The World Trade Center.

Looking up at the World Trade Center.

September 11, 2010: Continuing to Bear Witness

This summer my daughters were going through the storage areas of our house. They brought out boxes of their old school books, notebooks, photos and memorabilia. For days full boxes were in the middle of the living room floor, ready for scrutiny.

As recent college graduates, they took a systematic approach in examining their possessions from the past and then deciding what still had meaning and should be kept. As children’s jewelry lay atop outgrown jeans and shoes, one daughter pulled something out of the bottom of a box containing photo albums from middle school years. “What should I do with this?” she questioned.

In the summer of 2001 my twin daughters visited Washington, DC and New York City on a middle school graduation trip with their class. Now, in the middle of our living room, in the middle of summer 2010, my daughter is holding up the hotel room key that she saved from that trip to New York. The key was to her room at the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel, destroyed in the September 11 attacks on the WTC Towers. My daughters had stayed at the World Trade Center, innocently sightseeing with their classmates in June 2001, while on the other side of the world a tragedy was being planned for the very ground they walked on.

I thought about how I wanted to address September 11th this year. The ‘room key’ brought a whole new feeling that peace on earth must prevail. How do we heal deep grief? How do we relate to those who want to destroy? How do we relate to fear and mistrust?

I decided to offer a morning of meditation to re-affirm our common humanity. As we know, universal compassion does not mean condoning harmful intent. Boundless loving-kindness does not mean excusing violent words. All-encompassing equanimity does not ignore violent action. Thich Nhat Hanh’s precept to not turn away from suffering is a basic Buddhist tenet. Having the strength to look directly at life requires courage.

A few years ago, while attending teachings of HH Dalai Lama in New York City, I decided I wanted to take a long walk across Manhattan to bear witness at Ground Zero. An old friend I had known from my travels in India, now living in New York, said he would accompany me. Surprisingly he had not been to Ground Zero.

On our long afternoon walk from the Upper West Side to Lower Manhattan, we recalled another time, years before when we walked the teeming paths and alleyways of Varanasi. We talked about the pulsing of life along the holy Ganges River. We recalled witnessing the naturalness of life and death at the ‘burning ghats’ of Benares. Now we were walking a different path, on a different continent, to the site of terror and unnatural death.

In the late afternoon we reached a cavernous, rubble-strewn site surrounded by a vast fence graced with flowers and pictures of those who had perished. My friend and I stood for hours in complete silence. I looked at the expanse of ground, up into the open sky, at the workers and the people heading to and from the subway. I looked at horror and I looked at healing. My friend looked up at a vanished building.

As the sun set and the street lights turned on we walked away different people: we bore witness, we were willing to look. Later that evening, sitting at an Indian restaurant in the Village, we began to find words. The first thing my friend said to me was, “ Before today, I didn’t know if I could do this. I was looking at where my office used to be.”

May all beings live in peace. May all find contentment.

The author, Jacqueline Mandell, teaches Buddhist meditation in Portland, where she directs the sangha, Samden Ling. She began her Buddhist training in Bodh Gaya, India in 1972 and has since been authorized to teach by Mahasi Sayadaw and Tuangpulu Sayadaw of Burma and Ad*zom Rinpoche of Tibet. Her remarkable twin daughters have become fine young women.

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Contributor: Jacqueline Mandell.
Photo: © Damon Hart-Davis.