Village Zendo Home
December 09 Contents

Street RetreatA 4-day retreat on the streets of Manhattan
Two Poems"The Way" and "Beside Me"
Avalokiteshvara's ArmAvalokiteshvara's Missing ArmA broken statue
Poet Anne Waldman"While I'm Here I'll Do the Work"Interview with poet Anne Waldman
Winter HaikuThree poems
Musho's TeahousePainting

Today I want to speak to you about the koan, "Seizei, A Poor Monk."

Seizei, a monk, once said to Master Sozan, "I am poor and destitute. I beg you, oh Master, please help me and make me rich."

Sozan said, "Venerable Seizei?"

"Yes, teacher," replied Seizei.

Sozan said, "Having tasted three cups of the best wine of  Seigen, do you still say your lips are not yet moistened?"

How did the monk taste that best wine of Seigen? What is it to be poor and destitute?

Koans reveal themselves in different ways and this morning I am using this one to grab your attention. Though one can see it from the perspective of spiritual poverty, today I want to highlight the material poverty that arises when we don't recognize our own value.

"Seizei?" "Yes teacher."

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What happened in the act calling and answering? What happened there? What did the monk realize, or of what did the teacher remind him?

In October, a group of 12 of us led by my old friend Genro Gauntt Sensei and myself, lived on the streets in lower Manhattan for 4 days, experiencing how it is to survive without money or cell phones. Before we left, I described this retreat as a renunciation, a pilgrimage, a way to give up all our habitual comforts and resources and to open up to reality, to the conditions of the world of which we are a part. What's it like to live in the city without anything? What's it like to find that you need to use a phone for some information, when you don't have a quarter?

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The week before the retreat, I attended a Soto Zen conference in San Francisco. While there, I met with my beloved dharma sister, Egyoku Roshi, and she told me something that struck me powerfully. Roshi's community, Los Angeles Zen Center, is spending a year studying "what is 'vow'." One of Roshi's students had decided that for the whole year, her practice would be to investigate the vow, "include everything."

Just imagine what it would be like if you were to include everything that arises. Usually, all of us only include a certain amount: we include what we like, what we are willing to see about ourselves and others. We don't include the things we don't like about ourselves or about conditions and situations. We push them away. Denial. To constantly include everything that is arising—I was so struck by that—perhaps that was the teaching I needed right then.

So, I took this idea of "include everything" onto the street retreat. To deny nothing, not my disgust—"Something is touching me—a rat? A bedbug?" (The worst fear of a New Yorker.) Or at the soup kitchen. "Is this man going to throw up on me?" These were some of the thoughts that came to me.

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One of the points of Street Retreat is that things are right in your face and so there is no way to exclude anything. I would say that every one of us discovered things that we were forced to include. Everyone one of us had issues come up. It's a wonderful lesson. "I need to beg to see what it's like to be rejected, or be given something." Or, "I need to be seen," or, "I have my anger." Fear was a huge thing. Living on the street is scary. But, the minute we include the fear, it's much less scary because it's there, you can touch it, you can feel it and it's not this black cloud that's following you around.

The first night we slept in an alley down by the World Trade Center, very fortunate because there was an overhang and it started raining in the middle of the night. Too, there was much joy and celebration when we realized there was a MacDonald's around the corner with a bathroom open all night. One of the great challenges when you live on the street is to find a bathroom.

If you ever have to sleep on the street, I want to tell you about cardboard. Cardboard is the best thing to sleep on. It insulates nicely, and it softens the concrete, even though it was hard on some of us older ones and it got cold. We used ponchos or plastic garbage bags and newspapers which make good insulation. Every day, we spent time in Washington Square doing zazen, chanting the Hungry Ghost Ceremony and reflecting on the Precepts.

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During those four days, some things happened that directly faced me with my koan to "include everything," and I thought it might be useful to share them with you. The experiences concerned the places where we went to receive food. Many people are doing hands-on work with the poor here in the city, offering various kinds of support and aid including food and shelter. By chance, it seemed to happen that all the places we visited were Christian, but of course, other denominations also offer such aid.

It's very easy to get food in Manhattan and a lot of the people that I talked to come from the Bronx and Queens. We had breakfast every day at the Bowery Gospel Mission. It's on the Bowery right next to the New Museum—quite a shocking contrast. We visited the Catholic Worker Kitchen on Second Avenue and 1st street, a church kitchen on 16th street and 7th Avenue and another church kitchen on Tomkins Square as well as the McCauley Mission on White Street and Lafayette.

The Bowery Mission is an amazing place, founded in 1879, it serves 3 meals a day, has a shower program for men, medical attention, clothing, and emergency shelter, all free. However, if you want to eat, there is a price you have to pay: chapel! Be in the chapel for service one hour before a meal is served ... or no meal.

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The chapel experience was very daunting for our group. Most of us have a lot of opinions about what is appropriate and what is not, what is proper and what is not. The chapel program would always begin with gospel music, because Bowery is a Gospel mission. Our first night, there were young people singing accompanied by an electric guitar and piano. Everyone was invited to sing along, but most of the audience is asleep, heads on pews, or else they're looking around. Each day's program is different. The last day, a Latino man sang gospel hymns a cappella. It was very sweet.

After the music, a sermon is given in the kind of forceful language that we certainly don't use here: almost a Manichaean conception of good and evil, of blame and shame, fire and brimstone. "There is only one right way." Looking at the people there, nodding off, impatient, it was not hard to feel that they were being abused by this unremitting barrage of sermonizing. "Come to Jesus. Be saved or you will be lost."

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After the sermon, people are dispatched in groups to go to the cafeteria. The first groups to go are kind of like the "model" people, the shusos, the students who have taken part in the program. Staff monitors pace around hurrying us, "all right, women and disabled, let's go, let's go, keep moving." People are sleepy, tired, drunk, detoxing, there's a lot of noise and pushing and getting people in line. Very brusque, not a lot of dignity, no what we would call compassion. Once inside the cafeteria, the food is plentiful, all kinds of donations from Whole Foods: croissants, Greek yogurt ... food that's just going out of date as well as vats of oat meal and chili. Yet the overwhelming impression for us was one of brainwashing, indoctrination, and a sense of demeaning these poor victims.

On the other hand, at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen, nothing is asked of you. You come in and sit down at a beautiful wooden table holding a great big bowl of homemade soup and bread. Kind-looking people walk around serving you coffee or tea. I asked one server, "Do you work here?" It turned out she was a volunteer who lived in the neighborhood and came once a week to help out.

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So, there's a very different quality at the Catholic Worker. Of course it's a very left-wing group inspired by Peter Maurin and founded by Dorothy Day, whose idea of Christian mercy is simply to serve food. Just that. It's also a very small organization. They serve at 11 a.m. only and you just go in. They had the best food, all organic, all donated.

A lot of the people who came had been so abused and so pushed down and so used to being mistreated, that they were not particularly nice to the servers. They weren't gracious, just got their faces into the bowls, and yet the servers were there with a sense of generous dignity that I think is very important. When we want to give someone something, we need to check ourselves to be sure that we're not putting them in an "up-to-down" situation, not victimizing. At The Catholic Worker there was something about the tenor and tone that was simple acceptance.

The people who came to these churches were mainly men and 97 percent people of color. Those who served them tended to be kind of "church lady" types who had a little time to come in for a day and help make the food. In one place I commented on the collards and a woman said enthusiastically, "Yes, I made the collards. I always make the collards." She told me a whole story about how she had learned to make collards from her mother and now she still makes them the same way. I loved her—a woman in her late 70s. Much of the time we think we're special, compassionate Buddhists, so I just wanted to share that this is going on all the time all around us.

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We visited the McCauley Mission at White Street and Lafayette, the oldest Mission in the U.S., founded in 1872 by Gerry McCauley, an Irish immigrant who actually grew up on the streets of New York, did time in Sing-Sing, and even after several spiritual experiences, struggled for years with alcoholism.

At that time in New York, there was a phrase that still breaks my heart: "the unworthy poor." There were wonderful charities for "the worthy poor" who were women and children, but "the unworthy poor" were men who weren't working. It was considered that they weren't using their masculine energy, and so they were termed "the unworthy poor." Nothing was being done for them, so Gerry decided that his life mission was to care for them. He convinced another ex-hoodlum who had done well to give him a property, and he and his wife (said to have been a prostitute) set up the McCauley Mission—which is still on White Street.

When we visited, we found a raw, rather dilapidated place, and once again a disciplinary style: silent, crowded, dense, monitors shouting at people in the lines to keep it together, not unlike a prison or jail. So, this whole time I'm trying to include everything, trying not to make a judgment, trying to learn to "not know" as we say, to not judge the style of operation because it's not in alignment with "my" style of operation.

On our last morning, I heard two young men testify at the Bowery Mission. They're called "students," like we call ourselves Zen students. I perked up and thought, "Oh, they're here to learn something, to learn how to shift their lives onto a kind of spiritual axis, a kind of acknowledgement of their own worth." And you can call it The Absolute, or you can call it Jesus, but ultimately it's recognizing their own worth. When I listened to those men at the Bowery mission, I saw how skillful what I had thought of as brainwashing and indoctrination could be.

What were they doing there at that mission? I saw my mind shift from all the opinions I had about the program as a kind of fundamentalist brainwashing, to a kind of training, a style of training. What is religion anyway? Most of us in this room have opinions about religion: we don't care very much for it. We think of religion in terms of abuse of power, in terms of fundamentalist views of right and wrong, good and bad.

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I began to think about the root of the word religion. Its origins are disputed. Cicero said it came from "re" or "to once again", and "leger", to read. He though it meant "to read again", to study deeply. But there were other people in the classical era who said no, no, no, it comes from "relegare" which is to bind fast, to hold fast, to bring together the spiritual and the human, or at that time, the gods and the humans. Another group said, no, no, no, it comes from "relegere" which means careful, the opposite of "nelegere," negligence. And today, we think of it as a particular system of faith. I love the idea of this binding fast, this reading over and study, this carefulness. I think we tend to disdain these useful aspects of what we call religion. They show the healing power of religion, the transforming power, the quality that arises. Religion, great compassion, this is what motivates the volunteers of the spiritual groups, those who are out there serving food.

The very last night we went to a Sufi mosque and visited with some Sufi friends. We chanted the Songs of the Beloved, which are so beautiful, so full of devotional love, and quite in accord with what we are doing here in our meditation practice. It's just a different expression of it. Chanting seemed to make our hearts open. We chanted words connecting the love of Mohammed, the love of Jesus, and the teachings of Zen, all seeming to center on trusting and recognizing the unity, the humanness, the absolute in each of us.

It is that recognition of our absolute value as humans, as individuals, that Seizei, the poor monk, couldn't quite see in the koan we looked at earlier. He says to Sozan, "I am poor and destitute. I beg you, oh Master, please help me and make me rich."

When anyone asks us to help them, what is the greatest gift we could give them at that moment?

Sozan said, "Venerable Seizei?"

"Yes, teacher," replied Seizei.

The key is right in this exchange.

Sozan said, "Having tasted three cups of the best wine of Seigen, do you still say your lips are not yet moistened?"

Wouldn't it be to goad them to realize their own incomparable value and uniqueness? Isn't that what we do, when we offer the gift of our attention and love, when we include everything?

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