By Judith Toy
It is the third Sunday in December. As usual, wearing white, I am the first person to arrive at an empty Pack Square in the city of Asheville, North Carolina, while Philip parks the car.
I slowly circumambulate the rounded brick walk below the obelisk of Vance Monument, keeping company with actual-size hog and turkey statues commemorating Asheville’s farming origins. In our new age, the critters are bronze. I begin the process of deep quieting soften the belly, regulate the breath. Notice the brisk wind. I should have dressed more warmly.
Two men and two women cluster across the street in front of the noodle shop—talking with lively gestures the younger couple draped in stark white, head to foot. Will they walk with us? The girl is young and ebullient and spreads her white shawl’s wings like a great peace bird floating about the other three.
Having landed a parking space, Philip arrives looking like a hatted ice cream man, with creamy muffler flowing over his shoulder. Here comes the peace bird and her flock across the street toward us. Are you walking with us? Yes, yes.
We introduce ourselves and chat a bit, find these four are from Hickory, a city fifty miles east. And here arrives a lithe Buddhist woman, properly hatted and gloved, from the Anatasatti Magga Sangha! We begin our slow walk with no signs, no banners. Just follow our breath.
From the corner of my eye, I see two more Buddhists, handsome young men from the Shambala Group, catching up, bringing up the rear. We walk as one body. We are Buddha’s monks without bowls in the ancient Indian city of Maggada. Nine of us. Slow. With dignity. Into the crowd.
I notice the eyes of passersby and imagine what they’re thinking. “Oh my God, those people are weird. I can’t look. Oh no, they’re coming this way. Think I’ll duck into this store and let them pass. Aah, drug burnouts. What a beautiful smile on that one,” and so on.
I hope we don’t frighten folks. A curly headed child is throwing a screaming fit on the far corner. A woman with a red hat and red lips, coming our way, questions us with her eyes. Philip offers her one of our handouts. She takes it and smiles. A storekeeper leaves her shop to place her palms together and bow. We bow back. Two mothers, heads down, children firmly in tow, pass by mutely and quickly, facing away from us. They seem to be stomping. This is when I notice that our own footsteps are silent, like Cherokees in the Appalachian forest.
The curly headed child breaks away from her mother and runs, to stop and stand defiantly, curious, before us. I know she feels our calm and wants to drink it. With a look of apology, her mother whisks her away from the strangers.
Sky so blue. Deco buildings, red tile roof in sun. Philip and I keep step. It is good, this marriage, having this other self. We hold hands. This is our path. Sometimes we lead with both left feet. Sometimes his right and my left. We do not jay walk. At the side streets when the lights change, we feel ourselves wanting to fly across to the other side, but still we maintain our slow pace. A hundred perfect pigeons soar up over rooftops right before our eyes. Suddenly, the sky’s translucent.
In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, present moment, only moment. In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, present moment, only moment. In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, present moment...wind bites, hands icy, gut serene. Noticing that I am empty, I am no longer empty.
Motorcycle with cute rider, rock music, passes. Lots of bundled shoppers. It’s Christmas. This moment is the meaning of everything Van Halen, shoppers and gawkers and walking for peace, spreading our peace, gifting ourselves, gifting the world with our pleasure in peace.
We spy our next door neighbor, Rose, leaving the Roman Catholic basilica. Does she see us? Does she not want to recognize us? Oh well. We walk gently on the sidewalks, murmur with our feet to the smothered earth below, kiss the mother. Now we enter the door of the warm dark basilica, its candle wax and incense and faint Gregorian chants. We pass the huge heating vents, feel glad for this sanctuary from the wind. Still walking slowly, following breath, from left to right, we pass before Mary the Mother of God, the candle alcove, the shrine room, and Jesus Himself breathing in Jesus, breathing out Jesus and back to the bright outdoors, past the sacred shops, past the sacred shoppers, past the honking horns and lights and holiday sale signs and brave-hearted dogs on leashes. It is the same in the street as in the church, this harmony of body and mind.
Judith Toy, Chan An Mon, True Door of Peace, lives with her husband, Philip and practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, NC. She is working on a nonfiction book, Sitting on Fire, the Zen of Forgiveness.