Category Archives: Skid Row

GRATITUDE TO FORGOTTEN VETERANS

Members of 1st Recon, Vietnam, ca. 1967 From the collection of Michael R. Travis (COLL/5158), United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections Creative Commons License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Members of 1st Recon, Vietnam, ca. 1967
From the collection of Michael R. Travis (COLL/5158), United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections
Creative Commons License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

GRATITUDE TO FORGOTTEN VETERANS

Around 7 o’clock in the morning, I arrived at Pershing Square where my class would meet for the field trip to Skid Row.  Since it was still early; I set my GPS to Skid Row and drove by the area.   My heart was about to stop because I could not believe what I saw along the sidewalks of San Julian Street from 4th Street to 6th Street.  There were hundreds of soiled fabrics or plastic tarps covering “cardboard made beds” surrounded by wheeled carts piling up with blankets, filthy clothes. Every corner of those blocks was occupied with homeless people covering themselves with ragged blankets.  Skid Row, the town for homeless people is only a short walking distance from the flower wholesale area I have visited at least once a month for the last three years, but I had never realized that I was this close to abject poverty.

Since then, I hardly sleep through my nights.  Every time I close my eyes, I cannot get my mind off what I saw at Skid Row.  Then, the touching documentary film “the 5th Street Homeless in LA” made by John Gilbert with music background “On the Nickel” written by Tom Waits, plays over and over in my head.[i] The smell of urination and dirty clothes still bothers my nose.  My classmates’ chat about the reality of Vietnam Vets during the walk through Skid Row made me wonder whether somewhere of Skid Row, there are any soldiers who used to stay at the Army Base across my house in Vietnam.

I do not remember their names, their faces.  In my fading memories, those American soldiers who always looked solemn in the uniforms and joyful with their smiles, were heroes because after they left Southern Vietnam, our lives had dramatically changed.  Now I recalled they visited my neighbors every Sunday.  Sometimes, they asked my dad’s permission to give my brothers and me chewing gum, candy, and take us around the neighborhood.  I guess that they missed their families and their kids. They left; we lost our freedom and happiness.  The country fell in the Communist hands.

After they left, I never thought of what they had been through after returning home.   Who would remember them?  I used to think that the monument of two life-sized bronze soldiers representing the US Armed Forces and the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam in .  It is beautiful work Vietnamese Refugee Communities did to show our gratitude for their sacrifices.  Now, I know there are more we should do about our gratitude because there were many veterans who were surviving from Vietnam War but struggling with unhealed wounds left in their heart and mind.

What about those who are still alive, who now live with mental illness, with alcohol or drug abuse from depression, with the poverty just a few blocks away from the tall luxury business buildings in downtown Los Angeles?  They are out of sight so that there was no political pressure from the public to do anything about it.[ii]

Speaking of the Four Noble Truth, let’s consider what these veterans’ sufferings are?  They are alcoholic and drug dependence, mental illness, hunger, cold, wet etc….  What caused their sufferings?  We can say the involvement of drug or alcohol was their choice, but we should understand addiction is not the only reason they are here in Skid Row.  There is mental illness, PTSD etc… It is the responsibilities of the mainstream that put them through the terrible wars.  Later, they have been forgotten and got very little attention from the system.

After fifteen minutes to meditate and reflect on the trip, a homeless guy approached my group and I was picked as “the best meditate practitioner of the group”.  Although I felt so funny about that, I still answered his question “According to Buddhism, what part of the human body the mind comes from?”   I told him maybe the brain or the heart.  Then, I confirmed it was the brain.  Until now, I believe it must be both the brain and the heart together in my Buddhist view[iii].  Wisdom should blossom from compassion and strong will in order to attain freedom from sufferings[iv].  These homeless in Skid Row really should be freed from their daily sufferings.  They need our hearts and mind together to make a difference for their days.  The Midnight Mission and LA Mission are already handful, but still not enough.

The sky and the earth are immense.  My arms are so tiny to embrace the poor.  My heart is sobbing every time it is windy or rainy outside.  I visualize thousands of homeless poor people out there are soaking and shivering if they are unable to find some places to spend the night at Skid Row.  I feel so helpless.

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Reframing Transformation by Anny Shi

Skid Row, Los Angeles

Skid Row, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To me, as an Asian I don’t quite understand American culture. This is the first time I visit LA’s Skid Row and observed homelessness from a different point of view, and it was an eye opening experience. When I visited Skid Row and the fifty square blocks of downtown, I felt like I was dropped into an illusion, some place between the heaven and hell. Mostly, because only one block away, there are modern and luxurious buildings and apartments, then from where I was standing “the other side of the tracks” ironically there was extreme poverty and homelessness. According to Institute for the Study of Homeless and Poverty, there are about 254,000 people are homeless at LA County each year. It’s quite a large number.

First, I smelled the air heavy with a stinky odor; this even though I don’t have a good sense of smell. I saw piles of personal belongings covered with plastic and people sitting on the sidewalk. Most of the homeless I saw were males between 25 to 50 years old approximately. I was afraid to look at these homeless people directly, because I don’t know how they would react to my presence. Then I heard one of the homeless men greet us and I realized they are people just like us. I tried to find out who the man was, and I found he had a natural, easy smile and not the wretched frown I had imagined someone in his situation to have. My previous concept of homeless, as ragged and wrinkled faces showing signs of misery, despair, and hopelessness was wrong; I was surprised to see the resilience of their human spirit as they made the best of their situation. Especially, since in Taiwan most of the homeless I’ve seen show their misery and pain more obviously.

Later, as more and more of the men greeted us I began to feel more at ease and hopeful for something positive possible in their lives. I began to have more confidence looking at them and interacted with them more naturally. In a short time, I changed my prejudice of these homeless human beings. After some more detailed research of the homeless, there is usually not just one reason, for their situation, there are many other causes, including drugs, bankruptcy, violence, abuse, mental problems and unemployment. Consequently, I became more curious about how difficult it is for them to change their situation and end their homelessness?  Why do they take drugs, it is for money or is it about escaping from the real world? Is drug abuse psychological or physiological addiction? What is the benefit for them? If I were homelessness, what would I do?

This world can be warm with humanity and compassion. There are many Non-Profit Organizations and other agencies like The Midnight Mission and volunteers who offer support by means of food, job training and other educational opportunities.

I think that’s our social safety nets are reason these homeless people will not feel such deep sorrow for having nothing or no one to depend on. However, how many people can get educated or receive vocational training opportunities to help them get out of extreme poverty or social exclusion? But only if they are willing to take these opportunities to improve their standard of life can they have a chance to get out of homelessness. However, just as the book Cross Cultural Awareness and Social Justice in Counseling, categorized different cultures and people has having different characteristics, I cannot judge them only from my own perspective or my country’s culture. I need to respect all people even though they are now at the bottom of the socio-economic status. On the hand, I should more aggressively seek opportunities to be a volunteer and serve people who need my compassion and understanding; it’s a kind of dharma practice. Consequently, I will be taking some action steps in the immediate future. Mostly I will work with organizations that have the experience to help such people in effective ways that will have the greatest impact to change lives. I often feel that giving money to homeless people on the street directly only passes the buck, as it were, and only facilitates their drug and alcohol abuse. Instead by volunteering with professional organizations, I ensure that my efforts are making a real difference in their lives.

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Skid Row: Reality and Hope

Skid Row in Los Angeles, California is a place that shows the reality of biggest gap between the rich and the poor in America. Listening to a discussion about Skid Row in the Spiritual Leadership class, I was not able to capture the image of that area. How the rich works and lives in Los Angeles and how the poor occupies and sleeps on the streets were not easy for me to imagine. The reality has shocked me when I followed my class to visit Skid Row to observe how life was.

I was taking a bus with some classmates to Skid Row. When we almost approached to the station where we were supposed to get off, I looked out the window and saw two young people on the street. They were trying to tie their stuff carefully from a cart to a steel fence. The hand-written sign “not abandoned” was on the fence. I suddenly realized that the hair on my body stood on end, and my empathy arisen. I just felt sad for those young people. They were younger than me, and they have already struggled with their hardships in life.

We got off the bus, and began walking towards Pershing Square. Scattered amongst people who were wearing clean suits were some people with dirty clothes. They wheeled carts with several bags, slowly moving down streets and alleyways. I don’t know if those people were homeless or not. I am ignorant about it, but their presence caught my eyes about the reality of America. This reality was made clearer as much as our class, led by Rev. Danny, walked towards Skid Row from Pershing Square.

Around Pershing Square are high glass buildings. I raised my head to see how tall it is, and my head almost lies on my back. I don’t know how many stories they have. I saw the large and big sign on the wall of a tall buiding: it read “JewelryCenter”. People were in restaurants, or subways, or Starbucks for breakfast. I did not see any one with dirty clothes in those places. There were some poor people sitting on the dirty pavement, looking at us while we passed. Going towards 6th and 7th street, the smell of urination was so strong. Many poor black people occupied the streets.  Although it was 9:10 AM, some of them were still sleeping on the street. Their “properties” were next to them. When we were across from them, marijuana smoke, the smell of their bodies, and the property created strong odors throughout the streets. Their poor bodies and clothes were covered with dirt and dust. I guess they have not taken a shower for a long time, or cleaned their clothes.

Instantly, the word “hygiene” popped up in my mind. I don’t think those people who live on the streets still think of hygiene in the same way as other people who do not, or care much about it. They don’t have place to rest or stay overnight. They don’t have a room for storing their clothes and sleeping blankets. On the way to experience how poor, homeless people live, I have seen Midnight Mission and Los Angeles Mission buildings. I guess there are other missions around Skid Row too, but I’m unaware because we didn’t have time to visit the whole area. However, as discussed with my classmates, I know that those missions don’t have enough space for all the homeless. At two missions, many homeless people gathered around those buildings, waiting for food and drink. It is under the charitable heart of these missions that the homeless live day-by-day.

I left Skid Row heavy hearted. That area is just the representative of many minority groups across the country, which experience poverty and hardships. The rate of people who become homeless is increasing and very few people from this class or poor escape to have a better life. People look down at them with all sorts of stereotypes: they use drugs, they smoke marijuana, they drink alcohol, they are lazy, and they have mental problems, et cetera. The more people keep those judgmental labels in mind, the less those poor people have a chance to escape their current situation, and the more self-destructive they will become.

Skid Row is the case of dehumanisation. America is considered the richest, most dominant country in the world; however, there are many people falling into the homeless class. They live on the street, begging for help, and facing discrimination from people. They are ignored by society and many people treat them as not equal as dogs. It is really sad to observe this in this country.

I don’t want to say the situation of homeless people is a fault of the mainstream, who has economic, social, and political privileges. I also don’t want to use the concept of karma to make a conclusion about the situations where people live in. Karma is not something permanent clinging to people for the rest of their lives and determining their destiny. Karma can be changed by individual effort and collective support. We live on earth and all experience the same effect of global warming. Everyone of us has contributed to this change, either building up the environment and making it more fresher and greener or destroying it by cutting down trees or throwing away garbage on the street. We cannot call ourselves as human beings if we separate ourselves into independent, separate entities. Thus, we are “perfect human” in the way we connect ourselves with others. The way we help others to improve their lives is what in turn helps us to improve ourselves.

After this field trip, I want to devote my life to do something for them, such as to advocate for them to have a place to live, to have clean food and fresh water, or to help them have a life of a normal person. When I say normal person, I mean that people look at them with respect, understand their need, and have a space for them to work and to build up their lives. I hope that there are more concerned individuals visiting those poor people with an open-mind in order to experience how hard those lives are. When they directly experience and understand that, hopefully, they will embrace those poor people as parts of their lives, and try to help them in different ways, such as showing the reality in newspaper and media to raise people’s awareness of humanity.

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Compassion on Skid Row

On March 19, 2013, Spiritual Leadership class instructor Rev. Dr. Danny Fisher and sixteen other students had a field trip to Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. On 9:00 A.M., I met with the group in Pershing Square Garden. I was very excited because I never walked in downtown Los Angeles before. I have been living in Los Angeles for seven months after I moved from West Palm Beach, Florida to continue a master degree at the University of the West.  Before this I spent many years as a Buddhist monk in Thailand.

During the trip to Skid Row, the teaching of the Buddha arose in my mind. The teaching is about a method to practice with each other the four sublime states of mind or we call Brahmavihāra. The Brahmavihāra is loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity:

  1. Loving-kindness (Mettā): I wish that all of the people will be well. I hope that all human beings without any exception will be happy also.
  2. Compassion (Karuṇā): I wish that a person’s found to be free from suffering and will be diminish from suffering.
  3. Sympathetic joy (Mudita): I sympathetic joy in the accomplishments and pleasure on the well-being of person oneself or each others.
  4. Equanimity (Upekkhā): Learning to be neutral and confidence between love and hate, praise and blame, achieve and failure, good and bad emotions. It is not a wrong course in behavior between friend, enemy or stranger, but regards every human being as equal.

So the Brahmavihāra is the Buddha’s way to share with each other and to be in harmony. I saw people in skid row all around the street. I wish all of them to be well and to be free from suffering.

We walked through Skid Row together. We had Ray and Jason as security behind the group. During the walk, I saw many people; some were sleeping on the sidewalk, standing and talking to each other and many others were sitting in wheelchairs. It was nice to hear that some of them greeted us, too. “Oh Monks! You must be monks, how are you?” They spoke with happily sound to me and my monk friends. Between the various areas, Professor Fisher stopped and explained to us what is going on here at Skid Row.

The term “skid row” originated in the following way:  a 1931 dictionary of American Tramp and Underworld Slang gives the earliest evidence for skid row, “the district where workers congregate when in town or away from their job.” From that it is easy to derive the modern meaning of “a squalid district inhabited chiefly by derelicts and vagrants” in the words of “The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition.”

Why do people live in Skid Row? I think it is because of alcohol problems, drug problems and maybe mental illness. People end up on Skid Row because they do not have family to help them pull themselves back up the right way. Therefore, they go along and not take care of themselves because of alcohol problems, drug or maybe mental illness. They are living and sleeping on the street. The people who have been there so long and they don’t want to move away. They also get used to their living style. Luckily, there are many Missions in Skid Row. Therefore, when the weather becomes cold and wet, they can go inside to a mission. The mission is run by Private Christian groups by donations from individuals and the government. The missions act as shelters by providing help to the homeless. When we walked nearby the San Julian Park, the Professor said “This Park is in the center of Skid Row, but the gate is closed to during parts of the day to cut down on the drug problem.”

The drugs and alcohol destroy their mind, thinking and the ability to work. So they can not find a job, work or start a business. And also, a lot of people live there because they may have had mental illness when were younger. Their family should be taking care of them.  If the children have a mental illness and nobody takes care of them they end up walking on the street.  This is not a simple problem, and there are a lot of reason why people end up on Skid Row. But I believe the main reasons are drug abuse, alcohol abuse and mental illness. This is what contributes the most to people  living on the street in  Skid Row.

After we walked around to visit Skid Row, we did a ten minute meditation before we gave reflection about what our thinking and feelings were when walking in Skid Row.    During the meditation, there are many things arising in my monkey mind. For instance; “What happens to them? Why doesn’t someone help them? How is it possible to have a Skid Row in the richest country in the world? ” Actually, I liked this trip, because this trip teaches me many things. And when I seen the people on Skid Row, I have grown my compassion for them in my mind. As a Buddhist monk, I will try to help as much as I can. Let us give our compassion, loving-kindness to our friends who are here on Skid Row. I would like to thank  Professor Rev. Danny Fisher and all of my classmates for this trip. I learned a great deal.

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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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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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Extropia, Paradise, and Hells

Hello, everyone.

The following blog post first appeared on my personal blog: 3Ratna3Kaya: Spiritual Leadership- Buddhism, Taoism, and Transhumanism

It has been re-posted here with permission from the original author (me). This post is part three in a series of reflections I wrote on poverty. The first two reflections can be found at the following links:

http://3ratna3kayawp.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/am-i-poor-reflections-on-poverty-part-1/

http://3ratna3kayawp.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/poverty-and-scarcity-reflections-on-poverty-part-2/

Class Field Trip to Skid Row (Reflections on Poverty Part 3)

On March 19th, my class took a trip to LA’s Skid Row to act as observers. We were instructed not to bring food or clothing or any other materials to hand out. This is actually a good rule of thumb for anyone entering Skid Row for the first time. Charity is a wonderful endeavor of course, but it is best to arrange charitable offerings or donations through an established charitable group. Otherwise, despite good intentions, more harm may come than good from whatever items are distributed.

I woke up early that day and took a bus from Rosemead to Pershing Square. I opted not to take my man-purse, ahem… “male tote-bag” which I usually use to carry my tablet, mālā, and school supplies. Instead I packed simply bringing only one book of scripture to read on the bus. The scripture I selected that day was a special copy I have of the Principle Book of Won Buddhism (圓佛教正典/원불교 정전). The copy is written in the old Korean writing system known as the “Korean Mixed Script System” (國漢文混用/국한문혼용) which was used throughout Korean history up until the 1970s when it started falling out of use. To explain it simply, using this system, loan words from Chinese (about 70% of literary Korean) are written in Chinese characters, whereas native Korean words are written in the Hangul alphabet. This is my preferred system to read Korean in because of my Chinese language background. I tend to read faster and with higher comprehension using the mixed script than I do with pure Hangul (phonics only; etymology only indicated through spelling).

I had about a forty minute bus ride which gave me time to read through some of my favorite sections I like to study. I almost always begin with the Doctrinal Chart which I regard as the essence of Won Buddhism. I read through a number of sections, but one particular part stood out in my mind. Towards the end of Chapter One: The Founding Motive of the Teaching, the final paragraph describes the founding motive as “expanding spiritual power and conquering material power.” The ultimate expression of this is supposed to result in “a vast and immeasurable paradise.” “Paradise” (樂園/낙원) always struck me as an interesting and provocative choice of words. Traditional Buddhism certainly has a slew of Pure Lands (極樂世界/凈土/ sukhāvatī/ buddha-kṣetra) and Heavens (天界/ devaloka), but “Paradise” has a decidedly Abrahamic connotation. When I project current trends out far enough into the future, I do not envision a utopia or dystopia. Instead I find myself contemplating “extropia.” Noted Transhumanist Max More defines “extropia” as a future world characterized by its “ever-receding stretch goals for society.” For me, this seems very close to what Founding Master Sotaesan probably meant when he used the term “paradise.” Many Transhumanists believe extropia will be brought about through technological advancements alone. The Founding Master believed it would take “faith in a religion based on truth and training in morality based on facts.” I think it will probably take a bit of both, but “faith in a religion based on truth” might have to be re-engendered as ” a commitment to a lifestyle based on authenticity.” I would love to see the words “faith” and “religion” get de-stigmatized, but it is an uphill battle that I and like-minded others will probably lose in the decades to come.

With these thoughts playing in my mind, I walked from the bus stop to Pershing Square. After arriving, I quickly met up with my professor, Reverend Danny Fisher and my classmates. Danny asked myself and another classmate if we could act as two extra sets of eyes by walking at the back of the group while Danny walked in front. We all understood the implication. We knew that, in all likelihood, there would be no problems, but, just the same, Skid Row has its dangers and in terms of security, proceeding with caution made perfect sense.

While still in Pershing Square, a few presumably homeless people wandered around the perimeter of the square. Once we were ready to start our brief tour of Skid Row, we exited Pershing Square and began walking through the end of the jewelry district which lead right into the heart of Skid Row. The poor and the homeless grew in numbers with each street we passed. We must have looked quite strange to them; a group of monks, a nun, a teacher, and students.

We tried to keep a forward momentum throughout our stay. We did not linger in any areas, and we passed through each location quite quickly. Just the same, it was had to keep such a large group together since we had to cross so many streets. Some of my classmates towards the back of the group nearly feel behind “the extra two sets of eyes.” We reminded them that they had to keep ahead of us, and the group did stay together fairly well throughout the morning.

There was one heavily populated street we passed down with a series of tents that reeked of urine. I involuntarily began gently dry-heaving; which quickly escalated, but I did my best not to draw attention to myself. We kept moving forward. In Chinese Folk Religion (a lively mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, and various other Chinese occult beliefs), there are two popular conceptions of Hell both of which blend, borrow, and expand upon Taoist Hells and Buddhist Narakas. One conception of Hell is “The Ten Halls of King Yama (十殿閻羅王)” and the other is “The Eighteen Levels of Hell (十八層地獄).” The second hall of Hell in “The Ten Halls of King Yama” is presided over by King Chujiang (楚江王) who is in charge of sixteen minor hells. The second hell in that grouping is called “The Minor Hell of Mud Composed of Feces and Urine (糞尿泥小地獄).” There was something undeniably hellish about this street. My heart went out to the tortured inhabitants of those tents and tarps.

糞尿と泥の河

As we walked on slowly the locals began interacting with us. It started with simple greetings. Just a “hello” or “good morning” here or there. One man saw some of the Thai and Vietnamese Venerables in our class and greeted them with “nǐ hǎo (你好),” the standard Chinese greeting. Evidence of drug use was present, but by no means, rampant in Skid Row. There were beer bottles and cans in some locations, cigarette butts, and the occasional waft of marijuana. We passed by several different missions such as “Union Rescue Mission” and “Midnight Mission.” As we crossed one of the streets, a man called out to us, “We got bills that need to be paid.”  Some others greeted us briefly and asked the occasional question like what group we were with or, noticing our school’s emblem on our clothes or bags, they might ask about our school. Everyone who approached us was courteous and friendly.

Towards our departure from Skid Row, one of the Thai Venerables stopped to take a picture of a public restroom. A local lady yelled at him in anger and frustration. She shouted something along the lines of “Why would any one want a picture of that?” We moved along making our way towards LA Public Library. After arriving, we began debriefing, and shortly thereafter, a middle-aged local man approached the Venerables in our group and asked to speak to the wisest among them. The group volunteered our Vietnamese nun for his query.  The man brought out a book he had on Buddhism and pointed to a picture of a man in meditation. He asked about the location of the “seat of the soul.” Our Venerable pointed to a spot on the drawing that I could not quite see from my vantage point. He told her where Muslims believe the “seat of the soul” resides, and his phrasing implied that he was Muslim. He was genuinely interested in her answer though, and he was not looking to debate her on the topic. He came back about a minute later and asked her if her answer came from intellectual learning or her own experience. She replied that she experiential knowledge that it was true. Satisfied, he walked away.

This trip left me pondering the current hells of poverty in America, and wondering about the ways in which a future extropia might be able to alleviate sever forms of material poverty. For more details about my thoughts on that matter, please read my previous entry in this series which can be found here:

http://3ratna3kayawp.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/poverty-and-scarcity-reflections-on-poverty-part-2/

Waiting for the future is never an option though. I also began to think about what could be done in the here and now. This daunting challenge followed me as I left Skid Row.

Notes on this entry:

*I did not use any of my classmates’ names out of respect for their anonymity. My own name is likewise not used. Reverend Danny Fisher’s name was used because he already has an online presence, and as far as I know, is comfortable with his real name being used online.

*All the quoted sections from Won Buddhist scripture are not my own translations, but instead were taken directly from the English translation released by “The Committee for the Authorized Translations of Won Buddhist Scriptures (원불교 교서 정역위웡회)”

*The terms regarding the hells from Chinese Folk Religion were my own spontaneous translations, but might be similar to other existing translations; I did not check or compare.

*The picture I used has been altered to avoid any potential copyright infringements, but I doubt the original poster has copyrighted the image. The poster seems to just be a native tourist in Japan who, while in the city of Izu in the Shizuoka Prefecture, visited “The Pure Land Garden of Izu (伊豆極楽苑)” which is famous for its “Tour of the Pure Lands and Hells (地獄極楽めぐり).” The writing I added at the bottom of the picture identifies it as “A River of Urine, Feces, and Mud (糞尿と泥の河).”

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What Does the Theravāda Buddhist Religion Have to Say about the Poverty on Skid Row?

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The following reflection paper was written after a visit by the Spiritual Leadership class of University of the West to Skid Row in Los Angeles California. The class was led by Professor Rev. Danny Fisher to experience the poverty of those living there by walking through the heart of Skid Row.

This reflection considers the poverty of Skid Row from the perspective of Theravāda Buddhism.  If our religion means anything in today’s society, it must be able to address in a significant way the conditions of the poor in places like Skid Row.  What follows is divided into two parts.  First there is a consideration of the Theravāda Buddhist teaching of kamma.  Second, the divine abodes (brahma-vihāra) of loving-kindness and compassion are discussed.

The question arises, first, whether the poor people in places like Skid Row are somehow personally responsible for their poverty.  Did they do something to bring this condition upon themselves?  Traditionally, in Theravāda Buddhism kamma (Sanskrit, karma) is understood as a person’s wholesome or unwholesome volitional actions that produce results (vipāka) in his or her present life or future lives.  In this way the idea of kamma goes together with the idea of rebirth and is interpreted in terms of three lives: past, present, and future.  Therefore, in accordance with the traditional teaching, if a person is suffering poverty in the present life, this condition can be seen as a result of inappropriate behavior in a previous life.  This is especially true if a virtuous person is suffering in the present life for what appears to be no good reason.  The reason must be that the person did something unwholesome in a previous lifetime to bring about the present-day suffering.  If, then, we view the poor people of Skid Row in these terms, we will tend to think their suffering is something they deserve because of what they have done previously.  We may tend to blame them for the conditions that exist in their lives.  We may be less likely to try to help take away the poverty to which these people are subjected.

There is another way to interpret kamma, however, besides considering it in terms of three lives.  If the focus of the Thereavāda Buddhist life is on suffering and the elimination of suffering here and now, all speculative matters being set aside as not pertinent and useful,[1] then kamma is more properly interpreted in terms of the law of nature in the present world.  “The Law of Kamma is nothing other than the Law of Nature [conditionality, causes and conditions for the way things are] expressed in terms of action.”[2]  Conditionality as the law of nature means that given this and this, this and this is the result.  And if this and this is not given, something else is the result.  The law of kamma as the law of action can be said to apply to everything in the world, that is, to natural phenomena, to human beings, and to society as a whole.

In terms of natural phenomena, the law of kamma means, for instance, that if you plant a mango seed, a mango tree will grow up and eventually give you mangos, not an apple tree from which you will pick apples.

In terms of human beings, the law of kamma applies to the bodily, the mental, and the spiritual.  In each aspect of human life, causes and conditions exist that must be considered to fully understand the human situation.  So in the case of the poor on Skid Row, for instance, many people suffer from physical illness.  There are causes for this: the people most likely cannot afford health care and may not even know what is available to them.  If these causes are to be addressed by would-be benefactors, certain actions have to be taken—for example, information about health care has to be made available.  Many people on Skid Row suffer from mental illness.  Again, there are causes and conditions for the mental illness that have to be taken into account if something is to be done to help those who are ill.  Furthermore, many people on Skid Row suffers spiritually, that is, they experience various forms of suffering in their lives, for instance, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, and lack of purpose.  These are forms of suffering that a Buddhist chaplain could help them deal with—all these forms of suffering having causes and conditions that have to be understood if solutions to problems are to be found.

Interpreting kamma as the law of nature as it applies to human beings does not mean the poor are not to some extent, in many cases, responsible for and cause their situations.  If a father abandons his family because of a drinking problem and ends up on Skid Row, his suffering and that of his entire family have a lot to do with his irresponsible drinking—unwholesome, non-beneficial behavior that has to be corrected.  But this interpretation of kamma does also mean there may very well be extenuating causes and conditions at play here and now that need to be addressed to fully appreciate the situation of the poor people and to understand what courses of action are possible to improve their lives.  Perhaps better job opportunities for the drunk father on Skid Row would have kept him from succumbing to drinking and destroying his family.

The law of kamma as the law of nature in terms of human action applies not only to individuals but also to society as a whole.  Sometimes the law of kamma is described simplistically as “Do good, get good, and do bad, get bad.”  This simple understanding works in the case of kamma as human action, applied to society as a whole.  According to the law of kamma for the welfare of society, the good or the bad things that we do affects for good or bad society as a whole: “There are immediate effects on the society and the person’s external circumstances.  The welfare or decline of a society is thus dependent upon the good and bad actions of each of its members.”[3]  The good that we do accumulates and lives on after us for the betterment of all, but so does the evil for the harm of all.  For example, in terms of the poor people on Skid Row, why are there so many African American homeless and not so many White?  Does not even this particular situation exist to some extent because too many Americans, by their individual actions, contribute to the prejudice that exists in our society as a whole toward Black people?

In terms of the individual, however, “Do good, get good, and do bad, get bad,” does not always apply.  The law on conditionality complicates the situation, and the law of kamma is not so simple.  For example, if a man robs a bank, say on Skid Row, he may not get caught: he might be clever enough to avoid suffering incarceration.  (He might suffer, however, in other ways.  He might live a life of constant fear of being discovered by the authorities.)  Also, the person who does good deeds may not always receive good in return.  Things may not be that simple for him.  For instance, if he lives in a bad neighborhood—if he lives on Skid Row—the law of conditionality being what it is, he may very well be the victim of a violent crime—not because of something he did in a previous life but because he lives on Skid Row!  Yet if conditions in the neighborhood can somehow improve and incidents of violent crime decrease, the person who does good will more likely get good in return.  This is the law of conditionality, too.

The above is sufficient for a consideration of the Theravāda Buddhist teaching of kamma in a reflection on the poverty that exists on Skid Row.  Kamma is action in terms of the law of nature regarding human beings with respect to their bodily, mental, and spiritual aspects.  As such, kamma works in accordance with causes and conditions: if this and this are done, this and this are the results.  Let us turn now to the second part of this reflection: a consideration of the abodes of loving-kindness and compassion as these apply to the Skid Row poor people.

There are, then, four divine abodes, brahma-vihāra, in Buddhism: loving-kindness (mettā), compassion (karunā), sympathetic joy (muditā), and equanimity (upekkhā).  Regarding loving-kindness, traditionally this abode has been understood as getting rid of ill will and spreading friendliness.[4]  Loving-kindness, however, can be interpreted as more than mere lack of ill will and mere friendliness.  It can be interpreted in terms of the desire to assist those who are in need: “the desire of bringing (to one’s fellow man) that which is welfare and good.”[5]  The latter interpretation, however, can be pushed even further.  Loving-kindness then becomes not just the desire to assist those in need but, rather, actively helping those who are suffering.  This is the view of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu: “Unlike Buddhaghosa, Buddhadāsa regards loving-kindness as denoting explicitly assisting others, and not simply as the development of the intention of benevolence.”[6]  Loving-kindness, it is not too much to say, can become a kind of social activism in accordance with which we are actively engaged in good works for the benefit of other people.

How does this view of loving-kindness apply to the poor on Skid Row?  What the previous discussion about loving-kindness implies is that it is one thing to go to Skid Row to try to experience first-hand the poverty of the people who are there.  It is one thing to feel a certain friendliness (“loving-kindness”) toward them.  It is, however, quite another thing to show the poor true loving-kindness, that is, actively helping them in some way to rise above their condition of poverty.  Active involvement would mean, for instance, helping feed the poor in a soup kitchen, enabling them to get information about health care or affordable housing, or teaching them about the Dhamma in a Buddhist ministry.

What can be said, then, about the divine abode of compassion in the present context?  Compassion in the Western tradition is understood primarily as sympathy for another in a difficult situation and as sorrow at the other’s misfortune.  In fact, both compassion and sympathy mean, literally, suffering along with someone else (com-passion).  How does this meaning of compassion as a kind of suffering relate to karunā in Theravāda Buddhism?  Surely compassion in Theravāda Buddhism does not mean we assume another’s suffering: suffering, whose ever it is, is something to be rid of, not something to be taken up.  The idea of assuming the suffering of others is a Christian notion (consider, for example, the suffering servant, Christ the Redeemer dying on the cross for the sins of others, and the lamb led to the slaughter); it is not a Buddhist one.

The Pāli karunā in the Canon does not denote suffering as the Western word does.  As the Commentary on the Sutta-Nipāta 73 (128) explains, karunā is “the desire of removing bane [destruction, ruin] and sorrow [suffering] (from one’s fellow men).”[7]  The desire to help, purely and simply, by alleviating sorrow is what the word means.  There is no sense here of participating in the state of suffering of another.  The compassionate person tries to relieve the suffering of one in need while maintaining equanimity in  the face of this suffering.  Sharing in the suffering is not wholesome: the idea is to help the other get rid of it while not undergoing it oneself.  And it is important to note, furthermore, that true compassion in the Theravāda Buddhist sense should not be limited to merely the desire to take away the suffering of another but should be, rather, the explicit activity of doing so.  True compassion—like true loving-kindness—entails actively doing something.  Compassion is active involvement in the life of someone else in helping the other get rid of suffering.[8]

Showing compassion to the poor on Skid Row, then, rises above merely feeling pity for them or feeling sorry for them.  In the Western tradition compassion for the Skid Row poor would mean suffering along with them.  For Theravāda Buddhism, however, compassion as karunā is something else: it is the explicit activity of helping get rid of the suffering someone else is experiencing.


[1] Compare the Samyutta Nikāya 56.31: “And what, bhikkhus, have I taught?  I have taught: ‘This is suffering’; . . . ‘This is the origin of suffering’; . . . ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; . . . ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’  And why, bhikkhus, have I taught this?  Because this is beneficial, relevant to the fundamentals of the holy life, and leads to . . . enlightenment  . . .”  The Connected Discourses of the Buddha; A Translation of the Samyutta Nikāya, translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), p. 1858.

[2] Varasak Varadhammo, Suffering and No Suffering (Hinsdale, Il.: Buddhadharma Meditation Center, 1996), p. 214.   For what follows immediately in this reflection, compare pp. 214-20 of Venerable Varadhammo’s book.

[3] Ibid., p. 218.

[4] Compare Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), translated by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli (Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1956), IX, 93, p. 344.

[5] T. W. Rhys Davids and  William Stede, Pali-English Dictionary, Pali Text Society (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1993), p. 197.

[6] Peter Jackson, Buddhadāsa; Theravada Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2003), p. 223.

[7] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pali-English Dictionary, p. 197.

[8] This interpretation of compassion complements Buddhadāsa’s interpretation of loving-kindness

March 30, 2013

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