By Connie Luong (M.A. '17)
Walking alongside the River Thames in London, a teenage girl spotted Jin Wei Shr, draped in his usual monk’s garb. She stared, eyes wide open before blurting out “What are you wearing?” Only her parents’ insistence that she continue on with them seemed to shake her out of her frozen confusion.
This was just one of many, similar reactions that people had upon seeing the monks, nuns and laypeople who were part of a 2017 delegation to London, England and Warsaw and Krakow, Poland.
I was one of the many who took part in that journey, which began September 15th and ended on October 4th. Here, I’d like to share some of my memories and experiences.
Other members of the delegation included people associated with Dharma Realm Buddhist Association (DRBA), Dharma Realm Buddhist University (DRBU), and ServiceSpace, a volunteer-run organization that leverages technology to encourage everyday people to perform small acts of service. Our group members hailed from all over the globe, including Canada, Taiwan, Malaysia, India, and parts of the U.S. (California and Washington).
Our purpose was to carry on the legacy of DRBA by cultivating alongside our European Dharma friends, introducing Dharma Realm Buddhist University abroad, and continuing Master Hua’s vision of bringing the Dharma to people everywhere.
Our first stop was London, England. As we faced the crowds at Heathrow Airport, we saw a huge DRBA banner welcoming us! Katherine Lam, her entire family (all eight of them), and Trishna Shah from Service Space gave us a sweet, warm welcome before getting us situated into our dormitories. Their hard work and dedication throughout the duration of our stay in London made us feel right at home.
Driving through London on a Monday morning, something felt different as I recited the Great Compassion mantra along with the delegation on the bus. The busy vibration of the city, with Londoners biking and walking to work and school, contrasted sharply with the rhythm of the mantra. It was as if my five skandhas were all saying, “How different!” Here we were, invoking the spirit of Guan Yin Bodhisattva in a city with its own ancient culture. Then I remembered that sages say the mantra is a spirit that is within us all, throughout our innumerable cycles of birth and death. So the contrast doesn’t truly exist. When we recite the mantra sincerely with our minds, it can fuse harmoniously in whatever space we’re in, and this includes the ancient beat of England.
On September 21st, the group flew from London to Warsaw, Poland.
Walking off dinner on the second evening in the city of Warsaw, Philip Lai, a member of the community of Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, shared, “The Polish can seem tough on the outside, but after a while of getting to know them, we find they’re soft inside. Because all of the drama of war in the past they’ve naturally adopted a tough and serious exterior.” Just moments later I left the group to head to the grocery store to buy some chocolate. A Polish man held the door for me. I said, “Hi!” Then smiled and nodded my head as a way of saying thank you. He stared at me, looking puzzled. Embarrassed, I turned around and walked away. Then in the store I ran into him and out of habit said, “Hi!” again. This time he smiled big, said “Hi” back loudly, gave a high, perky wave, and then walked away. Now I was puzzled. His exaggerated movements made me think maybe he was mocking me. But at least he seemed as amused by the whole ordeal as I was.
On the morning of September 24,th we visited a Vietnamese Buddhist temple where Jin Wei shr used to practice when he was still living in Poland. It was the place he first discovered DRBA. Seeing our bus arrive, everyone from the monastery came rushing out to greet us. They shared that, besides Ullambana, a ceremony when Buddhists pay respect to parents and ancestors of seven lives past, their biggest event this year was hosting us. At most monasteries I’ve been at, laypeople line up for meals. Here, however, we were served a grand feast! The plates of food kept coming until we received our third serving of dessert. To lavish generosity on the monastics, I understand (they lecture hard for their meals), but to spoil the rest of us was completely unexpected and touching.
During the lecture on “The ABCs of the Avatamsaka,” Rev. Heng Sure said: “Dried tea leaves in cold water, the leaves stay the same. Dried tea leaves in hot water makes a beverage helpful for the soul. Dharma coming to Poland is still in dried tea leaves form. It takes practice to make the dharma come alive.” The population of Poland is nearly 99% Catholic, so their opportunities to encounter the dharma are few. Nevertheless, we met Polish people who had translated the Shurangama sutra, Dharma talks by Master Hua, and Highway Dharma Letters, all into Polish. They recited by heart the Heart of Prajna Paramita in Polish. The effort and energy they are using to make the dharma come alive in Poland is incredible to see and be a part of.
After Warsaw came Krakow, the Polish city of kings, queens, and dragons! Our second day in Krakow was dedicated to serving people free yummy Polish and Indian meals at Café Mylnek, which our ServiceSpace delegation members turned into a temporary “Karma Kitchen.” The Karma Kitchen concept originates from Berkeley, California, where once every month, volunteers serve warm cooked meals to restaurant guests. At the end of the meals, the bills come out to be $0.00. The intention is to offer and inspire the spirit of giving. To complete the circle and sustain the experiment, guests may make pay-it-forward contributions to those who dine after them.
As I was serving one couple their drinks, they asked me about the concept of Karma Kitchen. Hearing that their meal had been paid for by previous customers, the man was shocked and said, “That kind of thing never happens here.”
“The concept and organization were created and founded in California,” I responded. Then the couple nodded and smiled knowingly.
Other customers were so touched by the concept of Karma Kitchen that they wanted to pay for more than their meal’s worth. A mother, who came into the restaurant with her spouse and child, irritable about something, looked lighthearted as she left. Ella Schonfeld, the cafe owner, says it is common to have unhappy, grumpy customers on Sundays. “It’s just how it is here in Poland. The norm is to have a frown on. But you guys brought the sunny weather with you and made people smile.”
Traveling makes it evident that the Dharma truly is a teaching of humanity. Master Hua said that he doesn’t teach Chinese Buddhism or Indian Buddhism. He wanted to teach people about human wisdom, and people in London and Poland wanted that. Whether it was listening to dharma talks, stilling the mind through meditation, serving free meals, or paying-it-forward, acts of returning to humanity left us feeling more whole and complete.