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Zero And One

By Elizabeth Wood

For me personally, the story of Thay's visit to Moscow last September began two nights before his arrival. I dreamed I was trying to hold the numbers zero and one together in my mind. As I woke up, the dream felt like a koan. Emptiness and form, zero and one, how could I keep these things together in my mind? I attributed the dream to Thay's coming visit and some impulse to prepare myself spiritually for the Day of Mindfulness we would hold.

At the public lecture on Friday night, Thay talked about his walk in a park that morning and of touching Moscow's earth, the leaves, a tree. I realized that my worlds of America and Russia were coming together in a new way. For many years, the Cold War separated Russia from the West, and from the East as well. Those who went to Moscow or Leningrad from the West felt like lone messengers carrying tiny laurels of peace across vast distances of time and space. I usually made little effort to keep the two countries together in my mind. There was no use thinking of avocados or broccoli in this country. My world became one of potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and beets sold from huge bins, caked with dirt, in stores that had nothing else for sale, where everything from floor to ceiling seemed caked in the same dirt. Now, though, Thay was in Moscow and I was here too. As he talked of touching the Russian earth, I marvelled at his presence and the new openness in the country.

After walking meditation in the forest during our Day of Mindfulness, we sat under a big tree to listen to Thay. When asked how they liked walking meditation, some participants commented that they were only getting the smallest taste. Others commented that they liked it very much. One man asked if the Buddhist notion of "present moment, only moment" applied to space as well. Thay tapped the ground  before him and said, "Here is connected to there. The present moment contains seeds from the past and seeds for the future." As Thay tapped the ground, I realized that much of the strain I had been feeling in the previous weeks in preparing for this day had come from trying too hard to bring the worlds of Russia, the West, and the East together. In fact zero and one were already connected. Russia, America, Vietnam, and France were all on the same planet. I was straining to hold together in my mind what wasn't really separate. Each contained elements of the other. The different geographical land masses were already joined by oceans, seas, and other land masses.

During the tea meditation, with lots of coaxing, Therese persuaded the group to sing a song. At first only a few voices began singing but then the whole circle of 125 people joined in a haunting and very old Russian song about a young girl's dream and the fortune teller's interpretation of it. The group came together as if all had known each other 100 years. It seemed to me then that if people could only sing together this way, no world problems could not be solved.

Back at our friend Dina's apartment, some of us talked about how to nurture the fledgling sangha here. One idea was to create sister sanghas in different countries to support each other, sending teachers and students back and forth, gifts of music and tapes of talks, further bridging the worlds. One thought was to begin such an exchange between the Boston sangha and the new one in Moscow. The main need here is for help with the costs of airfare for teachers to come. Once the teacher arrived, the Moscow sangha could easily take on housing and feeding that person. In return the sangha here would send tapes of music and perhaps other gifts of their own dharma work to help nourish the Boston sangha. Another hope is to send one or two persons from Russia to Plum Village to learn more about community and the practice of mindfulness and then come back to teach others. Sister Phuong said that such a person or persons could stay at Plum Village for free. They would only need money for trainfare.

On the last Day of Mindfulness, as I sat looking at the faces of those taking precepts, listening to the bell, and listening to Thay and to Marina, I saw a simple school gymnasium transformed into a true Dharma hall. Here was the altar (created by our friend Tom Rabdanov, a local Buddhist). Here were our seats on the sides. Here was Thay in his brown and yellow robes, and Sister Phuong in hers. Therese, Arnie, Pierre, and Daniel were there to represent the Tiep Hien Order. Present moment, only moment.

Later Thay asked me, "How about zero and one?" (I had told him about my dream.) He made the symbols for them with his hands. "Have they come together?" He smiled and gently reminded me, "No coming, no going." And so it was. On the next day, the five of them left for Warsaw and another Day of Mindfulness. But did they really leave? Something of them has certainly stayed here in Moscow. And something of the Moscow sangha has gone with them.

Elizabeth Wood is an assistant professor of Russian history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presently doing research in Moscow.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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