Footsteps on Ipanema
Dear Respected Thay, Dear Sangha,
For the first day before and after arriving in Rio de Janeiro we were known as "os monges desaparicidos" ("the vanishing monks") thanks to an airplane malfunction in São Paulo which left us switching airlines and, consequently, disappearing off the radar of Hildeth, Denise. Tenzin and Rafaela, the four Sangha members meeting us at the airport. They seemed shocked to see us walk out of the baggage claim only a few minutes later than scheduled. We were tired yet happy that our luggage had made it through the airplane juggle, and that we could have such kind and caring friends to welcome us.
Within minutes we were bundled into two taxis and shuttled off towards downtown Rio. Tenzin, a native Brazilian women who was ordained as a nun by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1996, shared about the state of things in Brazil. "It's a war here," she said, pointing to the favelas (shanty towns) immediately adjacent to the international airport. Prominent for-rent signs topped tens of blocks of unfinished buildings along the side of the highway, without a person visible in the streets. "This is one of the most dangerous areas of Rio," she remarked. I had heard of the favelas years earlier, but this being my first time to South America and Brazil, I had had yet to see them. Last night, as we walked with Leonardo, a founder of one Sangha here in Rio, the chaotic constellation of lights from one of the settlements overlooking Ipanema rivalled the southern stars shining down through the light pollution of the city. "We say that those who live in the favelas have a better view than the rich down in the city," he remarked. The hills surrounding Rio are spectacular: steep, irregular, and tightly wrapped in forest. The favelas, lacking public septic systems, roads or zoning, have grown organically up their sides. They tell a story about the Brazil of today which we are still learning.
Hildeth's apartment, where we are staying. is right in the center of Rio, overlooking a cliff-poised, undulating urban forest which envelops the old Governor's Palace, the Fluminense Football Club, a public pool, and a tennis court complex. Being one of the elder Dharma practitioners here in Brazil, Hildeth has made her living space into a kind of zendo, with simple clean furnishings, an altar to our teacher and the Buddha, and many cushions for sitting. For a number of days now she has graciously hosted us here along with her 96-year-old mother and Denise, from the São Paulo sangha. Thanks to Denise, who is a professional translator, and to the cognates in Spanish and French that Brother Phap Hai and I are familiar with, we are able to communicate fairly well about what we can do to support the Sangha here.
On Saturday afternoon, after some unseasonal rain that was much appreciated by us two desert-dwellers, we made our way to the Lotus Sangha, which meets four times a week in a small room downtown owned by Rafaela and Hildeth. Sitting together we enjoyed a short guided meditation, with the newly translated "In, Out, Deep, Slow" song, followed by a sharing by Thay Phap Hai on informal tea meditation. Moon cakes and tea were served, and everyone in the Lotus Sangha, about 25 core members, introduced themselves, some asking questions about how to practice in family in the city. The evening was punctuated by a number of traditional Brazilian songs and mutual sharings of gratitude: from the Sangha to the monks for coming this long way to share the practice and from the monks to the Sangha for inviting us down and taking such good care of us.
As we looked out of the window from the Lotus we caught our first glimpse of "O Cristo Redentor," the famous statue of Christ on a mountain facing the east with his arms outstretched over the city, pallid green in the night light. The statue casts an ominous yet embracing impression on bustling Rio, intensifying a perception of a samsara below it appears to transcend. Hildeth has mentioned to us, "We here in samsara want to practice like you monks in nirvana." She is joking, of course, but in it there is a note of suffering. "Brazilian people, we enjoy life, but we also suffer deeply." Sangha members, "sangueros," have shared about her efforts to teach the Dharma in such a way that it ceases to be something "up there," instead becoming rooted solidly in the here and now. This has included teaching disadvantaged children, pooling Sangha resources to help members in medical need, and evening personally funding the education of children from poor families with promising skills in engineering and English. And yet she is genuinely humble. "No, I am not a Dharma teacher. I am a student. I need more practice." In the Sangha we are already meeting her and other true Kshitigarbha bodhisattvas whose practice and monastery is truly "down here," in the city itself.
Yesterday due to continued rain and rumbling dark clouds we moved a public walking meditation session from the open-air park to the museum, to have the benefit of cover. The day cleared slightly, and we were able to walk outside beside the fern-strewn ponds straight down to the bay, with a view of the Sugarloaf. After the walk and some mindfulness movements we were able, with the promise to later purchase tea and coffee, to convince the proprietor of the museum cafe to let us sit in a circle on their chairs for a short session of sitting meditation and a talk by Brother Phap Hai on engaged practice. Much of our schedule thus far has this mark of improvisation. Just out walking in the streets of Ipanema last night we were approached by a number of people. One older man, who diligently practices walking meditation in the city's botanical gardens, was quite happy to hear that we were also students of Thich Nhat Hanh. He supposed from afar that we were Franciscan monks. Another young man asked if we were "padres" (priests, lit. fathers). wanting advice on whether he should try to go to Germany to study physics. "They are more serious about study there," he insisted. Leonardo assured us. "This is typically Brazilian. We just approach each other in the street to talk."
It is a great joy for both of us to have this experience of learning and practice together with our brothers and sisters in the southern hemisphere. Please check back over the next week or so for more from Brazil.
A smile and a lotus for you,