Tag Archives: race

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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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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Monks are Always Poor: A Reflection From Skid Row

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(Image: Run Down but not knocked-down)

It seems crazy to me that as a born and bred Angeleno, I haven’t been to Skid Row before. Somehow, though, this week’s visit didn’t feel entirely new or foreign to me; there was something familiar in both the place and in the faces.

Our group – the students of Danny Fisher’s ‘Spiritual Leadership’ course at University of the West – assembled at Pershing Square. We were advised to have a ‘buddy’ and to stay close once we crossed into what is considered the boundary of Skid Row. Personally, I wasn’t scared or apprehensive, just curious. How strange, indeed, to be on a ‘field trip,’ for the purpose of observation only, to one of the largest homeless populations in the United States. It felt, in a way, like going to another country.  When I travel, part of the thrill is knowing that I’m going to be out of my comfort zone and wondering how exactly I’m going to handle that. A trip to a place like Skid Row feels a little bit like scuba diving with sharks: watching from the ‘safety’ of the wetsuit and mask, knowing they are animals like the rest of us, but being fully aware of their potential for ferocity. I’m not trying to equate the homeless with sharks, but the reports that come out of Skid Row make it clear that one should proceed with care and vigilance.

The smells hit me first: urine, the most present and immediate stench, feces, diesel, cigarette smoke, and marijuana. Then the visual: the blue tarps covering the belongings of who-knows-who (protected with a formal sign on the fence against which they were stashed that read: Private Property, Not Abandoned) the broken chairs, blankets, jackets, beanies, shopping carts, trash, feces – animal or human?, and, of course, the people. Nearly all of them were dark-skinned and under the shadows of tree cover, which made the white teeth on the smiling faces all the more surprising. Were they smiling at us? The sounds: background city noise, some quiet chatter, and the rustling of bags and clothes and shifting chairs and tents and mattresses as this community was waking up. It was fairly early still, and very little traffic was flowing through the streets, making it feel actually kind of peaceful. What was I expecting? People arguing with each other, shouts across the streets, knife fights, police calling on their bullhorns, sirens, dogs barking?

As it turns out, the ‘wetsuit’ was much thicker than I thought. Our ‘protection’ – traveling together as a group – created a reciprocal awe from those we were observing. Among us were four robed monastics, and this created a lot of chatter amongst the homeless. In addition to the many “Good Morning!”s offered to us directly, here are some snippets of conversations that I overheard:

Two women standing next to a pile of possessions excitedly talking and watching us as we walked by:

Oh! They’re foreign exchange students!

Oh, is that what they are?

Yeah, yeah, exchange students.

A couple of men sitting in lawn chairs on dirty concrete smoking cigarettes looked out at us with wide eyes:

Monks!

Monks?! Oh, yes, (laughter) well I guess they are!

 Down the street a woman shouting at our group:

Candy for twenty-five cents! A piece of candy for twenty-five cents!

An acquaintance offered: They’re monks!

He hesitated and then said in resignation: Monks are always poor.

Yeah, yeah, monks are always poor! (laughter)

I know we just saw a tiny sliver of life on Skid Row at a calm part of the day; I know there’s more often than not violence, disorder, and suffering; and I know there are many living there that deserve more and better. Yet there were also visible signs of contented-ness and conviviality and camaraderie that I was surprised to see. I don’t want to sound naïve or to romanticize Skid Row by any means (and perhaps this is a defense mechanism so I can remain comfortable in my own relative wealth), but I’m not convinced that poverty equates to suffering. As one of the narrators pointed out in the documentary Lost Angels: Skid Row is my Home (2010), “Skid Row is full of contradictions: it can be violent, chaotic, frightening, but it can also be a refuge, a place to get well, to find acceptance, to be free.” I didn’t feel the desperation in these people that I thought I would. I left with a feeling of sadness – a sadness connected to not knowing the people or their stories or their needs, but not of hopelessness.

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Whose Kamma Is It, Anyway? A Reflection on a Visit to Skid Row And The Importance of Compassion.

Today, the Spiritual Leadership class at University of the West, led by Danny Fisher, visited Skid Row, Los Angeles. We walked through the heart of Skid Row in an attempt to see the reality of poverty in the United States, a complex subject we have been studying in class.

Poverty is not unfamiliar to me. Due to the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887, a notorious act of legal thievery which opened Indian Reservations to white settlement, my Caucasian family, in 1964, was able to buy land on the Flathead Indian Reservation of Montana. I spent my childhood there, a difficult and sometimes dangerous experience.

The rural poverty of the reservation is different from the urban poverty of Skid Row, yet also very similar. The common suffering is shown in the worn, lined faces found in both places. An edge of anger is there as well as I saw when two residents were clearly upset with our presence. Not as bad as the beer bottles I had thrown at me from passing cars during my childhood on the Reservation (luckily the throwers were usually drunk and missed). But on the Reservation I don’t remember seeing as many people mentally and physically ill. On Skid Row, seeing people suffering from mental and physical illness was unavoidable. I remember a man on crutches, his left leg hugely swollen, hobbling down the street. Wheel chairs abounded (thank you whoever provided them). But what I felt walking through Skid Row was something much more positive. I felt I was walking through a community. People greeted each other and conversation surrounded us. My impression was that the most vulnerable members were being taken care of by those more fit.

As will be discussed below, Appellants’ declarations demonstrate that they are not on the streets of Skid Row by informed choice. In addition, the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty reports that homelessness results from mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, low-paying jobs, and, most significantly, the chronic lack of affordable housing…

It also reports that between 33% and 50% of the homeless in Los Angeles are mentally ill, and 76% percent of homeless adults in 1990 had been employed for some or all of the two years prior to becoming homeless…

[A]pproximately 14% of homeless individuals in Los Angeles are victims of domestic violence.

— JONES v. CITY OF LOS ANGELES, 2006, emphasis mine.

Skid Row is the last refuge of many who find their way here, but it is gentrifying, leading to a reduction in affordable Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels.  These hotels are used by the poor to get off the street. New buildings were under construction a couple of blocks inside the boundaries of Skid Row. Hopefully this will be new homes for the poor, but I wonder. A building on the edge of Skid Row that appeared to have been a SRO hotel now offered leases at $800 a month.  Few poor people in Skid Row could afford this rent, or have enough stability to sign a lease. LA County General Relief to the homeless is only $221 a month, an amount has not changed since Clinton was President. Residents frequently have a room during the early part of the month and then live on the street when their money runs out (http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/20/local/me-welfare20 and http://www.lafla.org/service.php?sect=govern&sub=relief).

I was struck by the lack of homeless white people. Everyone living on the street was Black. Are different racial groups segregating themselves and we just did not find the white people? I researched the racial demographics of Skid Row and found wildly varying numbers. Finally I decided to use the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) figures. They did not break out the racial demographics of Skid Row but instead had numbers for all homeless in LA County. According to the Agency, roughly 44% of the homeless population is Black. In LA Country Blacks make up 8% of the population. On our walk the percentage Black people living on the street was much higher than 44%.

What might account for this? Perhaps I overlooked people of different races. Perhaps the population demographics vary wildly depending on time of day or year. So I used Google Street View (which looked to be taken in the summer) to confirm what I saw. Using Google Street View I found the same high percentage of Black homeless. It is also possible the Black population has less financial resources and they had run out of money to rent SRO housing. It is also possible, since there are more homeless in Skid Row than housing, that there is some sort of discrimination making it difficult for Black people to get into SRO housing. Unfortunately there was no information in the LAHSA report which would allow me to tease out what was happening, which I find an interesting fact in itself. For those of you interested the report can be found at http://www.lahsa.org/docs/2011-Homeless-Count/HC11-Detailed-Geography-Report-FINAL.PDF.

As I have studied at UWest I have often thought about the role of kamma (Sanskrit: karma) in social inequality. I note here that I approach this subject as a person influenced deeply by Theravada Buddhism as taught in the Pali Canon.

Is Skid Row a form of hell where homeless people find themselves because of unskillful acts in this or previous lives (deterministic kamma) or is the situation more complex and non-linear? Of all the teachings of Buddhism I understand kamma the least. In the Pali Canon the Buddha declares the precise working out of kamma to be one of the four unconjecturables that “bring madness & vexation.”

There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four?

The Buddha-range of the Buddhas…

The jhana-range of a person in jhana …

The [precise working out of the] results of kamma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world…

These are the four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them.

— AN 4.77, the Acintita Sutta, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, my emphasis.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has this to say about kamma:

Karma is often understood as the idea that what you experience now comes from what you did in the past, but that’s getting it all wrong. The Buddha’s teachings on causality are much more complex than that, and in fact resemble chaos theory with their many feedback loops. In their lack of determinism, they resemble the laws describing the nonlinear behavior of chemical systems operating far from equilibrium—systems very similar to the human mind.

— Thanissaro Bhikkhu, http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2844&Itemid=0

So, are the people on Skid Row there because they deserve to be? I don’t think so. Perhaps these folks are in a vulnerable position because of kamma. But given the racial and other forms of discrimination which operate in so many areas of American society it is difficult to tease out what is due to personal responsibility (intent and acts) and what is caused by the lack of opportunity due to discrimination. But, clearly, there is a great deal of unneeded suffering added by cruelty and indifference. In the United States we live in an extraordinarily rich society with wealth and income inequality as great as or greater than many third world countries. Not long ago (before the 1980’s) many of the people on Skid Row would be living in mental hospitals or institutions. These institutions were not perfect, but the mentally ill had the chance to live a life of some comfort. In the 1980’s they were thrown out into the street with no place to go. The institutions they lived in were closed. Many of these people have found their way to Skid Row (or were dumped there by law enforcement from outside the city). Was this sad act of cruelty the fault of the people now on Skid Row or the fault (and kamma) of those who made the intentional decision to put them on the street?

Many of the homeless are veterans of our numerous wars of economic opportunity, wars fought because fighting these wars made a very small percentage of the population vastly richer. The most vulnerable veterans have suffered moral, psychological, and physical harm due to their service and are often homeless. These veterans are on the street because the individuals in control of our society, who have reaped the most benefit from these wars, have chosen not to allocate the resources necessary to take care of them. So, who has reaped the worst kamma? The people with power and resources who have chosen not to act with compassion or the people whose lives have been made more difficult due to the actions of those in power?

I realize the situation is not quite a cut and dry as I make it out to be. Indifference and greed are not the only forces acting in America. The wealthy are constrained in their actions by social paths of least resistance which lead them to act greedier than they would act in a healthier society. But the more I think about kamma the less obvious it becomes to me who has good kamma. I no longer believe being rich is an indicator of good kamma. Modern research has shown wealth makes people greedier and less compassionate towards others, traits which will not lead themselves or others to the end of suffering. Often the most generous and compassionate people are those lower in the economic scale (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-wealth-reduces-compassion).

Who has the greater good kamma: the man who I saw on Skid Row who gave our group such a kind and wonderful smile and said hello to us, a man who clearly even in the midst of great suffering found the ability to be good and kind, or is it the rich banker in one of the huge bank buildings just outside of Skid Row who has the power to help people but does not do so because doing so would require him to fight against the path of least resistance enforced by the bank’s “profit at ANY cost, as long as it is not OUR cost” culture?

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