My class “ Spiritual Leadership”, lead by Professor Danny Fisher, took a field trip to downtown Los Angeles to the famous Skid Row on March 19, 2013.  It was a very interesting experience as I got to see a different kind of life that I have never seen before in America.  Here we were in America, thought to be the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and all I could see hidden underneath big tall buildings and skyscrapers were people scrambling for bare necessities – food and shelter.  It was like hell on earth.  I am not naïve to poverty and poor quality of life as I too, come from a small village in the northern part of Thailand where people work for minimum wage as farmers in the rice field.  But Skid Row as I witnessed it was far worse and beyond what I had imagined.

We walked through the blocks and saw homeless people sleeping, walking, sitting, doing things we normally do in the comfort of our own home, except these homeless people do it on the street.  From the foul smell in the air everywhere, it is evident they go to the bathroom on the street too.  These are people just like you and me, but they, at some point in their lives, lost their way and became homeless.  It is a very sad reality.

It is a social problem every big city in America faces.  Homelessness comes from poverty that may have been brought on by not being educated enough or being ignorant about education, but often times, it stems from addiction to drugs and alcohol.   Most everyone I saw lying around at Skid Row was drunk and incoherent.  They all looked intoxicated, high, stoned, and under the influence.  To help a person who is down and out and homeless, you give them a roof over their head and the problem is fixed.  But to help a person with substance abuse, you need professional help.  There just is not enough resources and manpower to do all the clean up and so homelessness becomes the ugly, dark side of society.

Homelessness is an ongoing issue.  Seeing how these people live, one cannot help but wonder how can a person ever get out of this situation?  Or better yet, how does a person become this way to begin with?  As a Buddhist, I see how living without finite rules and living aimlessly without a clear understanding of which is the right path can be destructive to one’s life, as seen in the people on Skid Row.  Had these homeless people learned the Buddha’s teaching of refraining from intoxication, the Fifth Precept, their lives would probably be a lot better today.

The Buddha himself was once homeless.  He left his royal palace, disregarded his Prince status, and lived his life on the street just like any homeless person.  Although he was homeless, he was not mindless.  The Buddha was alert, aware, and mindful.  He was insightful in knowing how consumption of alcohol and drugs is very destructive, which is why there is a Fifth Precept to restrict the use and help people maintain a good way of living without negative influence.  Substance abuse causes a person to lose their mind, their sanity, and I think it is one of the biggest reasons people become homeless.

The Buddha spoke quite clearly of the dangers of alcohol.

“There are, young householder, these six evil consequences in indulging in intoxicants which cause infatuation and heedlessness:

(i) loss of wealth,

(ii) increase of quarrels,

(iii) susceptibility to disease,

(iv) earning an evil reputation,

(v) shameless exposure of body,

(vi) weakening of intellect.

Dice, women, liquor, dancing, singing, sleeping by day, sauntering at unseemly hours, evil companions, avarice — these nine causes ruin a man.

Who plays with dice and drinks intoxicants, goes to women who are dear unto others as their own lives, associates with the mean and not with elders — he declines just as the moon during the waning half.

Who is drunk, poor, destitute, still thirsty whilst drinking, frequents the bars, sinks in debt as a stone in water, swiftly brings disrepute to his family.”Who by habit sleeps by day, and keeps late hours, is ever intoxicated, and is licentious, is not fit to lead a household life.” ( From

As I walk the streets of Skid Row with my class, I wonder if any of the people there had ever been told to stay away from drugs and alcohol.  They might have heard it, probably.  But in looking at how they are still there today, they did not take that advice.  Skid Row remains to be a place these homeless people call home.  The poor souls who are lost, addicted, and abused by much of their own doing.  It really is hell on earth.

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  1. The contrast between the economic poverty of a Thai village and the spiritual poverty of Downtown was stark. A village is smaller. People are more connected. A city like Los Angeles is so large that people become anonymous. They are rendered unknown and unclaimed. Do you wonder about the differences between living in an agricultural village or suburban village with or without adjacent industries and life in Skid Row? There are few plants or animals and little earth in Downtown. The air is not clean. The earth is covered. The concrete cannot be absorbed by the earth and transformed into life-giving nourishment. People seem removed from the healing powers of nature and community living in harmony with nature.

    It was evident you took time to consider what you witnessed and connect it with the Dhamma. I understand the teachings to avoid alcohol and drugs. But, I wonder about the non-duality of the causes and conditions that result in people becoming residents of Skid Row. I am challenged by a definition of kamma that focuses on the individual. And so, I offer the challenge of zooming out from the individual to explore the wider web in which the residents of Skid Row find themselves entangled. Before I look for explanations in causes and conditions across lifetimes, should we not exhaust the limits of Right Understanding within our own frame or space and time and its insights into what would constitute Right Action?

    I think these are the questions that challenge faiths and the faithful.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is a great reading. Thanks for reminding us about the dangerous of addiction.

  3. Analyzing Skid Row through the lens of the Fifth Precept makes for insightful commentaries on the lives of those living in Skid Row. Thanks for the good read, I especially liked the quotes from the Buddha you included.

  4. There is a reason people become addicted to drugs. The psychiatric aspect of addiction to drugs can be extremely powerful. Our minds are very complex and also the thoughts we have turn into rulers in our world.

  5. Mylene says:

    Very insightful, addiction is very hard to break! You have to have discipline, motivation and strong will to change. I suppose a purpose in life is the key to success, wanting to live and be better. I know it’s not an easy thing to break but there is hope.

  6. Anonymous says:

    that was a good essay/blog. i agree with many of your points, especially how americans, because they lack faith, and rely more on materialistic and temporal pleasures, lead themselves astray and become morally corrupt. however, i don’t agree that the people on the streets are there because of drug/alcohol addictions. many turn to these things AFTER becoming homeless. most poverty-stricken people start off on lesser grounds than a stable middle-income family. in this country, the govt does EVERYTHING to ensure the poor never get to middle-ground and the middle-class never achieve anything but mediocre status. poverty is intentionally perpetrated by the govt. it’s not addictions that cause homelessness.

  7. Du Wayne Engelhart says:

    Thank you for the information you provide. I was thinking about two kinds of homelessness. The first kind is the one you describe as characteristic of the people on Skid Row. The second kind is the homelessness the Buddha teaches. We should never get too attached to anything we have on earth because we are all essentially homeless. We have no true home on earth, no true refuge in earthly things. The only refuge we have is ourselves, and the Dhamma as our refuge. To hold on to the idea that we have a home on earth is to keep on suffering.

    Du Wayne Engelhart

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