ZPO Members Complete NYC Street Retreat, Sep 15-18


In photo: Jiryu, Mukei, Kim, Rudie, and Bogai

By A. Jesse Jiryu Davis, ZPO
New York City, NY USA

For four days and three nights, I led a small group who chose to be homeless. In preparation, we raised a few thousand dollars to donate to homeless services, then we left behind our wallets and phones and all possessions, and joined to live on the streets together. We slept in parks, ate at soup kitchens, and begged for change. We meditated and chanted twice a day. Street retreat is a practice of the Zen Peacemaker Order. It’s a way to raise some money for charity, to bear witness to the lives of homeless people, and to taste the renunciation of the first Buddhist monks.

I’ve been on retreats before, but this is my first time leading one. As you might predict, I lived in the grip of anxiety for the weeks before the retreat, but once the retreat actually began it didn’t take long for me to relax into its flow. We had favorable weather, we had enough to eat, and we found safe places to sleep each night.

Here’s a recap we wrote together.


We met in Washington Square park, on a mild day. There were five of us: Mukei, Bogai, Rudie, Kim, and Jiryu. We introduced ourselves, meditated, and began a Day of Reflection. We walked to the Bowery Mission for an evangelical service and meal. In the chapel, a Baptist preacher shouted and growled a sermon about his salvation from crack addiction. The pews were filled with street people. Most slept or played with their cell phones. A few shouted “amen!” The preacher called for the congregation to come forward and be blessed. A handful of men walked to the front and the preacher commanded Satan to release them in the name of Jesus. Everyone in the room should’ve come to the front, according to the preacher, because all were sinners who needed the salvation of Jesus.

Dinner was above-par: roast chicken, rice, a salad with sliced turkey, apple juice and styrofoam bowls of cheese and caramel popcorn. I’d noticed a truck unloading boxes of Whole Foods leftovers earlier, perhaps the chicken was from there.

We walked in the twilight through Chinatown’s neon commotion, to arrive at a Sufi mosque, Dergah Al-Farah, on West Broadway. We met their leader Sheikha Fariha and an assistant Abdul Rahim. They offered a place to sleep that night, which we accepted gratefully. They also offered a breakfast that morning but I had to decline—their generosity was so abundant it was interfering with our retreat. In typical Muslim fashion they offered three times and we declined thrice, before it was settled. We stayed for the Zikr that night: for hours the Sufis praised God in English and Arabic, with chants, singing, and dancing. We slept on their balcony, on piles of sheepskins.


We woke around 7am, made coffee from the mosque’s kitchen, and took some of the food the Sufis had left for us: whole wheat bagels and a block of cheddar. We wouldn’t have breakfast until 10:30, so we went back to Washington Square Park and sat zazen. We dedicated the merit of the previous Day of Reflection and began a new one.

We hiked up to 31st St for the breadline at Holy Apostles soup kitchen. While we stood in line outside the church, a man walked up and down hawking some scam. “Physicals, $40 cash!” We couldn’t figure out what was going on with him—stay tuned for Saturday when we found out.

I was standing in line next to a young man with red eyes and a cigarette behind his ear, who smelled like a distillery. He was so drunk he could barely stand. He told me about a job he’d had painting the roof of a house in Pennsylvania. The house was beautiful, it was beautiful there, it was an old family house with acres of property around it. Houses there only cost $60,000, the young man hoped to buy a house like that for himself.

On my other side, a wiry middle-aged man was standing in the line and ranting for anyone to hear, about “these damn homeless fuckers”. He worked out his arms by pulling himself up on the iron fence outside the church. He catcalled a woman crossing the street near us, and followed up with an elaborate complaint about men. He made it clear to all within earshot that he didn’t want to fuck a man.

When the line progressed to the inside of the church, Kim decided to sit with him for lunch. She asked if he was hungry. No, he’d had breakfast at 7am. Minutes before, he’d been abrasive and snarling, but he had a boyish smile as he offered Kim his soup. Maybe he was happy to be talking to a woman.

The Holy Apostles meal was a sort of noodle soup, with a few oily slices of salami floating in it. The egg salad and canned green beans were more successful, and there was bread, mac & cheese, an apple, and coffee. A volunteer played classical piano at the front of the cafeteria. “Piano music civilizes any situation,” Bogai said later.

Our group reconvened outside the church and walked up 6th Ave to 59th St. We had walked about 5 miles since we woke, and Rudie’s right leg was beginning to hurt where he had broken it the year before. A slight limp he always had was more pronounced, but he was toughing it out quietly.

When we reached Central Park we napped on a lawn, then sat zazen, held council, and performed the Gate of Sweet Nectar ceremony.

Jiryu and Bogai offered some advice for panhandling, and we walked to a corner near Lincoln Center to beg. Kim and Mukei paired off and went one way, Rudie and Bogai went in another direction. After half an hour of panhandling we regrouped to compare notes. Bogai had got a Big Mac box from the trash and turned it into a little display: in the lid he’d written, “Need money to buy a new toothbrush,” and at the bottom of the box he exhibited his bent toothbrush. This marketing campaign netted him a handful of change. Kim and Rudie struck out with nothing, but Mukei received $4.

For dinner we planned to rendezvous with the Coalition for the Homeless’s Grand Central Food Program at 8pm, at the 79th St Boat Basin and West End Avenue. We had several hours to kill until then, so we moseyed, stopping at a Barnes & Noble to use the bathroom, and eventually entered Riverside Park by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. The park seemed rich with nests under trees and behind bushes for us to sleep that night. Incredibly, Bogai ran into a couple friends on a bike path. He begged $13 off them.

We reached the meal van’s stopping place, at a highway underpass. A couple of beardy old white homeless guys were standing or lying on the grass there, so we knew we’d found the spot.

Night came and the wind got cold. We hadn’t had a full meal since 11 that morning, and we were all hungry. I was anxious the meal van wouldn’t offer enough to satisfy us. I thought we’d be up all night with empty stomachs and chilly weather. Bogai asked one of the graybeards what kind of meal the van would bring us. “Soup, milk, and an orange.”

An hour passed. Bogai went back to the graybeard to ask if this was a hearty soup or a thin one. “I’d say it’s a middle-of-the-road soup,” said the graybeard. Another half hour; it was almost 9pm, but the 8 o’clock delivery still wasn’t there. Just when I was figuring we would beg leftovers from restaurants and give up on the van, it arrived. The Coalition for the Homeless staff hopped out the back and a few bums, including us, crowded around it. Our graybeard declaimed that “some people are here slumming it, to see what it’s like to be homeless so they can write a report.” The Coalition staff were friendly and efficient. We got huge hunks of good dark bread—Bogai must have received half a loaf—and they asked whether we wanted one soup or two. Most of us asked for two soups. As promised, we also got a carton of milk and an orange. We plopped down there in the windy dark by the highway and ate. The soup was quite hearty, actually. It was a ground-beef and tomato stew so thick it was almost chili. Kim and I both had got two soups and could only eat one.

We walked back into Riverside Park. Rudie’s leg was giving him more trouble with every step. We grabbed stacks of cardboard from a dumpster and went upriver along the waterfront looking for a place to sleep. We chose a spot near a dog playground. It was surfaced with mulch and hidden behind bushes, with a water fountain nearby and a couple of benches. Rudie and Mukei slept on the benches, for the sake of their backs, and Kim, Bogai, and I put cardboard and blankets down on the mulch.


We awoke about 7am and walked in from the riverfront to buy coffees from a bodega with some of our funds from the day before. Total expense $6.25. Further funds were invested in a tube of toothpaste for $1.19. We made our way 20 blocks north to St Michael’s Saturday Kitchen at 99th and Amsterdam and got on line to wait for the 10am brunch. While we waited, a young man in all-white street clothes seemed to be hawking the same scheme we’d heard at Holy Apostles the morning before, but the price had dropped: “Physicals! $30 cash, physicals, up in the Bronx.” Whatever he was marketing, he wasn’t a great advertisement for medical hygiene. Between yells he would spit on the ground and sneeze into his hands.

Compared to the Mission and to Holy Apostles, the crowd up here was more diverse: less dominated by black men, with a mix of men and women of all races and ages. Some were street homeless, some seemed to be disabled or retired people with places to live but not enough income to feed themselves without help. Several seemed dressed for work. A few women had children with them.

After a half-hour wait, we got into the church. The meal was a half-sandwich with tuna or cheese, one fish cake with tartar sauce (optional), some slices of bread, salad, coffee. There were assorted cookies, pieces of cake, or mini cupcakes for dessert.

Kim got two good pieces of intel from a woman she struck up a conversation with. First, she figured out what the scam is with the $30 physicals: poor people with Medicaid cards can go to a shady clinic in the Bronx to get a checkup. Medicaid reimburses the clinic $100, and the clinic gives the patient a kickback. Same deal with some dentists. Presumably, no professional examination actually takes place. Kim’s second bit of intel was that a dinner was served at Church of the Holy Trinity at 5:15 on Saturdays on 88th Street.

The woman at Kim’s table said she’d spent five winters and five summers on the streets, usually the only woman with some male friends. She said she’d never had any trouble. She was curious when Kim explained that we were just out on the streets for a few days. She asked, “What’s your experience been? And how did you get here?” Kim said we had walked from downtown. The woman commented, “You’re learning to survive out here. Try it in winter.” She wasn’t friendly or unfriendly. She took it as a matter of course that we were trying to understand what life was like on the streets.

After lunch we returned to Central Park and around the reservoir to the public bathroom near the Met. Rudie’s leg was still bothering him, but we were taking it easy compared to the day before and he kept pace the best he could. In the park we took a nap in the grass, sat zazen, held council, and performed the Gate of Sweet Nectar ceremony. We had stashed some fruit and bread in our bags, and we offered these gifts to all the Hungry Ghosts to satisfy them.

For dinner, we followed up on Kim’s tip about the Church of the Holy Trinity. We waited in the church’s garden where there were flowers, benches, and a statue of Saint Francis looking over a tomb with a bronze plaque for Norman the Rabbit. Once we entered, we had our first sit-down meal with table service, china plates, and silverware! A woman in her 60s, a church member, asked us to bow our heads as she offered a prayer. She assured us we are loved. We settled in for another bland meal. Grateful to be fed, and wishing for hot sauce. Salisbury steak, instant mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, rolls, coffee.

The group here seemed to be mostly retirees or on disability, people with homes who were supplementing their diet. Besides a meal at the table, the church also gave out raw ingredients like tomatoes, potatoes, and lemons.

Kim sat next to a thin elderly woman wearing a kerchief, a long skirt, and an ornate necklace. She had been coming for 15 years; many of the other diners were friends. They said hello and chatted with her. She was 88 years old, lived nearby with her son. She was all smiles. Several people gave her their cookies and she wrapped a stack of cookies and some pieces of bread in a napkin to take with her.

At my table a woman was giving away a pile of clothes she’d once received from the Midnight Run but grown too overweight to wear. She gave me a big denim jacket to sleep in that night. I’d been cold the night before, her gift was great for me. We had a conversation about addiction: I talked about marijuana and tobacco, she talked about overeating, and another man at the table talked about crack.

After dinner our group considered meeting up with the Coalition for the Homeless van again, on the eastern half of its nightly circuit, but we’d eaten plenty that day and had a bunch of food in our bags besides. It was time to sleep. Kim and I asked at a 7-Eleven for any spare cardboard they had stashed in back, and the young South Asian clerks treated us like honored customers: they took us into their stock room to select the finest cardboard from the recycling pile.

We entered Central Park and found a sleeping spot among the trees on a slope beneath the reservoir. It was dark there and some weeping tree, a willow or mimosa, provided cover. We heard a boom like thunder, but the sky was clear so Bogai guessed it was a truck backfiring—days later I realized we’d heard the Chelsea bomb go off. Not knowing about the chaos the south of us, we bedded down, and the full moon rose huge and white.


During the night Kim had two vivid waking hallucinations of rats. In one she felt the tiny paws on her back. In another she clearly saw a rat coming towards her in the moonlit grass.

We woke under the trees. Kim saw she’d slept beside a used condom. She and Mukei fetched coffee for us at the 7-Eleven, where once again the clerks were superb hosts and let them use the bathroom. We had the coffee with fruit and bread we’d been schlepping from various soup kitchens, plus the cheddar from our first morning at the mosque. We assembled our picnic breakfast and ate on the sidewalk. Some locals’ dogs walked up to us and sniffed hello. Five thousand people ran by in a New York Road Runners event.

We sat zazen on the sidewalk there. I reminded everyone to stay centered, without distraction. We needed to let sounds and events pass through our awareness without knocking us off-center. The runners streaming by seemed like a metaphor for our thoughts, endlessly flowing, but not needing attention. We closed the retreat with a council and dedication of merit for the past Day of Reflection.

More by Jiryu on his Blog

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Large Sprite, Large Heart- In the Aftermath of a Street Retreat


During September 22-25 2016, six individuals have partaken in a Street Retreat in New York City, a homelessness plunge based on Not-Knowing, Bearing Witness and Taking Action. Below is their email exchange in its aftermath concerning one individual they met on the streets.

(September 28 2016)

A vignette on our street retreat,

As some of you know I went on a street retreat in NYC from Thursday to Sunday last week. In the course of being homeless we befriended a 47 year old woman who had been living on the street for 25 years now and is still alive. Fatima acted as our street coordinator; making sure we got our food at the Bowery Mission before others so we could get to the park for our closing ceremony on Sunday, got us coffee in the morning, showed us where to sleep in a big park in the village. She had amazing energy; you could see how alive she was from the way she laughed and cried to the way she offered herself to us; wanting to be seen and heard. She didn’t have teeth and admitted to taking crack and alcohol every day because she didn’t know how to cope with her life. We were sitting in our circle meditating and speaking from the heart and with a tear streaked face she looked into our eyes and said, “don’t forget me don’t forget Fatima”;. It reminded me of these parts of me that cry, are confused, feel messy and all our parts that cry “don’t forget me”.



(September 28 2016)

Dear Friends,

As you know we had a quick discussion & agreed we’d like to do something for Fatima for her upcoming birthday. I told her I would meet her for lunch again this Saturday at 12:30 at the meatloaf place; no guarantee she’ll be there but she did say she’s there every Saturday.

I am going to bring a $100 Kmart gift card for her & say it’s from all of us; if however she doesn’t show I will just keep it for myself. Either way I will report what happens, & if she does show up I’ll give you all my address for any contribution you’d like to make.


Scott B.


(September 30 2016)

Dear Street Sangha,

Good day!
Hard to believe that 7 days ago we were on the streets – not knowing what a night we were to experience.

The donation to Fatima of $100 will come from the mala donations. So I will reimburse Scott.
I don’t recommend any more $ at this time, considering her situation and multiple addictions.
Let’s please keep her safe.

Wherever you are – be here!
And deeply enjoy and appreciate this miraculous life.




(October 2 2016)

Dear Friends,

I connected with Fatima yesterday. When I walked into the soup kitchen, looking & presenting as I usually do, I was struck by the ease in which I could walk right past the line outside to explain to the manager who I was and why I was there. After a short wait among some of the familiar faces I spotted Fatima, but when I called out to her she didn’t recognize me. When I explained I was Scott from the retreat her eyes lit up and she ran up & hugged me, in tears saying “You came!”

As we were saying hello she said she had been robbed of her phone the night before sleeping in the same park we had, yet she was mostly happy as she said she had just come from being able to take a shower somewhere. When I gave her her birthday gift card from all of us she once again shouted out in joy loud enough for the whole place to hear and started crying all over again. I asked if she’d like to go shopping right then and also grab a birthday lunch, and away we went.

We walked over to Kmart by Astor Place; I asked about her cousin John & was told she had just seen him at some park he had spent the night at. She also mentioned that John was in a Methadone treatment program; John hadn’t mentioned that last week. I had personally gone to an AA meeting at the 12 Street Workshop and picked up a Beginner’s package for John; Fatima said she’d get it to him. Fatima also said she’d be interested in going to a meeting herself and originally said she’d go at 2:30, but later said she was too tired. So in regards to recovery we’ve at least planted the seed with both of them, which is the best (and all) we can do.

When we walked into Kmart it was obvious that Fatima was enjoying the activity of shopping itself, and being able to ask salespeople the kind of things we ask all day, every day. With the $100 we bought a nice winter coat that she’s wearing in one of the pictures, some warm leggings, a hooded sweatshirt, socks and underwear.

I took her to a BBQ place for her birthday lunch, & when asked what she’d like to drink she asked me if it was OK if she got a “large” Sprite. When her large Sprite came she became overjoyed again and I took picture #2.


Her plate of BBQ chicken & ribs came that was bigger than she is, and we had a happy but bittersweet time together as it was such a wondrous occasion for her. While our conversation was generally a happy one where she asked me a lot about my life and kids, she did further share that her mother had died when she was ten and she spent the rest of her childhood years floating through the foster care system. She also shared that her father was absent as most heroin addict parents are, and that he later died of Aids from dirty needles when she was 22.

When we finished eating Fatima said she was sleepy & was going over to a mission on Lafayette to sleep some. We had packed up her remaining lunch she couldn’t finish, took her picture with her new warm coat, & parted ways.

As we left I was reminded of the feeling I had when the retreat ended last week, in that I felt like I wanted to take everyone we encountered back to “my world” with me. What I had done took very little effort, but the profound effect it had reminded me that I really don’t have any problems. and while Sentient Beings are numberless, I still vow to save them…

In Deep Gassho,

Scott B.



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Belonging to the Forest, Belonging to the Slum – A Zen Peacemaker’s visit to Brazil


Belonging to the Forest, Belonging to the Slum – A Zen Peacemaker’s visit to Brazil

By Roshi Barbara Salaam Wegmüller, Peacemakergemeinschaft Schweiz (Switzerland), Brazil February 2016

Our connections with Brazil started at the Bearing Witness Retreat in Auschwitz. In this place where millions of people where killed and tortured, a lot of friendships and heart connections have started in this retreat that Zen Peacemakers have been doing every year in November for over twenty years.

Nature in Brazil

Nature in Brazil

Roland and I met Ovidio in Krakau in 2005, before the retreat. We had dinner together and he shared about his work in Porto Alegre as a psychiatrist, a family therapist and a mindfulness teacher, a field where Roland and I share a lot of common interest. Since then Ovidio has come to visit us in our home in Switzerland every year. He has brought us together with a Brazilian-Swiss couple living in Zürich, both Zen priests and senior students of Roshi Coen. Jorge Koho Mello and his wife Marge Oppliger Pinto have become precious friends in the Dharma. For many years these four friends have invited us to come to Brazil, and finally this year was the right moment to accept their invitation.

We were invited to speak about the ZPO in various Zen sanghas as well as in a Tibetan monastery. We would meet these sanghas and learn about their practice and their social projects. And in the meantime, Roland and I would have the chance to spend some days together in the nature of the country.

Green, green, vast green on both sides of the road as far as we could see; for two hours we were driving on this road which draws a thin line through the Atlantic rainforest. My breath got deep and it felt as if all the cells in my body smiled. The wild powerful rainforest is still there, it is still exists, grand, untouched, full of life! The Atlantic rainforest in the region of Santa Catharina is part of the cultural heritage of the UNESCO. It is the homeland for 20,000 different sorts of plants and 1,361 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and snakes.

Olga, Ovidio, Roland

Olga, Ovidio, Roland

The hills and mountains on the horizon have a haze of dust. This gives it the name cloud forest. Now in February, big groups of trees are full of blossoms, and huge bouquets of purple seam the endless, wild green. My whole body seemed to remember to belong to this nature. Years ago, when a group of whales appeared right next to the small boat off Cape Cod, so that I had eye contact with one of the huge whales, I had the same taste of a deep, intimate connection.

The nature in Brazil is such a treasure – it is paradise! The guide who brought us to Ilha Do Mel told us about the difficulties the Brazilian economy has right now and shared his opinions on politics and other issues. His German was perfect; he had grown up with a German speaking grandmother who left Germany before World War II. Brazil is a melting pot of many cultures, languages and peoples of different colors living together in a huge country.


After spending our first four days in nature, to assimilate from winter in Switzerland to summer in Brazil, we met Ovidio and Olga in Porto Alegre, where we learned more about their great work as family therapists, professors at university and their institute for family therapists. Ovidio also brought us to the Via Zen Zendo where he is a member of the board with Jorge Koho Mello and others.

There we met Jorge Koho Mello a Senior Zen priest of Roshi Coen and a teacher for street retreats ordained in this by Roshi Genro Gauntt. He and his wife Marge are very actively socially engaged and committed leaders in their Zen sangha in Zürich.

When our group arrived at the Tibetan monastery of Lama Samten, they welcomed us with prayer shawls. It was very moving to meet this big sangha where we spoke about ZPO and the practice of living the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers.

Left to right: Marge Oppliger, Jorge Koho Mello, Barbara Salaam, Lama Samten, Roland Wegmüller, José Ovidio Waldemar at CEBB Caminho Do Meio.

Left to right: Marge Oppliger, Jorge Koho Mello, Barbara Salaam, Lama Samten, Roland Wegmüller, José Ovidio Waldemar at CEBB Caminho Do Meio.

After our talk Lama Samten brought us to the soup kitchen of Dionisia in the favela.
Dionisia runs the soup kitchen. She spoke about her hard life and her struggles at a place like this. Twice she was attacked and hovered between life and death. She shared with us that the reason she goes up every day is her vow to cook the daily soup for a group of children who need to be fed. She showed us her small shrine room, which is also her sleeping place. A gift she got from the Dalai Lama is the most precious object, the treasure of this place.
What a blessing to meet this living Bodhisattva!

Lama Samten introduced us to the school and the kindergarten that are part of the temple at CEBB Caminho do Meio. The beautiful garden is a playground for the children. It was vacation time, but the place felt filled with joyful laughter as I looked at the Buddhas in all the five wisdom colors.

Our next destination was a place not far from the Tibetan temple. From afar a big Buddha is visible as a welcome to all the visitors to the place of ViaZen. The Buddha statue is 9 meter high; his eyes are watching far over the endless green of the wild forest. The place is a beautiful practice place for Zen practitioners coming not only from Brazil but also from Argentina and Uruguay. To meet Roshi Coen and her wonderful Sangha and her teachers was such a gift. The beauty of the ceremonies, like eating oryoki with a big group, was wonderful. The place of ViaZen is huge, like the Buddha statue; there is a potential for great environmental and education projects. The work that has already been done is impressive, and it will need many dedicated peoples more to support the projects. All will be well, step by step, and it will be for the benefit of all!

Our teacher Bernie was present as we spoke about ZPO, but he was also very much present in our hearts and minds knowing that he was recovering from the stroke he had had shortly before we left for the trip to Brazil.
To greet him with all our love, the whole Sangha gathered at the feet of the Buddha and we bought all the red noses we could find in the shop in Porto Alegre to send him this greetings from all of us with clown noses.
As we said goodbye to the head priest Shoden and Sensei Dengaku, and to Roshi Cohen and all the Sangha members, we felt deeply grateful and inspired, learning from their commitment to Zen practice in all its beauty, from their hard work and their warm presence.

After visiting ViaZen we spent time at the beach house of Ovidio and Olga, spoiled by their hospitality and sharing good conversations walking along the beach and lots of laughter, because Ovidio is a master in telling jokes.
The last part of our trip led us to Rio where we met the ZPO member Ivamney Lima, who introduced us to his teacher Sensei Alcio Braz, who is the head monk and teacher of Einji temple.
The temple is at one of the entrances to a community inside the Copacabana district, called Pavão-Pavãozinho-Cantagalo. It is a “favela”, a poor community along a hillside. There are many like that in Rio de Janeiro, places where the authority is shared between drug chieftains and gangs and the police, with occasional “battles” and the usual deaths.


Eininji Temple in Rio. Behind me Sensei Alcio Braz. Second from left is Ivamney Lima, ZPO member.

The temple is a big house that was once inhabited by a rich family, before the neighborhood turned into a favela. That family left and lent the house to Tokuda Roshi, Alcio`s teacher, some 30 years ago. Sensei Alcio had been responsible for a Zen center in another neighborhood for 16 years when his teacher asked him to move to this temple, as the previous sangha there disappeared, for many reasons including the violence around. So he became responsible for this temple and brought the sangha from the other neighborhood here, not without some understandable resistance, says Alcio.

Things have got a little better in terms of security, and they have got some new people too, new residents, and little by little they are rebuilding the house and the Sangha. Sensei Alcio has also gone to Upaya and has met Roshi Joan, so now Roshi Joan is their teacher too; some of the sangha members have gone there.

The sangha is a Zen sangha but they are not sectarian. People in Rio tend to have different practices at the same time, so some practice the Afro-Native-Brazilian religions, and so on.
Roland and I immediately fell in love with the temple. On one of the altars there is a statue of a Native Brazilian, next to a statue of Maria and Kannon. The openness of the place to interreligious diversity is mirrored in Alcio and the residents. The atmosphere in the temple is filled with love and awareness.
As we went to the morning ceremony and early sitting period, I could not follow the recitation of the Heart Sutra. I have never experienced it so fast spoken. They said it is the Upaya style.


With the Bodhisattva of the soup kitchen Dionisia.


Our hotel at the Copa Cabana was a five minutes’ walk from the temple. Right at the corner at the entrance of the favela the energy changed. There is a lot going on around the temple. Visible, energetic, tangible, audible. As I was sitting zazen at the temple on Friday night, it felt like being in the eye of the hurricane, a unique experience.

At lunchtime a block behind Copa Cabana I saw three boys lying on the ground of the sidewalk. Thin eight to ten year old boys, sleeping in a deep drug absence. Heartbreaking, ungraspable. I looked around and saw busy people walking by and I felt compassion not only for the children on the street but also for the population around them. How much energy does it cost not to look at these children? Knowing that there are 10 million of them in Brazil? Every day groups of them are killed; they are victims of sexual abuse, prostitution, violence, hunger and illness. One of the NGOs writes that there are 1,500 children living alone on the streets in Rio….. I did not need any lunch after bearing witness to these children. Sitting with Roland under an umbrella at the Copa Cabana, every two minutes people were approaching us with a request to buy something or to give money. I took a picture of yellow blossoms that had just fallen from a big tree on the sidewalk.


Theatre of the Oppressed

Ivanmey took us to a Campus for a session of a theater play of the oppressed for teachers to learn about new methods. I was deeply impressed by the powerful young people, all residents of one of the largest favelas. In their interactive play they expressed their difficulties to be the “other”, the “one who is a criminal because he/she is coming from this dangerous, horrible favela”. It is indeed not an easy place to grow up in, not easy to get education, not easy to survive. And it is not easy to change to another part of society, to get a job and to be accepted by the population outside the favela.
I am impressed by the work of the trainers of these young people. At the end of the afternoon we shared with them about the ZPO and our work. We hugged each other and we expressed our gratitude to learn about their incredibly powerful expression and their will to change their situation.

This country has a nature like paradise, heavenly sunrises and sunsets, fruits in all colors full of sweetness and a whole range of all sorts of other realms. I came to Brazil to learn, and I experienced our first tenet Not Knowing. I bear witness to the joy and the suffering and I vow to support my new friends in their places and sanghas. In deep appreciation of how they serve the Dharma and work for the benefit of people in need.

With a deep bow,

Barbara Salaam

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Exploring the Bodhisattva Way, Free Adventures Every Day, Part 2



By Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt

A talk given at Upaya Zen Center on September 28, 2015

Download audio recording, Continued from Part 1

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.


Genro and Beatrice Long Visitor Holy Dance, at the 2015 Native American Bearing Witness Retreat (photo by Peter Cunningham)

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.”


Genro and Joshin lead a street retreat in Albuquerque, NM USA in 2015.

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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Yeah, Joshin?

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.


The firekeepers at the 2015 Native American Bearing Witness Retreat. (Photo by Jadina Lilien)

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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Exploring the Bodhisattva Way, Free Adventures Every Day

Street Retreat 2013



By Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt

A talk given at Upaya Zen Center on September 28, 2015

(downloadaudio recording)

Transcribed by Scott Harris, Photos by Jesse Jiryu Davis


Genro: Good evening everybody. It’s lovely to be here, lovely to be here with you. And this room, the energy during zazen—good work. It feels great.

Joshin mentioned that I’m here because we’re doing a Bearing Witness retreat tomorrow in Albuquerque. And the whole idea of bearing witness came out of Bernie Tetsugen Glassman Roshi’s practice. Back when he was in college—he did his graduate work at UCLA, in Los Angeles, got a doctorate in mathematics. And when he was there, before he dreamed of Zen practice, he realized that he wanted to do three things. He wanted to start a monastery, somewhere. I’m not sure he knew what tradition he wanted to be in, but he wanted to start a monastery. And he wanted to be a clown. And he wanted to live on the streets as a homeless person. And he’s managed to do all of them.

His early practice at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, which started in about 1967 with Maezumi Roshi . . . His doctorate at UCLA was in mathematics. And the Zen Center wasn’t up to full speed yet. It was still growing. And so he would work during the day. And during the day he was in charge of the manned mission to Mars project at McDonnell-Douglas. So they say you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be a Zen person, but he was.

When he left the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1980 or so, he came to New York, started a Zen community, and quickly sort of revolutionized Zen practice. Because it became clear to him rather quickly that Zen shouldn’t be practiced only in a meditation hall, only in the temple—that in order to really manifest it, we need to really manifest it in our daily lives, in service to all beings.

If our practice is to realize the oneness and the wholeness of life, and that we’re really one with all beings, then we have to take care of them. We have to serve them—that’s everybody, including our self.

So, he quickly started engaged practice there. Started a bakery employing formerly unemployed persons, people that were actually coming out of jails. And that model is now a major model being studied in business schools in the United States, around the world—a model called open hiring. Where when somebody comes to your company, and they want a job, you don’t say, “Well, where’s your résumé? What’s your history of work?” They say, “Sure. If we’ve got a position, you can work for us.”  That’s open hiring. It just means you can begin right now, if you’ve got the most minimal qualifications, like you’re physically able to do it. And they were taking people right out of jail, a lot of homeless people who had never had jobs before. Those are the people that are making the fudge in Ben and Jerry’s Fudge Brownies. They’re now making four million pounds a year, and increasing.

And then in 1994, it was going to be his 55th birthday—something like that, and he decided he wanted to change his practice. Bernie’s always great, one of the most dedicated practitioners I’ve ever known, and one of the most dedicated people to forms I’ve ever seen. But he loves to blow them up, and blow them away, and change them. And he realized he wanted to change his practice. So he thought the best way to do that would be to go to Washington, DC in January, for his birthday, which was the 18th of January, and live on the streets for four days, and see what happened, see what ideas came up. So there were about fifteen people with him, maybe twenty, and they did that. And at the end of that retreat he decided he wanted to start the Zen Peacemaker Order, an organization based on Zen practice and service of all beings, social service. That wasn’t the first Street Retreat. Actually he’d done one in New York.

And then very quickly, we did an Auschwitz retreat in 1996. And that retreat has been going on since 1996. And this year will be the twentieth, which will also coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the camp, which was in January of 1945.

So what’s bearing witness really about?

Dogen Zenji, his famous quote is, “To study Buddhism is to study the self. And to study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. And to be enlightened by all things is to remove all barriers between your self and everything else.” That’s our practice.

But Bernie was trying to figure out how to do it faster than thirty years of meditation in the zendo. So he came up with bearing witness. And bearing witness, whether they be Street Retreats, or Bearing Witness Retreats that we do in Auschwitz, or Rwanda, or we’re going to be in Croatia in May, I’ll be in Greece in May also, in the Black Hills . . . wherever, and however, in the Congo probably coming up . . .  Wherever and however we do it, it’s an upaya. It’s an upaya. And of course all of you from Upaya know what that means. It’s a skillful means to raise the bodhi mind, to raise the enlightened mind.

And so one of the ways a Bearing Witness Retreat is called is a plunge. So when you plunge into the water, you don’t put your feet in just a little bit, and test it, and see “Is it warm enough? Can I really get my feet in there? Do I want to go in as far as my knee or my hip?” No, you just PFFFF! You just go in.

Street Retreat 2013

So at Auschwitz . . . How many have been on the Auschwitz Retreat? Let’s see all your hands. Good, that’s good. So come this year. There’s still places. And we’ll be there from November 2nd to November 6th. So Auschwitz—everybody’s got some sort of gut-feel for what Auschwitz is, some deep psychic buzz about what that is. And when we go to Auschwitz, the first day is sort of doing museum kind of things. But this museum is not built to shock you out of your normal consciousness, but that’s what it does. You see a couple movies that are just awful—about how the camps were operating, and what they found when they liberated them. There were film crews. So you could see the bodies, and the people absolutely emaciated, hundreds of little children no bigger than this <gestures> who were leaving their barracks because they were to be experimented on by Dr. Mengele. Horrible things. And of course if anybody knows anything about Auschwitz, they have these places where you can see tons of human hair that was collected, and suitcases, and all the human things that people brought with them because they thought this was just simply a transport camp—where they would be moved to some place where they would have farms, and their homes and communities again.

I’ve been there more than twenty times. And whenever I do that walk through these archives of human suffering, I find myself in a state where my mind doesn’t work anymore. I can’t grasp anything. The thought process sort of breaks down because it’s impossible for any of us as human beings to imagine even one person being killed. Really. Although we hear it on the news all the time, that’s not real for us. We’ve allowed ourselves to be immune to that. But if we really know somebody who is killed, or it happens closely, or we’re in an area where that happened, it breaks us down. We can’t take it. And then multiply that by a million and a half, and the mind doesn’t work anymore.

That’s where we get to the place that’s the first of the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers, and of Bearing Witness Retreats—that’s not knowing. Not knowing. You don’t have to work at not knowing. In these places not knowing happens to you.

Then from that place of not knowing—that means a clear mind in a sense, it’s not cloudy because there’s so much pain. It’s just sort of cleared up. It’s like wiping your screen of all the dust and stain, and suddenly there’s a new faculty that can see clearly. From that place of not knowing, then we can bear witness. That means that we can see what is. See things as they actually are.

I was talking to friends last night. And I said you know, every day as we’re getting ready to go to work, or school, or whatever it is we’re doing to be residents and practitioners here at Upaya, we’re standing in front of the mirror, washing our face, combing our hair, doing all that, and we’re looking in the mirror. And make faces, you know, whatever we do. Clean out teeth and we walk away from the mirror thinking we know what we look like. But the truth is, that’s not how we look. Nobody sees us that way. They don’t see that person making faces in the mirror that we think we are every day. We’re a total mystery as to what we look like. We cover our perception with all kinds of assumptions and judgments, conclusions, and we just can’t see anything as it is. What is everything as it is?

There’s a line in the Jewish Kaddish, the memorial poem that says, “This is the divine presence here and now.” This is the divine presence here and now.

That’s our life. That’s our life, moment to moment. Our life is nothing but the life of the divinity, however you call it. You call it Krishna, or Rama, or Buddha, or Christ, or God, or the Creator, or Tunkashila Wakan Tanka—they’re all the divine presence here and now. That’s what we see when our minds are clear.

Then seeing life as it is, seeing things happening as they’re happening—our compassionate mind, which is the function of wisdom (Wisdom does not exist apart from compassion. They’re not two things. They’re only one thing.), wisdom is knowing that everything is me. Everything is you.

If you know that, then you have to be compassionate, to take good care of yourself. How often do you say to people, “Take good care of yourself”? What are you really saying? Take good care of the entire universe. Take good care of everything you see, and everything you can’t.

That happens, and that results as loving actions, or actions that come up out of bearing witness. Our whole lives moment to moment, one way or another are not knowing, bearing witness, and loving action. That’s just the way we live.

Street Retreat 2013

Now what we notice is the mind going, and going, “Man, I didn’t do that right. I should have helped that person, but I didn’t.” That’s what we’re hearing. But it’s all happening all the time.

You chant the En Mei Jukku Kannon Gyo here, probably daily. Is that right?


Namu Butsu Yo

Butsu U

En Yo Butsu U

En Bu Po So En

Jo Raku Ga

Jo Cho Nen Kanzeon Bo Nen

Kanzeon Nen Nen

Ju Shin Ki Nen Nen

Fu Ri Shin

What does that say? It say’s everything is nothing but the divine presence here and now. That’s what it says. Everything is the functioning of compassion.

So we chant these things in zendos, and in monasteries, in churches and temples all the time. What are they trying to tell us? This is it. This is it. Let’s live like that.

Let’s live like that. Let’s have enormous compassion and love for everything around us, because you are my life. You are my life.

So Street Retreats, which a few of you have on your mind right now a little more than others . . . Who’s going on the Street Retreat? Good. Let me just see. Keep ’em up. Yay! Good. Good. OK, Thank you. So bearing witness on the streets is a plunge into the life on the streets. But it’s really not a problem. I know people if they’ve never done this before—even some who have—are kind of frightened. What’s it gonna be like out there with those crazy homeless people? Right? What’s it gonna be like with no money, no credit card, no toothbrush, none of my normal conveniences, sleeping outside? Oh my God.

It’s really not a problem. And here’s the key— have no expectations. And that’s it. If you have no expectations, there’s no problem. You can’t be disappointed. You can’t be surprised. You can walk on with this mind of “Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” Compassion.  

That’s the compassionate mind. It’s tranquil. It doesn’t care about what’s happening next. Nothing’s happening next. This is it. Right? Moment to moment—this is it. There’s nothing next. What happens next? Nothing really, this is it.

So if we could really just—getting ready for this retreat—just be where we are, take care of our life as it is, right where we are, it all just rolls out by itself without our worry, or without our anticipation. And you’ll find that to be true. It’s actually a real experience of the divine presence here and now.

It’s so much fun, I can’t tell you. If people really knew how much fun it was—seriously—we’d have to like do them in every city twenty times a year. Because there would be so many people who want to come. This, it’s really fabulous. I love it. I love it.

Yeah. No cellphones, no telephones, no computers. It’s all gone. Nobody trying to find us, because they can’t. People say, “Well, where do we meet you out there?” I don’t know where we’re gonna be. We’re just gonna be where we are.

Time to see where we are, and actually look around. We’re not walking down the street to something. We’re just walking. And when you do that, you can look and like, “Wow, look at that light! It’s so beautiful. How did they decide how to do that?” And you can just . . . Details everywhere are just, ah, everything looks fabulous because you can see it. You’re not thinking about something else. You’re just where you are.

It’s giving yourself a chance to live like the Buddha, or like an enlightened lady. People are terrified that the homeless people are gonna go, “Oh, you’re not really homeless. You’re just masquerading.” Because we think, “Is this a charade? I’m not homeless.” Yes you are. When you’re out there, you are homeless.

We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next moment. So we’ve taken on this homeless identity. What if everything changes when we’re out there tomorrow? What if the government comes down, and nobody has any possessions, or any property anymore, the state just like takes it all? Nobody has homes anymore. That could happen. We don’t know.

That would be OK too, because one of the things that we find out when we’re on the streets is that you don’t have to kill yourself when all your stuff is gone. You can lose all your money, your home, your possessions, everything. And it’s OK, because I can survive out here. There’s actually food. There’s actually shelter if you need it. Everything you need, doctors, nurses, dentists, toothbrushes, it’s all there.

But in our normal life we’ve got all this stuff, and all these defenses, and all this money that gets between us and anybody we’re transacting with. Right? You don’t have to have a relationship with anybody when you’ve got money, because they’ve got to take your money and be nice to you.

When you don’t have money, it’s a whole different thing. You have to be nice to everybody so they’ll be nice to you. But it just happens that way.

Oh, and I wanted to finish the point about masquerading. So the homeless people go, “What are you doing?” You know, if they do. They’ve usually got so many of their own problems, they don’t care about yours. Seriously, so you don’t have to worry about that. But you just say, “I’m on a homeless retreat. We’re out here with a spiritual group, and we’re out here for four days experiencing homelessness.” And what do they say? “Wow. That’s so nice.” They’re totally grateful that we take the time, and the opportunity to be with them, to honor them as human beings, to walk a few miles in their shoes, to talk to them, to look in their eyes and acknowledge them as human beings—which nobody does, because what if you look in the eyes of a homeless person when you’re walking by? They’re gonna ask you for money, man. And you’re gonna have to go, “Oh, sorry.” Right? Or whatever you do.

So, we don’t have that block, because we don’t have any money to give them. So we have to say, “Hi. Sorry man, I don’t have any money,” or whatever it is, and actually maybe get in a relationship. And what do we find out? They’re human beings just like us, with stories that got them there. And everyone is different.

There’s no such thing as the homeless. No such thing as the homeless. Everyone is a beautiful individual just like us. All have their stories. All absolutely should be honored with our love and presence, as we find out.

(To be continued with questions and answers from the audience in Part 2)

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Richard Gere Talks About Wandering New York Streets as a Homeless Man

NYFF Report: Richard Gere Talks About Wandering New York Streets as a Homeless Man for ‘Time Out of Mind’


The next time you pass a panhandler on the street that looks like Richard Gere, pause and take a closer look because it may actuallybe Richard Gere. Earlier this year, the 65-year-old actor spent several weeks on the New York streets shooting Time Out of Mind, in which he plays an elderly alcoholic who becomes part of the city’s homeless population. Wearing a black-knit winter hat and clutching an empty coffee cup, Gere approached actual passers-by and asked for spare change while director Oren Moverman (RampartThe Messenger) filmed the interactions, often from a block away. And, amazingly enough, nobody recognized him.

Well…almost nobody. “There were two or three times where someone talked to me on the street,” Gere remarked at a press conference following a New York Film Festival screening of Time Out of Mind on Thursday. “One was a French tourist, a woman, who totally thought I was a homeless guy and gave me some food. The other two times were African-Americans and they just passed me and went, ‘Hey Rich, how you doin’ man?’ No question about what I was doing there or ‘Have you fallen on hard times?’ and ‘What happened to your career?’ Just “Hey Rich, how you doin’ man,” and they just continued on.”

For the most part, though, people barely looked at Gere, and that was precisely the non-reaction he needed to get into character. “I think we all have a yearning to be known and be seen,” he explains. “I come here and you want to hear what I want to say. But I’m the same guy that I was on the street and no one wanted to hear his story. I could see how quickly we can all descend into [scary] territory when we’re totally cut loose from all of our connections to people.” Here are five other things we learned about Time Out of Mind — which is currently without a distributor — from Gere and Moverman’s press conference.

The movie has been almost 30 years in the making

gere_trash-canGere remembers receiving the script for what became Time Out of Mind a decade ago, but it apparently had been kicking around Hollywood a long while before that. “It was written in the late ’80s, but a lot of it was still relevant ten years ago,” says the actor, who has been a longtime supporter of the New York organization, Coalition For the Homeless. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind and I bought it.” After befriending Moverman on the set of Todd Haynes’s 2007 Bob Dylan non-biopic, I’m Not There (which Moverman cowrote), Gere decided he had found the right collaborator to finally make the project a reality. “There was a book [Land of Lost Souls] by a guy named the Cadillac Man, a homeless man. It was a very unschooled autobiography, but it was by someone who was able to communicate his world. I knew this was the way it should feel, so Oren and I started talking about this film with that point-of-view…. What wasn’t clocking with me until I read Oren’s first draft is the sense of process being the movie. The process of [this character] going through the bureaucracy is enough plot — you don’t need to pump it up. Life itself, without any dramaturgy, is enough.”

There was no plan B

Because the entire production hinged on its star being able to panhandle on the street without attracting a crowd, he and Moverman did a test shoot before production began, with Gere wandering around the Astor Place section of Manhattan while his director filmed him from inside a Starbucks. “I’m out there and I was a little scared and anxious,” Gere recalled. “And nobody saw me! I started approaching people and asking, ‘Can you help me out, spare some change.’ There was no eye contact, even when someone gave me a dollar bill. That was the first time I really felt what that [experience] is.” As nerve-wracking as that trial run was, it gave both the director and his lead actor the confidence to proceed. “The whole thing was predicated on the idea that, for a lot of this, I would be on the streets and New York would be passing me by. If that didn’t work, I don’t know what we would have done.”

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Street Retreat in Tel Aviv by Uri Ayalon

Uri Ayalon Reports on Street Retreat in Tel Aviv

From the blog of Uri Ayalon

translated by Ruth Bar-Eden


My father thinks I’m crazy.  That’s nothing new.  Only a crazy person could claim that capitalism is not a directive from heaven; that giving and sharing are man’s basic instincts; and that a life of self-examination, study, and change are better than a life of habit and comfort.

groupOn Yom Kippur I went on a journey in the southern part of Tel-Aviv with no money, no mobile, and no sleeping bag, and with a group of twenty other crazy people (led by Rabbi Ohad Ezrachi and Zen teacher Bernie Glassman, may they each live long years for the magic they bring to this world with courage and humility), who gathered for three days of homelessness–by–choice.  What a strange choice: Those with a home, food and money are playing a game of poverty and begging?   Les miserables de-shmates.

Yes, how important it is to let go of privilege once in a while.  How important to let go in general, to reveal the abundance that lies just beyond the mountains of fear.  I already knew that the detritus from our culture of excess feeds different lifestyles, but what I learned about in this journey is the texture of the garbage, walking in it barefoot, being touched by it to the very core.  Smelling it, drinking it, and not running away.

On the first evening I went to get French fries in the restaurants of the Central Bus Station.  There I met Sharon: born in Georgia, formerly of the USSR, studied medicine, and found herself on the streets due to a combination of schizophrenia, drug and alcohol addiction, and a love story that turned into a war.  Her daughter was taken from her by child protective services at the age of four.  Now she’s pregnant again, carrying the child of a Sudanese.  She accompanied us throughout the days with captivating humor and intelligence, taught us the location of the fountain with the best water and where we would find cartons to use as mattresses.

Yasser from Sudan joined us, completely drunk. Shachar is an Ethiopian who hates all whites and therefore feels at home only in Lewinski Park [center of the area occupied by African migrants].  Yael was raped by her brother when she was 12 and then thrown out of her home by her shamefaced family.  On a night tour I saw the prostitutes in the street. Shriveled due to heroin, they looked so old and snuffed out that my heart went out to them and their lost clients.

How does my work, my life’s mission, answer Sharon’s needs, Yasser’s, Yael’s?  My friend Omer, a lawyer, used to ask me this question, emphasizing that his work at least brings about the release from custody of about two Africans on average each week.  And what do I do?  Play at building models?  Hope or believe that thirty people living in peace, truth and trust can change this world?

During this weekend I saw the end of the road: the dead-end of the age of capitalism and the nationalist country.  I am delusional and crazy and naïve and pathetic, but I’m also really curious to understand the logic that transformed southern Tel-Aviv into Little Africa.  What are our social, health and cultural services that brought them here?  What is the resolution to this complex situation other than rebuilding from scratch the entire system—borders, values, social structures?  You who are corrupt, you’ve become abhorrent!  It’s time for a total change.

Together with Sharon, we were the only whites in a radius of miles.  On the eve of Yom Kippur, this most holy and sanctified day, I walked into a neighborhood synagogue in Lewinski Park, which has become a home for me (in fact, going to the fancy Rothschild Boulevard was a real challenge), and in that synagogue, of all places, I again witnessed verbal violence (editor note: an altercation occurred when the cantor arrived 30 minutes after the service started. The man substituting for the cantor yelled at the cantor for coming late. The cantor yelled at the man for starting the service too early. This continued for about 15 minutes.) surrounding rules and formalities between the cantor and the other congregants.  I felt much less welcome there than in the Park’s corner.

On this Yom Kippur I found myself broken, crying, shattered.  And this is one of the gifts I take with me from this journey—not only a renewed faith in the mandate to create a socio-economic model for a new kind of society, a viable alternative to our current drowning one; not only an improved awareness that I can live without the addictions and fears that have previously attached themselves to me; not only the ever-deepening love of the community and the magic it offers (the courage to cross boundaries, together)—I remain with this gift of the broken heart.

I suspend the rage and befriend the pain.  I remain in the place of not-knowing which contains the suffering, pain, and injustice.

And I continue on.

Together with them.


To read a more detailed view of this street retreat, link here.

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Yom Kippur in the Streets of Tel-Aviv 2013 by Lilach Shamir

This Yom Kippur I won’t be in synagogue.

The day before the holiday a group of people, invited by Rabbi Ohad Ezrachi, a friend and teacher, and the Zen teacher Roshi Bernie Glassman, gathered in the streets of south Tel-Aviv, in Lewinski Park. We stayed there without phones, money, identification papers or possessions save the clothes we wore.

People dear to me asked if I was crazy: What are you doing this for? Be careful not to catch polio. Are you normal? It’s dangerous out there … I asked myself the same questions, and more. It was called a retreat, a time for practice. What do you practice in the streets?

Thirty years ago, Bernie Glassman decided that teaching Zen in a monastery was not enough. He went out with several of his students to the streets of New York to meet the homeless and bear witness to their lives. Later they developed a project, including a bakery that employed homeless persons and homes where they could live. The project was a big success.

Bernie teaches his students three principles:

1.     Not Knowing: the willingness to leave behind all the ideas you had about a situation and approaching it as an empty vessel.

2.     Bearing Witness: being in the moment, place, or situation as a witness who experiences, feels and absorbs as much as possible on all levels: What is happening in me and around me, what is happening in the interactive space between my surroundings and myself? At some point the question comes up: Is there a difference between me and the other, and who is the other inside me, the parts which I push aside, ignore, refuse to see or relate to, etc.

3.     Loving action, or right action, which arises naturally from bearing witness, from experiencing, feeling and understanding in depth that which is happening. And maybe it does not arise.

Ohad timed this retreat for Yom Kippur because the situation in south Tel-Aviv reminds him of the ritual scapegoat used in this holiday. On this day in the distant past, all the sins of the people of Israel were thrust upon a single goat that would then be sent into the desert, where it would die. That is how our forefathers symbolically got rid of their sins on Yom Kippur. The scapegoats of Israeli society, those who remind us of the sins of not caring, ignoring, and lack of compassion, are around the Central Bus Station of today’s Tel-Aviv. Coincidently or not, most of them are also black.

I arrive with 7 shekels change. Strangely, I’ve been inside the station maybe once or twice in my whole life, and then just for a few minutes. This time, I have time. I feel like a tourist watching how everything is now out of my reach. Coffee costs 7 shekels, a much yearned-for bathroom costs 1, guarded by a terrifying iron gate. Later we find out that there are also free bathrooms, not as clean and more crowded.

I give away my last shekels and join the group gathering outside. A summer afternoon in Tel-Aviv. Hot. Very. We compare what each one has brought along: a warm scarf for the night, a kaffiya. There’s joy at seeing faces of familiar people and at the opportunity to spend time with others I hardly know. Curiosity, excitement, and a sense of adventure …

We leave for Lewinski Park close to the station, walk a bit, and suddenly notice that the great majority of the people in the street are black. Sitting in the opening circle, we are given our instructions, which are to go out in pairs or threes, preferably with people we don’t know, watch and observe everything around us, and come back after a few hours with food for dinner.

I walk together with a lovely young woman and a man, feeling how important a male presence is for my sense of safety. There are mixed feelings. On one hand, there’s a sense of wonderful freedom: no handbag, purse, mobile phone, car key, or anything else that can be lost or taken in a moment. What freedom and lightness! On the other hand, the Lewinski market is tempting with its stalls of fresh and dried fruits, bakeries and cafés, all out of reach. Quickly I discover survival skills.  I take an empty bottle from the plastic recycling container and fill it with water from the water fountain. It’s hot. I search for fruit that may have fallen from the stalls. Is there fresh food in the garbage bins?

Bernie said to ask everyone for a handout instead of trying to figure out ahead of time who will or won’t give. I walk into an electrical appliance store and an employee asks if he can help me. I tell him I will be sleeping in the park tonight; would he give me some money for dinner? He looks doubtfully at me: You don’t look like it. I tell him it’s true, it’s just how things happened and tonight I’m on the street. He walks over to his tzedakka box [charity] and spills out all the money. Wow! 13.80 shekels. He wishes me well; I thank him and wish him a good year.

I continue to ask for money and contributions of food in food stores. Some give; others tell me to come back later, before the store closes. A group of young people in a café moves uncomfortably, but after one of them gives me a few shekels the others join in.  At the end I have over 40 shekels in my pocket. We use some of it to on a half-price pastry and bananas. Some restaurants give us leftovers. When I first ask a man at a fresh fruit stand for something he sends me away and I thank him with a blessing.  Now, on the way back, I say Hello, Happy New Year, and he calls me over and tells me I remind him of his mother-in-law: Come, I’ll give you now whatever you want. I ask for pomegranate juice. He squeezes fresh cold pomegranates and hands me the glass. The juice is cold and fresh; suddenly I feel so wealthy.

On the way back to the park we stop to rest near a furniture store and I ask Rena, an employee, if she’d prepare us a cup of coffee. She agrees. We talk and she laments the changes that have come over the neighborhood, warning the women not to wander in that area after dark.  Later that night, Sharon will take us to that very spot on a guided tour of the nooks and crannies used by the prostitutes, the porn shops and the junkies. For now we move on, passing Neve Sha’anan Street with a second-hand store and a hairdresser who styles complex hairdos for the African women.

Back in the park a great deal of food has been collected. There are lots of people on the grass around us. It is already dark and strobe lights light up the entire space; there are many surveillance cameras and someone says it reminds him of Big Brother. Someone else thinks it’s good that the city council cares enough to try to create a sense of safety.

We invite those sitting nearby to join our meal. Carin and Sharon join our group. We sing a bit with Ohad’s guitar and the music draws more onlookers, some coming close, others peeking from afar. Carin, who looks about 50, my age, talks in fluent English about the park and its denizens, relations with the city agencies, the shelter opened by one of the monasteries and the services it provides to the regulars. She sounds like a neighborhood mother; later she will bring us a few sheets to help us get through the night.

Sharon, in white clothes with a 5-month pregnant belly, giggles once in a while, with or without reason, enjoying the attention. When an African approaches the food by her side she shoves him away rudely, protecting her bag that holds all her possessions. Later that night she tells us she passed all her matriculation tests in a prestigious high school, and when she was 20 her mother sent her to her homeland, Georgia, to get married. On the day of her wedding her groom was killed, leaving her alone and pregnant. She describes bouts of epilepsy, mental illness and roaming the streets. Social services took away her daughter. She’s pregnant again and hopes the father dies; she hates him. Her teeth desperately need treatment.

We get ready to sleep, gathering cartons, nylons, bags and shredded paper which, when shoved into a plastic bag, becomes a pillow. Some of us will sleep in the park. Others are happy to leave the rats behind and spend the night in a different park close by, but not so well lit. We give a rat some food, hoping that during the night it won’t covet someone’s nose, and bundle ourselves up on the cartons, trying to sleep. The light is strong and the place is teeming though it’s past midnight. I fall asleep pretty quickly, blessed with the presence of my loved one who has also joined the retreat and now holds me, warming my back. It gets cold. The kaffiya protects my body and head from the rats and cockroaches while the green postal bag, acting as a blanket, warms me quite well.

Shortly after sunrise I wake up. The park is now quiet and the weather pleasant; the summer heat won’t come till later. Around me figures lie on a sea of cartons, some covered by Carin’s sheets, others by bags or more cartons.

Writing this now, it seems surreal. In that moment that morning it seems perfectly normal. I’m here, focusing on basic existence needs. I walk over to the Central Bus Station to find a free bathroom. A moment’s apprehension when I see the dark and secluded stairwell, then I go in. There’s water and even toilet paper. I put some in my pocket just in case, leave through a different exit and sit on a bench. The station is waking up. There are many for whom this is a daily routine, with nowhere to make coffee or tea. Women are waiting in the station to get to cleaning work, sitting quietly and patiently.

Returning to the park, I see men waiting for vans. Rifat, a young Sudanese, explains that some of them work in restaurants and shops cleaning, washing dishes or stocking goods, and their employers arrange for them to be driven to and from work. Some look around for any random job. They sit quietly and wait, talking, a long line of them on the benches and the sidewalk. Rifat just returned from a night shift in a restaurant open till morning, happy that he has a job. He came to Israel through Egypt, paying $800 to Bedouins to cross the border. They kept him locked in a closed van for days, without food or water, and threatened to kill him if his family didn’t pay ransom. He begged, and for some reason they let him go. Others have not been so lucky. Some have died from heat stroke and dehydration, others injured or killed by the Bedouins.

I watch and listen. Listen inwards too. What happens inside when I hear these stories, see these sights, this human pain? My body still aches a bit from having slept on the carton, the sun is still pleasant. I choose to let go of the self-protecting cringing in my stomach that can create a barrier, and become a quiet, listening presence. There is a deep and profound sorrow for this suffering, for the pain that we inflict on others. Rifat is a young man about the same age as Tamar, my daughter. When he speaks, for a few moments I am him. I think of Tamar and the women who have come here from Africa, many of whom, Rifat says, have been raped on the way. My heart breaks.

groupMorning circle. There are leftovers from last night’s meal. A soldier from the IDF radio station is looking for a story. He met us last night and returns this morning, asking if he can interview and record some of us. Last night he asked me if he should change out of his military uniform, but now he says that’s illegal so he kept it on.  In the circle he expresses his respect for what we are doing but also says that at as a soldier he may not share his personal opinions. I look at the soldier inside me who refrains from getting involved or expressing an opinion that is forbidden by some institution of which I am a part. The kibbutz, or perhaps its comfort or conformity—different names for fear and indifference—often run my life. More cringing in the stomach, more sorrow.

We go again to the streets. The instructions this time: just meander. There’s a sense of adventure, no given purpose. Again, there’s a sense that this is an exotic, new city, and a sense of freedom.  Time becomes different, calm; you can just sit and talk. In the streets you can feel the approach of Yom Kippur.  Stores close early; there’s the bustle of holiday eve.

This area is more white. We sit at the door of Moshe’s store (after again asking for and receiving coffee) and talk about Torah. When Moshe, of Persian descent wearing a skullcap on his head, hears what we’re doing here he explains that the problems of the Africans can’t be resolved until the Messiah comes. According to Rashi the commentator, when Noah was intoxicated, his son Ham (ancestor of the African nation) “saw his father naked,” apparently raped him, and was then cursed to be his brothers’ slave forever. However, Moshe doesn’t argue against helping the Africans who are here.

Here’s the issue of the stranger, turning the other into the stranger being punished for an age-old sin. I don’t know. The ever-growing experience of not-knowing, the opportunity to see everything from so many different perspectives, the awareness that nothing really exists on its own but only through the eyes of the beholder. This abstraction of a human being creates so much suffering and pain. Was this how infinity felt when it was reduced and brought into this world?

Further along the way we find a young tree broken in its middle and bent to the ground. Allyn, from Germany, feels pain for the life that ended here as well. She leads us in prayer and a blessing for the tree and all who have been broken.

Near the sea we find a homeless shelter operated by Gagon (Rooftop). Boris, a Russian living there on and off for a year and a half, tells us of his daily routine. There are strict rules you must abide by: No drugs or alcohol, respect for others, lights-out, etc.  One gets a bed, a meal, clothes, laundry and a shower. He openly shares with us his drinking problem, which gets bad when he is stressed, and then he has to leave the shelter until the next time he can return. Good people on the journey. The place looks clean, organized and quiet—it’s lunch time now.

We go down to the sea where a Moslem family is bathing. Two women in black dresses play in the water with a few small children splashing each other. Nearby someone in a white bikini is sunbathing. It’s very hot. I can see the terrace of the restaurant Monterey. On other days, I am on that terrace. Today, for the price of one appetizer I could get so many other things.

The sea is free to all. Immersion before Yom Kippur arouses a heartfelt prayer in me to connect with all those who are far-flung and remote, within and without. Afterwards I use the handheld beach shower. Wow, to be clean! What fun.

It’s late afternoon and the hunger is getting to me. Stores continue to close. One small restaurant is cleaning up and the chairs are piled high. We ask if there’s any food left and receive fresh warm burekas [pastries]. Tasty! Once again, the realization that there is food, though much less choice of what to eat and when. We take what is given us. A few more places give food and we’re on our way to eat the meal before the fast.

There’s a nice variety when we sit in the park around the food that’s been collected.  There’s also a group called Sheaves of Israel, which brings food to the people in the park every Sabbath and holiday eve. This time the volunteers (from a Christian church nearby) bring the food earlier than usual because of Yom Kippur. They spread a table with very large quantities of different cooked foods and offer anyone a plate, spoon, and cold water, and they even pack the food to take home or give to others. We are eating and admiring the volunteer work and large amounts of food when Carin, whom we met yesterday, comes straight up to the table, spits in the food and curses the volunteers. She seems crazy, spaced out and angry. Spitting and cursing, she explains that people who ate this food got sick and that this group is actually a money-laundering front. One of the volunteers tries to move her away and they nearly come to blows. I am shocked to see the change that’s come over her and realize that one has to be here a long time to really understand what is happening and figure out how to help. Our glimpse is just a tiny drop.

The start of Yom Kippur finds me on the grass with friends and Ohad playing guitar for three women from the Congo, who clap to the rhythm. We discover that there is a synagogue next to the park congregated by people from the Caucasus Mountains and some of us go there for Kol Nidre. The women’s section is completely empty; it’s hot inside. The caretaker, who earlier threw out one of us who doesn’t speak Hebrew, returns our greetings of Gmar Hatima Tova and turns on the air conditioner. I belong to the right color, the right language; my clothes haven’t gotten really dirty yet so I look okay. I can also use their bathrooms.

Later in the park we sing some songs and Ohad leads us in fervent prayer. Most of us move our cartons over to a playground nearby and sleep there. Sharon joins us. I’m exhausted and fall asleep.

The morning light starts early. Avi and I and a friend, a German who arrived just to participate in this retreat, go off to the streets of Tel-Aviv. It’s Yom Kippur and everything is very quiet. There is no bustle of motorbikes, just a few people outside.  Once again a synagogue on our way lets us use the bathrooms. Someone says this is the meaning of Jewish services: running water and even scented soap, and paper for our hands and faces.

The border between the black and white areas stands out. When we return to the park we find a large number of Ethiopians and Eritreans sitting silently on the benches and the grass in one corner. On another bench adjacent to a synagogue wall is a line of men and some women crying loudly. It seems this is a mourners’ gathering honoring three people who died in their countries of origin. They leave after several hours.

Around us, another morning. People who slept on the benches and inside the slides of the jungle gym wash their faces in the fountain. I think about a toothbrush. Sitting on a bench, Sharon asks if someone would play an Eric Clapton tune she loves. My heart swells when I see her singing with Avi quietly accompanying her on the guitar.

In our late-morning gathering we spread out on the grass and have heart-to-heart talks with friends. I feel my heart warm with gratitude for the people with whom I have had the privilege to share these days and a growing curiosity to know them better. We are all part of this web.

bernie-caneAt the end of the afternoon we leave the park and walk towards the sea, stopping to pray and sing in a park in Neve Tzedek. We join one of our members in an emotional Kaddish for his father who passed away and meet a young girl from London who sings with a clear voice and joins us on our way to the sea. Bernie, who throughout the retreat amazes me with his quiet and humble manner, sits on a bench. His knee hurts. At some point Ohad says to him gently, Bernie, you are sitting in the sun.  Bernie looks at him with some surprise and says: Yes, it really is very hot, and moves. I see this Zen teacher sitting right near me, and inside I bow.

We stop on the grass near the Carmel market. Avi and I walk away from the group and enter the abandoned market. Our eyes are by now accustomed to looking for cartons, fruits that might have been left behind, and a comfortable corner in which to sit. We settle down at the other end of the market. Near us are two people with a plastic bottle of wine discussing their preference for vodka, with or without orange juice. A few feet away an Asian family shares lunch. When they leave I notice there are many children with bicycles in the street and on the sidewalk. When we get up, an 8 or 9 year-old boy on a bike grabs us and begs us for help, pointing to a few Filipino children on bicycles who, he says, won’t let him ride home. I rush in to find out what is happening and ask them to let the child pass. The child, under my own protection, curses the Filipino children and their mothers, and they curse back.

In the final circle on the grass each one says what touched her or him. Assif names Ohad.  Shachar is an Ethiopian who served in the army, missed the last bus home and stayed with us in the park. Last night he said he hated all of us: the Israelis, the prejudice, the lack of caring. Avner spoke with him for a long time and something between them clicked.  Shachar slept next to Avner and stayed with us the whole day.  Now in the circle we listen as Avner translates for him.

We go to the Dolphin beach for the end. The sun opposite us is orange and large and already touching the water. Yael and I open the palms of our hands and run to the sea crying out, Open for us the Gate at the time of its closing, for the day is ending [end of the Yom Kippur liturgy]. For us, for all of us, regardless of color, religion, gender and origin. The sun sets.

In the sea we remove our clothes and again immerse ourselves in water to end this day.  We look up and see stars, signifying the end of Yom Kippur. I think of the home that awaits me and of those who will remain in Lewinski Park tonight.

And what now? Don’t know. All these sights and sensations are still fresh. The heart is raw.

Gratitude for the shower, running water, the toothbrush, flicking on the kettle for coffee whenever I want, choosing what I eat. Being safe under a roof. Gratitude for so many things, including the opportunity to go out on the streets, get out of my self and encounter … The words of the prayer book still ring in my mind: Pray for the poor so that he will be covered. Before God he will pour out his heart. God, listen to my prayer and may my supplications reach You. Do not hide Your face from me on this terrible day.

May we all be blessed with a good year of life and peace. Amen.

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