A Day in the Life of Athens Sangha Service

A Day in the Life of Athens Sangha Service

by Mercia Moseley

January, 2018

Waking with the morning bell, I realize I’ve grown content in our sweet Athens WakeUp sangha. Meditation to begin each day, then there are morning hugs, oatmeal made in varying ways (Maarten adds coconut milk, Francie fruit). Vanessa is doing yoga on the balcony that looks across the white, stacked buildings of Athens, and David is still meditating as the light rises. Dermot, Philippe, and I are being cheeky as usual, laughing over our oatmeal and teasing one another over who drank more coffee (and therefore whose turn is it to make the next pot). Soon we will all go our separate ways, scattering across Athens to different refugee organizations, to different experiences that we will share over dinner later.

“Get a wiggle on there,” jokes Dermot (always making me laugh) as he and I head out the door and into the familiar cracked-sidewalk, graffitied streets of Patissia. It’s a short walk that I’ve come to enjoy, passing the Pakistani deli, the Greek bakery, the crowded trash bins, and dodging traffic like real Greeks on our way to Hope Café. I feel safe with my tall Irish dharma brother leading the way.

There is always music playing at Hope. Everyone greets everyone, and we dive in wherever needed, sorting mounds of clothes in the dim basement, or washing dishes as people arrive and the coffee cups and cooking utensils pile up in the small sink. The chatter rises and friends greet one another in Arabic and Farsi, waiting for the free meal to be served – lentils and rice cooking in vast pots on gas burners on the kitchen floor, the smell of onion and cumin filling the space. Sometimes 80 people come, sometime 170. Women in bright head scarves carrying babies, men of all ages, kids (many, many kids).

As the weeks go by, Dermot and I get to know familiar faces. Like the Syrian family in which both parents are deaf, with 5 young children, who speak together in a lively made-up sign language. The oldest girl translates and the father jokes and laughs with everyone. He makes up humorous sign-names for each of us (mine is a twist of the pointer-finger upwards meaning, “skinny girl”). They are so remarkably joyful, so bonded, so kind. I wonder if I would have their grace, were I in their shoes? We hear other stories from various people who come through the doors of Hope, shared in pieces of broken English, little shards of tales, painful residue of experiences no one should live. We gather what we can of what life in Syria was like before the war, what it took to get to Athens, what it is to be without a country, without a job, without the “right” passport, to be alone. It’s sobering. Real. Problems without answers, or a foreseeable end.

Our Sangha brother Phillipe joins the games of our dear young friends outside Hope Cafe

After everyone has been served, we eat the free meal too. The building is full so Dermot and I sit by the road on the old sidewalk. I taste the food, cumin, tomato, thyme. I have never been without food in my life. We hold our plastic plates, eating slowly, mindfully, and are silent for a while. I feel a weight and blessing, learning something about gratitude, about the vast complexity of this world, as the traffic passes and the dishes pile up in the little sink waiting to be washed.

Later we will head home to our sangha and eat together silently, feeling the spaces and people we have each met and shared with that day. Feeling the warmth and support of each other’s presence, the sound of the clear, small bell in the wide city. Thay’s quote on our makeshift altar reminding us, “This is it.”

Mercia and Dermot at Hope Cafe

“I feel safe with my tall Irish dharma brother leading the way”

Mercia Moseley (Deep Training of the Heart) grew up going to family retreats with Thich That Hath, and feels fortunate to be part of this beautiful community as a WakeUp-er now. The last six months, she has been collaborating with a Sangha friend to develop a social entrepreneurship that aims to employ refugees called Not a Factory. To see their work, visit NotaFactory.com. When not traveling, she lives in the Pacific Northwest, WA.

Photos taken by Mercia Moseley and David Viafora

"You're Not Teachers... You're Listeners!" (Advice before Greece)

Part of the Greece Sangha Service Series

March, 2018

Plum Village, August 2017, under the Linden tree on the closing day of the Wake Up retreat in Upper Hamlet…

“What you need to do is to go there and just listen. Don’t go trying to teach anything, mindfulness, or whatever. You want to offer something, you want to help, but what you need to do is listen because you don’t know anything. You’re going to a whole new country, and you’re meeting a whole new culture. You don’t know them, you don’t know anything about them. You can’t teach mindfulness because you don’t know what they need. So, you just listen, that’s your practice. You’re not teachers David, you’re listeners.”

Phap Dung had just finished properly turning my head around 360 degrees, emptying out what was inside, and then setting it back on straight. I hadn’t expected him to knock my noggin out of the ball park, along with all my thoughts and expectations of ‘mindfully’ serving in Greece. As a friend acknowledged a few hours later, I had been ‘Phap Dung-ed’, a not-so-rare Plum Village phenomenon. I had sought his advice and encouragements for our Greece Sangha Service project, knowing that this would be a challenging expedition of both living and serving together in the ongoing refugee crisis. This included our aspirations to share our practice with other volunteers and NGOs serving in Greece, as I was familiar with sharing mindfulness practice with social workers back home. Fortunately, we have elder brothers and sisters who are not afraid to offer us a Dharma punch when we truly need it, so that our deepest aspirations can meet our habit energies on the ground, and not in the clouds.

“Phap Dung-ed”… with a smile.

During the past several years, Greece has been a doorway for millions of migrants seeking refuge from war, persecution, and economic distress. They risked everything: their homeland, savings, family members, and even their own lives, while hoping for a new way of life. For years, I felt called to go and serve in Greece, but I also knew that I could not go alone. Alone, I would shrivel up and my efforts would not reach as far as I truly hoped. I knew that I needed a Sangha.

So where can one share such aspirations with hundreds of young people who are opening their hearts to compassionate action and peace in themselves? Yep, a Wake Up Retreat in Plum Village! Last August, we shared our aspirations to model the School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam and head down to Greece as a Sangha, asking for people to join us. ‘Let’s fuse together our practice of mindful living and sanghabuilding with our deep calling to serve those who in need.’ We understood that volunteers were strongly needed in Greece during the fall and winter months especially, so we invited people, “Come talk with us at lunch if you’re interested.” Each lunch gathering, over 20 people joined!  And in the end, 15 young adults, from eight different countries were committed to embarking on this adventure together! Wow! I love our Sangha!

Our Sangha crew of volunteers for the first month in Athens

So what did we do? We came together and first off, we listened to each other, and this only grew stronger every day. Who were these people we were living with? What were their deepest dreams and fears? What nourishment did we truly need as a Sangha to offer our presence wholeheartedly every day to others? Through our deep listening and sharing, we co-created our lives together, balancing work with morning meditations, silent meals, dharma sharings, and at least one super fun outing in nature or the city each week.

We lived in a migrant-rich neighborhood, allowing us to live in the same neighborhood with those we aspired to learn from, serve, and build relationships. We worked in refugee camps, community centers, and NGO’s in Athens, and in diverse capacities such as art therapists, physiotherapists, assistant cooks and staff in soup kitchens, mental health practitioners, legal support, construction, English and French language instruction, animal care, community gardening, and facilitated a weekly Sangha in town as well. And after a few months (of listening and learning), we did end up offering mindfulness workshops for NGO staff and volunteers who asked for our support. Some of us stayed for one month, others two to four months, and still others remain committed to living, Sanghabuilding, and creatively serving in Athens.

Looking and listening to the city with all her beauty, cries, and wonder….

Then we listened to the streets: to the singing-shouting tone of the woman selling bags of onions, tomatoes, and potatoes on our corner for one euro each; to the young Syrian man’s effervescent smile as we get off the same bus stop together and become instant friends; to the smell of tomatoes and garlic stewing under Syrian hands at Hope Café; to the compassionate trust in our brother’s voice as he recounted holding his brother in his hands for the last time after being shot by a sniper while waiting in line for food; and to crazy laughter as Phillipe tossed children in the air on his feet for the first acro-yoga session of their lives. We listened, learned, marveled at their spirits of resilience, and most of all, we developed friendships. True listening cannot help but create true friendships. And when true friendship manifests, there is no one serving and no one being served. There is only love that serves us both and reminds us of the gifts that we are to each other.

Dermot (left) and Barry (right) hang out with a dear Syrian friend and regular at Hope Cafe. Hope Cafe was the most vibrant, friendly, and supportive public space for the Syrian community that we experienced. To our blessing, it was a 5 minute walk from our house.

As our power of listening grew, so did our other Sangha powers, namely harmony, and joy. Before heading Athens together, we also asked for guidance from other monastics, like Br. Phap Linh. “Don’t forget to nourish your joy together”, he implored. “ That’s essential. Because when you nourish your joy, that’s what you’ll be sharing with others. You don’t keep it for yourselves, you offer that beautiful energy to those that you’ll be with. Especially when you’re doing this kind of work, if you’re feeling down and drained of energy, then you haven’t got anything to offer to others. They need for you to be nourished deeply. So you need to replenish your reserves; it’s a constant cycle of nourishment and offering.”

And from the abbot, Br Phap Huu: “The most important thing is your harmony together. That is what will carry you through. That is the energy that will allow you to help others. People will see your harmony, your brotherhood and sisterhood and feel drawn to it.”

We took these gems of wisdom that were handed freely to us, and then we polished them with our own experiences. Most importantly, we learned to build a Sangha family, and that was our deepest teaching of all. What is the kind of family that we wish for the most in our lives? A family that supports us, that helps us cultivate joyful togetherness, compassionate listening, and harmony among each other that we then channel into the lives of those we wish to serve with all our hearts. Through our deep aspiration to serve the world, we touched the seed of true  community, of family, of Sangha, because we need that true Sangha family in order to truly serve others.

Sangha family, in joy and harmony

We learned that when we didn’t cultivate joy, listen deeply, or disregarded harmony, then it left us near empty in our service towards others. So we began again and again and again with each other, and we never gave on each other. We sat in the mornings, came home to the safe warm refuge of dharma sharings in the evening, and practiced harmony of views during meetings to forge creative insights in our major decisions together. When someone left our Sangha, we watered their flowers so deeply that it brought deep joy and even bliss to all of us. We became one Buddha body, and when one cell touched happiness, then the rest of the body had more strength and love to share with others. And when the body was in harmony, each cell reflected delight and could shower this energy to those elsewhere.

I could share for hours and hours about our stories of our Sangha family and service, but I will now pass the baton over to my Sangha brothers and sisters, who may share their stories and reflections more deeply with you. The articles following in the next few weeks are windows into our experiences as cells working in various arenas of Athens, while also being nourished and held as one Sangha body.

Mercia practically holds our hand as we wake up with the Sangha one morning and intimately walk into the streets and friends at Hope Café. Zarah invites us into Eleonas Refugee Camp and to the safe warm haven back home, where both places carry one message: be there for each other! Dermot takes us through the streets and squats of Athens while arriving at one of the deepest experiences of family in his life. And Barry unravels the ancient koan of engaged Buddhism in his own heart: What does it truly mean to serve?

Welcome to our lives of service, family, and heartbreaking joy with Wake Up Athens!

–    David Viafora, True Zen Mountain

Our first week in Athens, we walked to the top of the hill together…. listening, meditating, and discovering moment by moment the beauty of our beloved city