman. The shaman in an ecstatic trance “leaves his body, passes through a series of heavens, and communicates with all manner of spirits, seeking and gaining knowledge for the welfare of his community. By providing a link with the spiritual world and bringing back knowledge gained there he defends his society against darkness. But at the same time, he lives apart from the society he protects.” When I read that my head almost flew off, not because the shaman leaves his body and passes from heaven to heaven gaining knowledge and talking to spirits, but because these people who believe in this shaman see this hermit/recluse as someone who actually seeks and gains knowledge for “the welfare of his community.” The shaman is a defender of his society against darkness; he is actually the protector of the society he doesn’t live within! Imagine such a society where hermits, recluses, the contemplative, is valued and supported as an important member of that society.

Porter also points out that throughout Chinese history there has been a dialectic between public service and withdrawal, between the hermit and the activist. “Seclusion and public service were seen as the dark and light of the moon, inseparable and complementary.” Yin and Yang. “Hermits and officials were often the same people at different times of their lives. And officials who never experienced tranquillity and concentration of spirit in pursuits other than fame or fortune were not esteemed in China.” Perhaps the most famous example of this way of life is Wang Wei, the T’ang poet and painter, who, after a distinguished life as a public official, became a hermit and a Taoist of the most extreme order.

The aim of this dialectic between public service and withdrawal was always the application of the principles of the Tao in personal and societal, that is, in human, affairs. Thus the TAO TE CHING speaks to both the individual and the community. In other words, the conflicting pulls I have felt throughout my life between “getting things done,” as Merton puts it, and the urge to withdraw, between ending poverty, hunger and disease in a weekend and going into my room and shutting the door to pray have in some societies from time to time been seen not as contradictory but complimentary.

Such a blending of Yin and Yang, the dark and the light, the active and the passive in one’s life, if not to be achieved, is a goal at least to be reached for. For me in recent years it has meant time alone in the mountains in silence, time reading THE TAO TE CHING, time walking, and it has meant involvement with the Vermont Community Loan Fund, a group that helps finance low income, perpetually affordable housing. I can take you to a Single Room Occupancy in Burlington’s north end where 45 formerly homeless men have a place to live or to a renovated house on St. Paul’s Street where a mother and a father and three kids live in a first floor apartment and not on the street. No end to poverty, hunger and disease here. These are modest achievements to be sure, simple and concrete but better than the street.

Yet this back and forth between the hermit and the activist, the dark and the light, the active and the passive, in this ancient Chinese tradition still seems in some way so American, so practical and utilitarian, and I suspect in most people’s minds, and perhaps in my own, the activism justifies the withdrawal and therefore clearly indicates that the withdrawal is not as important as the activism. Do you go into your room to pray only in order to come out again and “get things done”? Thus, after these twenty years, I am still haunted by the radical nature of the Desert Father’s withdrawal or by Eliade’s comments that the shaman by virtue of his reclusion actually “defends his society from darkness,” actually protects the society he doesn’t live within.

To see the hermit and the activist as different parts of the same person’s movement back and forth from Yin to Yang should be easy for well intentioned Americans with some sense of public good to comprehend. But to see the hermit as an activist, his or her withdrawal and passivity as activity, requires in our time a leap of mind and faith altogether radical.

What if it isn’t necessary for the hermit and the activist to be the same person? What if the hermit in the mountains who lives his or her life entirely alone doing nothing but “passing the time” and the activist who is “in the world” at work “getting things done” . . . what if both these totally separate, different and opposing people are actually the same person, actually unified, at one, in the Mystical Body of Christ, The Universal Soul, The Tao, The One?

My own reading and contemplation over the years has convinced me that there must be a place for the life of the total recluse, the hermit who gets nothing done. The notion of this kind of total withdrawal is unappreciated, even hated, by Americans. We as a people are still too empirical, too practical. We need to work our way toward an understanding that these kinds of contemplatives, even though we never see them and they never “do” anything at all, can become the defenders of the society in which they don’t live, the guardian’s and protector’s of the public good. This is a very old idea, so old in fact that it is new.

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
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