has been nearly thirty years as I sit here in this café in Topolobampo
and I remember wondering what sort of man would emerge from the crucible.
Now we know.
For I have been following him and am, in fact, researching a book. It will
be called “The Fifth of May” for what he claims to be his birthday; his
birthplace, Puebla, the beginning point of his pilgrimage. But it
is this place that seems to be a touchstone to him, to which he returns
from time to time and where I expect to meet him today, le Cinq de
Mai. My book is nearly written, actually, but one question is
yet to be answered, which I will ask him this afternoon. It has to
do with birthplace. Perhaps the two newlyweds’ journey leads them to
France (Paris?) instead of through Ellis Island. We know that two
persons cannot occupy the same physical space (except perhaps in quantum
theory). But what about the same time? I mean one person...
I mean .... Damn! Thinking along these (time)lines makes my teeth hurt.
The bare bones of his story are well-documented. He readily answers most
question put to him, save about his past, which, of course, no one would
believe anyway. But I alone know of the years before his “birth”,
as he puts it. A man tormented, he wrestled with the demons he created.
He would not escape through insanity or suicide. They could not be
denied and would not be suppressed. And so they must needs be dealt
with. He sought the help of philosophers and theologians and shamans
from along the ages and learned of the shadow part of him, that place where
darkness dwells and to whence the demons must be consigned, always a part
The despair he visualized as a wall before him that he must walk through. He
entered it, merged with its molecules, savored its acrid sweetness, became
yet holding fast to the image of a beyond...
...and when he emerged into the light he sought, then found that small, still
center within himself and made it his home.
Having acquired some small number of possessions over time he now proceeded to divest himself of them all until what remained were the clothes that he wore: a simple tunic
with pockets around its hem for a toothbrush, a straight razor for his
head and face and whatever small items might temporarily come into his
possession; cotton trousers and undergarments, canvas shoes, and bearing this vow: that he would bring no avoidable harm to any person or creature,
directly or indirectly; that he would not speak unless spoken to; that
he would ask for nothing but accept that which was offered, excluding any
form of flesh or eggs or dairy products (he would, however, accept milk
that was fresh and from cows milked by hand, and eggs if he felt the
creatures were lovingly cared for); and that he would only walk and never
allow himself to be driven or carried.
Understand,he had no agenda. He never set out to do anything, just to
in as harmless a way as possible. He espoused no creed or philosophy,
not even his own. But if he did, he would most likely employ the
quote ascribed to Hippocrates: “First, do no harm.”
Interestingly, it was a child who first spoke to him.
“I’m David. Who are you?”
am a wanderer. I have no name.”
From the day he set out from Puebla on the fifth of May of 1966 he rarely wanted
for food or a place to stay. Otherwise he fasted, slept where he
found himself. If he saw anyone who needed a hand he lent it without
being asked and then smiled quietly and continued on his way.
From time to time he would speak, for people were curious about who he was,
where he had come from and what he had done. Anecdotal stories proliferated
and eventually preceded him. And always what he said was simple:
“Love yourself and those around you and bring no avoidable harm to any
living creature. But do not beat yourself if you do not succeed;
you will find grace in the effort.” And they called him Wanderer.
He never achieved mass popularity but his friends became legion. From all
religions persuasions or lack thereof they followed his philosophy or at
least tried and didn’t beat themselves when they failed. And they
were pacifists and vegetarians for the most part but didn’t beat themselves
if they weren’t. For no one is perfect but does the best one can.
And they all learned French and Spanish and English and even Esperanto
(or at least tried) since Wanderer was fluent in all four but preferred
Esperanto because it was the least nationalistic and only complained (or
what for him constituted complaining but was merely remarking) that it
was too Western-centric. And their numbers grew.
Then the first Pilgrim’s Ashram appeared, an intentional community based on his philosophy – one which, mind you, he never technically or formally espoused. Others simply inferred. Formed in New York City by, in large part, devotées of Dorothy Day (certainly informed with the spirit of the Catholic Worker), some called it Harlem
Ashram II, in homage to the original.
It had taken years to come into being but as it grew and others became aware of it slowly became a movement that spread across the continent, then across the world. It was within this community that the final step began.
It doesn’t matter in which Ashram it originated, only that it did and once begun
the realization of an idea, a meme was inexorable. It was not an original thought but now
the means and facility to achieve it existed.
The notion of a peace army was based on the idea the war is fundamentally stupid – and with as its inspiration, the Khudai Khidmatgar or Servants of God of Abdul Ghaffar
Khan, who defeated the
vaunted and formidable British Army through
Royden’s seminal formation, in the 1930s, of a “Peace Army” to act as a human shield between the Japanese and Chinese forces during the war between Japan and China; and the Gandhi-inspired Shanti Sena, formed in 1958 to utilize nonviolent conflict resolution on a grass-roots level and which itself inspired international groups such as the World Peace
Brigade, the Cyprus Resettlement Project, Peace Brigades International and the Global Nonviolent Peace Force.
No soldier in her or his right mind wants to go into battle. A person
group of people talk other people into fighting for land or power or wealth
that they really don't need anyway and a lot of people get killed and a
lot gets destroyed in the process. And all this is made possible by the
fear, ignorance and manipulation of a large number of citizens who should
know better than to want to kill or be killed for another's profit or amusement.
So you have this war going on. What would happen if a pacifist army
went in as witnesses for peace, placed themselves in the line of fire.
They’d get killed, naturally. Same as the poor person who goes charging
with rifle and bayonet but with a little different perspective and attitude
Every warrior is prepared to die. Every warrior. But what does your
death leave behind? A transitory victory, more war, rancor and thirst
for vengeance? Every soldier says they're willing to die for their
country. What about dying for humanity? Can it be less noble?
So today we have 1,034 Pilgrim’s Ashrams one form or another
with a base group of pacifists 23 million-strong throughout the world,
all linked by the Internet, of course. Pick a training base, any training base. And
train. And discipline.
As I write this account, there is a particularly virulent war going on in Eastern Europe. You have heard
so much of it that I needn’t even name it, except to say that the enmity
there goes back two thousand years to the time of Sparticus and the slaves
that escaped and to where and of the man of a certain ethnicity who betrayed
them. This will be their first trial. Many will certainly die; the
idea of fighting hatred with understanding and compassion may not.
It may go down in history as the greatest folly of engagement of all time.
But then it goes to the heart of how one wishes to be remembered and what
one hopes to leave behind. Four thousand and eight hundred pacifist
troops hope to live and are terrified of dying but believe that Wanderer
is right in more than just principle.
And now, having out-maneuvered the bureaucrats they are massed on the Balkan
border, poised for action and awaiting the command. And here I sit
waiting for Wanderer in this cafe in this far-away land.
When he sits down at my table I am barely aware of his arrival. He smiles
“Kiel estas al vi, mia frato?” [How are you, my brother?] he greets me, in Esperanto.
“Bona, sajne,” [Fine, I guess] I reply in kind. “Mi tenigas provantan. Kion pri vi?” [I keep trying. How about you?]
“Mi estas ci tie,” [I’m here] he says, not just talking geography.
We chat idly, but mostly just sit and gaze at the harbor. For the first time
in years I see a faint echo of that overwhelming sadness I once saw in
his eyes that August in 1964 and it is elicited by mention of the Peace
not your responsibility,” I tell him.
you know better than that,” he smiles.
His refreshments appear almost magically, but I’m used to that. I know that there
are several dozen people waiting nearby to talk to him or just to look
at him but they do not make their presence felt, and I'm almost used to
you still carry my scribblings with you?”
I pull them from my belt pouch, carefully wrapped in plastic.
I just smile non-commitally.
There has been One Question on my mind ever since I met H2 (my own personal nickname, for Hippocrates, Jr.) Twice he has
asked me, once in French (so he says) and once in English, right here in
Topolobampo. Then the answer was more or less simple. By now I believe
we have both figured out The Answer. But I need to hear it from him.
After a few moments more I sense it is finally time and so I ask the One Question.
And he touches my hand ...
... I touch his hand. I become dizzy as memories flood my mind,
memories and I feel his unsettledness, his life-long questing for meaning,
pilgrimage. How much pain he has felt, while not knowing the source
of that pain. I regard this earnest young man before me and my weariness
is finally lifted, my fear for those many soldiers of peace relieved (amazing
grace!) It is grace I feel in this moment as he asks the question
which I now, at last, may answer.
frere, qui est toi?”
frere,” I respond, “I am you.”