‘Sit In Peace’ in the heart of London: On Sat 31st March 2012, 4000 people gathered to meditate with Thay in Trafalgar Square
By Brother Phap Lai with help from Sister Hien Nghiem and Elina Pen
January 19 2013
Behind the event are many stories or one story with many beginnings and strands. Belonging to many, the story continues to unfold in the hearts and actions of all those who were involved and participated in some way. With reports and quotes from organisers and participants, this article hopes to offer a taste of what it was like to be involved in bringing such a day about, the day itself, as well as how the event continues to resonate in many hearts. Perhaps it may be an inspiration for you to continue this way of peacebuilding.
Thay has led many Peace Walks in cities around the world. As with a ‘Peace Walk,’ ‘Sit in Peace’ was an experience and an offering of peace in the middle of city life – in this case in Trafalgar Square, London. Seeds are planted by these events and they grow. Sangha’s strengthen in the organising and no-one who truly particpates is not changed. Even passers by can be deeply affected.
Although Thay has led many peace walks for thousands of people all over the world – in LA, Paris, Rome and New Delhi – it was the first time that London had ever experienced such a peaceful gathering of so many people, in her most famous public square. Trafalgar Square is usually the site of noisy political protests and rallies, or glamorous promotions for the latest Harry Potter film. Yet on this day it was transformed into a meditation hall, by the capital’s young people. This was the first time that the entire square was filled with 4,000 people with no purpose other than to ‘Sit in Peace’. It was a landmark moment in London’s history. A silent and loving revolution. Thanks to Thay’s presence huge numbers gathered and together there was generated an immense energy of concentration and peace.
As with the Peace Walks the event is free, public without restrictions on numbers yet requires a lot of planning. Uniquely also for such an event, it was the Wake Up Sangha that were invited to take the lead in organising. Wake Up London did a brilliant job. Elina Pen, one of Wake Up London’s first members led the team bringing a lot of experience of organising public sitting meditations and an already developed internet network to be able to spread the word near and far. Much support and the covering of costs came from The Community of Interbeing UK . It took place in a week into the 2012 ‘Cooling the Flames’ tour of the UK and Ireland, in the middle of the Educators retreat taking place at the American School London.
Elina writes: “I woke up very excited having had only 4 hours sleep because I was up late with some final organisational things. Two of us arrived in Trafalgar Square at 7am to oversee the setting up of the stage and the sound system, and slowly some photographers and film-makers and stewards began to arrive early.
We had printed 2,000 ‘Sit in Peace’ cards, to be handed out giving information about sitting meditation and a little bit about Avalokiteshvara and what invoking her name means. Everyone was so appreciative to receive their card – there was a beautiful energy of fellowship, of brotherhood and sisterhood. Many familiar faces from the community we had been building up over the previous months, and it was a real challenge to greet and connect with everyone while also supervising and taking care of everything that needed to be done. We had a deadline of putting away the heavy fences around Nelson’s Column by 4pm which was really worrying! But there was such a feeling of awe, seeing all the people there, and realising that everything is in place, what needs to be done has been done, and everything is happening as it should.”
Thay arrived at 2:30pm and was guided to the beautifully prepared stage, with the Sangha of some 50 monastics already seated. A huge version of Thay’s calligraphy, ‘Sit in Peace’ hung behind, painted by Ethan, another member of Wake Up London. Flower boxes were in front and the tour banners bordered the stage right and left. Most important was the sound system for Thay’s soft voice to be able to carry across the square to the thousands gathered in the open air. Not everyone to the back and sides did hear but still appreciated the whole event and the energy. We were grateful for the rain holding off that afternoon. A continuous blanket of shady clouds made for a dramatic backdrop to the similarly white and weather blackened stone of Nelson’s Column ascending high from behind Thay’s platform. The side walls of the stage could only partially shelter Thay from the gusty breeze that day. Since Thay had already given a talk at the Royal Festival Hall in London to 3000 people two days before and we did not expect Thay to offer a long talk but perhaps some words to guide the meditation. However, despite the cold weather, Thay, looking upon a sea of some 4000 people, sitting on the ground, in complete silence did in fact offer a deeply moving talk on how to apply the Four Mantras of Love:
Darling, I am here for you.
I know you are there, and I am very happy.
Darling, I know you are suffering. That is why I am here for you.
Darling, I am suffering. Please help.
Codruta, the stewarding team leader comments, “I grew up in a communist country where religion was suppressed. The stories I heard then as a child about Jesus, love, healing and transformation were there just in front of me, in that present moment in Trafalgar Square.”
Thay then guided an extraordinary and powerful ½ hour meditation. Finally Thay gave instruction as to the meaning and practice of listening to the monastics chanting of Avalokiteshvara.
Shaun, an attendee, recollects, “I was moved to tears when the monks & nuns chanted Namo Avalokiteshvara and it filled Trafalgar Square..” Another attendee, Lisa, says “It was an amazing feeling..all the noise of central London but so much inner peace. I had an enormous amount of energy pulsating through my heart that nearly took my breath away.”
By the end of the chant, Thay had been on stage some 2 hours. Thay left as quietly as he had come and the people who had gathered naturally took time to connect with people close by before standing and peacefully heading home.
Jeremy Allam, OI member and steward, recalls, “A distinguished looking older gent [who saw the event going on] approached me to express disbelief that such a large crowd could be so quiet. He really seemed moved by the sight, even a little shaken. Another came to me and said, “I have been to many anti-war demonstrations in Trafalgar Square, but this is more powerful.”
Community had been created in these few hours and it is reported that even in the crowded bookshops and cafes after the event people were being kind and loving with each other. Gaia, a steward said “Everyone I looked at had a smile on their face”. Elina described how everyone felt so part of the event that they naturally helped in dismantling and clearing up making the work incredibly light and joyful. So that was that – only 2 hours and yet – here in the heart of London, in an epicentre of consumerism surrounded by impatient traffic, emergency sirens and the palpable buzz of dispersed if not anxious people – something had changed. No one who was there will likely walk in or by Trafalgar Square again without recalling that, with Thay’s presence, a peace was generated here and offered to the city and to the world by thousands of people – a peace that cannot be diminished by time or even the resumption of the city frenetic mayhem.
“This was my first time attending such a large group meditation and it really touched me. I feel meditation is going to have an important place in my life this year!”
Anita, an attendee
‘Sit in Peace’ around the world
And not only in London. Through the various means of the internet, ‘Sit in Peace’ became an international event. Sitting with us were people from many cities including 4 in the US, 3 other UK cities, Australia, Canada, Germany, Austria, Spain, Mexico, Israel / Palestine (Neve Shalom – Wahat al-Salam (Oasis of Peace) – a village jointly established by Jews and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel) and one Vietnamese Londoner reported:
“it was a very spiritual day yesterday and I feel I love everyone around me at that moment! My family and friends from Vietnam also meditated for 2 hours together with us”
Thay’s practice is of course an essential beginning to this story. And Thay’s transmission of the practice to us. Thay has given us the most beautiful Peace Walks planting seeds of peace in many cities around the world and in fact many sitting meditations as well.
When Sr Hien Nghiem, Br Phap Linh and myself sat down to talk about the tour we clearly envisaged a Peace Walk in London and also saw the possibility of flash mob meditation organised through Wake Up London in Trafalgar Sq. We imagined Thay could offer some words during the sitting and then explain the practice walking meditation. The day was to end in the park at the end of the walk. Wake Up London responded very well to the idea and immediately got to work.
Elina writes: “In June 2011, Br Phap Lai asked two of us to take the lead for Wake Up London to organise a Peace Walk and a Sitting Meditation in Trafalgar Square for Thay’s visit to London. It was the first time Wake Up had been asked to organise something for the sangha on a national scale. We started to work on getting permissions from the London City Council and to put together the teams for organising, stewarding, stage & sound team, publicity and so on.”
Finally there were four of us on the core team and we worked well together. We all attended Wake Up sangha mindfulness afternoons every fortnight, and my role was to continue to hold it together and oversee everything and follow-up on the delegated tasks.
Things were going well until coming close to the date the Royal Parks withdrew their permission for us to use their space to walk when they realised we would number in the thousands not hundreds. Following this, permission to cross the roads became an issue also. They asked that the regular pedestrian crossing system be used – it was hard to imagine that for 2000 people let alone 4000. Here in Plum Village we realised a huge amount had been invested in the sitting event at Trafalgar Sq. Yet knowing how much Thay likes to have a Peace walk we did wonder about cancelling Trafalgar Sq. to make a walk possible again. We explored all alternative walking routes leading from Trafalgar Square and even carefully crafted a somewhat personal appeal to the mayor of London. At a certain point, with no word from the mayor, we asked permission from Thay to put all our focus on Trafalgar Sq. to make ‘Sit in Peace’ a beautiful event.
Flash mobs publicized using the internet began some years ago sometimes to spectacular effect as many people coordinate their actions over the internet. Public invitations are made on Facebook pages and other means for everyone to meet at a certain time and place to do something together. There have been flash mob dances, opera and yoga. Elina organised Wake Up London’s first meditation flash mob in Trafalgar Sq. in June 2011 and 300 people came. Every sitting after that has been a success – an offering of peace to the city, a powerful experience for those that came with no difficulties arising with authorities. They have resulted in a community of sorts developing among those who attend regularly some of whom chose to come along to Wake Up London sangha meetings. Other locations have included outside the City Hall (the mayor’s office) when 400 attended. Marble Arch, The British Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Picadilly Circus, Covent Garden, the Natural History museum and around St Pauls Cathedral offering support and a peaceful way to be activists to the Occupy movement there at the time.The Occupy movement have since invited Wake Up to lead a meditation there again for their one year anniversary. They realised that in social action, inner transformation is needed, the need to take care of oneself, and look within. The majority of the Occupy organisers are young, the same age as those of us in the Wake Up movement. Many of these events have attracted positive media coverage including from the Independent Newspaper, BBC News at Ten, the Evening Standard and The Guardian.
Beginnings with Heart of London sangha
Elina describes her path to the practice: “I had been following Thay’s Facebook page for sometime but when I saw the news about Bat Nha in 2009 I felt a big call to do something. I heard about a peace walk in Hyde Park organised by the Heart of London sangha. It was so new for me to do these things in public but I went.
At first I didn’t know anyone at all, but everyone was so warm, and even before the walk began we took time to introduce ourselves and collect our energy. For the first time I realised that with my life, I could offer peace to the world, and already that day I left with a new sense of purpose, and a deep wish to practice. Later, there was a sitting meditation vigil outside the Vietnamese embassy in London. The police were there but they were respectful enough only to approach us at the end and seemed genuinely happy with our explanation.
I was encouraged by a Heart of London sangha member to to come along to their on mornings of mindfulness on Saturdays and I simply thought, ‘this is the sangha I want to stick with’. The atmosphere was so enjoyable and heart-opening, and I could feel the quality of relationships between the sangha members. Soon I had a chance to help as a volunteer for Thay’s Hammersmith Apollo talk in 2010.” After Thay’s retreat in Nottingham that same year, the Wake Up London sangha was formed, which Elina and many friends have been joyfully building to date.
The Sangha effect
Elina shares: “The whole of Thay’s 2012 Tour really brought the London Sanghas and Wake London Sangha together. We had to communicate a lot and meet up a lot, and it gave a real sense of purpose to what we were doing. I really feel in my element to be able to serve the sangha and Thay in this way. We had lots of people who wanted to help but who hadn’t yet experienced our Wake Up practice and the Plum Village dharma doors, so we were very clear that all our meetings were rooted in the practice and we invited everyone to come to the sangha meetings. Those who ended up sticking with it and really helping through the whole journey were those who were really involved in the practice with our sangha. People who didn’t have that connection were not so connected to the spirit of the practice and Thay’s vision, and were much less committed to volunteering. We really cultivated that feeling of connection to each other, and knowing we were each taking care of our part was a way to support the others doing their thing.
“I’m so grateful that I was able to be there to Sit in Peace on Saturday. I have been ill all Winter and have had a difficult time with my youngest son. This has made me very sad but your kind wise words spoke directly to my heart and I now feel so different. The chanting is still running around in my head, so healing and so beautiful. I feel changed on a deep level and I will work very hard to keep and to share the precious gift I was given.”
Altogether the sharings from Wake Up London and the Community of Interbeing UK organisers, stewards, film makers, attendees and those who simply stumbled on the event, paint a picture of a beautiful day. People of different cultures, religions, age and from all walks of life came together and experienced transformation and healing in themselves and their relationships, inspiration to practice and immense gratitude for Thay, the monastics, Wake Up London, The Community of Interbeing UK and all the conditions that allowed the event to take place.
The story continues
Wake Up sanghas are forming all over the world and meditation flash mobs are proving very popular as a practice and as a means of bringing peaceful energy into our cities.
Another Trafalgar Sq. sitting is planned for June 2013 which we hope to synchronise with a sitting being organised by Prof. Peter Doran and Peter Jenkinson in the city of Derry (Londonderry), Northern Ireland. Simultaneous Wake Up organised sits may occur in Glasgow and Dublin to support the event. The event will be promoted as part of Derry’s year long city of culture status and also marks a beginning to follow up on Thay’s intervention at Stormont where Thay suggested the country conducts deep listening sessions to heal wounds between the different communities so as to make forgiveness and true community possible again.