By Riley Manning
BATESVILLE – A damp blanket of fog engulfed the Magnolia Grove Meditation Practice Center early last Sunday, as almost 1,000 visitors parked their cars in a field and trekked up the hill to the monastery. Past the ornate, slope-roofed, pagoda, under which hangs a massive bell, visitors congregated on a stone porch outside the newly-built Rising Tide meditation hall, preparing themselves for the morning’s walking meditation.
A monk in simple brown robes told the crowd to focus on the sensation of their feet brushing the ground. Meditation, he said, is a way to come back to ourselves, to achieve harmony between the body and the mind.
“The mind covers up so many things, blocks our sense of living,” he said, his voice soft and calm even through the speakers. “The reason we don’t feel happy is because we don’t feel alive. So walk with your feet, not your head. Our destination is the moment.”
The Bhuddists say mankind is a multitude that makes up the one, as living, individual cells compose the human body. Such is the way of walking meditation. The monk led the crowd around back of the building where his place was taken by the man everyone was there to see, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. They followed Hanh down a quarter-mile dirt path that opened up into a small meadow of knee-high grass, then back to the meditation hall to talk dharma.
The Buddhist religion follows of Gautama Buddha, a sage who taught in northeastern India between the sixth and fourth century B.C. The Buddha, or “awakened one,” attributed worldly suffering to an individual’s pursuit to satisfy an ever-hungry ego. Practices like walking meditation awaken a person to the present moment, and free them from anxiety.
Brother Phap Lai, a monk living at Magnolia Grove, said Hanh’s teachings are so revered because, despite being ancient, they are equally useful in modern society.
“We’re fed the idea that being rich, being famous, having lots of sex equals happiness,” he said. “But often it is our idea of happiness that blocks us from true happiness. The true conditions for happiness are very simple: food, love, brotherhood and sisterhood.”
Inside the meditation hall, rows of listeners sat on small round pillows, listening as Hanh rang a small bell at the head of the room. The bell’s chime centers those who hear it, gives them a chance to gain their composure and remember their compassion. In Japan and Vietnam, Hanh said, most households have a room designated to such a bell. This room serves as a kind of safe zone when conflict and arguments arise within the family.
“The bell is the voice of the buddha, calling you home to the present moment,” Hanh said. “Listen not only with your ears, and touch the truth of no self.”
The ego, Hanh said, prohibits a person from understanding his or her suffering. Their pain only grows and spills over into the people around them. “Stop and consider,” he said, “that your suffering may be due more to your own perception than some other person.”
Setting aside the ego, Hanh said, means being awake to the interconnectedness of all things, the cyclical nature of the universe.
“So it is even with dying,” Hanh said. “Because wherever death is, birth is also there. The death of a cloud is the birth of rain. In this way, even your ancestors are not dead, they simply do not manifest themselves anymore in the way you are accustomed to.”
Force for Peace
In over 70 years as a monk, Hanh has seen his share of change. During the Vietnam War, he arose as one of the most influential forces for peace between the warring parties of Vietnam, Hanh’s home country. In 1964, he joined with Vietnamese university professors and students to form the School of Youth for Social Service, in which teams of young people ventured out into the country to help rebuild after bombings, and establish schools and health clinics.
In 1966, he accepted an invitation to speak at Cornell University on the character of Vietnam’s people. It was there Hanh caught the ear of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was so impacted by Hanh’s negotiations for peace he nominated Hanh for the 1967 Nobel Peace Price. Soon after, King publicly denounced the Vietnam War with Hanh at a Chicago press conference.
Hanh established the Plum Village meditation center near Bordeaux, France, in 1982. The following year, he began making teaching visits to the U.S. Today, he continues to promote peace in third-world countries by collaborating with the General Assembly of the United Nations, and government bodies around the world.
Magnolia Grove Meditation Center is one of only three in the country founded on Hanh’s traditions. The other two are located in Escondido, Calif., and Pine Bush, N.Y.