Years ago I learned an important lesson while following a Buddhist nun through the woods in Western Massachusetts. She was a different kind of Buddhist nun (not that I had encountered that many) and it was a different kind of walk. In the first place, she was not silent. She asked kindly questions and made friendly easy comments about the weather and so on, exhibiting none of the expected nun-like reserve or shunning of small talk Far more striking, however, was how quick and light she was on her feet.
She wasn’t walking fast in her own lights. As member of a small and little-known sect of Nichiren Buddhism, Nipponzan Myohoji, Sister Clare Carter spent months every year walking the globe with her fellow monks, beating a hand drum and chanting for peace. Sister Clare and her brother monks were part of sect dedicated to total non-violence and total non-aggression in any sense. “There is tremendous selflessness, which is very moving,” explained Paula Green, a peace activist and neighbor who introduced me to Sister Clare. “There is no pushing people to do this or believe that.”
In the past year, Sister Clare, who was then in her late fifties, had walked from here to Washington, D.C., and then from Hiroshima to Tokyo, praying for peace. She walked about twenty miles a day at a very fast clip, but on that day she was slowing down the pace for me. Sister Clare was leading me to a Peace Pagoda in a clearing. Built on donated land by the tiny sect along with volunteers from the area , the pagoda is a strange yet graceful thing, like a vessel that has gently landed there from space. As we approach, Sister Clare stops chatting and starts chanting; Namu-myoho-renge-kyo.
It took me years to fully register that Sister Clare chanting this phrase was not superstition or wishful mumbo jumbo but actually an extraordinary act of generosity. To Sister Clare chanting this phrase from the Lotus Sutra with a mind of faith contains all the teachings and all the merit of all the good practices of all the Buddhas. It embraces all phenomenon, transforming everything, me included into the total liberation of the Pure Land. In the words of Princeton scholar Jacqueline Stone, to the faithful the chant contains “three thousand realms in one thought moment, the entirety of all that is.”
But at the time, I was ignorant of this, limited by my own narrow perspective. I was taking in the way she walked, the chanting, and a judgement blazed up. I remembered walking next to the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn, who glided along silently and slowly, as if he was on rails. The way he moved was once famously described as a cross between heavy machinery and a butterfly, and I confirmed this. Walking beside him it was as if he were made of some super-concentrated, super-heavy material that could never be moved, and yet there was this exquisitely delicate way of talking. I thought this was what enlightenment looked like, felt like, sounded like.
I realize now that I was struggling with the difference between slow and stately “progress Buddhism,” and Sister Clare’s leap of faith. I realize now that clear seeing requires generosity, a willingness to embrace all that is unseen as well as what is seen.