A Supreme Parfait
We came off the streets of New York City on Sunday after our final council in Washington Square Park under the same ginkgo tree of our opening council a few days before.
People with dogs, cellphones, and cardboard coffee cups rushed by, great street jazz blared a few yards away from us, birds picked up crumbs and insects around our circle, a variety of unsheltered people took refuge on the benches that outlined the little green we were occupying, families with children played in the urban oasis playground nearby, seemingly poor or lonely people fed pigeons, fit and handsome dads kicked soccer balls with their young sons—a dense mix of life.
Kosho and I had been on the sidewalks since last Tuesday and our fellow practitioners arrived on Thursday after an unseasonably cold Wednesday night in Manhattan. Now, on a hot and sunny Sunday morning, we gathered our daily council circle for the last time on this retreat. We were all a little tired but, luckily, caffeinated enough, thanks to the generosity of passerby donors the day before.
The week was very full—dramatic weather changes and the countless sights, sounds, and smells of the Big Apple. There was abundant generosity everywhere—offerings from people, garbage cans, soup kitchens, the sky, a playful puppy joining council circle, a cooling breeze at just the right moment, a half smoked cigar stub found in front of Trump Towers, a clean bathroom and a rare working soap dispenser at Starbucks, money shared with us from other homeless people, Snickers bars from the housed, and the sheltering shade of buildings. There are endless sources of generosity on the streets.
And of course, there is also so much that one can’t help but experience as troubling. Words cannot quite express this part, so I won’t attempt it here. I’ll assume you know what I mean.
New York is a special place for me. Having grown up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, I found myself thinking of my childhood often, and of my father who was homeless in these very neighborhoods for about 15 years. I remembered, too, my days in graduate school at New York University, the Gay Pride shrine of the Stonewall Inn, and the early years of the AIDS epidemic in Greenwich Village, my indescribable fear and horror during that decade, and the brave people who taught me to find and use my activist voice. At times I was flooded with memories and uncomfortable emotions, seeing in my mind’s eye many long-gone faces as I walked the streets and saw these old familiar places.
There were comical and amusing memories, too. During our closing council in the park yesterday, I found myself recalling a dessert that was popular and fascinating to me as a kid in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was a boxed powdery substance of some sort that when mixed with boiling water and poured into parfait glasses became, by some mysterious chemical reaction (!), a three layer colorful jello-like dessert unlike anything found in nature. Perhaps some of you from my generation remember this strange treat. I no longer remember the name, but the image and the flavors are burned into my stored memories and my taste buds. There was magic in that parfait glass.
The three layers of this confection are a metaphor for the street retreat experience for me. I hope you’ll indulge me in this strange image as I do the work of crossing back over the threshold into our middle class world of abundant shelter, fine food, adequate clothing, and compassionate care. Metaphors help express things that can be a bit beyond the reach of conversational language. I wish this wasn’t a dessert metaphor though, because I don’t want to leave the impression that it was all sweetness and pleasure—it was more complicated than that. Nevertheless, this is the image that came to mind, so I’ll share it despite its obvious shortcomings.
If you know it, you’ll remember that the top layer of that unearthly dessert was frothy and light, like beaten egg whites. There were many times during the retreat, especially near the beginning, when I couldn’t help but feel the frothy top layer of my own outrage and anger at our civilization, culture, and economy, and this situation we’ve created. We—I‘m including myself in this—make active choices that create this kind of suffering. Amazingly, it seems that we have come to accept it as though it was business as usual, as if this is the natural state of things, fixtures on the street like the ubiquitous garbage cans and beeping horns and police sirens. I forget this sometimes, that we’ve created and normalized this kind of suffering, and when I do remember and am woken up from my denial about it, even if for just a moment, I find that I foam up and froth with the uncomfortable feelings of anger and, to be honest, the unblendable flavors of guilt for my own role in it, blaming others for their role with perhaps more than a hint of stinky and sticky smug self-righteousness.
This feeling is really frothy for me at times, bubbling up like vinegar and baking soda. But with time, like all chemical reactions, if I let myself be with it for a while, it quiets down. The anger, guilt, and smugness become less dense, volatile, noisy, and blinding. The feelings and critiques can start to change shape, thin out, and even liquefy or melt away a bit. And despite the strange mysterious composition of this whipped up outrage, I can at times find nourishment in it, if I allow it to reveal what is underneath.
This froth gives way to a set of unlikely twins— despair and hope. There is something somewhat more dense just beneath the surface— thicker, with the consistency of a chocolate mousse, but so over-flavored that it can make my teeth hurt. This layer provides me with another metaphor, the pleasure and pain of mousse—pain in the teeth and pleasure on the tongue. It contains seeming opposites that reside next to each other, and just beneath the layer of anger and outrage. On the one hand it is a dark, thick, and cynical belief that we lack—and, I tell myself, will always lack—the will, passion, and energy to change this unbearable situation. Corporate interests seem too strong, a values system based on productivity too deeply embedded, and a civilization that has normalized the response of looking away, sometimes with hostility, or broken heartedness, or just indifference.
This flavor hurts—it is a brand of despair that has me thinking about running away from the whole thing and closing my eyes in cave meditation. In this state of mind, half the world or more has become the enemy… my enemy. I’ve divided up the world into good guys and bad guys, victims and perpetrators. Of course, I’m always one of the good guys in this scenario. At this layer, I’ve constructed in my mind an unseen, anonymous, and yet pervasive enemy. Who is this dangerous enemy out there? Can anything be done to stop it? In my cynicism, I think not.
Also in this layer, however, I feel something of the opposite—perhaps also a delusion, but an easier one to bear. I think about how close we are—or can be—to making a course correction, to responding collectively with just a little more altruism and care, and to finally ending this travesty.
It seems to me that it would take just one simple new way of thinking, one new meme, one click of the dial, one collective action to shift things in a new direction toward sharing our wealth, wisdom, compassion, and resources more evenly. Just one fresh thought, one new conviction, one small act of redistribution would build houses, provide adequate care and treatment of mental illness and addiction, would stabilize people who have themselves forgotten what stability feels like. It can seem so close at times—that we can easily provide what we Buddhists call “the four requisites” of housing, food, clothing, and medical care. I know that there is enough money, enough food, and there are enough people of good will to do this, and I can find myself believing that we can do it, and we are doing it. This is, in contrast to the hopelessness that sits on the next cushion, a place of great hopefulness for me, to remember what Sensei Kaz often says, that the truth of impermanence means that change is possible. So, I think to myself that I should just work on making that one little adjustment happen. Change my own mind and take the one action that matters. Sometimes I deeply believe this to be possible. But I have to be careful here, too. It has been Pema Chodron’s words that remind me that hope is also a form of delusion, and that an over investment in it can be as blinding to what is really happening as despair and cynicism can be.
Then, beneath that layer of mousse, there is the densest layer in the parfait glass—the solid foundation of the whole strange thing. I don’t know what to call this—maybe the Dharma, or love, or the divine—but it is stable and foundational. If I let myself sink into that, to rest on it, it is a resource. It can allow me to show up for whatever else is in that glass, sitting on top of my shoulders. In fact, like the Four Noble Truths suggest, this base layer settles out of the rest of the concoction, not separate from it all, but it becomes the new foundation that was always there in the powdery mix anyway. When I can touch it, it seems to have settled out from a kind of gentle effort in my practice to see the terrain of my own mind and feel the outrage, hope, and hopelessness that hovers above the foundation and gives birth to it. I can’t help but think here about the four foundations of mindfulness—body, sensations, mind, and all things. Roshi Joan might say that this layer begins to look like and manifests the strong back and the open front of our practice.
I’ve probably overworked this parfait analogy by a far stretch. I apologize for that, but I’ll take the liberty of going one more step. By the end of the retreat, I realize that street practice allows me to dip the spoon all the way to the bottom of that parfait glass, pulling up the layers and, like we are instructed to do with koans, eat them whole and let them both consume and nourish me. It is, to call up Dogen’s Instructions to the Cook, the dessert to the supreme meal. The Oneness of life.
During our days on the street our hodgepodge spontaneous sangha participated in a number of religious traditions. Kosho and I spent a pleasant morning in silence with Enkyo Roshi at the Village Zendo, where she lovingly slipped her phone number into my hand, “in case we needed anything.” We slept on cardboard that night in the shelter of a Hebrew School. Later, our group prayed and danced to an evening zikr with the Sufis during Ramadan in TriBeCa. There, a child and his mother came around to each of us as we concluded chanting the Quran and offered a sweet dried date from a bowl, and a glass of water to break the day of fasting. I’ve never tasted a date so good.
The next day, sitting in the basement chapel of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, we were lovingly fed eggs and hash, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a much-coveted cup of strong coffee. Love was there, too, both across the serving line and within it as we waited our turn with the others who had spent the night on the hot sidewalks. After that breakfast we decided to attend Catholic Mass at the small chapel next door, and there we were offered the eucharist—bread for the world.
At every meal we had abundant food, not always the most healthy or fresh, but always abundant. And then, after we begged for our final meal on the streets at the farmer’s market at Union Square Park, we chanted the Gate of Sweet Nectar liturgy. A young man joined us named One Love, as did a vibrant holy man named Geo. Many others gathered around to share this meal. After dancing during the Gate, we were taught how to hula hoop in the park and we smoked the cigar we found at Trump Tower together like a peace offering. In the end, we all ate from the multi-layered dessert, the supreme meal.
Calling out to hungry hearts,
Everywhere through endless time.
You who wander, you who thirst,
I offer you this Bodhi Mind.
Calling out to hungry spirits,
Everywhere through endless time,
Calling all to hungry hearts,
All the lost and left behind.
Gather round and share this meal,
Your joy and your sorrow, I make it mine.