On Religion: The `Third Force" of good and evil

By Francyl Gawryn

During the years of the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese recognized three powerful forces active in the fabric of their lives: the North, the South and the Third Force. The North and South were, of course, North and South Vietnam, but the Third Force was the presence of the Buddhist monks in their culture and communities. These monks were often ministers to any person who crossed their path, whether of North, South or neither persuasion. Their force was not a political one, but a spiritual one -- a force of compassion -- which ministered to every, and any person.

Near the demilitarized zone there lived a young monk named Min Duk, a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, who lived out this ministry of compassion in a most powerful way. One day while working near a rice paddy, there was an explosion. Min ran toward the area where the explosion had occurred, and found a young boy who had stepped too close to a buried field mine and was critically wounded by the blast. Min gathered the young boy up in his arms, and as he did, the boy pleadingly said to him, ``Don't let me die!''

Min began to run. He ran like he had never run before to the hospital to save the life of this young boy. Although, sadly, this young child did not survive his encounter with a field mine, Min learned that day that his life would be given over to the work of compassionately running to save the lives of others.

For the remaining years of the war, Min worked in the minefields day after day, rescuing victims of land mines and speeding them to the hospital. Though he was not able to save the life of that first young boy, he saved the lives of countless others. He became known as Min Duk, the monk who runs fast.

Last April, Tami Silicio took what turned out to be a very controversial photograph of a fleet of flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers killed during the Iraq war as they were being loaded on to a military transport plane. Silicio and her husband were both fired from their jobs as a result of the publication of that picture in The Seattle Times. According to a recent Times article, she is still looking for a job. Her employer and the Pentagon maintain that her picture violated Pentagon policy. This policy seeks to prevent media coverage of the transport of military coffins. Silicio insists that her picture was not a political act, but an act of compassion for those families grieving the loss of their loved ones.

``Compassion.'' According to my American Heritage Dictionary it is from the Late Latin, `com' meaning `with,' plus `pati' meaning `to suffer.' To suffer with. Compassion is the act of intentionally working to hold on to the suffering of another long enough to make it your own, and in the process of making it your own, offering aid or comfort, or even just companionship. It is the intentional act of being willing to be the contact point where the two opposites of grief and blessing come together. It is the willingness of one person to hold together both ends of the tension of despair and hope, and refusing to let go. It is not an easy or comfortable thing to do.

Min, now the abbot at a Buddhist monastery in San Jose, Calif., will tell you that running through a minefield is not an easy or a comfortable thing. Tami Silicio will tell you that looking for work nine months later is not an easy or a comfortable thing. But both would tell you that they would never have had it any other way. Compassion finds its blessed release in bestowing itself on others. It suffers with.

Our daughters have spent their first few months away at school. They have been learning many things while away -- how to do all their own laundry, how to budget their time between sleep, socializing, and study -- a long learning curve! Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, I had a similar conversation with each of them. They were homesick, and were listing off the things about school that they didn't like -- the food, noisy dorm mates, not enough sleep, etc. But I was struck by the contrast in their description of school life concerning their socio/political atmospheres.

One daughter is at a Christian liberal arts college, and she remarked upon the right-wing Christian conservative bent of the majority of students there. The other daughter attends a women's college, where secularist philosophy plays a large role. Neither daughter feels that she identifies with the majority prevailing attitudes of the students at their schools, and I am left wondering how much of a place is being made in our world for those people who do not choose to follow either of the ``mainstream'' ideologies?

It occurs to me that fundamentalism and secularism are mirror image twins born of the same womb of insecurity, lust for power and a lack of feeling truly loved at the deepest level of our being.

I believe that there is a third alternative that subscribes to neither a theology that insists on being correct, nor to the philosophic malaise which has given up on finding any answers at all. It is a way that accepts the day for what it is -- an incredible gift, and recognizes every other person as equally blessed by that day. Not just the smart ones, or the rich ones, or the ``good'' ones, but all of them. It is a way which values human connectedness over human discord and works in relationships on all levels to maintain, even to restore that connectedness. It is a way that recognizes each individual as a reflection of the image of God -- not a perfect image, but who could claim that? It is a way that seeks for and honors truth wherever it may be found, regardless of its source, and yet maintains the balancing perspective that one's own viewpoint is always limited. It is a way that cherishes hope, fosters beauty and promotes charity for those in need. If we were as zealous in those pursuits as we are in maintaining our philosophic and theological strongholds, our philosophies and theologies would return to their rightful proportions in our lives -- as the important underpinnings which urge us to act as we feel led, but not to be used as power tools for the constructing of walls of division between peoples.

I pray that my daughters may find this third alternative, and allow the love that has been fostered in their hearts to continue to grow in them. I pray that they may continue to learn to embrace that ``Third Force,'' the compassion that holds both the tensions of a hurting world, and a loving God.

In a world of increasingly hardening positions between perceived ``good'' and ``evil,'' the Third Force is still at work, but it's not just Buddhist monks. It is all of us progressively finding those places in our hearts that are crying out to meet the needs of others compassionately -- by suffering with them, by offering our presence, time, talent resources and hope.

Francyl Gawryn, a certified teacher of the method of centering prayer and an elder of Mercer Island Presbyterian Church, can be reached by e-mail at

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