A reflection by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis, on a Street Retreat with the Zen Peacemakers in October of 2010. First published March, 2011.
Last October I spent three days on the street with Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt and a small group of practitioners. We ate in soup kitchens and slept on sidewalks. We lived like homeless people, or like monks. We each brought only a backpack with a blanket and a change of socks, and the clothes we were wearing. It terrified me, of course, when I first committed to doing such a thing, but it was worth it. In fact, it was easy and joyful. I want to tell you about it so you can consider doing a street retreat yourself. If we organize a group of at least 7 people, Genro Roshi will lead a retreat this September, and you can taste the liberation I tasted.
When I did the retreat in October, we had a tiny group: There was Genro, a real veteran, who’s led about 30 street retreats; a Zen student named Bear from Massachusetts; and Jen, a young Christian woman who’d recently returned from a long social services stint in El Salvador.
Our first night’s sleep was the hardest. I thought I knew a quiet place, a big truck lot east of Penn Station. We snuck into the lot, found an open semi-trailer parked with its doors open, and climbed inside. Genro had advised us that a few layers of cardboard under one’s body make a big difference on a cold night, so we’d found a stack of flattened boxes and carried it in. We spread out the cardboard, put on every layer of clothing we had, wrapped our blankets around us and covered our faces, and tried to sleep.
I was dozing when I heard a slam so loud, I was sure a semi had hitched to our trailer and we were about to pull away and end up in New Jersey. I saw Genro silhouetted against the opening of the trailer, moving back and forth to peer out one side, then the other. We heard truckers’ voices outside. When a truck next to ours started up and pulled away, Genro said we had to scram. Bear, Jen, Genro, and I scooped up our cardboard and leapt off the back of the trailer. We ran into the brush and found a hidden place. We bedded down again and tried to get warm, to get a few hours of sleep before dawn.
Genro said that was the diciest night he’d spent on the street. If so, I thought, I can survive this. The next three days were comparatively smooth.
For our first breakfast we walked a couple miles to St. Paul’s Church on West 51st St. The church was a little linoleum hole in the wall with one long plastic table. Two young guys played us Christian rock with mixed skill and great enthusiasm, and a preacher taught us that the Bible is not a story about good guys and bad guys, it’s a story where everyone’s a bad guy but Jesus. The dozen people at breakfast included a few street people, dirty and burdened, but mostly the clientele seemed housed. Conversation around the table was about where to get lunch and dinner that day: which churches were open, how early you had to get in line, where the food was good.
Being on the street all day, we met more characters than I normally meet in a year. While we waited for breakfast one morning, a punky highschooler walked past us, bopping to the music on his headphones, and gave us each a dollar bill without breaking stride. I saw a woman walking and talking – I assumed she was on her cellphone, but of course she was talking to the parrot on her shoulder. And while we waited in line for dinner on Friday, at St. James’s on 71st Street, we met a pair of Chinese sisters, one on a bicycle, the other on rollerblades. We saw them again at several meals – sometimes they seemed to be clients, sometimes volunteers. They made no distinction. We met a few crazy people, and a lot of people who were much closer to normal than I’d expected to see. There was a sanitation worker who eats at churches because it’s free and he likes the food. (I thought the food was shades of awful wherever we ate. No accounting for tastes.)
We had lunch at All Souls Church on East 80th St, a Unitarian place where at least a hundred people ate at round tables with real tablecloths and plates. Our group split up so we could blend in. A volunteer stopped me as I was sitting down. She pointed to a gaunt lady next to me and whispered, “She’s crazy. You should sit on the other side.” There were butter and rolls on
the table and volunteers gave me coffee, mashed potatoes, and meatloaf. The crazy lady was talking word salad: “Poison your water, poison your food, waterboard rape torture inject you with black oil ’til you die.”
The volunteers at All Souls provided service like I’ve seen at no restaurant. They offered day-old Pret a Manger sandwiches in takeaway bags, they brought extra food in tupperware so a woman could feed her family at home, they negotiated with the crazy lady who only wanted to eat steak. Watching them, I began to cry. I was tired and raw, and I was moved by how they handled our needs without any nonsense. They just briskly made sure there was food on every plate, temporary mothers and fathers for all of us.
Every day we napped in Central Park. Yes, that’s us, I thought, as the park workers drove by in their cart. We’re the homeless people, sleeping on the grass. I didn’t care. To be warm in the sun was delicious.
At first I had wondered why the hell I was putting myself through this. I’ve had some adventures before. I’ve tried to bike across France without a map. I’ve spent a year at an isolated Zen monastery. I’ve meditated with felons in Sing Sing. But I thought the street retreat would be the hardest thing I’d tried. I was wrong. It was easy. The food was bad, for sure, and the nights were cold, but everything was always OK, in a way that it isn’t in my ordinary life.
I guess I was touching emptiness. There’s a reason Buddha told his monks to leave everything: being on the street dropped me into an effortless samadhi. The world was brought so close to me it shimmered. The hours cruised by without goals or worries. Living like a bhikkhu of the old days, however briefly, liberated me. Whether I was comfortable or uncomfortable (and mostly I was uncomfortable), every feeling was satisfying. I was sorry when it was over.
It might sound like I think being homeless is great. Obviously, it isn’t. A life on the street could be horrific. We heard stories from the homeless that made me glad I was going home soon. But hearing these stories is why I did the retreat – to really hear them, I needed to be tired and dirty and wondering where I would sleep that night.