A Sangha Christmas Story By Jerry Braza
It was three days before Christmas and twenty-seven Sangha members were nestled in chairs and on cushions in our Woodland Chapel practice center. The warmth of the building coupled with the energy of the Sangha, offered us a refuge on this cool first day of winter.
The evening began with a guided meditation in preparation for our Dharma discussion on true love. “Breathing in, I am aware of the presence of the Sangha. Breathing out, I am embraced by Sangha love. Breathing in, I recognize the presence of the other. Breathing out, I am here for you. Breathing in, I am aware of the suffering in others; breathing out, I embrace your suffering.”
Following our practice session, I began to offer a Dharma discussion on the four mantras which Thay recommends we practice in our relationships. The first mantra is, “I am here for you.” One way to be here for another is to practice mindful breathing in order to bring body, mind, and spirit together. The second mantra is to truly recognize the other. We often do this through our eyes, our hugs, and words of affirmation which we selectively choose for loved ones. As I began to explain the third mantra, “Dear friend, I know you are suffering,” a loud knock on the locked side door stirred the Sangha. The door was opened and a man in his fifties appeared, “Can you help me?” he said.
Welcoming a New Friend
A Sangha member asked him to go to the main entrance where he was welcomed into our circle. As he introduced himself, it was clear that he was suffering from the cold and from emotional exhaustion. He said he was a Vietnam veteran and that he lived under the bridge. “Please help me. I don’t know where to turn and I felt the energy of this group as I went by this building. Will you pray for me?”
Instead of just talking about the concept of suffering, in this moment we had a wonderful opportunity to learn this practice experientially. I asked him, “How can we help you?” He told us he needed some money for lodging and food. We listened deeply to his suffering as he told his story. As the formal session ended we offered him a metta meditation. “May you be free from suffering. May you be well. May you find peace.” The evening’s dana was given to him as a parting gift.
The Action of True Love
That night we had a chance to open our hearts and water the seeds of understanding, compassion, and generosity. Homelessness and the scars of the Vietnam War came alive for us, and we will not easily forget the face of our suffering friend. We learned that embracing suffering in another will help us embrace our own suffering. I suspect we left with many unanswered questions: What is the best way to help? Is money always the answer? What if he drinks it away?
Every day we have opportunities to learn how to offer true love, sometimes in unexpected ways. It happens whenever our heart opens and we are truly present with another. In that moment, our breath and our practice enable us to be present with the suffering or joy of the moment. In that space, our mindfulness helps us to respond in the most appropriate way.
Several years ago I heard a story about the glove man. Each year at Christmas he walked the streets where the homeless resided and gave away gloves, which he had collected during the year. He never asked, “Should I give?” He just gave. In each moment his heart was open and he watered the seeds of generosity and compassion.
May you find ways to practice the mantras on true love as you connect with your suffering and the suffering of the world. “I am here for you. I recognize you by connecting with you. Dear one, I know you are suffering and that is why I am here for you.”