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Shoes in the Dharma Hall

By Carolyn White

Before I was a year old, I contracted polio. Now I am fifty-nine and wear two different-sized shoes, which are clunky, lace up, and have small heels. These shoes are my Dharma sisters. Without them I cannot walk.

Entering a Dharma hall requires skill. Amid the shoes left outside, I clear a space to balance while I change into indoor shoes, which are also clunky and must be laced up. Then I bow to the Buddha and, walking mindfully so as not to clomp on the wooden floor, I find a cushion. I slip my shoes into a Kuan Yin bag and I meditate.

The Practice of Receiving

Last summer I went to Plum Village for the Breath of the Buddha retreat. I let the monastics know of my need to wear shoes in the Dharma hall so no one would be offended. And I brought hiking poles because the slow pace of outdoor walking meditation can be tricky. I was very happy.

I’m not sure what my fellow retreatants saw, but bodhicitta was aroused in many. People offered me rides to the Dharma hall. Others wanted to help me walk. Baffled, I called my husband in the States: what do you do when people offer you too much help? He said: sometimes you have to be generous and accept it.

So I did. I put the poles away and let myself be helped. As frail older women and handsome young men took my arm, I watched my protesting: I’m perfectly fit, I’m a hiker, I know how to take care of myself; besides I am the one who helps, the one who cares for others. Unable to say what was too much or too little help, I kept silent and accepted what was given.

A young bodhisattva magically appeared at rough spots in the path, took my hand, and kept me stable. One day he walked me to the Dharma hall and seeing my shoelace untied, he kneeled.

No, stop! I wanted to protest, I can tie my own shoes! But I let him. Like Christ washing the feet of the leper, he tied my shoe. Never have I experienced such reverence. To be cared for by others — to yield to kindness — is not easy. But I am learning. I would like to thank my shoe-tying bodhisattva and all the other dear retreatants for three weeks of perfect care.

The Front of the Dharma Bus

Earlier this year I went to Deer Park for the end of the winter retreat. As usual, I told the monastics of my need to wear shoes in the Dharma hall. Because it was difficult to carry the indoor shoes up and downhill (and sometimes I forget), I left them in my Kuan Yin bag at the Dharma hall entry.

On my third day a sweet Vietnamese nun pointed at my shoes and asked me to sit in the back of the Dharma hall. She smiled and explained: This is our culture.

Not until I was sitting at a happiness meeting did her words sink in. I started to cry and left the Dharma hall.

I sat outside on a bench. This is my culture, too, I protested, thinking of Rosa Parks. I wanted to tell a monastic my suffering or to clomp loudly in the Dharma hall and sit in the front row.

Instead I watched my mind. I watched it clamor, wanting to right injustice. I watched it a long time, until my heart cracked open for African-Americans and Native Americans and my own Jewish ancestors who were denied full access to our beautiful world.

For days I said nothing to others but made up walking gathas:

May all living beings walk freely on the earth. May all walk gracefully. May all practitioners — frail or strong, tall or short, big or small — sit in the front of the Dharma bus.

Deer Park is my home, as is Plum Village. They are where I belong — in a fourfold community of practitioners who are always learning, growing, and changing. I have not yet thanked the sister for helping me explore inclusiveness. Someday I will.

Carolyn White, Wise Speech of the Heart, practices in Michigan with the Lansing Area Mindfulness Community. She wrote this essay at the suggestion of some sisters at Deer Park in the hope that it will stimulate discussion on inclusiveness.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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