planning

Engaged Practice Mindfully

Preparing for Thay’s Public Talk in Chicago By Jack and Laurie Lawlor

Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois, was fortunate to facilitate Thich Nhat Hanh’s August 22 public talk on “Building a Century of Peace” at Loyola University Chicago. The event proved to be the largest ever held at the University’s Gentile Center, attracting approximately 5,600 people. Thay has invited us to reflect on the event.

Looking back, one can see that our ability to offer Thay’s message to so many people was dependent on the collective efforts of the Sangha and its deep, twelve-year-old roots in our community. We all aspired to make the event available to a diverse audience, and the seeds for that opportunity proved to lie within the Sangha itself. For years, graduate students from Loyola University Chicago’s Jesuit seminary have been practicing at Lakeside. With the support of the University’s president, the Jesuit community offered the free use of the University’s largest facility at no cost. This enabled us to place the event in one of Chicago’s most diverse and accessible neighborhoods.

mb35-Engaged1

We knew from the outset that the event would be counterproductive if we became anxious or overwrought by all the many details of organizing, so we made a conscious decision to devote the same heightened degree of mindfulness often reserved for retreat to our earliest organizing efforts. We also decided to plan early and to implement our activities in an orderly fashion.

We began by drawing upon the talent and experience of Sangha members who had organized similar talks. This helped immensely. For example, Brother Phap Kham gave us a clear sense of the rhythm we should apply in doing our print advertising, mailings, and similar communications. Others offered helpful insights about publicity and how to organize volunteers to facilitate a large audience.

We drew upon local Sangha talent by holding three large Sangha-wide planning sessions. There we identified local ticket vendors, and with Brother Phap Kham’s help in setting up Ticketweb sales, we were ready to employ our earliest waves of publicity. First, we sent packages of posters produced with the help of Lien Ho of the Deer Park community to local interfaith networks, Buddhist temples and centers, community groups, and peace activists. Loyola University also spread the word to Catholic peace organizations and innumerable parishes and interfaith groups. We were delighted when a network of fifty Chicago area community activists from the historic Industrial Areas Foundation invited us to speak about Thay and mindfulness practice. With the technical help of Northwestern University students, we created a Web page complete with vendor information, travel instructions and maps. As a result, we sold approximately 1,000 tickets before our first print advertising appeared, about two months before the event. This included over 150 press releases sent to small community newspapers, television, and radio stations after an extensive review of Chicago media guides, in an effort to attract a diverse audience. As the event grew near, we appeared in the weekly free press, in monthly healthy living magazines, and in the Chicago Tribune.

With over 3,000 tickets distributed, it was time to organize for the event itself. Here is where years of Sanghabuilding bore fruit. After meeting several times with Loyola University’s staff, we had a clear grasp of the facility and the challenges we would face in seating such a large audience in an athletic center. We held another Sangha planning session, and after several weeks of recruiting had enlisted over eighty volunteers willing to help out. We rented walkie-talkies to coordinate the volunteers who directed patrons from University parking lots and transit stations. We located two “signers” to deliver Thay’s talk to the hearing impaired, who with the elderly and handicapped were provided special seating.

As the event drew near, we placed fifteen-second spots on public radio and a sixty-second spot on the local classical music station, each of which was broadcast for five days. These proved to be extremely effective, as all remaining seats were filled in less than one week.

mb35-Engaged2

The Event

After ten months of continuous planning, the day of the event arrived. Our local Sangha, together with members of the monastic community, arrived hours early to prepare the building. Three hours before his public talk, Thay accepted an honorary doctorate and spoke to Loyola’s incoming freshman students and their parents, who were enjoying their first day on campus. Loyola is integrating Thay’s teaching into its courses, requiring the freshmen to study several of Thay’s books! This event served as a “practice” session for our evening talk, and everything, including the sound system, worked perfectly.

It was both inspiring and startling to see over 5,000 people stream into the building a few hours later. At Thay’s request, each person was handed a small sheet of paper containing instructions in mindful breathing and describing how everyone would be practicing sitting meditation in silence at their seats while the audience was assembling. Upon entering the meditation hall, it was striking to see Thay meditating in the lotus position on the stage in the company of eighty monks and nuns, with the backdrop of a lovely altar and flower arrangements designed and assembled by local Sangha members.

As the Buddha reminds us, life contains impermanence and surprise. Our biggest surprise was that the sound system that had worked so well while Thay stood and addressed the freshmen approximately three hours earlier was incapable of reaching everyone once Thay was seated, using a combination of lapel and lavolier microphones. Those in the highest seats, located closest to the building’s air vents, had to strain to hear Thay’s gentle voice through the “white noise” of vent fans. Thay generously invited those folks to sit on the floor nearest him. Other problems with the microphones weren’t resolved until after the first third of Thay’s talk, just in time for several rounds of applause as Thay offered insights into the challenges facing American society.

We were deeply sorry that, for various reasons, a portion of the audience could not hear Thay to their satisfaction. For those unable to hear no matter what we did, we promptly offered and subsequently provided refunds to over 100 people. The transcript of Thay’s talk is available at www.LakesideBuddha.com, thanks to the help of volunteers.

Done completely through volunteer effort, this is an example of what the maha-Sangha can collectively accomplish. There could not have been a better time to offer Thay’s message of peace. Let us hope that our local Sanghas can help nurture the seeds of Thay’s message in our communities in order to lessen the odds that our society will lurch from one crisis to the next without looking deeply into the underlying causes and conditions. As Thay reflects in For a Future to be Possible, “Good practitioners always keep Sangha-building in mind. Sangha-building is the work of months and years ... We have to pool our strength in order to build a Sangha.”

Jack and Laurie Lawlor are Dharma teachers and founders of the Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Chicago, Illinois.

PDF of this article

The Ultimate Dimension

A Practice with Dying and Death By Haven Tobias

Some friends and I joined in a practice to write about death and dying.* When we shared what we had written, we learned that the following drama was everybody’s worst-case scenario.

I am in a nursing home where, even if someone cared enough to prop me up so that I could look out the window, I would see only a parking lot. The nursing home is so institutionally gray and dull, and my room is so gray and dull, that I cannot tell what time of day it is, much less what season. There are no flowers or plants in my room. Whatever it is I am dying of, it is taking a while, and I have been lying in this bed a long time, becoming a drooling, pants-wetting, shriveled-up old lady. I am being warehoused, away from contact with human beings, other than a nurse’s aide, whose sole expression seems to be annoyance. I can no longer see to read, or watch movies, or do jigsaw puzzles. There is no one to read to me, or play Cyrano to my Roxanne, bringing me the news of the day. There is no one to spread lotion on my dry and cracked back and feet. There is no discernible end to this nightmare—no death, just a drawn-out dying by increments.

There was an end to the nightmare—it was a writing exercise, not immediate reality. My friends and I could conceive of more horrific circumstances, such as being kidnapped and tortured to death. But all of us agreed that the worst-case scenario, lingering on without loving care in an institutional setting, was worst precisely because it was common and probable.

While I kept trying, as I wrote, to turn my attention to compassion for all those who languish in nursing homes, honesty compels me to admit I was wallowing in self-pity for that lonely little old lady that was me.

Fortunately, the exercise did not finish with the worst-case scenario. It was with some relief that I moved on to the second part of the exercise, writing about my ideal scenario.

Ideally, I know in advance that I am dying. I can take a gentle leave of my friends and family and remove myself to the sea, to a cottage along the coast in Massachusetts or Maine. I have my wits about me. The pain comes and goes, and when it comes I am able to breathe and say, hello, I know you are just pain. Perhaps my daughter is with me. I know she understands I am at peace about my death. She knows I am at peace about my dying, too.

It is late spring or early autumn. It is warm, and I am still physically able to walk to the shore when the day becomes night and sit on the beach, listening to the waves and watching the stars. As first light comes and I watch the sky over the water turn to pearl, I have enough acuity to remember the closing gatha of the Diamond Sutra: “Thus should one view all of the fleeting world; a drop of dew, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a star at dawn, a phantom and a dream.” I lie down in the sand and die.

Sharing our ideal death made all of us more emotional than sharing the worst-case scenario. There was fear that the ideal was so much less likely than the worst case. Almost all of us wanted to die on a shore or mountaintop or under a tree, and not in a hospital or nursing home, but we feared the odds.

We were ready for the third part of the exercise: what can we do, here and now, to make a life worth dying for? Most of us, perhaps to calm our emotions, became very practical. We made promises to work on wills and to speak with family members about worries and fears and wishes and feelings. But we also understood that preparation for death is not limited to practicalities.

As for myself, in preparation, I have read and reread Thay’s book No Death, No Fear. Thay teaches that when the fear of dying is exacerbated by the fear of death, it is like receiving a second arrow in a wound. Thay also teaches about recognizing choices. Choice permeates every aspect of our life, the way we live it, and the way we die.

There is no element of choice in death. The self that I call “I” will die. But I can choose to overcome fear of death.

There is an element of choice in dying. Whatever the causes and conditions of my dying may be, I can choose to participate in the process with equanimity. I have two daily practices to help me understand the process and to water the seeds of equanimity.

The Five Remembrances

I practice every day with the Five Remembrances, a meditation taught by the Buddha:

This body is of the nature to grow old. This body cannot escape old age.

This body is of the nature to decline in health. This body cannot escape ill health.

This body is of the nature to die. This body cannot escape death.

Everyone I love, and everything I have, I will one day have to let go. I cannot escape this.

I am the heir of my karma; my karma is my heir.

This teaching of the Buddha about the impermanence of life in the historical dimension, in the “mundane world,” is a core practice in Buddhism. I am also mindful, as I practice the Five Remembrances, of Thay’s teachings about the ultimate dimension, or what some would call nirvana. Awareness of the ultimate dimension informs both my understanding of the mundane world and my grasp of the reality of no-death.

This body is of the nature to grow old. This body cannot escape old age. But I am not this body, and this body is not me.

This body is of the nature to decline in health. This body cannot escape ill health. But mindfulness practice guides me to protect my health as best I can, in my choices of what to eat or not eat, and what to drink or not drink, and in the choices I make about my activities and my attitudes. The reality of interbeing, which is the truth that no self is a separate self but rather “inter-is” with every other being, teaches me that every choice I make has consequences for myself, for my family, and for society. I cannot choose to eat a steak every day, I cannot choose to drink a bottle of wine every day, I cannot opt to watch a violent program on TV instead of taking a walk outdoors, and pretend there are no personal and societal consequences.

This body is of the nature to die. This body cannot escape death. But I was never born, and I will never die. When causes and conditions were sufficient, I manifested in this body. When causes and conditions cease to be sufficient, I will no longer manifest in this body. But just as surely as the morning star is still “there” even after the sun rises, so shall I be. There is a famous Zen koan: what did you look like before your grandparents were born; what will you look like in one hundred years?

Everyone I love, and everything I have, I will one day have to let go. I cannot escape this. We all have to leave our stuff behind. That house we put so much of ourselves into, that car we thought was so important to own, the jewelry, the gadgets—all of it will turn to junk, before or after we’ve left. The important thing is love, and because the ultimate reality is the reality of interbeing—that we all contain one another—love does not die. Love continues in every kind word I have ever spoken and every smile I have ever smiled. Kind words and loving smiles get passed around the world and back again.

I am the heir of my karma; my karma is my heir. Where I am now, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, is the sum total of all that I have done before now. Karma is the consequence of every action I’ve taken. But karma is not my fate. If I have had a tendency in the past to act in a certain situation with anger or anxiety, I can choose, now, not to act in that situation with anger or anxiety. In every moment, I can choose to nourish my seeds of peace and compassion rather than feeding my seeds of anger or fear.

mb53-TheUltimate1

Never the Same Path

My second daily practice is a walking meditation. I always walk with Thay, and breathe with the Buddha. Here, now. Walking, breathing. Walking with Thay. Happy feet, peaceful steps. Breathing with the Buddha. Releasing, letting go.

I walk the same path every day at the same time. But of course, it is never the same path and it is never the same time. I know, because the whole cosmos has told me on these walks that I am not walking the same path at the same time. The whole cosmos tells me that nothing lasts forever as it is now. And that is a blessing.

If everything lasted forever as it is now, five-year-olds could never become teachers or nurses or mothers or fathers. New friendships could not begin. Relationships could not deepen. Everything is in the process of change. Sometimes if we are fearful or grieving, it feels like loss. But it is not loss; it is transformation.

When I start my walk, I count the stars. I count a couple of dozen without even moving my head. After twenty minutes, I look again and count maybe fifteen stars. I walk a little longer, and it is dawn, and there is only the morning star. Are all the stars gone? They are here. It’s just that you can’t see them. They are not gone. Night has become morning in the natural process of change. But maybe indeed one of those stars has transformed. I could have been seeing the light of a star that exploded zillions of years ago. Is it gone? Or are we all stardust, interchanging our energies?

I close my walk, as I hope to close my life, with the Diamond Sutra: “Thus should one view all of the fleeting world; a drop of dew, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a star at dawn, a phantom and a dream.”

These two daily practices, sitting with the Buddha’s Five Remembrances, and walking with Thay’s interbeing, help me to develop equanimity about death and dying. And, oh, about life and living too, and the gift of the present moment.

* This practice was adapted from one recommended by Joan Halifax Roshi in her book Being with Dying. She advises that the exercise be done in community, so each writer has support. On two separate occasions, I facilitated different members of my meditation group sharing this practice. We found that intimacy is one consequence of this exercise and that therefore trust and respect are essential.

Hmb53-TheUltimate2aven Tobias, Embracing Freshness of the Heart, facilitates the Norman Meditation Group, which includes practitioners from many traditions. She is a semi-retired lawyer.

PDF of this article

Peace, Understanding, and Compassion

An Urban Retreat for People of Color By Valerie Brown Copyright 2010

mb55-Peace1

“The value of a person is not his race or caste, but the value of his thinking, speaking, and acting. We are noble not because of our race, but by our way of thinking, acting, and speaking.” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Colors of Compassion Retreat, Deer Park Monastery, Escondido, CA (2004)

After months of planning, hundreds of emails, meetings, and discussions, the Sanghas of the New York City and Philadelphia areas held our first People of Color Days of Mindfulness, supported by the monastics of Blue Cliff Monastery, on April 17 in West Philadelphia and on May 22 in Manhattan. These were the first People of Color Days of Mindfulness held outside monastery walls. For me, these days of practice marked a real “growing edge” of the Sangha and a unique moment to bring the collective energy of mindfulness to the heart of the largest cities in the United States.

Planning these events involved extraordinary attention to details. We made efforts to ensure that people of color from a wide array of backgrounds—Indian, Vietnamese, African American, Latino, and many others—felt cared for and loved. The Philadelphia Planning Team, all people of color, worked joyfully, knowing that our mindfulness in the present moment would form the base for our practice and the entire Sangha. We were well supported by Philadelphia area Sanghas, including Peaceful City Sangha, Lilac Breeze Sangha, Open Hearth Sangha, Willow Branch Sangha, and Old Path Sangha. The Philadelphia Shambhala Meditation Center Sangha offered considerable support as well. For the NewYork City Day of Mindfulness, the organizing team was supported by the Community of Mindfulness NewYork Metro and NewYork Insight Society. We took each email as an opportunity for practice.

Safe and Supportive Practice

The Philadelphia Day of Mindfulness would not have been possible without the loving support of the monks and nuns of Blue Cliff Monastery. Their mindful practice and sharing of personal stories was inspirational. Their words of encouragement and insight about handling difficult emotions, being aware of what supports us, and what to do with erratic practice, led to the emerging of a deep theme: the importance of connecting with like-minded people.

Many people were new to the practice or had practiced meditation in isolation for years. Initially, we came together with a sense of hesitation and fear. Slowly, we released these feelings through sitting meditation practice, gentle movement, rest, and outdoor walking meditation on the city streets. In group discussions, many expressed deep gratitude for creating a safe and supportive atmosphere where people of color could practice together, knowing that our practice would benefit not only ourselves, but the entire Sangha. By the end of the day, there were tears, laughter, and a strong desire to continue what was started.

Learning to Love Ourselves

For many of us, the gifts of time and space have become increasingly hard to find, especially in New York City. This People of Color Day of Mindfulness was a huge gift to us. The gifts of time, of space, of being truly present to ourselves—all these were ways of learning to love ourselves. I recall the words of Sister True Vow: “When you give yourself space, you give yourself love.”

mb55-Peace2

We explored acknowledging and embracing our fears as they arise, and practicing listening deeply and communicating in a loving way. When asked about how to deal with difficult, harmful, deep-seeded patterns of communication, Sister Fulfillment said, “The greatest inspiration for your loved one is the fruit of your practice… Our transformation is the best we can do to help our loved one.”

Walking Meditation in the Big City

Perhaps the most moving moments for me were during walking meditation on the sidewalks, which were full of city life. I was particularly moved during the Philadelphia event. As we turned a corner, directly in front of our group of sixty people were two homeless men sitting on a park bench. They were visibly fascinated, sensing the peace in our movement. In Manhattan, the experience was even more profound. People stopped and looked in wonder, knowing that something they could not explain was happening as our group of seventy-five people walked by mindfully.

I grew up in New York City and know the streets well. Normally, I am in a rush, walking, thinking about my destination or a project. I live by the language of speed, pushing myself to do more and try harder, and I am rewarded for it at work. But on this day, despite the traffic, crowds, people on skateboards, people walking their dogs and eating from street vendors, it all seemed so very interconnected, and our group of people of color seemed to fit beautifully and seamlessly into the flow of city life. A feeling of great luxury and ease came over me as I walked slowly, feeling the soles of my shoes on the cement sidewalks. Going slowly while everything around me moved at high speed, my experience seemed almost surreal. As I looked around me, some people stopped while others seemed unphased by it all. At that moment I felt so much freedom—freedom from deadlines, projects, and pressing obligations. It was a moment of great happiness.

A Step Forward

Both of these People of Color Days of Mindfulness came together organically. I am sure that we as a Sangha benefited those who participated and those who witnessed our energy of mindful walking, as well as those who assisted us but did not attend the events. The Sangha has made an important step forward by offering both Days of Mindfulness to the wider people of color community. Many people who attended had never participated in this type of event, but were very open. I am hopeful that the Sangha will continue to offer urban practice days for people of color, knowing that mindfulness at its core is about developing a heart of love.

mb55-Peace3Valerie Brown, True Power of the Sangha, was ordained as an OI Member in 2003. She is a founding member of Old Path Sangha in New Hope, PA, and has attended every People of Color Retreat since their inception in 2004 at Deer Park Monastery. Her essay on mindfulness is featured in Thay’s new book on People of Color, We Are All Together.

PDF of this article