Zen Master Influenced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
By Janet Alston Jackson
Driving up the steep mountain in Escondido, California, I didn’t know what to expect. I had read books by Thich Nhat Hanh, the small, 83 year-old Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Master, but I wanted to see and hear him speak in person. More importantly, I wanted to find inner peace.
For years, I had meditated on my own. I attended various meditation centers, however, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me.
They were mostly Caucasian. I felt uncomfortable and the strain of trying to fit in. Yes, I was attending Black churches, too. I was raised in both Black Methodist and Baptist churches in Chicago, and in Los Angeles. I attended the Church of Religious Science, where I went into the ministry. So I knew the religious teachings and doctrines well, but I wanted to get closer to my Higher Self. Meditation helped me quiet my outer mind so I could hear God talking to me, and I wanted to learn how to sustain that practice even in the middle of a heavy work schedule.
So when I learned that the second People of Color retreat on Mindfulness was taking place, in Escondido, California at Deer Park Monastery, I rushed to sign up. Deer Park was established in 2000 by Nhat Hanh, or as his followers call him, Thay, Vietnamese for teacher. He has written over 100 books, and has become an important influence in the development of Western Buddhism. Oprah calls him a “courageous warrior.”
Driving slowly up that steep mountain I was not sure where I was going, or what I would find. When I got out of my car, and the dust settled on the road, a wave of calm energy came over me. I saw Blacks, Hispanics, Asians all climbing out of their cars too. They came from everywhere throughout the country. Immediately, I remembered a sign I passed entering the gates of the monastery, which read my mind, “You have arrived”. I truly felt like I was home. And, the next few days was nothing short of transformational for me and the other brothers and sisters.
Now, a new inspirational book,” Together We Are One,” by Thich Nhat Hanh, compiled with talks from attendees from the first People of Color Retreat at Deer Park, shares personal stories from people of different colors and backgrounds how Mindfulness and the People of Color retreat helped heal their sufferings. With chapters focusing on honoring our ancestors and finding our true identity, Nhat Hanh demonstrates how our different ethnic and cultural backgrounds offer rich resources for creating a sense of wholeness and connection among us. He also shares his story as an exile and an immigrant as well as offering his thoughtful responses to world events, including the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the election of Barack Obama.
The “Colors of Compassion” film, is soon to be released about that historic first retreat documented in the book, “Together We Are One.” The film also shares people of color personal experiences of how Buddhist practice impacts their lives and issues of heritage, identity, discrimination, and social justice.
One of the Buddhist nuns spear-heading the first retreat and the ones I later attended, is Sister Jewel, a beautiful African American woman who travels around the world with Nhat Hanh and other monastics setting up retreats, and monasteries.
It was in China when she was on tour with Thay that she and a small group approached him for the first people of color retreat. Having experienced extreme prejudice himself Nhat Hanh knew of the importance for people of color to come together to support one another in a Sangha, a community following the teachings of Buddha, including mindfulness (intentionally tuning in to the present moment), the development of a practice (a regular activity, such as mindful walking, that redirects you toward right thinking), and enlightenment (the liberation from suffering that comes when you wake up to the true nature of reality).
Nhat Hanh understands the violence of war and the pain of being displaced by war along with discrimination and cultural exclusion. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and founded a relief organization that rebuilt bombed Vietnamese villages.
He set up schools and medical centers and resettled homeless families. In addition, he created a Buddhist University, a publishing house, and a peace activist magazine. When he left on a peace mission the Vietnamese government forbid him for returning home. For 39 years he was in exile. Today, he lives in Plum Villages a monastery he has established in France.
“Thay wrote Dr. Martin Luther King a letter, telling him many people in Vietnam were not having their voices heard,” says Sister Jewel. “They were trying to break through a wall of silence to let people know the majority of people in Vietnam didn’t want the war. They met, and Thay told Dr. King that the people in Vietnam call him a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being. It was after their sharing together that Dr. King came out against the war in Vietnam. Thay had a big impact on him. In 1967 Dr. King nominated Thay for a Nobel Peace Prize.”
Sister Jewel shares her personal path to Mindfulness and becoming a nun in, “Together We Are One”. “I learned about Thay from a friend, when I was attending Stanford. I read one of the smallest books he wrote, on walking meditation. I started practicing it around the lake by campus. Then I learned about a summer retreat at Plum Village. It was a one-month retreat but I stayed for four months. I began to seriously consider monastic life. I grew up in a Christian family, so I was use to doing things with a lot of people. The monastery was a very supportive experience for me. I was inspired living with people who had a sense of purpose and desire to serve, to help relieve suffering. That was something I was looking for my whole life, so coming into a community was a very natural choice for me.”
“Together We Are One,” urge readers to honor and connect with their ancestors to heal the past of sufferings and prejudices. “The practice of Mindfulness took me back to my roots in Denver. To know who I am, I have to know my family better,” says Sister Jewel, who didn’t see much of her mother after her parents divorced. “I realized there was a hole there, and I needed to fill it.”
Living as a Buddhist nun has helped her heal from rejection and discrimination she felt growing up as a biracial child. However, it wasn’t easy for her to adjust to others in the monastery.
“Of course there were people I saw early on who were difficult to get along with. When you live in a community, you can’t choose who you are living with, and people you have difficulty with you can’t avoid them,” says Sister Jewel. “You work with them, you see them at meals, and in the bathroom. So you have to figure out how to live with them, and accept them, and grow in your heart. I remember the first few months of being a nun, I had expected it to be very peaceful very deeply spiritual. All of my habits and judgments were coming up in a way they hadn’t come up before. I thought this isn’t supposed to be happening. A few months later, I realized, this is exactly what is suppose to be happening.
How can you transform these things if you don’t see them and if you don’t create a space for them to arise? I got to see this monastic life is not rosy, it’s real work. It’s digging deep into my consciousness to see what garbage is there that needs to be transformed into flowers. I had to accept who I really am and to work with that, and transform the things that need to be transformed to grow into peace, and harmony.”
Listening to Sister Jewel talk about monastic life, reminded me of the People of Color retreat I attended in 2005. It was a transformational experience for us all sharing our views on discrimination, and how we too discriminated. Each day, we saw the burden of our suppressed anger and fears being released, and everyone looked lighter, and happier.
There was no escaping our thoughts. We meditated in silence, ate in silence, and walked in silence. Being quiet over four days, gave me an opportunity to look at what held me back in life.
This included anger and fears. At times it was difficult, but looking over at my sisters and brothers from around the country, many Christian, I knew they were doing the same, and that gave me the courage and the energy to release my old tiring, thoughts and to transform them into love.
Upcoming People of Color Retreat: October 22-26, 2010
Call 845-733-4959, ext. 21
Blue Cliff Monastery
Pine Bush, NY 12566
Janet Alston Jackson