Dear Still Water Friends,
Home, Homelessness, and Not Knowing
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Dear Thay, Dear Sangha—
From April 1-4 I participated on a retreat on the streets, thanks to the Silver Spring Zendo. Here is a description from the teacher who organized it, Sensei Grover Genro Gauntt, Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order and a dharma successor of Roshi Bernie Glassman:
What Is a Street Retreat?
A street retreat is a plunge into the unknown. It is an opportunity to
go beyond our imagined limits. It’s the barest poke at renunciation. We
will live on the streets of Washington and Silver Spring with no
resources other than our true nature, experiencing homelessness first
hand, begging for money, finding food, shelter, bathrooms, etc. By
bearing witness to homelessness, we begin to see our prejudices and
boundaries directly and to recognize our common humanity. It is a way
to experience our interconnection and realize our responsibilities.
"When we go… to bear witness to life on the streets, we’re offering
ourselves. Not blankets, not food, not clothes, just ourselves."
—-Bernie Glassman, Bearing Witness
The retreat was a way to practice three teachings of engaged Buddhism, Zen Peacemakers style:
- Not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe
- Bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world
- Loving actions towards ourselves and others
Not-knowing drops our conceptual framework from very personal biases and assumptions to such concepts as "in and out" "good and bad" "name and form," "coming and going." Not-knowing is a state of open presence without separation.
In this state we can Bear Witness, the second Tenet, merging or joining with an individual, situation or environment, deeply imbibing their essence. From this intimate "knowing," we can then choose an appropriate response to the person or situation, described as "taking loving actions," our third Tenet. This gives rise to the holistic, integrated, wrap-around style of service projects inspired by Bernie’s vision.
In speaking about the Three Tenets as separate practices and phases of consciousness, we are making deference to the discriminating mind. They are actually a continual flow, each containing and giving rise to the others.
We had adventures on the three days and three nights that the nine of were together – 2 teachers, 7 students; 5 women and 4 men. We lived and roamed downtown DC. For me, it was joyful. Being a long-time DC resident, I experienced a paradoxical sense of being home while living as “homeless.” We were never hungry; never far from a bathroom, the sun was out, I was never lost, and I was with fellow travelers on the Buddhist path. What could be better?
Here are the three nuggets that I took home with me:
Everyone is homeless when they are on the street.
Everyone is a smile away from being a friend.
Not knowing is the way to better seeing, better listening, better understanding.
This Thursday, we will look at our own ideas about home, homelessness, and the idea of not knowing. I hope you will be there, and I look forward to seeing you.