I Gave Away My Hat

“No good deed goes un-posted,” said one of my Facebook friends when I posted that I had bought this nifty fake fur hat a couple mornings ago and then gave it away to a homeless man mere hours later.

Unfortunately, I’m not one of those kind, warmhearted people who feel great when they do something like that and then just can’t wait to tell the world about it. Sometimes I wish I was.

No. I’m kind of bummed that my hat is gone now. Well. It’s not gone. It’s on the head of a guy who lives under a bridge in Knoxville. Which is good, I guess. But I liked that hat. It was goofy. And I only just bought it!

My sister volunteers each week to help the homeless in Knoxville. My niece Skylar always goes with her. Stacey says she’s the one who keeps her going, Together they help out an organization called the Lost Sheep Ministry serve up free dinners to the people who live under one of the bridges of the I-40 Interstate in downtown Knoxville. Stacey invited me to come along since I’m in town this week. So I did. Then she said she really wanted me to blog about it. So I am. She did not tell me it would cost me my hat.

The day I went was their big Christmas dinner. So it wasn’t a typical night, from what I understand. There were a lot more people there to get fed and a lot more volunteers to handle the logistics. I didn’t end up doing a whole lot. I was assigned to garbage clean-up. So I just had to hang back until people had finished their meals and then go around with a garbage bag and collect the used Styrofoam plates, plastic forks and paper cups.

Stacey and Skylar knew a lot of the people out there, as you would if you went every week. Stacey was wearing a goofy hat too. Hers was even better than mine, a special Texas Tech Santa hat. She gave her hat away as well. Apparently Skylar once gave away her shoes. Stacey and Skylar always stop and have conversations with the people who live under the bridge. Some of them are their friends.

It’s hard not to feel moved to give stuff away when you’re out there, uh, giving stuff away. You know these people are way worse off than you are. So when they ask you for a hat, it feels right to give them your hat. Although I think I’d draw the line at shoes. Especially that night when it was cold and kind of wet out there. Though I don’t know how I’d feel if the person asking had shoes as bad as the ones Skylar described on the person she gave her shoes to.

They had a band playing Christian rock. At one point the singer said, “This world isn’t our home! We have a much better one waiting for us!”

Of course that’s not actually true. Whether we have a better home somewhere else is arguable. But clearly God gave us a home at least for now and this world is it. Looking around that night I could see how the message that this isn’t where we really belong would play well to a crowd like that. A lot of them are having a shitty time, pretty much all the time. The idea of a better place somewhere off in the clouds must be very comforting.

As contemporary Buddhists living in the wealthy West, we easily forget what the original message Buddha preached actually was. Buddha was preaching mostly to an audience who lived pretty much like those homeless people under that bridge in Knoxville. Even if you were well-off in ancient India, your life probably wasn’t a lot more comfortable than the lives of poor folks today. Medicine was far less developed than it is today. Things we can cure with an injection, they died from, even with the best care money could buy. Sanitation was poor by our standards even for the well-to-do. There was no such thing as air conditioning or central heating for anyone, regardless of their wealth or status. Dental care was almost non-existent. Life was tough. It was natural to want out. When Buddha said that this world was the real world and that there was no heaven waiting for us at the end, it was a pretty radical thing to say.

Watching these Christians do their good work for the poor got me thinking about what Buddhists do for the poor. There are plenty of Buddhist charities all over the world, and there have been for thousands of years. The ones we have in the West are far less developed than those in Asia. We’ve had a lot less time to get it together. Besides, a Buddhist charity is a tougher sell over here. I can’t imagine you’d get by for long preaching Buddhist sermons under a bridge in East Tennessee. Even if you left the preaching out, once people found out you were Buddhists there’d be issues. Unfortunate but true.

The Engaged Buddhism stuff is interesting. Though sometimes I wonder if some of the motivation is the idea that we Buddhists aren’t as nice as those Christians so we’d better catch up. I know that’s not all it is. But I just wonder sometimes.

I think the most important thing is to always have the aim to do what we can whenever and wherever we can. It’s good to feed the homeless. It’s very good. But I think it’s important to continuously do small good things whenever we can without regard to who is more or less deserving of our help. It’s easy to make distinctions like that. But they’re not true. Everyone needs whatever we can give.

At the end of the meal, the Lost Sheep Ministry passed out Christmas stockings to everyone who came for the free food. I didn’t get a look at what was inside. But I’m guessing it was mainly practical stuff. It looked like some of them might have contained sleeping bags. But I’m not sure.

And my hat was no longer mine. People are always asking me for magic meditations that will make them a “better person.” I suppose it’s depressing to think someone like me could do zazen for nearly thirty years, even getting to be a lineage holder and recognized authority on the subject, and yet still be bummed out about losing his goofy hat to someone who clearly needs it more than he does.

The difference now is that even though I remain bummed out about it, I no longer care. My feeling of bummed-out-ness is just a feeling. It comes and goes. Eventually it disappears completely. It’s insubstantial and not worthy of any great attention. It arises due to lingering greed that will also pass given enough time.

But dang. I liked that hat!


Thanks for your continuing donations. I’m not homeless and it’s you nice people who keep me in fuzzy hats!


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27 Responses

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  1. acmcarey
    acmcarey December 21, 2012 at 9:30 am |

    Thanks Brad for your latest post. I appreciate your frankness and your straightforwardness. I come from a ‘Christian Background’ though I’m not a Christian anymore. So I could relate to some of the things you were sharing about your experience at the Lost Sheep Ministry. I’m not a Buddhist but I do read a lot of Buddhist articles, magazines and books and I have to say I feel closer to what they say then anything else. Plus, when I meditate I feel a space created within which I can process the Buddhist teachings I’ve read. You’re right, Buddha didn’t promise we’d find anything at the of this life. As a matter of fact, at the end of his life when he lay dying his followers asked him about a ‘afterlife’ and he said there wasn’t any. So, it’s be here now, right now is all we have. At least as far as we know. I do remember Jesus saying something like; “why are you worrying about tomorrow, today has enough problems of its own.” Thanks again.

  2. fightclubbuddha
    fightclubbuddha December 21, 2012 at 10:00 am |

    You ask “I wonder if some of the motivation is the idea that we Buddhists aren’t as nice as those Christians.”

    This question never gives me a moment of concern, for the primary reason that we, as Buddhists, do not proselytize. Yes, feeding the homeless is a GREAT thing to do, as are many other charitable outreach projects. But, those efforts always come with strings attached. You mentioned preaching sermons under the bridge. You mentioned the Christian rock band. No matter how subtle the message might be conveyed, a message is still being conveyed, which, for me at least, muddies the waters. Is the intent here generosity in its wholehearted form, or generosity with the aim of adding converts to the fold?

    I never hear much about Buddhists actually going out and looking for followers to convert. The Buddhists I know all have the exact opposite experience. We did our homework first, decided that we wanted to explore Buddhism further, and then went out in search of a teacher and a sangha.

    As for your hat, I will leave you with the wise words of Tyler Durden: “it’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.” Have a good time with your family.

  3. A-Bob
    A-Bob December 21, 2012 at 12:43 pm |

    Hats off to you Brad..

  4. boubi
    boubi December 21, 2012 at 1:43 pm |

    “to someone who clearly deserves it more than he does.”

    Maybe he NEEDED it more than you, about deserving i don’t know. Do you?

  5. King Kong
    King Kong December 21, 2012 at 8:59 pm |

    AT LEAST YOU HAVE HAIR !!! !!! !!! !!!

  6. AnneMH
    AnneMH December 21, 2012 at 9:14 pm |

    It is a nice hat, i can see where you would miss it. I helped out a young man once, the dental work I paid for may have saved his life since he had a serious infection. I still pretty much want him to pay me back what he agreed to.

    I can totally relate to this one. I actually attend an open minded Christian church that doesn’t care what I believe (or not believe). I honestly just very much missed the community I grew up with and didn’t find that in Buddhism where I am. In any case their big focus is feeding the hungry and homeless. They host Sunday breakfast every week, we are the delivery place for sleeping bags, tarps and coats donated from all over the country, and every week there are bagged lunches handed out in City Park by our church. So we are certifiable ‘good people’. We also have the good samaritans (a volunteer citizen police force that is unarmed) come to sunday breakfast for protection.

    Some days I would like to take my donation and go to starbucks. And within a day or so I totally don’t miss my small donation or the starbucks drink.

    For me it comes back to reality, ya know we don’t always feel the way we are told we should feel. I am sure there are honest Christians who would say that sometimes they get frustrated or angry with homeless people they help. That is just how it is, we still do what we feel like we should and the feeling will pass, but to be honest the money would probably pass about as quickly.

  7. yesno
    yesno December 22, 2012 at 2:17 am |

    bodhi mind _/\_

  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote December 22, 2012 at 9:49 am |

    “For me it comes back to reality, ya know we don’t always feel the way we are told we should feel.”

    It’s great that you have a community, and that you contribute your time and some bucks toward helping the homeless. I admire that.

    I am thinking about the sitting practice, and the spectrum of responses that are out there to the question of pain in the posture. Lots of teachers talk about sitting with the pain, although it’s not quite clear what their own experience is (Shunryu Suzuki I think spoke this way); then there was Kobun, who said he never had pain or numbness sitting the lotus. He said that at the close of his third week-long sesshin in a row.

    Gautama the Buddha spoke of the cessation of dis-ease in the first meditative state, of ease and absorption, and of equanimity. I begin to see that there is something of a hypnogogic state, and that in such a state judgement is suspended; maybe I simply cease to judge the sensation as painful. The induction of the hypnogogic state is a sort of taboo in Zen, isn’t it? Lots of talk about following the movement of breath and sitting upright, not a lot about relaxed attendance to where I am 24-7 as Yuanwu advised, and the relationship of that relaxed attendance to the ability to feel and the necessity of breath.

    I don’t always find my way back to where I am and what I feel in the necessity of breath. I’ve always figured I would have to understand a few things in order to sit, I know that’s anathema to a lot of Zen folks, and of course words will never exactly describe experience. Nevertheless, I wonder that Zen teachers are so useless when it comes to instruction on zazen, and that so many remain in the practice even when they might sense that they are not feeling what they should be feeling. I sure did!

    1. nowthis
      nowthis December 25, 2012 at 5:50 am |

      “… I wonder that Zen teachers are so useless when it comes to instruction on zazen, and that so many remain in the practice …”

      Indeed … With no really pertinent info about zazen, I practiced because of my sangha, wanting community. Then my sangha changed. I began sitting with S. Okumura’s sangha just because that’s what I was doing. Then I read his translation “Opening the Hand of Thought” and suddenly I got it (for a while), and I didn’t feel the need of the sangha anymore to keep me sitting. Now I sit because I feel there’s no turning back from this point.

      Pain? Must we put up with pain while sitting in order for the sitting to work? Here’s what I think. I think that I’m 60 years old, my knees hurt when I walk, my head aches from injury, my chronic depression has finally been overcome–I’d be a fool to introduce more pain. Zazen is about recognizing reality and bowing to it. And living to sit another day. No life, no zazen.

      I quibble with those who insist pedantically that we should sit for no reason but just for sitting. I get the concept, but it denies the reality of being human. At this point, I prefer to be free of the concepts, but thanks for all the fish.

      I appreciate you, Mark Foote.

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 22, 2012 at 1:15 pm |

    I tire of your self-indulgent comments, Mark Foote.

    My intention with posting this comment is to encourage you to reconsider the stuff you post. I do not wish to cause you any concern or embarrassment. It’s just that your posts have helped forever negatively change the comments section on Brad’s blog……. in my idiotic opinion, of course.

    I expect that you’ll believe I’m simply trying to be an online troublemaking smartass and dismiss my comment on that basis. I hope that you won’t. I hope that you’ll at least for one minute consider that you come across in a certain way that you might not intend.

    Surprise me.

  10. Alizrin
    Alizrin December 22, 2012 at 5:30 pm |

    Huh, do people living in LA really need faux-fur hats? At any rate, I bet during the post-Xmas sales you can easily find one CHEAP.

  11. AnneMH
    AnneMH December 22, 2012 at 6:19 pm |

    I think he is visiting family in some sort of midwestern state. In Cali it may be fur flip flops!

  12. CosmicBrainz
    CosmicBrainz December 22, 2012 at 8:08 pm |

    Your hat sucked. You should have been robbed by a homeless person that needs it.

    Then you would not regret giving the hat away. You’d be complaining about it being stolen.

    But your hat was never owned and it was never lost. It’s on no one’s head. Thus, is it said it’s on everybody’s head. But what is a head?

  13. Will
    Will December 23, 2012 at 4:37 am |

    If I remember correctly in the way early days of Buddhism in Japan there were monks who went out in public and played sort of a Chinese lute while they recited Buddhist texts. Also I think there’s a Zen group in New York that bakes bread and seems to be very help the homeless oriented.

  14. sri_barence
    sri_barence December 23, 2012 at 11:56 am |

    Thank you for the hat.

  15. Fred
    Fred December 23, 2012 at 5:36 pm |

    Anon, Mark comes across in a way that he comes across. I’m fine with it and
    appreciate his comments.

    Come out of the shadows, stand in the light and open our eyes with words
    of insight.

  16. Fred
    Fred December 23, 2012 at 6:19 pm |

    “Ordinary thinking (shiryo) is the subject’s own creation. It accords more with the subject’s desire or habits than with the situation at hand. The failure of ordinary thought is that it pre-forms all experience; it simply cannot allow what is to be present as it is. “Thinking without thinking” requires that the subject let go of its own plans and devices, and attend to what is as it comes to presence. Rather than eliminating thought, this simply realigns thought with reality, beyond the subject’s own will to enframe it. On some occasions, it is sufficient to be aware of the situation at hand directly, without thinking. More complex situations call for more elaborate and systematic reflection. Both extremes, however, are grounded in the situation rather than in the subject, and both call for an openness that is uncharacteristic of anything we typically regard as thinking. Pure experience then, gives rise to thought of its own accord, and D?gen’s religious thought is one form that this thinking can take.

    This understanding has far reaching consequences for the status of doctrine. If the situations to which thought conforms are impermanent, always turning into new situations, then doctrine would have to change along with them. D?gen does not shy away from this conclusion: the teachings are impermanent: “Therefore, teaching, clarifying impermanence, and practice are by their nature impermanent. Kanzeon proclaims the Dharma by manifesting himself in a form best suited to save sentients. This is Buddha-nature. Sometimes they use a long form to proclaim a long Dharma, sometimes a short form for a short Dharma. Impermanence itself is Buddha-nature” (1983b:128; 1970:54).

    What this means is that there cannot be one permanent body of correct doctrine because the reality to which it would have to conform is itself variable and in transformation. As the text says clearly, “circumstances are constantly changing the form of suchness” (1975:130;1972:252). Religious thinking that originates in pure experience does correspond to the reality of the situation, but it is also empty (Ku) in the sense that it originates dependent upon the particularities of the given situation. As an expression (dotoku) of a given occasion (jisetsu), it is neither permanent nor universally applicable”

    The Zensite

  17. Fred
    Fred December 23, 2012 at 6:26 pm |

    If one’s words, actions and thoughts should reflect the natural state of impermanence, who better illuminates this state than a homeless man with no hat.

  18. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote December 24, 2012 at 3:44 pm |

    Anonymous, if you are the same Anonymous that thought it was funny to proposition Brad, and if you think I had something to do with changing the tone of the blog, I don’t know that I did.

    If you are not that Anonymous, I would apologize if I knew what you meant by “forever negatively change” and felt culpable. As it is, I can see that you are irritated, and that you seem to have traced the source of your irritation to me.

    Please keep in mind that I write here as an exercise, for my own benefit, primarily. If I am negative, I am looking for a way to turn it around, you can be assured. A large part of what inspires me to write is the tension between my surface apprehension of a negative and my conviction that everything in a dream is positive, at heart.

    If I don’t have a positive, substantive contribution to offer the society I live in, then I have not found my own necessity; that’s been my experience. I’m just a poor boy, long ways from home; maybe I have helped myself by rambling here and elsewhere, I know I’ve helped at least one other person in New York to get back to sleep in the wee hours. I’m a big success, tell me about yourself!


  19. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote December 24, 2012 at 3:44 pm |

    Thanks, Fred, beautiful stuff. Merry Christmas!

  20. sri_barence
    sri_barence December 25, 2012 at 6:11 am |

    Brad only had one hat, and he gave it away.

    I said, “Thank you for the hat.” But I should have said, “No thanks, I already have a hat.”

    Do you have a hat?

  21. SoF
    SoF December 25, 2012 at 12:03 pm |

    Zen Masters do not vacuum in corners because they have no attachments.

    I was visiting Reno wearing my [free-be] “Newscenter 4” jacket. A homeless man ask for it and I gave it to him – and never looked back. Working in over-the-air (a.k.a. broadcast) television for 25+ years, one gets a ton of free promotional crap.

    Rocca’s adult brother experienced severe brain injury alter a fall from a bicycle. He wanted my “Battlestar Galictica” jacket [another free-be promotion]. I gave it to him. Two years later, he died. I hope he derived some joy in wearing it along the way. He would have been buried in the jacket but it was stolen from his room in the managed care facility after he died.

    My ABC jacket was stolen from my car in Pasadena in 1974. I never cared. It took weeks to vacuum the last of the broken glass from under the car seat.

    Things are things and, for a time, serve a useful purpose. The only thing I gave up that I should have kept is a toy Hook-And-Ladder Fire Truck I had as a kid. Today, I could have put it in a nativity scene and told my redneck Texas acquaintances: “Three wise men came from a far.”

  22. Khru
    Khru December 27, 2012 at 6:16 pm |

    Anonymous: There are many personalities on these strange Zen blogs. I generally ignore the ones who annoy me and keep on scrolling through.

    I’ve found that Steve has some very interesting and thoughtful takes on issues we’ve discussed.

  23. Muddy Elephant
    Muddy Elephant December 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm |

    Hatcore Zen baby

  24. Khru
    Khru December 28, 2012 at 4:00 pm |

    Yeah, like that one.

  25. PhilBob-SquareHead
    PhilBob-SquareHead December 28, 2012 at 6:23 pm |

    Dearest Brad.
    I’m gonna be as serious as I have ever been, no hating. Just logic.

    You have a college education. You have abilities society demands:

    Helping the handicapped and teaching English to foreigners.

    Flowing thru the world, espousing new age (YES, Buddhism included) esoterica only SEEMS to fulfill the so-called better educated of our society whom have the resources to “follow their Bliss”.

    This trip with your sister could “AWAKEN” you to the deeper belief.
    PEOPLE NEED HELP IN REAL TIME. Not on how to sit according to some 13th century zen priest.

    I have so much faith in you. Hopefully you’ll find it in yourself.

    Best Wishes.

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