Toward Xenopolis

About an escape from the principle of opposites featuring two monks and a woman on a riverbank, a doctor, and a philosopher

We have destroyed the Berlin Wall, opened the borders, adopted the Internet, and most of us live in multicultural cities. But the existence of a wall is the living experience of modern Europeans. In view of the rising tide of immigrants, and perhaps, primarily, of the growing weakness of the centre which we were accustomed to regard as exclusively ours, we begin to re-erect walls, set fences and barbed wire, along the borders of nation states. At the same time, we are aware that the deepening divisions are less and less a question of the barriers of language, ethnicity, or political systems. Today’s walls grow across the communities living on the same side of the river and are erected by sharp and confrontational boundaries of cultural identities. The increasing proximity of the Other, one not outside of our world but within our intimate space once reserved for what is familiar and close, builds a new wall that seals off our contemporary anxieties and confusion. We realise more and more clearly that our identity is no longer one with the spirit of community, and that by raging battles in defence of the first value, identity, we have lost much of the spirit of the latter, community. The problem of contemporary Europe is not about reinforcement of diversity and differences, but about what Czesław Miłosz called ‘the connective tissue’, the concept on which he based his ‘native realm’. Therefore, the contemporary narrative of Europe is the story of coexistence. Because only coexistence is able to direct this current of thought and action that can once again tear down the wall built on the Old Continent – now not the world of enslavement and Cold War, but the world of growing closeness to the stranger.

Our community life is currently in a deep crisis. Europe increasingly resembles the village portrayed by Werner Herzog in his film Heart of Glass, where the mystery underlying the life of the village inhabitants was lost and prophets announced the end of the world. With the migrants in arm’s reach, we are desperately looking for a scapegoat and are treating Muslims with suspicion. However, by entrenching ourselves behind our ramparts, we will not be able to build a rational foundation for our future. Ethnic cleansing, deportations, ghettos, racism, and xenophobia: we have experienced them all. Yet still we do not want to remember that they bring nothing apart from human misery. They do not offer any solution and are completely irrational. We are now faced with many very grave and very real problems: environmental, demographic, and social. Solutions to these problems need to be found both on moral and on economic grounds. What they share is the fact that none of them can be tackled ‘individually’. We can only resolve them by acting as a strong community, a community that can be restored in common action with others, embracing our whole neighbourhood here and now and offering our hospitality to strangers. This statement should not be seen as an ad hoc remedy resulting from the need to face the challenge of the great wave of migrants that has caused the recent European crisis. What is at stake here is the centuries-long secret of community life, which is complete only when it includes the presence of strangers. That is why this story will be about coexistence with strangers. 

Coexistence teaches us about our own insufficiencies, as regards blood ties, nationality, or culture, in establishing a community. In Polish, this characteristic is called obcowanie, which literally means ‘being with the other’. It is quite an unusual word, since to express the concept of being together, we are more prone to place emphasis on the things that we have in common, as is the case with other languages that derive the term from the Latin word communio. While looking for the equivalent of the Polish term in other European languages, it is better to look at the word xenopolis, using it not just in reference to a community that is friendly to the Other, but also one that is constituted of Others. Our narrative could start like this …

The Story about Two Monks and a Woman on the Riverbank

A long time ago, two monks wandered the earth. The storytellers differ in their descriptions of the monks. Some call them Li and Wu, others simply say ‘a smaller and a bigger monk’ or ‘a younger and an older one’, while others say, ‘one who was listening to his heart and one who was listening to his reason’. One thing is certain: they were brethren of a deeply traditional order. The two monks pledged vows of fidelity to principles, including the vow of silence during the day and abstaining from the temptation of women.

The road they travelled led them to a river. On its bank, the monks were met by a woman. There are different interpretations of this encounter, too. Some say that the woman had crossed the river in the morning, when its water level was still low, and was cut off from her house because of the monsoon rain and flood; others say that the bridge was destroyed; finally, there are some who point out that she was dressed in expensive clothes and thus afraid of ruining her silk dress. One thing that the storytellers have no doubt about is that she was young and beautiful. It is also said that the first monk (let us call him the younger one) turned his eyes away from her and, being faithful to his pledges, crossed the river without paying attention to the woman in need, whereas the older traveller, without much thinking, took the woman in his arms and carried her to the other side. The woman thanked him, and they parted. And here again, the various versions of the story diverge: some say the younger monk spoke to the older one five minutes later, some say after three hours or after the whole day, and some say the story continues not in the context of a journey, but in the comfort of darkness and a monastery cell; others insist that the younger monk, bursting with questions, tried to initiate a conversation, but was met with deep silence until nightfall.

The only thing that is certain is that the monks’ journey changed from the moment of the encounter with the woman. While the older monk continued in harmony with himself, enjoying the beauty of the landscape and paying attention to everything he encountered, the younger one could not notice much in his surroundings because he was afraid of meeting another stranger and felt a certain burden imposed on him – a burden that was invisible yet real (like the past that is gone and yet present). Another thing that is certain is that the younger monk was brimming with questions, which were full of accusations against the older monk for carrying the woman in his arms: ‘This woman squeezed your hips with her smooth thighs, touched your back with her supple breasts, embraced your neck with her graceful shoulders and even possibly touched your cheek with her warm cheek.’ While the records of the conversation between the two monks do not include all the details, we can reduce it to a few simple questions such as: ‘How could you break the rules established by our tradition and betray yourself and your order? And for whom? A woman you did not even know? A stranger?’

Even if we account for all versions of this story (they are not only numerous but also quite different from each other), we can see that they all provide the unavoidable answer from the older monk: ‘Brother, I carried and left the woman on the other side of the river. Will you be carrying her with you for the rest of your life?’


The oldest tradition says that the monks were Buddhists, followers of Zen. They lived in China. Yet the truth is that they could have been followers of any religion, members of any community, or inhabitants of any country. The vows they pledged are like the vows we make to our faiths, homelands, or values. There is no place in the world from which a road, sooner or later, will not lead us to the river on whose bank we will find the Other.

There are different lessons that we can learn from this story. Some people stress how disastrous it is for a man to cherish negative thoughts and feelings. They do not allow us to solve life’s problems. Instead, they distance us from the real world. We learn that the things that bring us closer to reality and allow us to effectively deal with life are rooted in spontaneous acts of heart and a philosophy that allows us to follow the bliss.

Zen schools sometimes ‘teach’ this story to their students as a koan, to point to the purity of the older monk’s mind. This quality enabled him to recognise the situation, adequately react to it and later continue his journey, fully prepared for its next stage. To cope with the challenges that life brings, our minds need to be open to different possibilities, which are significantly limited when they are burdened with negative memories and resentments from the past. In other words, mental dependence on ideas or earlier experiences prevents us from fully living in the here and now. One master of meditation put it even more plainly: ‘We get mad when somebody throws trash in our house, but we do not protect ourselves from having our minds filled with trash’. Similarly, the Indian Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello quotes Arab mystic Abu Hassan Bushanja as saying: ‘The act of sinning is not so harmful as the desire and the thought of it. It is one thing for the body to indulge in pleasure for a moment, and quite another for the mind and heart to chew on it endlessly’. De Mello continues: ‘Each time I chew on the sins of others, I suspect the chewing gives me greater pleasure than the sinning gives the sinner.’ 

For the Hindu philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, the encounter by the river was, first and foremost, a story of ‘good solitude’, as he claimed: ‘it is only when we give complete attention to a problem and solve it immediately – never carrying it over to the next day, the next minute – that there is solitude … To have inward solitude and space is very important because it implies freedom to be, to go, to function, to fly. After all, goodness can only flower in space just as virtue can flower only when there is freedom. We may have political freedom but inwardly we are not free.’

The Christian tradition also has a story about two monks on their pilgrimage to the relics of a great saint. On their way, they are also surprised, not so much by the fact that they saw a beautiful woman as by the fact that the woman was made of flesh and blood. Interpreters of this story place emphasis on the internal value of a human being, which is decided by what takes place in the heart and contrast it with the legalistic morality that was symbolised in the early times of Christianity by the Pharisees. That is why when discussing this issue, they often bring up the words of Jesus Christ who, as Matthew the Apostle noted, said: ‘First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will also be clean,’ or the words of the prophet Isaiah as quoted by Jesus: ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’

The Older Monk, or the Crossing

The deeper we get into the story of the two monks, the more we learn of its interpretations; the more we try to understand the story’s meaning relating to our own context, the more we become convinced that it is a story of coexistence. However, let us not be tempted to say that the encounter by the river lasted only for a very short period of time, or that coexistence, as well as its impossibility, is a part of our everyday lives. Even our consciousness resembles this story, which is written based on intense experiences, experiences of boundaries, such as interactions with the Other; this story transforms into a narrative about life that, somewhere in the depths of our consciousness, plants seeds that may germinate over a long time.

The older monk, with his natural wisdom and peaceful internal freedom, earns our respect, which is, nonetheless, mixed with some cordial jealousy. It is difficult to deny that there is a significant distance between us and the monk, and that we observe his path from our remote place in the world; ours is a place that is much more problematic, laden with interpersonal complications, living conditions, burdened inheritance, and cultural prejudices. It seems to us that while our roots are growing deeply into the earth, his have branched out towards the heavens.

The distance that has been opened up to us by the older monk creates a space where, as Krishnamurti claimed, our understanding of coexistence can flourish. It allows us to experience a spontaneous act of our heart, born out of a real-life situation and a need to meet the Other. This makes our earlier beliefs recede into the background, including our oaths and pledges. The situation also requires that, in order to break them, we need to have the courage to expose ourselves to accusations of betrayal and abandoning our own people and ourselves.

This act of the heart, which is the cornerstone of coexistence, finds tradition in one of the oldest books in the Bible. It is in the Book of Leviticus where we read: ‘But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself.’ This teaching of the Lord to Moses is mentioned several times throughout the Old Testament, whereas in the previous verses of the Book of Leviticus, we read about the love of a neighbour in the sense of loving ‘your own people’, and in the Book of Deuteronomy, we are taught to love ‘those who are alien, for you yourselves were alien in Egypt.’ Furthermore, in the Book of Exodus, we read ‘Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.

The first of these teachings is one of the oldest attempts, if not the oldest, in the Judeo-Christian tradition to establish relations with the Other, in other words, coexistence. It combines two commandments which, in other parts of the Bible, are treated separately, often in opposition to each other as belonging to two different orders: rational and irrational. In the first part of the teaching, we are instructed to treat the newcomer (the other, a wanderer, an immigrant, a refugee, etc.) as our fellow countryman, a compatriot. This behaviour inclines both towards equality in the law and tolerance towards diversity (religious, racial, national, etc.). This legislative aspect is particularly important today, as most efforts at establishing a relationship of coexistence, instead of focusing on tolerance and other values that are ‘intangible’ to our reason, rely on a constitutional order guaranteeing human rights. The Book of Leviticus does not, by any means, ignore this legal aspect of coexistence but is not limited by it. Its teaching goes further, towards love, a love that means crossing over, which is expressed by the phrase ‘as thyself’. Such love towards a stranger encourages a change in you, abandoning your own self. This love is not given to us, as is our love for ourselves. That is why it can be implemented only by means of this crossing, in being with the Other.

This article appears in full in OTHER AS A JOURNAL, NO. 6.