Calligraphic Meditation

By Maureen Chen mb65-Calligraphic1

From September 7 to December 31, 2013, Calligraphic Meditation: The Mindful Art of Thich Nhat Hanh––the first U.S. exhibition of Thay’s calligraphies––was held at ABC Home in New York City. Jointly presented by Blue Cliff Monastery and ABC Home, the exhibition had already shown in Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand.

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ABC Home sells elegant, responsibly sourced home furnishings. Its CEO and Creative Director Paulette Cole and COO Amy Chender both own Thay’s calligraphies and attended his NYC public talk in October 2011. Thus, when consultant Lorna Chiu proposed the exhibition on behalf of Blue Cliff, they were eager to host.

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In the store’s front windows, huge calligraphies were displayed with furnishings as they would appear in a home. The artwork featured two empty Zen circles as well as Thay’s aphorisms: look deeply, be beautiful be yourself, breathe, go as a river, and no mud no lotus. Occasionally, someone noticed them and even stopped to take photographs or watch the video of Thay doing calligraphy.

Just inside the entrance, breathe served as a mindfulness bell, inviting viewers to stop and become aware of their breathing. Then look deeply invited them to look at and buy Thay’s books and CDs displayed below the art.

A Sacred Sanctuary

Inside the store, the Deepak HomeBase gallery— created by Paulette Cole and bestselling author Deepak Chopra to present the work of visionary individuals—was transformed into a sacred sanctuary by the sixty-six framed calligraphies on its walls. These included more of Thay’s core teachings, such as peace is every step, this is because that is, smile, and the English, French, and Chinese versions of i have arrived i am home.

At a press conference held on September 5, a panel of five monastics––Sister Chan Khong; Brother Phap Nguyen, exhibition curator; Thay’s calligraphy assistant Brother Phap Nguyen; Sister Peace; and Brother Phap Chieu––shared their favorite calligraphies with members of the media. Brother Phap Nguyen explained that the Zen circle is a special symbol in the Zen and Plum Village traditions, and that it has multiple meanings, such as emptiness, the cosmos, and Thay’s concept of interbeing. Sister Chan Khong sang the poem “For Warmth” in her lovely voice.

Paulette Cole greeted the media by saying, “For us, it is a privilege to water positive seeds in New York City.” Deepak Chopra spoke about how one’s attitude, whether positive or negative, is infectious.

At the reception that followed, a classical string quartet of lay and monastic musicians performed for two hundred guests, including many family members, friends, colleagues, wellness experts, and artisans in the ABC Home community. Notable attendees included motivational speaker Gabrielle Bernstein, actor Edward Norton, actress Parker Posey, actress Amy Smart, and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman.

After Paulette Cole and Deepak Chopra welcomed the guests, Thay gave a Dharma talk about mindful breathing and transforming suffering. “The practice of mindful breathing brings the mind home to the body and helps you to be fully present, fully alive in the here and the now. You can get in touch with all the wonders of life that are there, available in the here and the now for your nourishment and healing.”

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Introducing the “Namo’valokiteshvaraya” chant— honoring the bodhisattva of great compassion—by the monastics, Thay said, “If we allow our body to be in the here and the now, and allow the collective energy to penetrate into our body, then we can release the tension in our body and feel much better after a few minutes of listening. And if we have some fear, some anger, some despair in our heart, it is time for us to open our heart and allow the collective energy of mindfulness and compassion to penetrate and help hold the massive suffering in us.”

Following the uplifting chant, Thay talked about his calligraphy. “Calligraphy, for me, is an act of meditation, very pleasant, where I enjoy happiness, freedom, brotherhood, sisterhood. I always start my practice with a cup of tea. I have the habit of always mixing some of the tea in my ink, and when I hold the brush, I begin to breathe in. For making the circle, I breathe in mindfully.” Holding up a calligraphy of an empty Zen circle and pointing to the beginning of the brushstroke, he said, “You can see my in-breath in this circle. There is a calm, there is a concentration, there is a mindfulness, and there is love. When I come to this [halfway] point, I begin to breathe out, smiling. There is always a smile somewhere from here [halfway point] to here [end of brushstroke]. Making a circle like that, doing a line of calligraphy, always brings peace, concentration, joy, happiness, and love.”

After the ceremonial ribbon cutting by Thay, Paulette Cole, and Deepak Chopra, Thay gave a demonstration. Using Chinese ink mixed with tea, French and Japanese brushes, and rice paper, he made eight new calligraphies with complete mindfulness and concentration. Upon finishing each one, he affixed his red seal, which bears his lineage name and Dharma title, Trung Quang Nhat Hanh, and held up his work with a joyous smile. A video of the reception can be viewed at www.abchome.com/video-experience-the-meditative-art-of-thich-nhat-hanh-live/.

Mindfulness in an Urban Landscape

On the following day, a flash mob meditation organized by Wake Up New York was held at Union Square Park. Led by five monastics, about three hundred people sat on hard concrete and meditated to the sound of traffic and a persistent drumbeat. Sister Chan Khong then led the meditators on a four-block walking meditation to the exhibition. There she led the singing of “Breathing In, Breathing Out” and “For Warmth,” and gave a Dharma talk on taking care of one’s anger. She advised listeners not to speak when angry, but to return to the in-breath and out-breath. Paulette Cole closed the evening by thanking the monastics for their presence at ABC Home.

On October 10, a conversation on “Slowing Down, Finding Meaning: Mindfulness in an Urban Landscape” occurred in the packed gallery. The discussion was led by Ira Glass, host and executive producer of This American Life. Brother Phap Vu of Blue Cliff, Dharma teacher Joanne Friday, and Wake Up New York facilitator Zack Foley shared their personal experiences with practicing mindfulness and answered questions from the audience.

Much painstaking work by the entire ABC Home team, led by Paulette Cole, Amy Chender, Head of Events Paula Gilovich, and Visual Director Manena Frazier, went into creating and maintaining this exhibition and its events. Supporting Thay were many monastics and lay friends, the NYC Dharma teachers, consultant Lorna Chiu, and Blue Cliff staffer Stephanie Davies, coordinated by Brother Phap Vu, Sister Lang Nghiem, and Brother Phap Chieu.

Indeed everyone and everything in the cosmos came together in this exhibition: all who supplied materials for the calligraphies, books, and decorations; all who transported Thay, the calligraphies, monastics, guests, and viewers to the exhibition; everyone’s ancestors, including Paulette Cole’s great-grandfather, who founded the store; and many more elements too numerous to mention.

Mmb65-Calligraphic5aureen Chen, Radiant Opening of the Heart, of Morning Star Sangha in Queens, New York, deeply thanks everyone who helped with this article.

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