Fatima in the Garden

by Rena Rubin

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The New York City school where I teach seventh grade art has inherited a community garden a few blocks away. An unsolicited slice of community life is generously offered through the open windows of the apartment buildings cloistering that space. Ujima Garden existed in a state of abandoned neglect until our science and art departments became the custodian at the end of last summer. Though skeptical at first, my assignment was to have the students paint a mural on one of the walls adjoining the garden.

When we began going to the garden every art/science day, I spent most of my time observing my kids in this new environment. Predictably, the destructive ones threw rocks and broke a couple of gardening tools; some kids sat or stood as far away from nature as possible; but some, who I least expected, dug and planted with a passion.

The twins, Catrima and Fatima, were totally engaged in cultivating the soil for the vegetable plot. In other classes, their chronic attitude has established a somewhat contentious relationship between us. But watching them in the garden was an epiphanous experience, reminding me to suspend all judgment made in the context of a NYC public school classroom.

Fatima’s class was first period. As the students were turning soil in their designated area, an enormous earthworm was uncovered, followed immediately by earsplitting screams of shock, curiosity, and revulsion. As I saw one student reach down to scoop it up, I cringed, thinking the poor little guy doesn’t have a chance. I remembered stories I had heard in Dharamsala, about the Buddhist monks breaking ground for a new building: they would gently and painstakingly sift through the soil with their hands to remove all earthworms from harm’s way before the workmen began digging the foundation. Before I could intervene, the little creature was being passed around from student to student, until it ended up in Fatima’s hands, which extended to receive the earthworm as if it were a sacred offering.

There are moments one never forgets, and this was one for me. Fatima cradled this creature in her palms with such tenderness, compassion, and love, that she instantly became the most radiant being on the planet. I wasn’t sure who was more blessed –– Fatima, the earthworm, or me.

The next day I passed Fatima’s class, lined up in the hall. I stopped to tell her that I wished I’d brought my camera with me so I could have taken her picture holding the worm so gently—she looked absolutely beautiful! I was rewarded by a smile so large, it could transform the world.

Rena Rubin, Radiant Jewel of the Source, practices with the Brooklyn Sangha in New York. She is a musician, artist, and art teacher who says, “The students, hands down, have been my biggest teacher.”

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Diamond Life

Losing my Brother in a New York State of Mind

By Nate Metzker

mb53-Diamond1My girlfriend, Cameron, and I moved to New York City in 2005 with great expectations for her career as an educator and my career as a musician and novelist. My girlfriend’s career soon exceeded expectations. I, on the other hand, did not fare as well. By the end of six months, I’d run out of savings and found it difficult to locate a job that gave me time for my art.

Optimism carried me for a while, but eventually, my optimism began to wear off: gigs were hard to come by, selling music was next to impossible, and depression set in. I was attending Sangha meetings in the city, which I enjoyed, but I was not able to let go of my attachments to my version of success.

I had been at Deer Park Monastery the day it opened, and had spent a lot of time there—sometimes months without leaving—and now I returned to the monastery, thinking I could get my head together. And I did. And it was wonderful. But when I returned to the city, I began a slow descent back into depression. I started to think I needed to get back to the monastery again, but then realized: No, Nate, you need to deepen your practice where you live. I vowed that I would go back to Deer Park only when I had been able to become peaceful and happy in New York City.

Transforming New York City

My plan of action was simple. Scheduled meditation was difficult for me, so I had to recognize that, and not be too hard on myself. I was spending a lot of time en route to different parts of the city to participate in open mics, jam with other musicians, explore, and commute to temp jobs. So, the sidewalks had to become my mountain paths, and the subway had to become my hermitage.

The reason people walk so fast in New York is not because the entire city is composed of Type A go-getters. It’s because one often has to walk long city blocks, over long bridges, or to and from subway stops. If you walk slowly here, it takes forever to get anywhere. I decided on a pace that would get me where I needed to go, but allow me to relax at the same time—something along the lines of driving on the highway at sixty or sixty-five miles per hour rather than seventy; just enough of an adjustment to take the edge off. At that pace, I could really enjoy my steps and take each one with all my love and compassion.

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Breathing in, love and compassion flow from the soles of my feet.

Breathing out, I am happy.

Love and compassion.

Happy.

This meditation allowed me to smile to passersby and enjoy the city for the extraordinary place that it is. It inspired me to write positive music that deepened my practice, instead of turning to laments and despair.

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Time on the subway became a time of deep practice for me as well. Once I found a job, I had to commute forty to fifty minutes each way, and wanted to make sure that I was alive during that time. I always had a book about the practice with me, and I often carried my Five Mindfulness Trainings certificate too. On the subway, I would enjoy my reading for a while, then stop, breathe, and look at the people around me. It was easy to see what a wonderful, extraordinary situation I was in: people from all nations, cultures, and religions packed into a small space together. With this new perspective, I was constantly amazed at how courteous people were—giving seats to the elderly, helping people onto trains, making space for others. There are many places in the world where this doesn’t happen.

Many times I’ve heard Thich Nhat Hanh say, “At the airport, when they search you before boarding a plane, they are not looking for your Buddha nature—they are looking for your terrorist nature. We have to start to recognize our Buddha nature.” It was important for me to notice manifestations of Buddha nature in the city.

Sometimes I sat, closed my eyes, and meditated on my breath. I got in over an hour of sitting meditation every day, and just as much walking meditation (I almost always took the stairs at the workplace). The only other place in which I had that much time to practice was at the monastery.

In the spring of 2008, my worldly situation hadn’t changed a lot, yet I was much happier. Practicing mindfulness had allowed me to transform New York City in my mind, so I was now able to walk in a city that was a beautiful practice center. At that time, I was studying Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. Reading the text helped me achieve a lot of insight into the nature of interbeing, and the way we erroneously define our world. In the Diamond Sutra, there are ideas akin to: A tree is not a tree; that is why we call it a tree. After some meditation, I took a tree is not a tree to mean that a tree is the whole cosmos, composed of awakened nature. We call it a tree because we are under the illusion that it has a separate self. But like everything else, a tree is of the nature to be both birthless and deathless. With the teachings of the Diamond Sutra in my heart, looking at the faces in the subway car became even more wonderful because I felt more connected to my community.

My Brother’s Presence

On May 28, I got a phone call in the middle of the night with the news that my brother, Jason, had died. He was thirty-seven years old. In a hotel in Elko, Nevada, where he worked as a dentist, he had run up three flights of stairs to avoid being on a full elevator. He then bought a drink from a vending machine, turned from the machine, took a few steps, fell forward with his arms hugging his chest, and died. We later found out that he had died from an overdose of Demerol.

My family went through a complex process of mourning. And while Jason was the sibling to whom I felt closest, I am sure that my suffering was reduced because I entered it meditating on interbeing and our birthless and deathless nature. When I saw my other siblings and cried, I wasn’t always crying because Jason wasn’t there with us. Sometimes I cried because I was so happy to be in the presence of my family. Now, many months later, much of my family is still sometimes crippled with despair and sadness. But, because of my practice, I feel very in touch with my brother and feel his presence in all things when I am mindful. In fact— and I know this may sound strange—his death feels to me like he made a decision to move forward with his life.

Everything’s in Everything

I returned to Deer Park in the second half of December, 2008. I’d achieved my goal of deepening my practice in New York City and now felt I had to be in a quiet place to make sure I wasn’t in a state of denial about my brother’s death.

During my retreat at Deer Park, we were put into groups for Dharma discussion. I told the group about my experience with the Diamond Sutra and my brother. There was another man in the group—I’ll call him “H”—who had also lost his brother the year before, and still appeared to be in a lot of pain. The next day, as the Sangha walked among the sage and boulders of the surrounding mountains, I thought to myself, Jason is not Jason. That’s why we call him Jason. “H” was walking ahead of me, and he immediately stopped and turned around. He smiled and gave me a great big hug that pushed my hat askew and stopped the long line behind us.

We walked to an open space where we all sat on boulders and ate our lunch. I smiled, remembering a conversation I once had with Brother Phap Dung, the abbot of Deer Park, about being at the monastery. “Here,” he said, “when you need a brother or sister, a brother or sister is there for you. When you need a mom, a mom tends to appear.”

A simple, childlike painting that Cameron made hangs in our bedroom in New York. It’s a large group of people, all colors and sizes, each with a heart in their chest, sitting under a yellow sun and torn-paper sky. If you look closely, you can see that the little clouds are words torn from a dictionary: we…all…have…a…beating…heart…in…our…chest. On Christmas Eve, I played a song to the Sangha gathered in the meditation hall at Deer Park. I looked at all the faces there—the children, parents, brothers, sisters, monks, and nuns—and told them how much they reminded me of the painting. The song was called Everything’s in Everything, inspired by Cameron’s painting, The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion, and the reality of interbeing.

We all have a beating heart in our chest

There is nothing separating East and West

We are breathing in and out the same sky

We are looking at each other with new eyes Everything’s in Everything

Everyone’s in Everything

Everything’s in Everyone

Everyone’s in Everyone

I love all the people passing by me

I love all the buildings in the sky of the city

I know all the forests are my lungs breathing

I know all the oceans are my blood streaming

Peace is resting in the palm of our hands

We can see it in a tiny grain of sand

Breathing in and out we smile to the moment

Everything’s in everything and always flowing

mb53-Diamond4Nate Metzker, Compassionate Sound of the Heart, is a novelist and musician who lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the McCarton School for Children with Autism. On his website, www.natemetzker.com, is an mp3 of the song mentioned in this story.

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Love in Our Generation

By Jenny Hamp

mb60-Love1In April 2011, I asked a Brooklyn Sangha friend how to get in touch with New York Wake Up. The next week I found out I was organizing it. My friend had volunteered me to help a young adult from the Manhattan Sangha who wanted to start a group. Our incentive was an email from Thay’s monastics, a mission like the start of a treasure map: you will have four days with eight monastics for part of a Wake Up tour in New York City, and “it is up to you folks to decide what to do.” Eventually four of us (two men and two women; two people of color and two Caucasians) got together to create a Wake Up group… and somehow plan for our part of the tour.

We decided to focus on the upcoming monastics’ visit and to use weekly Wake Up meetings, open to anyone, for practice and planning. We would have a short sit, drink tea, eat a meal, or walk together in the park. Then we would look at many exciting questions: Should we have a retreat in one place, or different places? Should we have people bring lunch? How were we going to advertise? Understanding often came in conversation when we weren’t looking for answers. I soon caught on to a new energy I hadn’t experienced before. After each meeting I felt lighter, inspired, and optimistic, whether or not we had made any headway. It took me a while to notice this wasn’t a chance occurrence.

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We cast wide nets for schools and contemplative groups who might want to help share the practice with young adults. Every time we had a good insight, or successfully connected with a student group, it felt like sharing a good meal that was never finished. Every time we miscommunicated with someone or an opportunity fell through, we supported each other and held the disappointment without blame or judgment.

Many people quickly swung out to help. The monastics planning the tour brought their experience and clear vision to pull all the threads together. Our lay Dharma teachers offered their full support and also their contacts at universities for us to meet. The Gershwin Hotel provided housing, event planning, food, and a free event space. A young business consultant joined us in planning the tour and launched a Facebook campaign. When we pulled the nets in, we found we would have a full Day of Mindfulness in the city, a concert, a flash mob, two visits to private schools, a visit to a public school, and two sessions at a juvenile detention center. Additionally, over 300 people were planning to attend.

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The Fruit of Our Efforts

On the first day of the Wake Up Tour in New York, I got to see the fruit of these efforts. After a mindful meal, the monastics asked the group of about 100 young adults what they had experienced. One person was aware of each ingredient in her sandwich, much more now than when she made it. Someone else discovered he actually did not enjoy peanut butter and jelly very much. I was hearing calm accounts of people becoming aware of their food—not as an exotic experiment that was outside of themselves, but as a simple witnessing and perceiving through their own senses. I felt so happy to see that with half a day of practice in the city it was possible to stop. I felt like I had gained many sisters and brothers in an instant. Here were so many other young adults with the same open interest and hopefulness.

Another highlight for me was the ice cream machine at Lehman College. After a session with students, we had dinner there with the monastics and some young adults traveling on the tour. The vending machine was a contraption, and we were so excited to put money in it and see gears and claws and hinges whirring around just to deliver an ice cream sandwich! We laughed with total abandon, and got a second sandwich so we could watch it again, crying with laughter. The sisters cut the sandwiches up carefully so everyone could have a bite, and it seemed totally satisfying. To me this was joy we completely shared, this silliness and amazement generated as a group, just to take in this moment and make each other happy.

The Power to Embrace

Today our Wake Up organizing team of four has grown into eight and has become the caretaking council for Wake Up New York. A yoga center owner who follows Thay offered his space so we could meet. Instead of going to bars on Friday nights, people can come for an hour of practice and then hang out with us. Two of us are pre-aspirants and two are aspirants to the Order of Interbeing, and we feel our teachers right there with us. We have about fifteen people each week. The group has been very joyful and supportive. It is a place where I feel comfortable sharing and can let the group carry me when I feel less able.

At first I thought Wake Up was a space for young adults to relax with our peers and practice a little. However, after practicing with this group and seeing such a strong response in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, I think it’s more than that. Many of us are noticing how affected we are after each gathering; we feel stronger, more confident, and more optimistic. I think it has something to do with meeting people who have similar suffering, and who will be with us for the rest of our lives. Perhaps we realize that many other young adults also feel capable of living in a more humane and compassionate society. We look across the room and see motivation and love in our generation.

We try to deal with the economy, the climate, the suffering of our parents in us, discrimination and greed in our culture, all alone, and maybe we feel sad about the future. I think Wake Up has changed our perspective. From feeling helpless, we’ve moved to feeling we have the power to embrace what lies ahead. It feels very simple: we can accomplish this just by being there for ourselves and each other. In this space we can actively create the acceptance and freedom we want everyone to have, and we feel empowered.

The mission statement developed by Wake Up New York:

Wake Up New York is a group of young meditation practitioners who get together to create a joyful space of refuge for young adults. We are inspired by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. We do the fun things that New York City dwellers do, but actively maintain the best elements of our culture: inclusiveness, healthy consumption, hope, joy, great energy, activism, and community. By being wonderfully together we create support for each other. We find we are not alone with the suffering of our generation. We seek out our true selves amid the dynamics of our new relationships, new jobs, struggling minds, dynamic bodies, busy cities, and big life changes. We share our success in practicing mindfulness and finding happiness. We practice with our local Sanghas, at practice centers, and with the teachings, so as to nurture our hearts and minds and create real hope for our generation and our future.

mb60-Love4Jenny Hamp, Peaceful Refuge of the Heart, practices with the Rock Blossom Sangha in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner Tim. She works as a mechanical engineer, tries to help reduce energy consumption in buildings, and practices not starting interesting new projects.

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Living Beautifully, Living Solidly

A Day of Mindfulness for People of Color

By Angela Dews 

We are not noble by our race, but by our way of thinking, speaking, and acting. Nobility comes from thoughts that have understanding and compassion. We are noble by our way of life.

– Thich Nhat Hanh at the first people of color retreat, “Colors of Compassion,” March 2004

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The summer day selected for “Living Beautifully, Living Solidly: A Day of Mindfulness for People of Color” in New York City turned out to be the same day as the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party with 125,000 people,  a Hari Krishna parade with floats down Fifth Avenue and a street fair on Madison Avenue.

Most of the more than forty individuals who came together on June 9, 2012, walked mindfully together through the smoke and smells and sounds of drums and cymbals.  Afterwards, Brother Phap Thuat asked our small group to share the experiences of our mindfulness practice in this crowded city. The answers spoke to the deep settling we had been led to: “The crowd is made up of single people and we send love to each one of them.” “Sangha is essential.” “Today, it is easy to see that the fruits of our practice benefitted all beings.”

During the day’s practice, Sisters Lang Nghiem and Cu Nghiem and Brothers Phap Khoi and Phap Thuat led the People of Color (POC) Sangha in guided sitting and movement, mindful eating and deep relaxation, a Dharma talk, group discussion, and a question-and-answer session.

The Day of Mindfulness (DOM) brought together members of the New York Sanghas—Morning Star in Queens, Riverside in Manhattan, Rock Blossom in Brooklyn—as well as visitors from Philadelphia’s Peaceful City Sangha. Members of the New York Insight Meditation Center, where the DOM was held, also attended. For some, this was their first practice in the tradition of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. The NYI POC Sangha gratefully received gifts of a beautiful bell, one of Thay’s calligraphies, and the wonderful book, Awakening of the Heart.

The first New York City DOM for people of color in this tradition was held two years ago. Last year, the monastics concentrated on the many elements of Thay’s 2011 North American teaching tour, so there was a special sweetness inherent in the organizing team’s gratitude that the seeds of mindfulness could be allowed to again take root in New York City.

From the anonymous responses to an online survey conducted afterwards, it appears that the seeds did indeed take root and blossom:

I found the day to be inspiring, deepening my daily practice. I understand better that every moment can be mindful, like a meditation.

It was, as is always the case, a wonderful way to spend a day, in fellowship with other POC, deepening practice, listening to each other, and spreading metta in the room and beyond.

I connected very strongly with the ways in which we can practice for those in our lives who aren’t able to because of their paths. This was a new way for me to think about meditation practice as a kind of metta.

Although I did not feel as comfortable speaking in the smaller group, I was working on just listening and not feeling like I should respond to my every impulse to speak. I greatly enjoyed hearing about other people’s experiences.

 

mb62-LivingBeautifully2Angela Dews attended the first people of color retreat at Deer Park, where she took the Five Mindfulness Trainings and was given the name Peacemaker, Strength of the Heart.

 

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