Being with suffering in New York City after September 11th
By Larry Ward
I had an opportunity to go to New York to be with Thich Nhat Hanh and some of the monks and nuns to conduct a service at Riverside Church on September 25. My flight to New York was the first time I had been on an airplane since September 11. When the tragedy of the World Trade towers occurred, I was in the air on a flight to Denver, which of course was re-routed. It has been part of my spiritual practice for over thirty years to be aware that every flight I take could be my last. So that part of it was not a big deal for me, but I was interested to see what I noticed. The first things I noticed on September 24 were visual and physical: all the security at the Santa Barbara airport and how far away I had to park. More importantly, I started to noice fear and anxiety in people at a higher level than normal, and I started to notice gallows humor. I noticed that going through security, I had to give up my fingernail clippers. And then I noticed that there were only ten of us on the airplane. We flew to Denver and I changed planes there, connecting to a flight to La Guardia, in New York. That plane seated 250 people and there were thirty-two of us on that flight. One of the people on that flight appeared to be Arabic and his seat was next to me. I noticed how nervous and afraid he was, and how difficult it was for him to make eye contact with anyone including myself.
When our pilot announced our approach to La Guardia, I looked out the window and I was suddenly disoriented because the World Trade buildings were no longer there as a reference point. As we descended down through thick white clouds, I realized that I didn’t have any idea what was happening next with this airplane. We could have been flying into another skyscraper for all I knew. I was deeply aware of how much trust I had put in the hands of so many unknown people for so many years. We landed without difficulty and passengers applauded. Upon exiting the plane as I walked out the door I could see from the gate all the way to the outside of the airport because it was almost empty except for security, and a few vendors who didn’t have any customers.
I hailed a taxi to my friends’ house on West 22nd Street. We had dinner that evening and talked about their experience of what happened. They shared with me feelings of shock, sadness and sorrow. They expressed a sense of newfound vulnerability and anxiety present in the lives of individuals, families and institutions located on Manhattan Island. I invited them to join me at Riverside Church the next evening to be with Thay and the community to practice making peace with our anger together.
Before I left Santa Barbara I had told some Sangha members that I planned to do walking meditation at Ground Zero, making at least 5,000 steps, one for each of the missing people. The next morning I got up early and went to Canal Street, which is as far south as you can get in a vehicle in Manhattan. I then began my mindful walk the other twelve blocks down and then six blocks across to Ground Zero. Breathing with each step and seeing deep heartbreak in the faces I passed, I practiced looking into each face as if it were one of the missing ones. As I got closer to Ground Zero the pungent smell of rubber burning filled my nostrils and a smoke-filled haze irritated my eyes. I continued to breathe, with every step for a lost one.
I proceeded to do walking meditation for four and a half hours. I walked from every possible angle. After forty-five minutes I stood with my first glimpse of Ground Zero. It took me into deep, deep silence. My mind could not take in what I was witnessing. The site was overflowing with people, some just standing and crying, others taking pictures or walking by in disbelief. The police and military were busy keeping order but even they were filled with an eerie silence. The grief at Ground Zero was so thick with substance it had erected its own monument to the tragedy. My mind could not take in what I was witnessing within and around me. I walked to view the site from yet another angle and then another. About two hours into this humbling process I began to notice the dust and ash. All the buildings within six or seven blocks of the site were covered with dusty ash and as I looked down I saw that I too had become covered. I then realized that I had been breathing that dusty ash, and then I realized that it was the dust of a policeman, it was the dust of a fireman, it was the dust of a stockbroker, a janitor, a secretary, a maid, a delivery person who just showed up on his bicycle to deliver a package like he did every other day when he went to work.
The dust of the September 11th World Trade tragedy was in me now as I was in it, in every cell of my body, in every mindful step, every fiber of my heart and the mystery of my every breath.
I am so grateful to our dear teacher who with his whole heart has transmitted to us Buddha feet, Buddha eyes and the instruments of the Doors of Liberation. The Doors of Signlessness, Aimlessness and Emptiness, are so important to practice with. I know the World Trade buildings looked really solid and strong and tall. They were never eternally solid; they were empty of any permanence. All dharmas, all phenomena are marked with emptiness and signlessness. They have no enduring separate self and are always in disguise. Every building, every political regime, every civilization, every tree, every bush, every Larry, every policeman, every fireman, all are marked. Our ability to experience Buddha feet, Buddha eyes and insight into the Doors of Liberation are rooted in our capacity to experience aimlessness, which begins with our mindfulness practice of stopping and looking deeply.
I went to Riverside Church at 3:30 pm to help with preparations. When I arrived, there were already 100 people lined up and the program did not start until 7 p.m. Part of my helping out was to keep checking outside. The next time I went outside there were 400 people lined up twice around the block, and about fifteen minutes later there were 2,000. About a hal f an hour later there were over 3,000 people. The church only seats 2,500; we had standing room only, fitting in about 3,000 people, and the re were still many people standing outside Riverside. Participants in the evening were so grateful for the presence of our Fourfold Sangha. We chanted the Heart Sutra and Thay gave a Dharma talk on practicing with anger. Sister Chan Khong told the story of her hometown in Vietnam that was destroyed during the Vietnamese-American war and she talked about how she practiced with that.
It was so profound to see the fruit of the practice. Those of us who were there, Thay Nhat Hanh and the monastic community, Order members, and local Sanghas were able to hold the grief of 3,000 plus people without getting caught by it. We practice for ourselves, yes, to develop our own solidity, our calmness, our own insight. But we practice in that way so that we can offer it to other people when they need it.
Quite a few people asked me one question: “Where are you from?” I said, “I’m from California.” Their second question was, “Did you come here just for this?” And I said, “Yes.” And many started weeping. I felt grateful to have enough calmness, enough solidity and stillness to be there. I felt that the whole Sangha had enough of the paramita of inclusivity, of forbearance to be present there. The paramita of inclusiveness is not just the capacity to hold suffering, it’s also about the capacity to practice in such a way, to live in such a way that we can transform the world’s suffering into light. We develop and nurture this capacity when we practice Noble Silence, when we practice conscious breathing and sitting mindfully together, when we practice mindful walking and the mindfulness trainings together.I came back from New York clearer than ever before. One, this is the time for Maitreya Buddha. This is the exact moment for, as Thay Nhat Hanh would say, “Mr. Love and Ms. Love.” Actually if you look closely and you look deeply at what has happened and what is happening, you can see him and you can see her already here. Now is the time to deepen our practice. It was clear to me in New York that I could have stayed there and expanded local Sanghas and initiated residential practice communities, because people were so clear what doesn’t matter and what does matter. Two, this is a time of transformation and healing. I know from my own study of hi story that whenever there is war, hidden underneath the sorrow and the confusion and the chaos that war creates is a profound spiritual opportunity. I don ‘t intend to miss it. So I’m in the process of rearranging my life, so that I can spend more time practicing mindful living, mindful breathing, mindful walking and mindful Sangha building. I want to be fully present for the Dharma and the work it inspires in our world of suffering and confusion.
The world is experiencing a deep yearning; it is yearning for the light of its true home in the midst of this darkness. We are yearning for the light of the Buddha which is present in each of us; the light of the Dharma which is present in reality itself; and the light of the Sangha, our capacity to live in harmony and awareness.
Larry Ward, True Great Voice, lives at the Clear View Practice Center in Santa Barbara, California and is a cofounder of the Stillwater Sangha there.