by Wendy Egyoku Nakao
During the first week of August, Genro and I took ten people on a three-day street retreat in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. We call this practice a plunge: throwing oneself into an environment radically different from our accustomed habitat, so that we may enter into and be taught by not-knowing.
The Street Retreat demands that we “be one with” whatever is going on. When we chant the Gate of Sweet Nectar, which we do daily on the streets, we invoke the names of the Buddhas. We chant: “Be one with” the names of the Buddhas. I once read somewhere that the word “namo,” which we translate as “being one with” means “to plunge.” It means to throw oneself into whatever, until we are fully saturated and cannot distinguish self and other. It is like plunging a basket into water, and the basket swells so that water cannot leak through. Being on the streets is like this. We start out open, eager, and afraid and by the end, we are fully saturated with the streets.
Our group is five women and seven men. We gather in our street clothes in the Center’s backyard, equipped with water bottles (recommended for all street dwellers during the summer heat) and our driver’s licenses. We carry these things in supermarket plastic bags; no changes of clothing, no toiletries, and no money. the men have not shaved for days; the women have not washed their hair. We chant the Gate of Sweet Nectar before heading off on foot to Skid Row, a two-hour walk across downtown Los Angeles.
It is important to state that we do not consider ourselves to be homeless on this retreat. Nor do we pretend we are homeless, willingly disclosing our retreat to people we meet. It was fascinating that everyone we encountered – from street people to those providing services – were deeply appreciative that we took the time to go on this retreat and to learn about homeless life in this way.