Of Thieves and Sangha: A Heart-Warming Tale

Abhaya & Bhumisparsha mudras
Photo by estimatd

Imagine someone broke into your home, and stole your valuables. Your only recourse is to call the police and report the crime, perhaps receiving moral support from friends, family, or neighbors. Yet what if your community bonded together to replace the stolen items, joined together to christen and reinhabit the violated space, and sacrificed their own sleep to patrol your halls for several nights until you felt safe? While it begs credulity, I recently witnessed this happen.

Those of you who have attended silent meditation retreats can appreciate that a sacred, safe container is created in order to facilitate deep, and wide, self-realization. During my recent attendance at such a retreat, several unknown thieves were spotted entering unlocked rooms and stealing money from retreat attendees. They made off with around $800 cash and were not accosted. The resulting sense of violation jarred the practice community and broached the safe container, although the response from the teachers and retreat staff was swift and appropriate. The staff contacted police, began the process of installing locks on the doors, patrolled the halls, and placed signs indicating that they were aware of the robbery.

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The teachers offered that while Buddhism does encourage us to practice non-attachment and recognize the impermanence of all things, including possessions, there is also an important teaching of protection, a necessity to protect oneself in the face of danger or violation. Practitioners are not encouraged to roll over and play dead, but to stand up and defend themselves.

Symbolic of this protection (though by no means replacing physical self-defense if necessary) is abhaya, the mudra of holding one’s right hand up, palm facing forward, in front of the shoulder, with the thumb tucked in. “Stop,” it conveys. “Not now”; “Enough.” This mudra can be used anytime we need a boundary; when we are overwhelmed in conversation and need to get a word in edgewise, in situations of physical danger, when experiencing intrusive or self-critical thoughts. It can be helpful to imagine and feel prana emanating out of the center of your palm and creating a force field in front or all around you. It can also be internalized visually and embodied accordingly.

That day, we engaged in loving-kindness meditation for those who had sustained financial losses, as well as the thieves. And that night, 100 retreat participants chanted a rousing and beautiful “Om Mani Padme Om,” a chant of protection emblematic of the ferocious creatures guarding many temples in East Asia, as they streamed sinuously through the halls of the violated space, placing Kuan Yin, the God/Goddess of karuna (boundless, motherly love) at the end of the hallway for protection. For the next two nights, and into the wee hours of the morning, three to four retreatants at a time took shifts of walking or seated meditation in the space. By the end of the retreat, sufficient funds were donated by participants to compensate for the losses.

Many tears were shed for the generosity of the sangha, and the level of care, love, and generosity that is possible when we dive into the infinite wellspring of our hearts. Next time someone you know experiences a loss, what might you offer to support and care for this person in their time of need, understanding that your generosity of spirit and resources will fill both of your hearts?

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