|John and Mia chanting with others before a walk|
When our friends John and Mia invited me to join them on a Peace Walk for a nuclear-free future, led by a nun, I immediately thought, yes. It’s not ordinarily something I would be inclined to do by myself. Especially since I know very little about this topic, aside from what has been in the mainstream media about nuclear energy, and the devastating Fukushima tragedy recently. As I was reading about the walk, a friend who knew I had a busy week ahead, wondered if these types of walks actually make an impact? I wasn't sure, but somehow I was certain that I needed to join them while they’re in the Bay Area. Aside from sorting out my schedule for the next day, I tried to mentally prepare myself to walk 17 miles from Oakland to Hayward.
Early in the morning, when I got to the Intertribal Friendship House, to my surprise the group had just left. As a few others and I caught up with them in a van, the first sight of the walkers across the street was extremely moving. Two rows of people, walked in unison, drumming and chanting. Out of the fifty or so people that were there, the first in line were folks with the signs explaining the Peace Walk. The nuns/monks, and the “regulars” drumming and chanting followed this. They were reciting a prayer from the Lotus Sutra: Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō” (One earth, one sky, entirely at peace). Walkers like me who were joining in for a day, trailed at the end.
It felt a little surreal to see this happening with the backdrop of the downtown Oakland neighborhood, where every other store we passed seemed to be a convenience store. Walking by some of the buildings with shattered glass, vandalized walls, and the too often apathetic looking, drunken eyes staring back at us, one had a keen sense that if there was anywhere that a prayer could be useful, it was here. You could see that this energy that the prayers brought was not common on those streets. And yet at the same time it was slowly starting to be welcomed. The teenagers looked on with curiosity, sometimes erupted into cheers, and the drivers that went by sometimes honked in solidarity. It’s hard to forget the tired face of the tall African-American woman waiting at the bus stop. As she saw us coming, her face broke out into a huge smile, nodding her head in full agreement, and sending flying kisses as we walked past her. It was such an authentic and a heart-warming response. Still warms my heart to think about it.
|Peace Walkers led by the tireless Jun-sa|
After Mia kindly gave me a quick lesson on the drumming, I moved up to chant with the others. Once the rhythm took over, my heart felt a deep sense of prayer for the world. As all the voices sang in unison, the prayers were multiplied and flooded the streets with sense of reverence. A few times when I really got into it, almost everything else seemed to come to a standstill, the traffic seemed silent, only the sound of the drums remained. You couldn't help but feel all of humanity in that harmonious beat.
Jun-san Yasuda, her teacher, and peace pagodas
Jun-san Yasuda, the fearless leader of this initiative is a 66-year-old Japanese Buddhist nun. She is about 4-foot-11 inches, 100 pounds, and nothing short of a force of nature. She has walked cross-country three times. As we pass the Aztec dancers, who were dancing on the street for another event, she ran over and joined them in the dance. Her energy rivals that of a teenager. As we watched the dance, my friend Sri, later shared that he was reminded of this beautiful quote “live so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” She embodies that deeply. In a very touching moment, the elder from the Aztec group came forward with white sage incense, and blessed every-single-one-of-the-walkers before we moved on. There’s something stirring about an elder from one tribe, embracing another from a completely different tradition, who lives half-way around the world from them.
|Jun-san Yasuda, a 66-year-old nun who's walking from SF to NY|
70 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and 5 years after the Fukushima disaster, Jun-san believes that we must never let such disasters happen again. Carrying this urgent prayer, she and 23 others will walk from San Francisco to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations in New York City.
Many Native Americans have been present throughout these walks. And I was initially unclear on the connection, but soon realized that many nuclear power plants have historically been built on indigenous lands not just in US, but also in Canada, Australia, South and Central America, Africa, and many others. The areas are rich in uranium, which is the fuel of these power plants. With unemployment rates usually high in many of these communities, it’s cheaper for the plants to find people who are willing to do the dangerous work of mining and processing uranium. As nuclear energy gains mass momentum, we still don’t know what to do with nuclear waste. There’s no solution to it. As we’ve seen in Fukushima, 160,000 people fled their homes because of radioactive contamination. And waste still continues to spill into the ocean. Instead of focusing on other types of energy or actually reducing our own consumption, we’re heading into something that is destroying the planet.
In these times, peaceful walks like these become a symbol of people’s voice. When nuns and monks who consciously try to live peaceful lives, leave the comfort of their monasteries and hit the streets, it’s a calling to take a close look at where we might be off. As noon approached, we all gathered into a circle on a patch of cool grass near Starbucks. Someone brought out a few packages of bread, few sliced tomatoes and spinach, along with a few jars of peanut butter, as well as jam. One of the Native American elders, Wounded Knee took a little bit of food on a plate and brought it to the center of the circle and offered a small prayer filled with gratitude. Everyone took a much-needed break to sit, stretch, fill their bellies. As people were eating, Mia pointed out that the monks and nuns always wait until everyone has taken the food before taking any, even though they work the hardest. And sometimes, like today there wasn’t that much left. This struck a deep chord. After walking for ten miles, I was famished. It’s hard to imagine how they’re feeling after continuously living in this way. I was so moved to make lunch for everyone the next day. During that break, I texted my friend Audrey to see if she would be up for helping cook for 35-40 people. Within seconds she texted saying she was in. As I bid goodbye to all the new friends who were staying at a church for the night, I hit the grocery store.
|A friend and I make lunch for the walkers the next day|
Audrey, Nipun and I had a grand time the next morning whipping up a nutritious meal. As we coordinated with Amy, who was planning the walk route for the day, she asked us to show up near a highway underpass. There weren’t too many places for a group to sit, so we set up a buffet in the trunk of my car. As they all came up, they gathered in a circle around the car and offered a prayer. Audrey later told me she was almost in tears from their sincere prayers. I was glad I wasn’t the only one touched so deeply by them. It made me happy to see the monks and nuns not wait around because the food was plenty.
Going back to my friends understandable concern: will this walk make an impact? A group of people peacefully walking and spreading their message, made a bigger impact on me than anything I could have ever read in the news. People that are not necessarily “against” but “for.” They’re standing for peace. They’re standing for better quality of life for all of earth’s inhabitants. They’re standing for making global decisions from a space of love and not greed. They’re standing for taking responsibility for how we treat the planet. How can I not stand with those people who are doing so much on behalf of all of us? Their very existence is making an impact.
(Note: All photos found on-line, taken by various others, like George Cho)