While I was living in the Bay Area, I volunteered with a Buddhist’s organization that operated a program to feed and clothe the homeless population. During the first few months I assisted with packing the food into plastic bags. The volunteers would usually visit two or three locations during the day. They would start in San Jose and end in San Francisco or Berkeley. It was a fast-paced operation. I did not have the time to look around or to notice what was really going on. As I adjusted to the pace, slowly I started to notice a sense of being in something akin to a refugee camp. It was like visiting another world.
After the food was served the volunteers would distribute clothes and sleeping bags, then pack up for the next location. I would take this break to walk around the park and talk to the people. I would just ask how they were doing or to find out if they needed anything. Unexpectedly, just this simple question would allow them to become open and they would start telling me about their situation. Now, I cannot describe these interactions as “conversations” as I was only a “listener,” that is all that I could offer but it seemed to be enough. As I listened, I began to realize that almost everything that I had heard and most of what I thought about homeless people was inadequate. No doubt, that many of them had
substance abuse and mental issues but there were so many other life histories. I met people that lost their homes or jobs during the most recent financial crisis. There were people that became financially distressed due to medical bills, others were trying to support themselves on Public Assistance, Social Security, Veteran or Disability benefits. They told me about the lives they had before becoming homeless, their occupations, their homes, their spouses, their relatives and children.
On a visit to a park in Berkeley a woman saw me talking to some of the homeless people. She asked me “what group do you represent?” I pointed to the group of Vietnamese Buddhist. She knew the group but thought that it was unusual to witness someone talking to the homeless, most groups just serve food and leave. She asked if I was writing a book or working on a school report. I let her know that I was not doing a study, that I was interested in talking to people because I realized that I had a misunderstanding of the homeless population; it was not what I expected. She then explained that she worked for a group that identified and aided homeless women. She then asked me, “what do you think, what have you found?” I let her know that it felt like a refugee camp, that it felt like another world. She let me know that I have only skimmed the surface, most of the homeless families are living in their cars throughout the area, their car was their last sanctuary. One of greatest joys was to provide the women and children with showers and clean clothes. “You should see it” she said, “after a shower, for that brief moment they become alive again”.
On every volunteer event I began to realize that I was seeing what for me had previously been unseen. I had to start with acknowledgement that there were many things that I did not know or understand. I was able to see the Buddhist teachings of Dependent Origination, but I could only begin to understand the causes and conditions in each individual story. I found that there no was place for judgment. It was a time for sweeping away old ways of thinking.
I have always viewed Buddhism as an Invitation. To bring Buddhist teachings into our daily lives we must accept the invitation. Get on the chariot with Siddhartha as he crossed the four gates. Go on a mental journey of realization with Shakyamuni as he sat under the Bodhi tree. Then continue a lifelong journey to turn the Wheel of Dharma. With Buddha’s final invitation to find your own way, he was inviting us to find a way of utilizing the various methods that he taught. He was also inviting us to acknowledge the thought of “I do not know” but with the caveat “I will try to find out.” It is an invitation to embark on a personal Age of Discovery.
The story that I shared about my experiences as a volunteer is a personal example of accepting the “invitation” and admitting that there are factors that I do not know, many issues that I do not understand. By personalizing the phrase “I do not know,” I was able to further my understanding of the teachings of causes and conditions, and compassion.
From the Zen tradition there is a story about a Monk sweeping the floor. He tells the Master that he is finished sweeping the floor. The Master tells him to sweep it again, then sweep it again. What at first seems like a clever way to have the Monks perpetually clean the temple is actually a profound metaphor. We must perpetually sweep our mind, sweep away the thoughts that may hinder us or cause distress to others. When we are finished sweeping, sweep again, then sweep again!
Mark Van Dyke