When the 86-year-old Thich Nhat Hanh was introduced to his audience in Copley Square on Sunday afternoon, he began by saying nothing for 25 minutes.
Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who is an internationally respected peace activist and author, was in Boston as part of a US tour. And as he sat in meditation in front of the crowd of about 2,000, he managed to do something seemingly impossible: He made the city center quiet along with him, to the point where any noise — a skateboard, a car horn, a passing duck boat tour — seemed out of place.
The event, which took place in front of Trinity Church, was billed as a “seated meditation,” and lasted for about one hour, the silence interrupted only when Hanh would encourage the audience to breathe in and out and meditate on a feeling.
“We breathe in and breathe out, and in that way we can stop the thinking, because the thinking can take us away from the here and now,” he said.
Hanh’s appearance in Boston was a major occasion for the local Buddhist community; it is the only New England stop on his US tour. On Saturday, he did a ticketed event inside the church, but asked to be able to do something free for the public as well.
“If you practice Buddhism, it’s an unbelievably huge deal. He is one of the best-known Zen masters in the world, maybe second only to the Dalai Lama,” said Louise Burnham Packard, the executive director of the Trinity Boston Foundation, which hosted the event. “The goal is to spread his message that peace begins with each of us. And it was a coincidence, but a wonderful coincidence, that it’s the five-month anniversary of the Marathon bombing. And here we are in Copley Square with the goal of bringing the city together.”
Running a massive event that is built largely around silence proved to be an interesting challenge for the volunteers, who wore “Sit in Peace” T-shirts and worked quietly along the periphery to turn down the volume of the city noises around the seated meditators, who filled the square from the church to the flower beds along Dartmouth Street. At one point, volunteers had to bribe a street performer with cash after he refused to stop playing music on Boylston Street.
Although there were many practicing Buddhists in the crowd, most were simply people who had come to pay their respects to the philosophy.
“We’re sort of fair-weather meditators, but we believe strongly in the Buddhist tradition,” said Steve Joseph, 59, of Arlington.
“He’s a spiritual leader,” Ann Horowitz, 57, added. “This was simply an opportunity to be in his presence.”
As the audience waited for the event to begin, Sunny-San, one of the volunteers, was anxiously awaiting Hanh’s appearance, curious to see, or feel, what so many have raved about for so long. Martin Luther King Jr. called him “an apostle of peace and nonviolence.” His key teaching is often referred to as “the art of mindfulness,” with the goal of finding happiness by living in the present moment.
“There’s something about him. The vibe is that he’s just an amazing person,” Sunny-San said. “I’ve read a few of his books, and if he were to tell you what his religion was, he’d summarize it in one word: kindness. He’s not trying to teach people to be like him. He’s trying to teach people to be kind to each other. He seems like the right person to be right here, in Copley Square.”
As the event began, the Rev. Bill Rich, the senior associate rector of Trinity Church, made note of the Boston Marathon bombings, which took place just a few hundred yards from the site of the meditation, and called for peace and remembrance.
And then, when he introduced Hanh, who was dressed in a brown robe and winter cap, the spiritual leader sat in silence for 25 minutes and did nothing. It was exactly what people had come to see.
Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.