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The Monk in the Sycamore Tree

Shanghai and Beijing have enviable expatriate communities; many long term residents of China from other countries live, and foster social connections across cultural boundaries. Unless you are an young, resilient, party animal or a consular type, Guangzhou, with a few exceptions, can feel  uncomfortably transient and fragmented. That is why many have told me they hope for Web Wednesday to build on its first successful meeting of Chinese and Foreign Internet professionals.

That is all to say that a visit from an old friend, especially a gentle , deep-thinking one who always breaks up the unceasing rhythms of this hurried, harried immigrant workshop town for me. when he is around I happily feel cobwebs clearing on internal scaffolds of old dreams and aspirations.

He he is a Buddhist monk, 小双 (Xiao Shuang) who goes by the English name of Zachias. Zachias was the Tax Collector described in Christian literature as the man who climbed a sycamore tree in order to get a better view of Jesus Christ. 小双 actually chose his name after hearing a lecture of mine on Trappist/Benedictine monk and prolific writer Thomas Merton. I was talking about Merton’s last journey  before his death. He traveled to Tibet to meet the Dalai Lama in his quest to discover the true waters of religious thought he believed flowed from mainsprings the east. Merton had given his lifer to solitude believing that the distractions of the secular prevented a clear view of the spiritual. But, at that point in his life he also thought that the notion of complete segregation as practiced in his monastery created an illusion of holiness. Holiness is something in the distance and one rises above the crowd to witness it, to be guided by it, not to achieve it.

Writer Edward Rice would later call Merton, in a book by the same name, The Man in the Sycamore Tree.  Xiao Shuang aspires to be like Merton who is thought to have been a reincarnation of the Buddha by many Tibetan and Indian practitioners: He aspires to be a seeker of truth, not a symbol of reverence. And I aspire to adequately chronicle our talks of 25 years just as Rice did with his beloved friend Merton. In our two and a half decades of campanionship and cooperative learning we have never once argued. We have talked about everything from existential phenomenology to our mutual love for the Chicago Cubs.

Today we spoke of the Russian decision to commit troops to combat during the Olympics and actions of an American zealot in China for what has been called a “pseudo-guerrilla protest” on behalf of Tibetan Independence.

On both the conflict in Georgia and the missionary known as “iamgadfly”  he quoted Merton:

“While non-violence is regarded as somehow sinister, vicious, and evil, violence has manifold acceptable forms in which it is not only tolerated, but approved by American society.”

He viewed, as do I, both acts as unacceptable and violent: Russia violated a long-held moratorium against violence during the games; imagadfly purportedly was “giving a voice to the voiceless” when he vandalized upscale hotel rooms in Beijing, covered the walls in pro-independence slogans.

Zachias holds that a few obscure slogans in a hotel room, even broadcast on Youtube, could do nothing more than raise some angry voices in a country that recently received hundreds of hours of approved television instruction in Tibetan culture following the recent riots.  Ifimagadfly thought the Tibetans could not be heard before, he should imagine the din and roar resulting from his actions. Merton believed that the prayers issuing from his Abbey were powerful enough to effect world change. Zachias and I tend to believe, like CS Lewis, that prayer has more influence over the petitioner than the petitioned. At the risk of sounding opposed to human rights protests, we are both sure, and think Merton would agree, that delivering supplications to a deity as you commit a crime in a foreign country is unlikely to create a spiritual  butterfly effect for Tibet.

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4 responses so far

4 Responses to “The Monk in the Sycamore Tree”

  1. Chris Carron Aug 14th 2008 at 9:45 pm


  2. Philon Aug 20th 2008 at 6:26 am

    Great, another “shut up and take it” piece.
    I’m no conspiracy theorist. I’m sure you’ve come to your conclusions independently, and you’re not a government stooge. I’m also no activist myself, always feel a bit out of place in a march.
    But you are wrong. The publicity seekers are right. Why does the Falun Gong ban go on being ignored? Because FG have never run a decent English language publicity campaign. Why is the Xinjiang issue completely unknown to most westerners? Because they haven’t got the message out.
    Even if this gadfly is an objectionable idiot (and I’d never heard of him before today, so I have no opinion on the matter), he’s still right to keep churning out the stunts. Governments ignore the stuff they’re not being pressured about. Tibet is a safer place for monks, protesters and lamaists so long as international eyes are upon it, because China wants to be part of the international community, and is nowhere near strong enough to resist international pressure (the USA isn’t strong enough to resist sustained international criticism for long – no-one is).
    If you really care about Tibet more than niceness or politeness or cuddliness, then you shouldn’t criticise the campaigners who are actually making a difference.

  3. adminon Aug 22nd 2008 at 8:38 am

    You cannot be serious….Trashing a hotel room with no relationship to the issues at hand is childish and reserved for pampered rock stars, not activists….He could have spent the money flying over to become a web 2.0 sensation to build a library or repair a school for a kid in the NW…

    HERE is a guy who took a real risk and didn’t look to promote himself or religion in the process: Statement from Wife of Alive in Baghdad Producer Detained in Bejing:

    Would Jesus, Buddha, Bahá’u’lláh. or Mohammed do anything this asinine?:

  4. […] was speaking to Zach, “monk in the Sycamore tree“, Xiao Shuang today about events of late in Iraq. Xiao Shuang and I disagree on many things […]

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