Category Archives: Economics

A Reflection on Water, Health, and Compassion

Water pollution

Water pollution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

H2OcomesPassion is my Pinterest title. Before I started creating this page, I thought of using the name Water, Health, and Compassion. However, upon doing research for this project, I felt that I have been passionate on the issue of water. The more understand about water, the more passion I put into this project. My passion is not only to understanding water, its benefits, and its composition in the human body and in the whole universe, but also learning to appreciate the benefits that water brings and the advantages I have living in U.S., where I can access fresh, clean water everyday. My passion also turns into Compassion. I feel empathy for people who live in drought areas, for people who day by day use polluted and contaminated water for drinking and for cooking. Water has affected me to the point where I consciously feel empathy when reading news about polluted water, and where I share my joy when people have an opportunity to enjoy fresh, clean, water from a new well. I have joined a group of volunteers in Facebook  which volunteers to do fundraising for building wells in Africa. I have learned how this group connects people together to do this charity work and how they devote their lives for the benefits of others.

Counting from the time I posted my proposal, I have received 7 comments. Two comments, from Anonymous and Thaitriplegem, confirm my purpose by saying that water symbolizes compassion and harmony. If one makes oneself to be like water, then one is easy to be with people because water adapts to its environment.

One stated, “Without water we will die, without heath we will painful and without compassion this world would looks like hell.” This helps me understand the main function of water, is nurturing. Water nurtures life, and it is itself a source of compassion.

Thesilverbodhisattva gives me a wonderful source relating to water: water has memory. It helps me understand more about the other sources I have posted on my Pinterest, which is water in prayer and practice.

Mettadharma commented, “Water is symbol of the purity. It is clear, cool, and calm. If people can make their mind like water, it will be very useful.”

Dawn made her comment on my proposal and Pinterest page, and she suggested adding a “Call to Action” board. My thanks to her for a great idea, but I forgot to do that. I didn’t have a specific board to list practical things people can do to better the situation of water.

Minh Tu also suggested that I should have a “water recycling” board. I think his suggestion and Dawn’s are similar. I will create a board named Call to Action, which includes water cycling, and water conserving.

Both Dawn and Minh Tu like the experiments of Dr. Emoto. However, Dawn brought up the point that this work hasn’t been proven by scientists; whereas, Minh Tu emphasized water’s ability of being purified by spiritual practices.

Back to my project on Pinterest, my purpose is to raise people’s awareness of water’s benefits on body, mind, and spirit. I have created so far 12 boards and 173 pins. The titles of my boards are:

  1. Information
  2. H2O resources
  3. Water in Reality: Drought and Contamination
  4. Benefits of Water
  5. Tips in Using Water
  6. Prayer and Practice
  7. Charity Work
  8. Organizations in Action
  9. Video & Movie
  10. Books
  11. Call to Action
  12. Others

This page has been in existence about three weeks and I have 5 followers and 10 people following. With what I have gotten so far, I am not sure that using social media such as Pinterest can help me spread out the message of water to everyone. Based on my observation of my Facebook account, I believe that in order to influence more people of using water appropriately and of helping others, I should take an action by participating in a group consisted of individuals who have the same passion. Although my Pinterest has few followers, I believe that I myself have changed during this project, and at least some others also have changed to be more mindful of using water.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: Concluding Thoughts

As Spiritual Leadership enters its final weeks of the semester, it is time to invite everyone to provide feedback on this project.  Likewise, I will summarize and engage in critical reflection.

What is Spiritual Leadership?  The term connotes transcendence.  From the perspective of Liberation Theology, I would reject this definition.  Rather, I would argue that Spiritual Leadership is a reorientation to the potential to be realized in the immanent, in the mundane.  Thus, I chose to illustrate this point through the particular case of Snack Pack Pudding.

Looking deeply into Snack Pack Pudding, its non-pudding elements, and its connections revealed suffering including links to illness and oppression (viz. slavery)!  In cases when corporations and governments are jointly and severally responsible for suffering, extra-governmental organizations, such as the press and/or religious leaders are called to engage their asymmetrical agency, responsibility, and accountability to be spiritual leaders and organize the collective will of the oppressed.

Per Allan G. Johnson, Power, Privilege, and Difference, society channels people’s behaviors towards paths of least resistance.  These paths are not easy.  Deviation from these paths is harder, at least initially.  Yet, the essence of spiritual leadership is to deviate from these paths of least resistance in order to change society if we are to transform individual and collective experiences of suffering as pain and oppression into love and justice.

In consumer-driven society (i.e. the hungry ghost economy), people unwittingly and, often, inevitably, participate in the creation and perpetuation of suffering by engaging in mindless consumption represented by tens or hundreds of individual and seemingly trivial and innocuous transactions every day.  The sum of these decisions have tremendous impacts upon world suffering.

No one person can do everything.  Every person can do something.  Spiritual leadership is not about creating guilt and paralysis.  It is, at least from this perspective, about orienting people, promoting awareness, and facilitating contemplation and action.  It functions on the faith that each person, in his or her time, will gradually or suddenly achieve insight into an issue and take action to change it.

Orienting people to the mundane topic of Snack Pack Pudding has been an intentional statement that no topic should be particular to spiritual leadership.  Mindfulness practice is powerful in orienting people to the possibilities available for agency, responsibility, and accountability at every level.

The key lesson learned, the fundamental challenge in spiritual leadership, is identifying the media that will connect a particular issue with a particular constituency.

To date, Hungry Ghost Economy

generated 64 views on dharma dialogues

created a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/HungryGhostEconomy) with 13 Likes

created a petition on http://www.whitehouse.gov (http://wh.gov/eMAA) to ask the Obama Administration to ban the import, distribution, and/or sale of products produced using slave labor  with 6 signatures.

created a twitter account with several tweets.  It gained 0 retweets or replies and 1 follower (surprisingly, a local business)!

I value the opportunity to inform.  At times, the internet has demonstrated its power as a means to raise awareness and funds, and to create, organize, and sustain action; at times, it has helped initiate high levels of coordinated global activity.

Yet, research indicates people look to shift their attention within seconds, and shift topics or pages in 7 minutes or less.

It is a lot of effort to maintain an internet presence and create “fresh” content for a small audience.

As a result of this experience, I think the internet can be a place for the exchange of ideas and a resource where people can learn more, exchange ideas, and coordinate efforts.  However, I emerge with the belief that the spiritual leadership models of grassroots activism are still relevant and needed.

The right issue at the right time can begin in a congregation, sangha, temple, mosque, or meeting.  Spiritual leaders, engaged in common causes in solidarity with the oppressed, can promote awareness and action within their organizations.  Tens, hundreds, or thousands, still attend religious services and meetings of various types.  These groups can initiate movements that transcend religious differences.  I think there is an experience of solidarity when people are in the physical presence of one another that can be empowering.  There is something about physical presence that promotes different forms of relationships.  These empowering relationships can collectively engage in actions that serve as the impetus for movements that gain momentum and expand across space and time to effect change.

This assessment of the Hungry Ghost Economy project is a statement about fit between the issue, communication/presentation, media, culture/zeitgeist, and skillful means.

In June 2010, according to ConAgra, Snack Pack owned 84 percent of the $210 million category of shelf stable puddings and gel packs.  As discussed in earlier segments, ConAgra co-packs the pudding for all or almost all of its “competing” store brands.  So, Snack Pack pudding, one consumer packaged good selling at approximately 25 cents per pack, generates millions in advertising and promotion.

This is the landscape in which Spiritual Leadership, typically operating with $0.00 budget, must operate.  Spiritual Leadership is about overcoming these odds.  It is, as aforementioned, about the transcendent potential in the immanent and mundane.  It is a calling.  There is no promise that the work will save countless sentient beings.  There is only the individual and his or her vow to save countless sentient beings.

27 million slaves continue.  Old age, illness, and death continue.  Suffering created by Snack Pack Pudding, and other consumer packaged goods, continues.  So, too, therefore, have I vowed to continue.

I will tell the story and try and change the world, 1 person and 1 action at a time.  I can do no other.

I hope you, having read this testimony, will do likewise.

With bows.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: The Karma of Snack Pack Pudding (#3 in series)

Karma is intentional action connected to its context in space-time. In this chapter of Hungry Ghost Economy, we explore the karmic consequences of the consumer packaged goods production and consumption through the example of Snack Pack Pudding©

These are the listed ingredients in Snack Pack Pudding©.

Water, Nonfat Milk, Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Vegetable Oil (contains one or more of the following: Palm Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Sunflower Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil), Cocoa (Processed with Alkali), Less than 2% of: Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Artificial Flavors, Color Added. CONTAINS: MILK

But what about the unlisted ingredients? Disease? Destruction of habitats? Slavery?

Here is the nutrition information for a 92g single-serving container:

Calories                                   120

Fat                                              25

Total Fat                                     3g          5%

Saturated Fat                          1.5g          8%

Sodium                                 130mg        5%

Potassium                            130mg        4%

Total Carb                                21g          7%

Sugars                                       14g         —

Dietary Fiber                             2g         0.8%

Protein                                        1g

Vit A                                                           0%

Vit C                                                           0%

Iron                                                            4%

Calcium                                                   30%

Based on a 2,000 calorie diet

ConAgra Foods, Inc. emphasizes “All Snack Pack products contain 30% DV calcium, with the exception of Bakery Shop Lemon Meringue Pie, Lemon Pudding, and Snack Pack Gels.” It emphasizes “CONTAINS MILK.”

Viewing the ingredients and nutrition information in isolation from advertising, would you describe Snack Pack Pudding© as”

“Nutritious?”

“Sensible?”

“Wholesome?”

Would you serve this to yourself or others “without the guilt?” The fact that ConAgra Foods, Inc. advertising tries to assuage feelings of guilt suggests an effort to overcome one’s innate sense that there is something wrong in consuming this manufactured product sold as food.

Is this all overly dramatic? Can’t one just eat Snack Pack Pudding© and consider it “empty calories?” No! Robert Lustig, M.D., a Researcher and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital, summarizes the position of metabolic disease researchers in debunking the “empty calories” myth. These calories are not “empty;” they are toxic. For more, click here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-lustig-md/sugar-toxic_b_2759564.html

The ingredients tell the story.

14 of 21 grams of Total Carbohydrates come from refined granulated white sugar. That’s 3.33 teaspoons. That’s 54 of the 120 total calories in one serving of Snack Pack Pudding©. Would you eat or feed your child 3.33 teaspoons of sugar?

The majority of the remaining 7 of 21 grams of Total Carbohydrates comes from modified corn starch. Carbohydrates are saccharides. Corn starch has two major components, amylose (a straight chain polymer of glucose) and amylopectin (a branched chain polymer of glucose).

Modified corn starch refers to corn starch that has been treated with acid(s) (e.g. sulphuric acid) to alter its viscosity.

In the body, simple carbohydrates like sugar and modified corn starch are converted to glucose. Spikes in glucose levels cause the pancreas to release insulin and the liver to convert glucose to triglycerides. Excess (unused) glucose is stored as fat.

The increase in consumption of these ingredients in Snack Pack Pudding© and other foods driven by consumer packaged goods companies has been linked to heart disease (the #1 cause of death in the United States), obesity, and metabolic diseases including diabetes (the #7 cause of death in the United States).

Obesity has increased from 13 to 34 percent in the last 50 years. For more on the economic costs of obesity, click here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/30/obesity-costs-dollars-cents_n_1463763.html

Snack Pack Pudding© also contains Vegetable Oil (contains one or more of the following: Palm Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Sunflower Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil).

These fats, particularly in hydrogenated forms, are linked to cardiovascular disease.

Palm oil is the most widely used food oil in the world. It is valued for long shelf life and low cost. But, the low cost comes at a price. Palm oil monoculture is destroying the environment through deforestation. In other words, eating Snack Pack Pudding© is part of a causal chain that not only negatively impacts human well-being, but destroys entire ecologies including animals, plants, and minerals.

Per WWF Australia, approximately “300 football fields worth of forest are cleared EVERY HOUR to make way for palm oil production” (emphasis added). For more details, click here: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1750468/Explainer-What-is-palm-oil-and-why-the-controversy

Per the Rainforest Action Network, slave labor has been documented on palm oil plantations. Cargill is a supplier to ConAgra Foods, Inc. (the manufacturer of Snack Pack Pudding©) and a major supplier of palm oil. Cargill refused to ensure its supply chain was/is not purchasing SLAVE-LABOR produced palm oil. For more, click here: http://ran.org/palm-oil-controversy-escalating

In reducing the milk in Snack Pack Pudding© and increasing the water, nutrition is further compromised. Milk is a source of protein. It contains 18 amino acids. 9 are essential amino acids, six are semi-essential amino acids, and three are non-essential. Amino acids are proteins referred to as the “building blocks of life.” Water does not.

Then, there are those ingredients we are advised not to worry about because they only constitute 2% or less of the total volume.  These are:

Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Artificial Flavors, Color Added.

According to the Food Chemical Codex, 7th edition, Sodium-Stearoyl Lactylate (SSL), an extensively used food additive, is non-toxic. It continues by describing SSL as

a cream-colored powder or brittle solid. SSL is currently manufactured by the esterification of stearic acid with lactic acid and partially neutralized with either food-grade soda ash (sodium carbonate) or caustic soda (concentrated sodium hydroxide). Commercial grade SSL is a mixture of sodium salts of stearoyl lactylic acids and minor proportions of other sodium salts of related acids. The HLB for SSL is 10-12. SSL is slightly hygroscopic, soluble in ethanol and in hot oil or fat, and dispersible in warm water. These properties are the reason that SSL is an excellent emulsifier for fat-in-water emulsions and can also function as a humectant.[1]

In other words, this is not food. It is only legally rendered “food” through Government regulation because Consumer Packaged Goods companies and Food Scientists determined that when fed to rats, lambs, and people, there were no observed adverse effects at the indicated levels.

Non-toxic ≠ food.

Can you trust that artificial flavors are any better for you or the environment?

The ill effects of Snack Pack Pudding© extend beyond human consumption. In manufacturing Snack Pack Pudding©, frequent power outages, errors, and other deviations from manufacturing specifications result in tons of pudding not fit for human consumption. This pudding, including sugar free pudding, is either applied to farm land or fed to pigs. Pigs consuming Snack Pack Pudding© suffer the same health problems as humans and, in turn, are consumed by humans.

The manufacturing process creates waste and is part of a causal chain that contaminates and destroys the environment. The one-time use packaging destroys the environment in production and disposal.

“But it’s fortified with 30% of my DV for calcium?!”  That is a high price to pay for a calcium supplement!

Disease. Destruction. Slave-labor. This is not just a snack. This is karma.

This has been just part of the complex interdependent web connected to buying and eating consumer packaged goods. I encourage people to engage in mindfulness. Look past the advertising. Is the thing you are buying and eating food or “food?” What are the effects of your purchase and consumption? Look for the hungry ghosts and beware that you do not become one yourself.

Please spread the word and share your thoughts in the comments.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: 100,000 Signatures can help 27 million slaves

Please sign this petition at Whitehouse.gov: http://wh.gov/eMAA

we petition the obama administration to:

ban the import, distribution, and/or sale of products produced using slave labor.

There are more slaves today worldwide than in any other time in history, an estimated 27 million slaves.  Many of them are engaged in the production of raw materials and finished goods sold in the United States.  Domestic and international slave labor produce goods as part of the supply chains of companies doing business in the U.S., including U.S. companies.

This petition asks the United States Government to require all companies manufacturing, distributing, and/or selling products in the United States to verify via internal and third party supply chain audits that their goods are slavery-free.  In addition, it proposes that all raw, semi-finished, and finished goods found to contain ingredients produced by slavery be subject to seizure, along with fines and criminal prosecution.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: 99 cents (#2 in the series)

Snack Pack Pudding© is extremely sensitive to price. Its target price has been 99 cents per 4 pack. It is sold via discounted promotional pricing for up to half the year. Any increase above 99 cents causes and sales fall. 2011 reported annual retail sales for Snack Pack Pudding and Gel Snacks was $177 million.[i]

Price sensitivity is the degree to which a change in the price of a product changes consumers’ purchasing behavior. It is measured by own-price elasticity of demand, an internal measure of sensitivity of demand based on changes in the items price. It is measured by cross-price elasticity of demand based on changes in the price of substitutes for the item.

How the Price of Gas Affects Snack Pack Pudding©

In the United States, the average price of gasoline increased from $1.101/gallon (12/17/2001) to $4.146/gallon (6/30/08).[i]

Image

When the price of gas was low, the claim “Real Nonfat Milk is Our #1 Ingredient along with a graphic of a cup of milk.

Non Fat Milk, Water, Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Vegetable Oil (contains one or more of the following: Palm Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Sunflower Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil), Cocoa (Processed with Alkali), Less than 2% of: Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Artificial Flavors, Color Added. CONTAINS: MILK

The increase in the price of gas increases manufacturing and distribution costs. Price sensitivity requires Snack Pack Pudding© to be sold at a target price of 99 cents or less or sales will decrease. Something’s gotta give.

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ConAgra Foods creates “milk reduction formulas.” The claims displayed on packaging change to “made with REAL NONFAT MILK” and “AS MUCH CALCIUM AS AN 8 oz GLASS OF MILK.” The graphic of a cup of milk remains on the front of the package.  The ingredients list on the back tells a different story.

Water, Nonfat Milk, Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Vegetable Oil (contains one or more of the following: Palm Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Sunflower Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil), Cocoa (Processed with Alkali), Less than 2% of: Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Artificial Flavors, Color Added. CONTAINS: MILK

Real Nonfat Milk is [NO LONGER] Our #1 Ingredient.” Water is. Yet, ConAgra’s advertising and packaging go to great lengths to obfuscate the change. Through continued association with milk, ConAgra is conveying the message that the product is as “wholesome” and “nutritious,” as an 8 oz. glass of milk. Click on the website, www.snackpack.com, and you will see an 8 oz container of milk turn into a container of Snack Pack Pudding©. In fact, it has only been fortified to include “as much calcium as an 8 oz glass of milk.”

Thinking you will buy the store brand, instead? ConAgra manufactures most private label and store brand shelf stable puddings, as well. A few resisted the change and tried to retain their own formulas. However, ConAgra has converted all, or almost all, of these puddings to milk reduction formulas.

Individuals become consumers through an insatiable hunger for processed foods and their key ingredients: sugars, starches, fats, and salts. Consumers participate in the front-of-package labeling and advertising illusions of low cost, convenience, and nutrition and/or rationalize that it is “part of a healthy diet.” The back of the package hints at a deeper truth.

.  .  .

Next in the Hungry Ghost Economy series, we will look deeper into the ingredients and their direct and indirect negative effects on humans, animals (yes, humans are not the only consumers of Snack Pack Pudding©!), plants, and minerals.


[i] U.S. Energy Information Administration, Weekly U.S. All Grades All Formulations Retail Gasoline Prices retrieved from http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=pet&s=emm_epm0_pte_nus_dpg&f=w

[i] ConAgra Foods, “Snack Pack” in ConAgra Foods Brand Book, 24, retrieved from http://www.conagrafoodscareers.com/~/media/Sites/ConAgra/Images/pdf/conagra-foods-brand-book.ashx

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Communal Debt and Marginalized Suffering

The Jewelry District, a center for the trading of rocks and minerals priced beyond reason, a symbol of affluence and social status.

Skid Row, a center for the trading of disbanded souls and tormented economically realities of those without enough to sustain shelter or sustenance, a symbol of economic repression and public disenfranchisement.

As I ventured from the split realities of these two very contrasting societies, separated by an imaginary line of only a few city blocks, I was astonished to see the cost of wealth stratification and socially accepted poverty. People could be seen strung out across sidewalks, existing within shelters crafted from the most easily attained resources, who were trying to carve out a sense of belonging and ownership over what little they had left. Whilst I journey around in a group of peers, it was easy to be aware of the rift between these two worlds within one city.

Skid Row was an island surrounded by what resembled a city infused with fame and world-wide recognition as one of the most famous places in the USA, LA. Within her arms lay a different type of society, a group ravaged by infamy and untouched by the American Dream. This area of 4.31 sq mi., where an estimated 20,000 people live, has become a center where the city officials have now recognized and deemed poverty on the street legal.

Yet as I was made to witness this different side of the great LA city, I was not struck by its inhabitants or the means in which they are attempting to hold on. I was only reminded of the places I had once visited as a youth where the cold shoulder of society had allowed people to play house on the street. Towns like Bisbee, where homeless people had reinhabited the remnants of an abandoned gold rush town, began to surface images that I had forgotten over the years. Skid Row was a reminder of all the people I had seen in my past that remained almost untouchable, an all too distant people far removed from the great society and the middle class American who can always rely on the helping hand from the government. These people were the tired, sick, and hungry who were called by our statue of liberty. But what happened for them? Where was their relief? How were they any better here then anywhere else? Could this be just a facility where the lesser half could be reminded all that they are denied, just outside the consumer based greed in the jewelry district? What does this represent?

After my visit I though long and hard and find only one conclusion in my own heart. Skid Row stands to be a testament to the ability of people to bear witness and even endorse the disenfranchisement, poverty, and misfortune or others. By no other means would it be made so easily possible for some many to go with so little within one of the largest cities in America and just right outside a district, whose wealth is extracted from individuals who care more for a mineral than other human beings. I see humanity residing in the communities on the curb, rather than those dressed, clean, and employed in the stores surrounding them.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: Introduction

Billions served.  What difference does one purchase make?  In The Hungry Ghost Economy series, I will explore the answer to this question.

Mindlessness drives a consumer driven economy.  Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies perpetuate greed, anger, and ignorance.  Our economy is composed of CPG companies holographically arrayed like Indra’s net.  Any single product’s story is contained in the story of all CPG products through similarity or contrast.  Likewise, all products stories are contained in the story of a single product.  So, the Hungry Ghost Economy will invite you to look deeply at the phenomenon of mindless consumption and its effects through the example of Hunt’s Snack Pack Pudding©.

Looking deeply, Snack Pack Pudding© is revealed to be made up entirely of non-Snack Pack Pudding© parts.  We will investigate the whole, the parts, and the causes, conditions, and effects in widening circles of ecological influence on humans, animals, plants, and minerals.

The Hungry Ghost Economy is written as a component of the Spiritual Leadership course in the Master of Divinity program at the University of the West in Rosemead, California.  I invite participants to engage in its material as an exercise in mindfulness meditation/mindful consumption.  I will engage the public in cutting through the illusions of advertising to see things directly.  By providing links, surveys, and information, I hope to create an interactive dialogue with readers.

Everyday billions of people, so-called consumers, each make multiple decisions.  Each decision seems individually insignificant.  Only by understanding the full impact of each individual decision and how these decisions add up to create and perpetuate non-dual suffering in ourselves, others, and our ecologies, can we engage in right individual action that will add up to re-orient our society and its businesses to constructive rather than destructive ends.  In short, the objective of this project is to facilitate Right Understanding leading to Right Action.

What is a “hungry ghost?”  In Buddhism, a hungry ghost (Skt. preta) is a form of being/mode of existence.  According to Buddhism, a being is reborn as a hungry ghost due to the karma of prior existences in which the being was compulsively driven by greed and gluttony.  Hungry ghosts are depicted with mouths too tiny to eat, necks too tiny to swallow, and unusually large stomachs.  So they suffer from insatiable hunger.

About the author.

I am a Master of Divinity student at the University of the West.  I also hold a MBA from the University of Southern California.  I have worked in the consumer packaged goods industry in marketing, operations (i.e. manufacturing), supply chain, and retail.  I have participated in new product development and commercialization.  I will endeavor to leverage my education and experience to offer what I hope will be unique insights and connections.  Likewise, I hope you will join me and help me more fully develop the story through your participation via surveys, questions, comments, concerns and in the purchases you make and don’t make.

I also invite you to participate in our Facebook Like Page: https://www.facebook.com/HungryGhostEconomy

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THE DANGERS OF ALCOHOL AND DRUGS “THE FIFTH PRECEPT”

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THIS?

A REFLECTION ON A VISIT TO SKID ROW, DOWNTOWN LA

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  http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=5929&start=0)

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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Reflections on Skid Row, Los Angeles, California, March 2013

How did I feel, walking among the homeless, seeing their tarps covering the three foot by four foot areas where they kept everything they had?

I had many different emotions arising.  Initially, even before the visit to skid row, I had fear.  I have been attacked in South Central Los Angeles when I went there to help teach a newcomer Buddhism. A couple of years ago a young man on a bike tried to steal my purse as I put change in a parking meter on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood.  I have experienced life-threatening situations with volatile and angry drug addicts, and I know of someone who was recently murdered on skid row, having gone there to help a couple get sober   So, I had fear.

I had curiosity.  What was skid row like these days?  Years ago I was teaching someone on Skid Row the Buddhist practice I was engaged in.  When I would arrive at her room, I had to pay someone on the street to watch my car.   In those days, when I would go there, there were people teeming in the streets.  I would fervently chant my mantra, hoping to get away without someone throwing a bottle through my window or attempting to car jack my car.

I had hope.  There are a few attractive looking public bathrooms right on the sidewalk now.  How amazing.  And the people we encountered seemed more curious than angry.  Some even said hello.  And there were hundreds of people sitting on the patio of the Union Rescue Mission eating breakfast.  It looked like a popular café.  This was a lot different than twenty years ago.

I felt protective.  I know some homeless people in my old neighborhood who are homeless because they are widowed, mentally ill., or just couldn’t find work before unemployment was extended.  I wanted to show only respect to those we encountered.

I had anger.  There is no reason in the world why there should be so many homeless in a city as large as Los Angeles.  There is no reason in the world that the United States should have homeless people.  No one will ever convince me otherwise.    And truly, there is enough wealth in the world to provide basic sustenance to every human being on this planet.

But I must accept that this is my world, this is where I belong, or I would not be here.  What to do??

In an amazing book I just read, called Rabbi Jesus by Bruce Chilton, Chilton talks about how Jesus decided that the Israelites no longer had to completely immerse in water to become pure, because Jesus believed the Israelites were already pure inside.   Buddhists teach that we all possess an inherent Buddha Nature.  What we have to do is help people wake up to this purity, or this Buddha Nature.  But we can not do this by just talking about it.   In his CD entitled Being Peace, Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh says, “It is with our capacity of smiling, breathing, and being peace that we can make peace.”  The average human being has to care, and not just the non-homeless, but also the homeless.

There is a line in the movie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which says “we accept the love we think we deserve.” Well, I think we can change that statement a bit and say, we accept the world we think we deserve. We have to become a people who no longer accept a world with thousands of homeless people, and sick people, living in the street, right next door.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Summit Entertainment, a LionsGate Company, 2012

Chilton, Bruce, Rabbi Jesus, Doubleday, NY, NY, 2000

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Visiting Skid Row

A couple of weeks before the field trip to Skid Row by our Spiritual Leadership class, I happened to encounter a young beggar in the middle of the financial district in downtown L.A., where I got off a Metro bus. Skyscrapers stood on both sides of the street. The boy begged me for change or food. I did not have any cash money —except my bus fare to return home— in fact, I had to withdraw money from ATM. Thus, instead I gave some snacks I always carry. He deeply thanked me and explained that he had been roaming around this area for two hours and could not get any food. Since I was looking for an ATM of my bank, I asked him if he knew one nearby. He said yes and kindly escorted me to the machine a couple of blocks away. On our way there, I asked him again if he had a safe place to sleep. He said no, and showed me a big scar on his hand, unwrapping the gauze. He also showed me a wound on his throat. He explained that both injuries were made when someone attacked him with a knife just because he begged some food. He was a Caucasian homeless. I said goodbye to him just around the corner of Pershing Square, where our classmates met for field trip later.

In fact, Skid Row and homeless people themselves were nothing new to me because I regularly use public transportation and sometimes transfer buses in the middle of Skid Row. Therefore, in the class project, I was rather interested in my classmates reactions such as what they would think seeing those homeless people. When I visited Skid Row for the class project, some classmates mentioned that in terms of ethnic demography of the homeless population, African-Americans were significantly dominant in the area. Nonetheless, to tell the truth, I did not pay much attention to the ethnic ratio until the classmates referred to. To me as a foreigner, they are just the same “Americans” whether they are Black or White, rich or poor. Thus, it was interesting for me to observe was how seriously my American classmates would include/exclude those marginalized people in their identity as American.

As I anticipated, some students showed —probably unconsciously— an attitude: “I am totally different from those homeless people.” To my surprise, however, two of the classmates said impressive comments. One student pointed out the narcissistic pride of many Americans who close their eyes on the reality —extreme economic inequality in the U.S. She seemed to regard extremely poor people as a part of the same American population. She even seemed to feel ashamed of it rather than expressing superficial sympathy.

The other student said to me when we were walking back from Skid Row: “I was once almost there.” She confessed that in her youth she experienced economic hardships. She as well seemed to regard the homeless people there as the same as herself. I myself have an experience of being socially marginalized. Thus, I am well aware how much courage she needed to acknowledge her own sufferings in front of classmates.

In terms of the poverty problem, compassion is the basis of any solution. Besides, the essence of compassion is to regard people in need as the same as ourselves. Contrary, the opposite concept to compassion may be greed in this context. No doubt America is one of the most highly competitive societies in the world. Every single day people are busy pursuing money, power, and fame to make themselves look more attractive than others. Consequently, people tend to forget to be content with what is already given to them. Not to mention that they also forget compassion because it does not appear to increase their wealth at all. Instead, they pathetically keep craving more than they need for survival. In fact, some billionaires are said to have saved so much money that they couldn’t spend it all even if they had hundreds of years.

Of course, we cannot eliminate the greed of the rich or suffering of the poor in a day or two.  However, if we forget compassion we will deserve criticism because compassion is what makes a human, human. Fortunately, I was able to observe sincere attitudes concerning the economic inequality problem in the U.S. —in at least some of my classmates. For me this field trip became a beneficial experience to know compassion in America.

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