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Peace in the Midst of Turmoil

The Rain of Compassion in Hong Kong

photo by Corrin Chan

Hong Kong was a British colony beginning in 1842, and then it returned to China’s sovereignty as a Special Administrative Zone in the mid-1990s. Over the past 150 years, Hong Kong changed from a small place that lived on fishing and farming to one of the most vibrant metropolitan cities in Asia. High-rise towers, high-density living, and the glittering night view of Victoria Harbour are icons of this city. The rule of law with respect to human rights and freedom of speech was basically in order, and the city was safe and full of possibilities. 

Yet, without warning or expectation, the citizens’ Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill movement, which led to several large-scale peaceful demonstrations in 2019 and 2020, brought about much disruption and damage to the city. Our life here has been turned upside down. This is not the city we are used to. 

A Landslide of Change

It started with the government amendments to the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill—Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill on Extradition—and the citizens’ peaceful demonstrations. The mass demonstrations grew in frequency and intensity. At first, the people expressed their views in peaceful and controlled actions. Their unsatisfied demand escalated to mass frustration; anger grew into hatred, death, suspicion, and violence. 

The city was split into blue and yellow. Blue was against the social movement, and yellow was in support of the social movement. Families were split into different camps of belief. Parents had difficulty relating with their children. Collective emotion and resentment mounted, especially towards the police and, vice versa, to the demonstrators—mostly the young generation.

Since the eruption of the social movement, Hong Kong has undergone unprecedented changes in our political, education, and civil servant systems. The promise of the city becoming a self-administered zone with its own election of political leaders has been quietly disappearing. There has been much suffering and frustration in the city. 

Breathe, Only the Present Moment

This challenging time empowers me to take every step mindfully in the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) when walking from the bus station to my office.

One night, I was in a taxi stand near the train station in Tai Wai, waiting for a taxi to return home. Suddenly, on one side appeared shouting demonstrators, and on the other side appeared policemen. Both of them were marching towards us as we lined up for the taxi. People were scared, especially the young woman next to me. My mindful breath brought me some sense of clarity. I held her hand and walked with her out of the scene. I sent her safely to a taxi, and I returned home. Truly, in a chaotic situation, our solidity can help.

Man Is Not the Enemy

Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem echoes in my mind during this difficult time.1 My heart aches when confrontations occur on our university campuses between the young students and the police. This poem sheds rain of compassion onto the crying soil: man is not our enemy. 

Promise me,
promise me this day,
promise me now,
while the sun is overhead
exactly at the zenith,
promise me:
Even as they
strike you down
with a mountain of hatred and violence;
even as they step on you and crush you
like a worm,
even as they dismember and disembowel you,
remember brother, remember:
man is not our enemy.

The only thing worthy of you is compassion –
invincible, limitless, unconditional.
Hatred will never let you face
the beast in man.

Let no one harm anyone. Let no one have ill will towards anyone. Peace must start with me, from within.

Be Still and Know

When I can return to stillness like calm and clear water, like the eye in the middle of the storm, I am able to see clearly that many good conditions are around me. Many great people in Hong Kong are still trying to help each other and the city. Many beautiful souls are still in the city, trying to help the needed and the underprivileged. The sun is still warming us, the rain nurturing us, the breeze cooling us. 

When I am still, I can see in me the seeds of solidity, love, compassion, and brightness even in a time of despair. Returning to this place of stillness within, I can water these wholesome seeds within me as an offering to the world and to Hong Kong. Returning to this place of stillness takes practice and the realization that I am not alone. The Sangha is where I take refuge.

The Sangha at the Hong Kong Lotus Temple continues to offer mindfulness practice to the public. The monastics, together with the local Vietnamese sangha, have renovated an old house and transformed it into a new practice place named Infinite Light. The lay Sangha is contributing to the city in various ways. As an architect, I am helping others to work on projects that create value for society and the environment. We are transforming a garbage landfill site into an ecovillage and working with a Buddhist organization to build an environmental action center. With people from other professions, we set up a new nonprofit group called Community Living Room aimed at building close ties in the community. There is still a lot of hard and loving work for us to do for this city, right here and now. 

We Inter-Are, We Are One

In the middle of sleepless nights, seeing through tears and coming back to my breathing, I see that the policeman and the demonstrators are one. When the policemen and demonstrators take off their uniforms, they are just fine young men who like to play football and chat with friends.

Inside all of us, we yearn for peace and happiness. Only our ideas separate us, but it is not true that we are separate. We inter-are. I am the police; I am the Hong Kong government; I am the political leader; I am the Chinese government; I am the young demonstrator; I am the National Security Law officer; I am the university student.

When I see I am in all of us, hatred has no place to arise. I can breathe for us all, wishing all of us well and wishing that every human being be happy, safe, and protected. 

Words and Actions to Heal

With the mind of clarity and solidity, our words and actions can help to heal and connect. In social media groups, I choose to stay engaged. Whenever disputes or arguments happen amongst friends in these groups, I come back to my breathing before I write, so that my words bring more kindness, understanding, and healing to the wounded relationship.

Tonight, I am writing a letter to a young man, a third-year architecture student who is now imprisoned. This young man aspired to be an architect to build Hong Kong into a better place.

I write to invite him to make use of this precious time in prison as an opportunity to reflect, strengthen himself, and not get lost in thoughts of frustration, anger, resentment, or hatred.

I hope the same is true for all of us who are going through this turmoil. May this adversity deepen our understanding, insight, and compassion for everyone.

What Is True Freedom?

While I aspire for freedom of speech and thought—the right of the people to choose—I might still be imprisoned by my ideas about freedom. I contemplate: what is true freedom? In a time of adversity, it is when I can choose to respond with kindness and calmness. When I can see the truth of impermanence, the interconnectedness of all—the absence of opposites—I can be at ease riding on the waves of the turmoil. Every mindful breath and mindful step allows me to breathe and walk as a free person who is free from ideas of freedom and happiness.

Breathing in, I am aware that it is raining now outside. 

Breathing out, I smile to the rain.

May the rain of compassion nurture all beings and transform suffering into great wisdom and great love.

1 Thich Nhat Hanh, “Recommendation,” Plum Village, https://plumvillage.org/articles/recommendation
photo by Corrin Chan

Corrin Chan, True Fragrance of Equanimity, is an architect. She received the transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings in 2010.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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