Monday, April 21, 2014

Around the block

"Buddhism and Modern Thought" began with a walk today. More specifically a group walking meditation, inspired by those led by Thich Nhat Hanh. (He extols the "healing energy" of group meditation practices.) I'd proposed it as a fancy but students wanted it. It fell to me to be the leader, setting the slow pace. I led us around the block framed by 11th and 10th Streets, Fifth and Sixth Avenues, moving clockwise. It took 20 minutes. At first the pace was hard to maintain, then it glid on by itself. The first encounters with other people I was self-conscious, but this soon passed. I was grateful to be in New York, where strange things are met with a bemused shrug, and found myself pleased at the spectacle we must have presented - pleased to look like its insouciant leader. But on noisier Sixth Avenue, my arches ached.
 
I'm no meditation leader, but I can walk resolutely ahead, never looking to the sides or back. I've no idea what went on behind me, except that two joggers needed to ask to pass through the group in the first minutes, but later ones didn't need to ask. I'd told the class it wasn't the point to be more observant of our surroundings, but of course we were. In the early morning light colors and edges were crisp; the occasional patch of direct sun embraced us and let us go as we moved on. We were walking contrary to car traffic, which soon came to seem mere flickers of yellow at the left edge of our visual field. More on our wavelength were dogs and their faithful owners. The reunion with a garbage truck we'd first passed on 11th Street - another slow mover - was happy.The Church of the Ascension's magnolias danced above our heads in stately arcs as we passed. A crowd of miniature daffodils smiled cheerily at us, as if knowing we were a few steps from seeing others already wilting, stiff and awkward with perplexity. (All the photos you're seeing were taken hours later; the daffodils had been in shadow.) But a chain saw we heard screeching from an approaching doorway soon after that was a distant echo before I noticed we'd passed it. I'm making all this sound very significant; it wasn't. I tried to think of a walker in the Thich Nhat Hanh film who said "I slow down for my mother, who never had the chance," but mine was a Jane Jacobs idyll; landmarked gentrified Greenwich Village is already a fantasy enclave of a slower world.
When we returned to class, it was predictably difficult to get back into discussion mode. Once we did, though, it wasn't about the beauty of the world but it's abysses. We'd read some of Hsiao-Lan Hu's This-Worldly Nibbana, which describes the disproportionate vulnerability of women to every kind of social suffering, and the way Buddhism for most of its history has thought this karmically justified. Greed, hatred and delusion produce vast suffering, but it seems not to happen to those responsible for it. My old friend the problem of evil rearing its ugly head! Could it be that even Buddhism was part of the problem, a problem deeper than any proposed solution? The discussion was very intense, even raw. I wonder if our silent and almost too beautiful walk together against the grain of the harried city made this intensity possible, even necessary.

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