Not knowing. Not knowing what would happen, where I would sleep, when and why I was doing this in the middle of an economic recession. My teacher, Grover Genro Gauntt, said it would be fun. Really?
About a year before I committed to Genro's Street Retreat in NYC, I thought long and hard about this. Fears came up: How would I be able to beg? What if I saw someone I knew while I was "homeless"? What was the worst that could happen? All these shadows clouded my thinking and then from my heart I knew I had to do this.
One additional challenge I faced was raising the mala. How could I ask family and friends for money? Hardly prepared to explain why, I thought perhaps it would be best not to tell my family about this journey. Again, my thinking got me in trouble. Too much thinking. Just do it. After several phone calls, direct requests and a few e-mails, the mala came and then some. It was an empowering experience even before the retreat began.
The details of where we slept, ate, used the loo, washed our hands and faces, all were taken care of. Even the disapproving glances or shocked looks of New York passers-by pale in significance. Now over a month later, the reverberations of the group and that street retreat are with me every day. It's like a mantra in unspoken words. The awareness of what it was like, even for four days—such a short time—to share the compassion of sangha members and to lose artificial barriers. The psychological barriers that exist between Zen students like me and the homeless, disappeared and my attitudes are changed forever. Compassion for the homeless continues as I journey through the streets of Chicago. It's harder to stop and offer food without the sangha group. It's easier to just walk by and ignore the homeless, yet in my heart I know connecting with the homeless helps me grow.
Our leaders, Pat Enkyo O'Hara and Genro Gauntt, were beacons of trust, goodwill and humor.
Yes, I never laughed so much in my life.
Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis