Thursday, March 31, 2011


A sunny Sunday afternoon. I'm standing on Broadway in Manhattan's Soho, just south of Prince Street, carrying a large colorful poster, which reads, "Help Japan with Love." Beside me is Naomi Namba, Japanese immigrant, artist and fellow server at the Potluck Tea Party in Central Park's Strawberry Fields. Today we're joining a large Taiwanese Humanitarian Relief organization named, Tzu Chi, in fundraising efforts.

A week earlier, the world shifts. An earthquake, then a tsunami, then nuclear disaster. Something shifts in me and I need to do something. I don't know what so I do what a lot of us do. I go online to connect with my "Social Network." I'm looking for what five decades earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., calls, "the Beloved Community." What I find are many news stories and blogs, which vary wildly in what they report. The people and communities affected directly tend to put a different spin on events than those at greater distance.

I also locate lots of ways to donate online. It's confusing. Who can be trusted to get the funds directly to those in need? Do I go with familiar organizations or others, which offer matching funds, or which espouse ideologies more aligned with my own? After an hour of surfing, I am overwhelmed. My shoulders are hunched and tense. My face has moved alarmingly close to the screen. All at once, I stop. I feel my feet on the floor and come back to my breath. I get out of the chair and step back from the screen.

I leave the room and sit in a quiet place. I follow my breath until it settles as does the rest of my body. Then, it comes to me. Whom to call. Within minutes, I'm speaking with Chuck, a new friend and volunteer with Tzu Chi's office in Manhattan's Chinatown. Weeks earlier, I meet him by phone while planning an upcoming retreat at Village Zendo whose theme is immigration. The plan, as a later video I'mMigration shows, is to explore our inter-relatedness by engaging the urban environment including visits to neighbors such as Tzu Chi.

Speaking now about Japan, Chuck tells me to meet at their office on Sunday. Those of us volunteering are dispatched in groups of three or four to the streets of Soho. he tells me that days earlier in Chinatown, volunteers meet with resistance from some locals, who say emphatically, "hey, don't you know your history? Don't you know what the Japanese did to us?"

Today, I cross Broadway as the Chinese-American woman, herself an immigrant, heading up our group of four urges us on, saying, "more people will be on the sunny side of the street." Walking beside her is a young man, a high school student. She's carrying a makeshift cardboard box with a big slot cut on top and lovely artwork pasted on the front. The rest of us carry signs or flyers stating our intention, "Help Japan with Love."

My resistance starts from the outset. The scene feels like the Salvation Army. It is not exactly my cuppa tea. We are asking out loud for people to contribute. The young fellow says, "come on, show some love. Give a dollar. Help Japan."

Each time someone puts money in the box, the woman bows and says, "thank you." So does the young fellow and soon enough, so do Naomi and I. We catch on. Still, I don't know what to say. I watch as most people walk by. Quickly, I'm getting seriously annoyed. Why aren't they stopping? Why aren't they offering something?

My impulse is to say something. But what? A man walks by, late 20's, seemingly "Caucasian," and well-dressed. He's carrying what I imagine to be a $5 latte from Dean&Deluca, an expensive gourmet market at the corner. I hear myself say, "for the price of that coffee, you could help someone who has no water to drink. Give $5. Save a life." My tone is anything but inviting. He quickly walks by. Next I see a woman in her mid-30's wheeling her toddler son in one of those fancy strollers that can do everything but fly. I say as she goes by, "what if it was your child?" She gives me a look, rightly so, indicating her displeasure and confirming that this strategy is not gonna fly.

Increasingly desperate, I start a refrain, "think of the children, think of the children. please help." Folks keep walking by. Now I'm really angry and it shows. I say as a new refrain, "do you really need that dollar in your pocket?" As I'm saying it, a homeless man looking pretty dishevelled and down on his luck, walks by. He walks slower than others and his eyes are downcast. He keeps moving.

All at once it hits me. Here I am. Passive aggressive. Judgemental. Trying to connect. Not a great recipe for success. I check in with my body. Tense. Tired. Migraine tinges surging. Hungry. Cold.

Pissed off.

I stop.

Because I am suffering.

Why am I suffering? I don't know.

A Zen koan (dialogue) from The Book of Serenity, speaks to this. It's an exchange between two Chinese men and is called,

Case 20: Dizhang's Nearness:

Dizhang asks Fayan, "Where are you going?"
Fayan says, "Around on Pilgrimage."
Dizhang says, "What is the purpose of Pilgrimage?"
Fayan says, "I don't know."
Dizhang says, "Not knowing is nearest."

Why are people here? Who are these people? What's their purpose?

I don't know.

The woman with the stroller. Maybe she's overwhelmed, trying to manage her full-time career with the responsibilities of motherhood. If she's fortunate to be in a loving partnership, maybe she's in a hurry, on her way to meet that person, maybe more kids, and have some precious family time together?

Or how about the latte guy? Maybe he donated online. Maybe he's been working his tail off all week and this is his one chance to relax. Maybe he's been savoring this moment of enjoying a latte all day. Maybe it's what he needs to keep going.

Finally, the homeless guy. He might be unaware. He might need to keep his focus very narrow, focussed on survival. He moves slowly through the terrain. He takes his time. Maybe he is offering something just as significant as money. Maybe a reminder.

Stopping to consider all this, my body relaxes.

I stop judging. I stop suffering.

All because of practice. The simple so-to-speak practice of coming back to the breath, the body, and my intention.

In that moment of stopping, of inner silence, a song comes to me, a refrain. I start to sing what I hear internally. It's a familiar melody, written by John Lennon, and sung by The Beatles.

"Love, love, love"

As soon as I begin, Naomi turns to me and smiles. She starts singing. We start a soft dance shuffle, holding our signs.

"Love, love, love. . . it's easy"

People around us slow down as they walk by. They're smiling. I sing at a volume I didn't realize I'm capable of. It is heard even with lots of mid-afternoon auto traffic:

"All you need is love"

The next line comes out so loud seems like folks on the other side of the street can hear.

"Everybody now!"

Naomi's singing louder too.

"All you need is love"

Then a new line comes out of my mouth. I make it up:

"We need your help and how."

I laugh. So do people walking by. They start to put money in the box, in our hands. Bows and "thank you"s keep a steady rhythm for the tune.

We connect.

A few days later, during the Urban retreat, visiting the offices of Tzu Chi, our host tells us that street-based fundraising efforts are intended to be grassroots efforts. She says, "On the street, it's great if people give a dollar. Frankly, we raise more money online. It's not about the money. It's to awaken the heart of compassion."

Back on Broadway, I feel compassion for the people around me. They feel it.

Compassion and dollar bills flow freely. We continue to sing, to laugh, to dance, and bow.

A man who operates the nearby food-vending truck wants to contribute. The woman with the box gladly walks over and lifts up the box as he puts in a dollar. She asks him where he's from. Smiling with great pride and dignity, he says, "Bangladesh." They bow.

I snap photos and hand Naomi the camera, she snaps a few. I ask a stranger passing by. Another volunteer from Tzu Chi arrives. He snaps a few. We're having a grand time. We return to Tzu Chi headquarters and warm up. Chuck offers me and Naomi sweet red bean soup along with the rest of the volunteers.

I go home. I feel compassion for myself. I want to share it. I make a Flickr slideshow and post the link and a photo album on Facebook. I tag a few people in the photos. Within hours, Naomi posts on my wall, saying, "It was fun. People gave us a lot. Thank you!" She emails me hours later and says that her friends in Japan saw the slideshow because I tagged her in a few photos. She writes, "they were deeply moved."

I'm reminded of a verse from a long, meandering Taoist poem, entitled, "Shodoka" or "Song Verifying the Way":

I have had no reason for joy or sorrow
at any honor or disgrace.

I have entered the deep mountains to silence and beauty.

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