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!