By Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt
A talk given at Upaya Zen Center on September 28, 2015
Transcribed by Scott Harris, Photo above by Peter Cunningham
GENRO: […] So we don’t have much more time. It’s like a few minutes before the dinner bell rings. So I want to be open to questions. Please say your name before your questions.
Audience member: Nancy.
Genro: Hi Nancy.
Audience member: What was it like in the Black Hills? What were the interactions with . . .?
Genro: That’s a big one. That’s a big question. It was really wonderful. We camped for five days. There were some people that stayed in lodges. So if you want to come do that with us, you don’t have to camp. But I highly recommend it, because the Lakota name for the Black Hills is Cante Wamakhognake. And the translation for that is “The heart of everything that is.” So I would not want to go to my lodge room, and take a shower. I want to be on the land. Because it’s holy land for sure.
The natives that were there, they were really surprised. The question that I heard most often was, “How do you know so many nice people?” They can’t imagine two hundred people that are not bigoted—seriously—or don’t have awful opinions of them, and how they should be living their lives, and not being at the tit of the state. That’s what they run into all the time.
So the normal way of native people around Wasichu, and that’s what they call the non-Indians — Wasichu’s an interesting word. It means “the one who takes the fat.” That’s what they call the non-Indians, who were the explorers and the colonizers. The fat eaters, Wasichu.
But their normal attitude around white people mostly is distance and fear. You know, “What are they gonna ask me? What are they gonna call me? What kind of judgment are they gonna make of me?” But in the Black Hills [retreat], in this container that arose, the native people were saying, “I’m just so happy. I’m just so full of joy to be here, and to be with the people.”
And what they were doing was they were telling us their stories about what it’s like to be a Native American now. Some were historians. Some were talking about deep, deep spiritual connections, and things. But many were talking about what it’s like to be living on the poorest place on Earth. The Pine Ridge Reservation is the poorest county in the United States. The average income is less than $6,000 a year. Eighty-five percent or more of the people are unemployed. Since November to now there have been more than thirty teen suicides on the reservation.
It’s desolate. It’s awful. It’s bad. Because the trauma that began 500 years ago is still reverberating really strongly. If anybody studied trauma, and historical trauma, you don’t have to experience trauma yourself—it’s carried in your genes after a while. It’s in your body. So many suffer from diabetes. That’s not from eating bad—which they do, because they’re still eating commodities—it’s from trauma. Heart disease—trauma. Same thing, so many things like that. Not to mention alcoholism, and drug abuse, and all that.
But it was a really healing, beautiful time. People learned so much. I’ve never seen so many people so ecstatic. A lot of celebration, a lot of prayer, a lot of deep connections.
Yeah, there’s not enough time to talk about it. But, please come. Please come. We’ll do it again next year.
Any other questions?
Audience member: My name is Rose. I see so many people losing everything—tornados, floods, fires, refugees—and I just wonder . . . I don’t know if you can address this, I just wonder what that does to people. And sometimes I hear people say, “Well I lost everything, but I’m alive.”
Genro: Yeah, that’s what you hear on the TV, right?
Audience member: Yeah. But I wonder how it transforms people if there’s like . . .
Genro: So what you need to do, is when something like that happens, go there. Go there, and offer to help as much as you can. Meet the people. Ask them what’s happened, how they feel about it. Everybody’s different.
People ask me, “How was that Black Hills Retreat?” I told Joshin today, I said well, asking me is the wrong person, because I wasn’t there. I was putting out fires all the time. I was just backstage kind of. But I don’t know how it was. There were two hundred plus people there. There were two hundred different experiences. There are eighty people in this room. There are eighty different experiences of tonight. Everybody’s got a completely different experience.
Are they feeling the divine presence here and now? I don’t know. Some likely, because it’s so overwhelming. There lives obviously transform forever. What happens in disasters, as we all know, is that people come together in community. That’s rather unique, right?
Bad stuff happens. People talk to each other on the street. “Did you hear about such and such?” You can make a connection like that [snaps fingers], because everybody shares a common experience. That’s really beautiful in my estimation.
But I like to make those connections every day anyway. You know, I’ll find something and go “Hey!” And the person next to me will go, “Yeah!” Because everybody wants to talk. We’re all beings who are wired for deep communication, and love, and compassion. And all you have to do to somebody you’ve never seen in your whole life is go, “Hi.” And they might go, “Hi.” And then, you know, anything can happen.
And they’re gonna be there. Even the worst actors . . . “Hi.” What are they gonna say? “Ehhhh.” No. They’re gonna say, “Hi.”
I always tell people—this is a teaching around Street Retreats—because security is a big issue. You know, if you’re worried about something, you’re not being wholly present in your life, you’re not having no expectations, you might be worried about security. So we spend time on that. In fact today I had a conversation with a Sheriff’s deputy from Albuquerque police department, who’s the godson of one of my best friends.
So he said, “Hey, I heard you’re doing a Street Retreat.” I said yeah. He goes, “OK, we’ll be watching out for you.” So, we got that covered. He said, “If anything blows up, just call me.” I said OK. We’re not supposed to have cell phones, but . . . How far away is a cell phone? Right? And we’ll have one with us. Joshin’s gonna bring his cell phone. And you can give his number to your families and friends. You can’t call them, but if they have an emergency, they can call. And we’ll check messages a couple times a day.
So what do you do? We’re never alone on the streets. We always at least have a buddy. And 99 percent of the time, we’re all together. But what do you do if you’re in a neighborhood somewhere . . . I almost said a bad neighborhood. What does that mean? Is this a bad neighborhood? Is the Bronx a bad neighborhood? I don’t know. I work in the South Bronx. I’m the only white person for miles, and I feel completely secure.
Anyway, what if you’re in a neighborhood, and you’re walking to a big street where you might find a cab, or a bus, or a subway, or . . . What do you have here? Horses? I don’t know. And suddenly you hear these footsteps behind you. Men or women, I don’t care, what comes up? Holy shit! Right? They’re gonna get me.
And you keep walking, a little faster probably. They keep getting closer. So here’s what you do. When those footsteps get pretty close, you just turn, and go, “Hey, I am lost. Can you help me? I’m trying to get to wherever, and I really don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m scared.” And you’ve got these homies behind you, and what do they do? They go, “Yeah, you can like walk down to Main Street over there. We’ll walk you down.”
When you ask people for help like that, when you encounter them as human beings, their angel shows up. That’s what happens. So you don’t need to be afraid of bad neighborhoods. Everybody’s an angel. Right? You just have to call them out.
I don’t think anybody asked that question. [Audience laughs]
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Joshin: I think Genro, the first time I did Street Retreat with you, my first hours, days, on the retreat were not about not knowing. The first experience for me was about noticing how much I wanted there to be an enemy out there. You know, like OK we’re out with all these homeless people, we’re down in the bowery, we’re doing all this stuff, and there are these damn rich people that have caused this whole problem, and their selfishness, and their greed. And so it wasn’t like this magical not knowing experience. Actually I felt pretty certain that there was a lot if injustice, and bad people out there, and they’re doing all this. And that was a very interesting thing for me to work with. Like suddenly, now who’s the bad guy? And now who’s the good guy? And how habitually I want there to be some bad guy out there that we can blame this all on.
And I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about that as the process of kind of bearing witness?
Genro: Yeah. Who said thoughts were real? Did anybody ever say that, that your thoughts were real? But what do we do? We go around all day, going, “Man, my thoughts are telling me the right stuff all the time.” That’s our mantra to ourselves, that’s what we’re thinking is real. It’s not. It’s not reality. Our thinking is just thoughts. It’s dreaming. It’s dreaming there’s an enemy. It’s dreaming there’s somebody that’s going to hurt us. It’s dreaming that we’re not going to get what we need. Who’s missed a meal in the last twenty years, in this room? You did? What happened?
Audience member: I was just only eating one meal a day.
Genro: On purpose? Did you beg?
Audience member: No.
Genro: So, you can always beg. Begging—people are terrified of begging. Right? Begging is so much fun. [Audience laughs] It really is. I tell people, if you’re gonna beg, really what you’re doing, you’ve got to see it as a service. It’s a service. It’s a bodhisattva service. And we’re all bodhisattvas. And we’re all the Buddha, by the way.
But when you beg, you’re giving whoever you’re begging from, the opportunity to give, the opportunity for them to break the bonds of holding on. So, I’m almost scared to beg now, because I don’t know what it is, people can’t say “no,” and they just give me stuff. And I just have to go . . . Jeez, that’s hard. Because if I’m on the streets begging like that—I know I don’t need it, absolutely—I see the whole emotional transaction going on while this is all happening. I just see them go grrrrrrrrrrr. It’s painful to me, because I watch them go through this whole drama of “How much am I gonna give him? Oh my God. Are they gonna hurt me?” You can just see it all go through their face.
Yeah. Why did I say that? Oh, begging. Everything is available. Everything. So we tell people they can’t bring toothbrushes on the street. Why? All you have to do is walk into a dental office, and go, “Can I have a toothbrush?” They go, “Sure. Here’s a toothbrush.”
We were on the streets in Zurich, and somebody said, “I need a toothbrush.” I said, “Well, get one for everybody.” So they went to the nearest hotel, and they got twelve from the concierge. I mean, you can get anything you want.
And because the divine presence is with us here and now, you can get anything you want. Miracles are real. Let’s get into the good spiritual stuff. Right? Miracles happen all the time. Every moment of our life is absolutely a miracle. None of us know how to beat our heart, or make one leg really go in front of the other to walk. It’s a miracle. Right?
How do we avoid all those cars on the highway? It’s a miracle. [Audience laughs] Our whole life, moment to moment, is a miracle. And if we could just be in awe of our lives, we wouldn’t be mad at anybody. And we wouldn’t be thinking is there somebody our enemy or not, because we know it’s just awesome.
Awesome is really overused, you know. “How’s that?” “Awesome.” Do they really mean that? No. If you say, “Awesome!” you’re coming from an enlightened place, because you’re in awe. Right? It’s so great to be in awe, because you’re like a child. You turn into a child-like consciousness where whatever you see is like “Ah!” Everything. Right?
Moment after moment—“Ah!” “Ah!” Everything is beautiful. Everything is entertaining. Everything’s new. And it is brand new.
Dogen Zenji said—he was talking about reincarnation [Whispers] Don’t tell Joan I talked about this . . . Zen Buddhists aren’t supposed to talk about reincarnation. But I don’t label myself that, so I’m OK. Dogen said, “We are reborn 642,000 times per second.” Get that one. That’s a good one.
Yeah, a total miracle. So everything that we bring on from one life to the next, it’s just like old history. Let’s be here. Let’s enjoy this life. Miracles.
Ask and it shall be given. That’s not an empty promise.
We walked out of the New York Rescue Mission in the Bowery in February, six or eight years ago, because I wanted to do a retreat in the cold. I wanted to see what it’s like to be homeless when it was really cold. And I had on a down parka, you know, all kinds of layers, and long underwear, and two pair of socks, gloves, and hat, and scarf. And I walked out, and I was chilled. I said, “Oh my God. I really need a coat.” And just went on. So now we’re gonna head for the PATH—subway trains that go underneath the Hudson River to New Jersey. We’re gonna sleep there. We’re gonna be on the trains. We’re gonna do whatever it takes just to stay out of the cold.
And two blocks from the Bowery Mission where I had that thought—actually a prayer—I see a body on the ground. I go Oh my god; somebody’s lying dead on the ground—because it was like this form, like this.
It was a down parka, just lying on the sidewalk.
That’s not extraordinary. You know, they also say Buddhists aren’t prayers. Not me. I pray all the time. I’m serious. I start the morning with prayers that last almost an hour outside. I do it in a Native American tradition, and I pray throughout the day. Everybody I see, everybody I run into—May God bless you all. It’s true.
And our prayers are answered. If we were all just doing that—praying, thinking positive thoughts, wishing good for everybody—that’s all there would be. That’s all there would be. Let’s change our minds like that.
I would love to take questions for another hour, play with you, but I think we better close because the cook’s going to be mad.
Thank you everybody. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
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