Bert Stern has taught in the Dorchester CLTL Program for nine years. He is a writer, editor, and poet, a retired English professor and retired chief editor of Hilton Publishing. He and his wife, Tam Neville, co-edit Off the Grid Press, which publishes poetry books by writers over 60.
This is the first in a three part series by Bert Stern. Check back next week for part two.
In two days and two nights on the street I didn’t learn what it was like to be homeless. I did learn to sit among men ripe with loss, some of them stripped down to their last scraps of spirit. A stated aim by the Zen Peacemakers, under whose auspices I made my visit, was to taste the “generosity of the streets.” And we did taste it, not only in soup kitchens, where, in one case, servers actually brought our food to the table in separate trays, but in occasional handouts of food and, more rarely, spare change that we panhandled for morning coffee.
In Changing Lives Through Literature, I’d seen people awaken from despair. I cherish the experience of sharing people’s journeys to their better selves, a journey I too have taken through all its phases. I suppose I expected similar experiences on the retreat.
But my actual experience was that I walked among shadows – shadows of people walking through the space where I slept, shadows of burdened day-lit lives that I could observe but did not enter, my own shadow cast on the top of a stairway outside Trinity Church where I spread out my cardboard bed in preparation for a sleep that did not come easy or remain so.
The core of Buddhism is kindness and generosity to others. This does not mean charity or even generosity in the ordinary sense. It means helping others become fearless by undoing the traps ego has set for them, thus opening them to the dharma, the truth of the teachings. The movement is toward “emptiness,” an unfortunate translation for the Sanskrit “Shunyata,” which, simply put, means an openness of reality unfiltered by our senses, thoughts (even thoughts so basic as form), or feelings, an openness so complete that subjectivity is dissolved. Maybe if I’d remained on retreat for weeks instead of days I might have found way to be an agent of such charity. As it was, I did not.
The kindness I did experience was in the excellent company of my companions – two men in their twenties, two in their early sixties (I myself am going on eighty), company that included much laughter and wisdom. Twice each day we’d meditate in a circle together, often in a park, and then hold a council, initiated by the lighting of a candle and incense, then one or the other of us dedicated the council to, for example, “family,” by one of the young men who at lunch that day experienced among the men around him the raw absence of the family love he himself enjoyed. We’d then go on to share our individual experiences.