By Therese Fitzgerald
At the end of the September retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in Moscow, Thay told the group, "In six months, Arnie and Therese will come back to lead another retreat." During three days of mindfulness in March, the practice of conscious breathing was wonderfully enjoyed among the sixty participants in a Moscow elementary school gymnasium. Arnie spoke of suffering as "the tendency we have to stick to our ideas and wishes for things to be permanently the way we want them, rather then accepting and fully enjoying 'things as they are.'" Whenever we asked how people were doing in the practices of sitting and walking meditation, they responded with very practical comments and questions that showed they were practicing with utmost sincerity and intelligence. Both Arnie and I were deeply touched and encouraged by this, and it brought out the best in us. Arnie related the teachings to contemporary problems, such as political turmoil and economic instability.
We thoroughly enjoyed doing walking meditation in a nearby birch forest through the wide, snow-covered path shared by families with children bundled up pulling sleds, and couples walking arm in arm. In a clearing, we practiced singing "Breathing In, Breathing Out" in Russian and English, and we discussed how the simple practice of breathing consciously while walking helps us calm our irritations and be present with the "wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements of life"—the joyful faces of rosy-cheeked children, the birch and pine trees, a wisp of blue smoke sailing through the woods.
Arnie's bold support of the Russians' pursuit of happiness even in these terribly hard times was reassuring. And he clearly presented methods of establishing inner peace and calm, so that we actually saw the effects of the practice. The core community is a wonderfully authentic sangha, truly exemplary in their warm ways of supporting one another and making the environment conducive for many people to practice. Communal meals were deeply satisfying, although by Western standards the food was sparse and plain.
Because of the generous feeling all around and the extraordinary sense of reverence for taking a meal together in quiet contemplation, every day seemed like a festive banquet. Tea meditations were also remarkably warm and easy-going. Twelve people received the Five Wonderful Precepts the last day of the retreat, and others renewed their practice begun with Thay months earlier.
As I stood by the train window looking at our Moscow friends, an American song played over the sound system, "As the walls come down, love is able to heal the suffering all around." Our wonderful time had come to an end. Boris walking mindfully and Dina smiling showed me how we continue together in our mindfulness practice. The poverty of the people in Moscow weighed on our minds as we walked in the drizzling rain at the station. The eight-hour trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg was a continuation of this contemplation.
Although there had been only two day's notice for the three afternoons and day of practice in St. Petersburg, between thirty and fifty people of various Buddhist and Christian traditions attended the sessions. Arnie emphasized that it is not necessary to abandon one's own tradition to take up mindfulness practice; but rather, that mindfulness can enhance it. He highlighted Buddhist meditation as a "way of happiness, sukhayana" capable of bringing us joy and making us a source of happiness for others.
As we passed the World War II memorial on the way to the airport, our hostess Svetlana told us a story about how during the war, everyone in her father's family almost starved to death. (During the "900 days" from September 1941 to January 1944, between 500,000 and one million died from shelling, starvation, and disease. People dropped dead in the streets, and no one could bury them.) Only her father, who was six years old at the time, was able to stand up and walk to the place where he could receive the family's daily ration of bread. One time, a man stole his bread out of his hand and devoured it immediately. Svetlana's father was so ashamed for losing his family's food that he wandered the streets until finally someone brought him home. This story was triggered by the war memorial—only one of many, many in the city.
So the "way of happiness" is not so easy to find in Russia with the wounds of war and oppression and the effects of great sacrifice as a result of the unprecedented armament race (with the U.S.) constantly felt in every realm of life. Svetlana summed up the state of things: "Under Stalin, you could be imprisoned for speaking frankly and criticizing the government. Then during Brezhnev, we could speak our minds, but not in public. With Perestoika, public criticism became possible. But really, all that has changed are the street names. The same conditions of poverty, government corruption, and lack of opportunity are still the case." Arnie could never stray too far away from a recognition of this reality as he proceeded to outline methods of "giving oneself a break," enjoying conscious breathing, gentle walking, mindful eating, and understanding the other person in an effort to develop real compassion and love. We came to feel confident that some important seeds were planted in St. Petersburg. In this city of artists and writers, we came to know some excellent Buddhist artists.
The last evening, our friend Sasha leaned on the table and looked at us, "I cannot go anywhere. It has taken much work just to get permission to move from Kiev to St. Petersburg, and now I have a job in the metro here. But I have waited for teachers like you to come for a long time. It is not so easy for Zen teachers to come here. We are very grateful for your visit."
Therese Fitzgerald, True Light, is co-editor of The Mindfulness Bell.