by Jonathan Borella
After finally parking the car several blocks away, I make my way towards the park. The streets were crowded and busy with traffic, and I’m anxious about being a little late. As I walk, I notice that my feet instinctively know where to go and carry me there effortlessly. A smile forms on my lips; I relax. Once I enter the park, I stop and slowly look around, taking it all in. In addition to our public day of mindfulness, a festival has apparently been scheduled in the park. There are colorful tents constructed at one end. There is music playing from large speakers. Families are strolling about, vendors are ringing bells to sell their ice cream, and solitary folks are sleeping in the grass. It’s loud. It’s busy. I think, “This is perfect.” As I spot a man searching through a trash can I am reminded of Shariputra’s parable in the Sutra on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger in which we are instructed to be like the man who spots a single piece of unspoiled cloth within a pile of rubbish and carefully removes it with his thumb and forefinger to later sew into his patchwork robe.
Gaining a sense of my surroundings, I lightly close my eyes. A gatha comes to mind, “I have arrived. I am home.” Though, I’ve never been here before. I open my eyes and narrow my focus to find the place where the event’s Facebook page said we’d meet – the west end of the lake. Trusting my feet, I set off towards my best approximation of west, looking out for the big banner that says in Thay’s calligraphy “Wake Up Together.” Soon, I approach the west end and practice a bit of aimlessness as I spot neither the banner nor brown robes. Maybe I’m the first to arrive. Maybe I was anxious for nothing. Then, in the corner of my vision I spot a brown jacket. The woman wearing it has the Deer Park Monastery insignia on her bag. “Ah,” I think, “I know this person.” Though, I don’t know her name nor have ever seen her face before. I introduce myself and am not surprised to find she knows me too. My smile and happy steps are a dead giveaway. We talk and soon familiar faces begin to appear.
By the time the event begins a large crowd has gathered. We stand in a large circle and sing songs: “I have arrived, I am home”, “Happiness is here and now”, “Mother Earth”. A man from the park, clearly drunk, is brought to tears. “Otra vez,” he says. After the songs, we listen as Sister Hien Nghiem offers some words of guidance on walking meditation. Then, Brother Bao Thich leads on us on a long, slow peace walk around the lake and through the surrounding area. Park goers look on in curiosity. “Who are these people in long brown robes walking so peacefully? Who are these people following them? Why are they blocking the sidewalk?!” We are a sangha. We walk together, and we invite you to walk with us too. Please enjoy a slower pace.
I am a recent transplant in LA and haven’t yet visited all of its neighborhoods. I look around and reflect on the path that has brought me from Eugene, Oregon to this impoverished neighborhood by MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, California, where I few years earlier Thay had led a similar walk with thousands of people. I see young boys and girls playing behind locked gates to protect them from the dangers of the street. I smile as peek through the bars causing a shy little girl to duck behind a trash can. Her intrigue gets the better of her though, and she pokes her head around to peek back. The Sangha continues to walk as I think, “Here is the key for unlocking the gate.” Many other precious sights lift my heart along the way. Sister Mai Nghiem kneels next to a little boy and trades him her large Vietnamese cone hat for his LA Dodgers baseball cap. The boy’s mother laughs as his bright eyes shine from beneath the hat’s shadow. I think, “This is what peace on earth looks like.” There is heartbreak too. The streets smell of urine. Everywhere I look there is someone disabled and destitute. An unstable woman aggressively attempts to engage someone in confrontation. I think, “Peace and compassion – they are the same.”
Thay has given us so many gifts for transforming our lives. Sitting, walking, and listening are the practices I rely on to bring peace to my heart and insight to my life. But, it is the Sangha that is his greatest gift. After the event officially ends, the monastics and key lay organizers stay to enjoy a picnic dinner in the park – tamales! We laugh and joke. Our speech is always free and spontaneous, yet mindful and caring. We don’t have to try too hard to love each other. We love the practice. So, our friendship is natural and enduring. I watch as Brother Bao Thich listens to another lay person. I don’t know the details of his childhood, or what name he was born with. I don’t know his birthday or his favorite color. But, I know him on a deep level. I know him like I know the woman with the Deer Park bag. I know him like I know the little girl behind the gate. I know him like I know myself. I know that we all suffer in this world together. I know that we all what peace in this world. I know that we bring joy to each other by smiling and offering our presence. And so, we practice. I look around at everyone else sitting in the grass, mole dripping from their fingers, hugging, laughing and reflecting. I feel so happy and grateful to have this community that embraces me for who I am while bringing out the best in me by reminding me of our shared humanity.