The first time I was exposed to well-known Buddhist monk, peace activist, and author Thich Nhat Hanh, who visited Boston over the weekend, was when I read his book, Miracle of Mindfulness, in a college course on Buddhism. I still recall one of our homework assignments for the class. We had to wash the dishes… which was awesome for my roommates. I’d pulled dish duty. A monk said so.
But, the assignment wasn’t to wash the dishes the way any of us typically wash the dishes, dashing off a chore so that we can move on to something better. Instead, the assignment required us to wash the dishes while being fully present and mindful. Nevermind what happens next. We were learning through real-life practice that the powerful moment–the only one over which we have any guarantee or influence–is the one happening now. Don’t wait until later to be compassionate or kind, attentive and aware. A mind does not get stronger that way. It stays distracted and anxious about what comes next… And after that?… And then what?
On Sunday, in Copley Square, I was again reminded how miraculous mindfulness can be. I went with the expectation that I’d sit quietly, among hundreds of other people, in the presence of a revered Zen master, but didn’t anticipate much more. I knew it would feel meaningful and maybe solemn. I imagined we’d hear car horns or passing Duck Tours as we meditated. Quack, quack! I hoped he’d speak a little bit. Hopefully, we could hear and understand him. I momentarily wondered if it was unsafe to congregate in an open and vulnerable public space doing something spiritual, possibly viewed as religious. After all, we were in front of a church, among hundreds of Buddhists, yards from the Boston Marathon finish line, where two bombs went off five months ago to the date.
Trinity Church’s Reverend Dr. William Rich acknowledged this fact as he introduced Thich Nhat Hanh, who was now sitting under the hot sun clad in a knit hat and multiple layers of robes and meditations shawls. Wasn’t he melting? It struck me that it couldn’t be a coincidence, this event to sit in peace and healing near an area subjected to so much suffering a short time ago. The week before had also marked the anniversary of 9/11, the reverend noted. We were still at war and now considering military action in Syria. The day before marked the Jewish holiday of atoning for sins, Yom Kippur. In any number of ways, no matter who you were, the message of the day was clear. We are here to be together in peace. We’re here to practice greater awareness and compassion because the world needs both right now.
Following his introduction, Thich Nhat Hanh did something surprising to some. He said nothing. He didn’t even open his eyes. Instead, he sat silently and meditated, signaling for a typically pulsing cross-section of the city to join him. I don’t recall car horns. Definitely no quacking. A few small children giggled or cried briefly in the crowd, but mostly, it was very quiet.
When he eventually spoke, about 25-minutes later, the famous monk said only this: Breathing in, I am aware of my breath. Breathing out, I am aware of my breath, a simple mantra to set the stage for a talk that would succinctly and poetically teach a diverse group what it means to be mindful and how it creates peace. Next, he said: Breathing in, I enjoy breathing in. Breathing out, I enjoy breathing out.
The mantras and teachings gained momentum from there. We breathed in and out qualities of a mountain’s solidity and stability, water’s stillness and reflection, a flower’s freshness and beauty, and space. Breathing in, I have the element of space within me. Breathing out, I feel free… Space: free. Nothing was too heady. No one was left out. It was the most simple yet moving talk I’ve ever witnessed on meditation or Buddhism. If I was exposed to this teacher first in college, I was now getting schooled in a whole new way.
Then, the talk dovetailed into territory I would not have predicted for an 85-year-old celibate monk: love. It could have easily represented love for a family member or friend, but to hear a monk use the word darling in three different types of mantras suggested romantic love, and it made everyone smile. Darling, I am here. Darling, I know you are here. Darling, I know that you suffer, and I am here for you.
“The most precious thing you can offer your loved one is your presence,” he said. ”To be present means to be there. How can you love, if you are not there?” His voice was gentle, but the message reverberated. Love (romantic or otherwise) doesn’t work if we’re distracted or hiding– behind suffering, the TV, iPhone, alcohol, who knows. We all have our means of avoiding reality, some healthier than others. To love means to understand suffering, our own and our darling’s.
He linked the two segments of the talk seamlessly– the meditation, breathing, and mantras– with his thoughts on love. We practice meditation so that we can restore our presence and feel more stable, free, fresh, and beautiful. ”You cannot buy it in a market,” the adorable monk cautioned in his sing-song accent, of the level of presence needed for true love. ”You have to produce it yourself.”
Somewhere along the way, my tear ducts started producing an abundance of water. I was overwhelmed. It was too beautiful maybe, the day, his words, the fact that my present moment looked, felt, and sounded the way it did, and I was sharing it with hundreds of other people, some of whom must have been having a similar experience. Their suffering was all around, their love, too. I felt a hand on my arm, which startled me. It was a kind woman offering a tissue. I could hear others nearby also weeping. Monks and nuns were chanting now, singing the name of Avalokiteshvara, the saint of compassion, and a cello played. Damn cello, gets me every time. Vast blue sky space stretched overhead, and the ground on which we sat felt solid and stable. We were being restored.
Life will always contain suffering, and it will offer opportunities to cultivate compassion, grow love, and strengthen our minds through presence and practice. Copley Square will always be the place where we went after the marathon to leave flowers, candles, sneakers, and letters. It’s where people cried and prayed. Often, they felt hopeless. Today, a proper memorial resides in the same spot, on the periphery of where Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation event occurred. The earth, there, hugging the edge of the space where so many people sat in peace and thought about love.
I still hurry through the dishes most of the time, and while writing this post, I wolfed down an apple and peanut butter so fast, I barely tasted either of them. My spoon scrapped the bottom of the bowl, and I thought, heyyy, who ate my snack? But, then, a teacher or moment reminds me of the miracle of mindfulness and skill of being present. How I can always practice, beginning simply with breathing in and breathing out. And, sometimes, the expectations in my mind are blown away by the real-life experience.