Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

December / January Journal » Sangha Treasure
Judy Seicho Fleischman
Honoring my life as an instrument of peacemaking. This is the precept of Not Thinking Ill of the Three Treasures.
—Zen Peacemaker Order

Nearly every day I ride the NYC subway and hear the conductor announce, "If you see something, say something." It calls my attention. What is my responsibility? What does it mean to respond? In post-9/11 NYC, safety is a priority and everyone is charged to play a role. I find in these moments that a potent antidote to fear is to frame the issue in terms of the three pure precepts: not knowing, bearing witness, and loving action. When I act with intention to practice wholeheartedly with these precepts, I feel empowered and a concrete next step arises.

For instance, today I'm headed to the Zendo. It is the third Sunday of the month, the time for Buddhist Peace Fellowship's monthly gathering. The NY Metro chapter has been meeting at Village Zendo on Sunday afternoons for years. Roshi invited me to my first meeting in 2003. Her commitment to this organization's efforts as a catalyst and conduit for "engaged Buddhism" continues to inspire me.

I arrive in time to hear today's dharma talk. Yugetsu speaks about the importance of cherishing oneself. She recaps the story, which Roshi told days earlier, of Malika, a wise woman from the time of the Buddha, who offered rice cakes to him and later married a king. The king once asked her, "Is there anyone you love more than yourself?" and she answered that there was no one she loved more. The king agreed the same was true for him and the Buddha confirmed their understanding.

This story resonates as I recall the previous day's Zen & Creativity workshop where I'd seen how loving myself is an expression of true compassion and the wellspring of my creativity. I'm thankful because I sense an urgency to manifest compassionate creativity.

We are expecting a friend from the Burmese sangha. For weeks, we have been working with our brothers and sisters in this community to offer support with concrete actions. We've participated in rallies at Union Square, chanted in front of the Burmese Embassy, and held several peace vigils at the United Nations. BPF has responded on a national level by hiring someone to focus on Burmese issues and to support individual chapters with ways to direct their efforts.

Shortly before our gathering, I speak by phone with Hozan Alan Senauke, Zen Teacher and BPF Director of Programs & Peacework Coordinator. He is preparing to go to Myanmar as part of a Buddhist delegation. He relates the importance of this issue for Buddhist practitioners as the actualization of Buddhist teachings, namely to manifest active non-violence as a response to suffering. It reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh's recent talk at the Asia Society, when he described the actions of the Burmese sangha as "not one monk standing up but all monks standing up," and declared that this kind of "spiritual leadership" is needed in the United States and throughout the world.

In a related conversation with Maia Duerr, BPF Director of Communications and Outreach, I learn of an ongoing effort to connect with members of the Burmese community to see what they would find supportive.

With these larger perspectives in mind, the intention of our local chapter is to be flexibly responsive in manifesting compassionate action, which includes everyone.

This our first time meeting since the violence in Myanmar escalated. My mind returns to October 6 when I sat beside Roshi in a BPF/NY peace vigil. At the close of the vigil, a Burmese woman stood up and choked out her poem expressing pain and rage. After sitting in silence and chanting the Metta Sutra, our group of fifty was able to be with her and hear her pain without making anyone into an enemy. In that moment, all I felt was compassion. When she finished, I held her as she cried. Sometimes, the way is clear.

Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

I feel that clarity right now, without knowing what is to come. By 4 pm, we are sitting, eight of us in a circle. Meditation is a bond. At 4:10, the bell rings. We bow. The meeting begins. We've developed a form that includes a check-in to set each person's intention, a go-round in which people suggest topics to discuss, then the discussion, including ideas for next steps. We also incorporate a short experiential 'peace practice' on a theme such as this month's, "How am I being nourished right now?" In closing, each person in the circle speaks of what they appreciated about our time together. Finally, we dedicate the merit.

My role is to facilitate the meeting along with Marjorie Markus from the Community of Mindfulness/Order of Interbeing (guided by the teachings of BPF co-founder Thich Nhat Hanh). The rest of the core team includes Jiryu Davis, who is Web coordinator for both BPF/NY and VZ, and Information Coordinator Chris Raines from the Middle Way Peace Order in Cold Spring. Friends from the New York area and beyond come and go, when and as they are able. Many hear about the group online, some from sangha members, some during events like the recent Meditate NYC.

Our form and process serve. I have watched person after person over these years feel welcomed and challenged to name, claim, and embody what they mean by the practice of 'being peace.' Participants speak with curiosity about the importance of active non-violence in their lives. They say how nourishing it is to find a group, which walks the talk of peace. Many are surprised to learn that concrete next steps arise from a process, which emphasizes connection rather than outcome.

Our process of deep listening, incorporating elements of Non Violent Communication, Dharma Discussion (Order of Interbeing) and Council Practice (Zen Peacemaker Sangha), encourages meaningful dialogue and creative collaboration. As people feel empowered to contribute or ask for help, others respond, signing up for specific tasks in a process that feels organic and effortless.

Each person's experience of truth is unique and indescribable. The meaning of that truth viscerally is felt by everyone. I see it in the tears and in the smiles of participants during our sharings. I hear it in laughter and hearty conversation during teatime. We are manifesting sangha both in our intention to show up and in the way we show up, embodying the meaning of sangha as interdependence. We are becoming dear friends who look inward and reach out.

I experience our time together as the actualization of the tenth precept as articulated by Zen Peacemaker Order: "Honoring my life as an instrument of peacemaking. This is the precept of not thinking ill of the three treasures."

Our Burmese friend arrives while we're sitting. During the check-in, I ask each person to name one thing "I appreciate about myself." This surprises folks, yet everyone names something, sometimes pausing to listen inwardly. When the conversation turns to Burma, our friend speaks passionately about his concerns and need for support. I am not always sure what he's saying, his accent strong and his requests indirect. I listen with my heart. What I hear is straightforward. It is a cry for empathy and responsiveness. During the discussion, I feel passion within surfacing.

The words from the Metta Sutra:

Even as a mother protects with her life … so should one cherish all living beings.

I often find myself torn on a particular issue until I imagine the person who is hurting someone, whether it's in Burma or Iraq or on these city streets. That pain pierces and I realize in that moment that to truly love myself and to truly protect, I must attend to that pain. Inevitably, it leads me to respond. I find myself on a train headed to a rally, headed to an HIV clinic, headed to where there is need. I feel better when I go. The response needn't be high profile either. For me it's about showing up. It's the bodhisattva vow: a pledge to serve in sangha, an expression of commitment.

What I said in circle that day was spontaneous. I turned to face my Burmese brother and said, "When I think about what's happening in Burma, I feel responsible." My brother smiled. I smiled. Everyone in that circle felt the shift.

I slept well that night, nourished by the true treasure of sangha.

Visit Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Peace vigil at UN. Photo: Marjorie Markus

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