Tag Archives: power

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: Karma, Effort, and Charity (#4 in series)

ConAgra, through the manufacture and distribution of Snack Pack Pudding©, causes and/or perpetuates multiple chains of negative karma.  ConAgra attempts to counteract this negative karma by a campaign entitled “Child Hunger Ends Here®.”  Noting the problem of childhood hunger that, according to its charitable partner, Feeding America, affects 17 million children daily, ConAgra is engaged in a campaign to donate a minimum of 1 million meals ($125,000) up to a maximum of 3 million meals based upon consumers entering a code from ConAgra items purchased.  For each code, ConAgra donates 12.5 cents, “the cost for Feeding America to provide one meal through its network of local foodbanks.”

This is a positive action.  ConAgra’s objective is to positively associate its brands and products with Feeding America.  ConAgra wants to be defined by its positive actions.  However, positive actions do not cancel negative actions.  Each action is part of its own causal chain.  Feeding 1 person does not undo the suffering caused by ConAgra’s activities.

As the nutritional content of Snack Pack Pudding© deteriorates, there are implications for malnourishment.  The new milk reduction formulation of Snack Pack Pudding© will not deliver the same nutrition as the previous formulation.  By reducing nutritional content of one of the most affordable and widely distributed food items, the poorest and most nutritionally deficient will be among those most impacted by the reduction in nutrition of Snack Pack Pudding©.  Yet, this fact will be obfuscated by advertising.

It should not be a case of “either/or.”  It should be a case of “both/and.”  ConAgra should be engaged in both the production of high nutrition food at the lowest cost possible and charitable giving.

It is also worth mentioning that charity, known in Buddhism as dana, values material giving as the lowest form of benefit.  Giving knowledge is the highest form of benefiting others.  Moreover, intention is a central determining factor in whether or not an action is positive, neutral, or negative.  If production of a low cost product is understood as a material gift, the utilization of common resources for the common good, then, if those resources are used to create a consumer packaged good (i.e. gift) that is deceptive and withholds or obfuscates information intentionally, as suggested by the advertising practices of ConAgra’s Snack Pack Pudding©, the item cannot provide the desired positive outcome.

I believe if companies spent even a fraction of their massive advertising and promotion dollars on creating affordable low cost and high nutrition foods, the lobbyists, “food” regulations, and adversarial scheme that pits companies against consumers would not be necessary.  It is self-perpetuating and a misallocation of our common resources against our common good.

Is it possible?  I think a society where millions go hungry when we can feed them for 12.5 cents per meal demands it!

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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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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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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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