12 February 2015

Practising dharma on the streets of Birmingham UK

A diary account of a weekend retreat on the streets


Saraha is an Order member from the UK who shared these reflections with friends. The prospect of a weekend retreat on the streets is something that intrigues me and scares me a little. What would it be like? Could I do it? Perhaps some of us will experiment like this in Auckland some day? Would love to hear anyone's response to Saraha's experience - Ratnavyuha

I wrote this about a year ago. It was a great adventure. I love the city and the meeting of Dharma practitioners with city life. Hope you enjoy!

“Can I sit with you awhile?” It was her first night too. “No one knows what happens at home.... it’s got to be better to live on the streets...” She stayed with us an hour, talked, smiled, said it was the first time that day that she had smiled, then she left us. She left us with a sadness and a love and a wondering what else we could have done for her.

We’d left home with no money, no food and no phones. We walked into the city centre, slowly, mindfully, taking unusual routes. We passed the abattoir. We meditated together on the high street, then meditated separately on the busy streets with hats in front of us. We received much positivity and enough money for a simple meal. We were noticed, we were photographed, we were talked about, occasionally teased, I got a very pleasant and good vibe off the streets, off the people. A number of men sat next to us to be photographed by their girlfriends.

That evening we walked the streets as it darkened, we talked about our fears, our hopes, we looked at various places that we might be able to sleep. Bushes, parks, derelict buildings, doorways, bridges. We looked at the sky. Each place we looked at seemed to bring a different flavour of fear. Time passed. Eventually we sat in a doorway near New Street. We became tired and became more horizontal. We cautiously got out our sleeping bags and one by one drifted to snatches of sleep. I had rich dreams including of driving with my brother on treacherous snow away from our parents house, he drove beautifully, using the sliding of the car to make a graceful and steady progress to the end of their road, then turning out of their road, their world, into another one....

During one of the gaps between my dozes a couple of beautiful black girls walked passed in their dresses and high heels, one of them screamed to see “the biggest rat ever”. Later a couple of drunken lads passed, one of them stopped to put a pound in my hand.

We woke early when the night watchman pressed the button that raised the security shutter that had been our wall, we sat in our bags blinking at the concrete all around us, at the patch of lightening sky above, talking of the night, of our fears, of the things we’d seen, of the things we’d thought.

Meditating on the pavement as office workers passed. It’s always easy for me to experience myself as a failure, as a dreg of society. Feeling separate from people, I lean towards the gutter. Sitting on the pavement like a beggar. Sitting on the pavement like a Buddha. I sat with a heart of awareness and love, I watched the people... I felt solid in my body, watching my self-view soaring and diving. I could taste the flavours of my decisions to not lead that life of work and home and family, to lead this life of freedom, this life of daily choices, of openness, this life of nothing, this life of nothing but the choice to lead this life. Sat alone on the pavement, feet passing, watching, aware, people placing money in my hat, the situation placing questions in my mind, those questions tasted good, the choices I’ve made tasted good. A smiling office worker chirped “good morning Saraha” and all things tasted good.

This life tasted good as we meditated together on the high streets and under trees in the grounds of the Cathedral. I felt a great connection with my companions and with the Buddha. The meditation practices that I’ve been doing for years made more sense. We had no money and no food. We had no time. We had the moment all around us, the people all around us and the people around us seemed good and happy. I felt great and expansive... Watching the workers in their strange shoes, the children playing, the teenagers working out how to touch each other, a mother offering her hands to her fallen toddler, drug sellers and picnickers and tramps and police, pigeons and the fluttering leaves of the trees in the morning sun.

Sat together in the small city centre park we had the whole day ahead of us. My mind turned to so many things and I brought it back to this place, this expanse of time around us, this flow of people around us. I sat in meditation for hours, I did the practice of Tonglen where one breathes in the suffering of all beings, breathes in black light, lets it touch your own heart and breaths out love, breathes out kindness and white light. The people around me seemed so good and happy; I had to look deeper, I had to connect with my own stillness and joy I had to connect with the supreme peace and bliss of the Buddha in order to see suffering around me and within me. Then I could breathe out a solid and silent love. The Buddha seemed so present here; touching, living alongside, meeting and touching but singing a different song to the people around.

I’ve lived with - or as - a beggar many times in my life. All beggars have a story, a past, many are illiterate or have mental states that normal society doesn’t want to engage with. Some are highly intelligent but driven, or choosing, to not play by the rules. Conditions lead to desperation, despair; lives, conditions, social situations, violence, abuse, depression lead to some dangerous decisions. For all beggars it is a choice, sometimes a choice between some astoundingly bad options with some astoundingly bad social skills or mental states in the driving seat. Occasionally it’s a happy choice, a stepping out of a confined life into the open air, a turning away from comfort and the illusion of security towards the freedom of a life day to day and hand to mouth. Trusting that the next meal will come, trusting that the cold of the night will pass, trusting that the people around will share your, or share their, riches. In France we begged and busked, we drank wine mixed with coca cola, we laughed on the banks of the river and watched the world passing by. In Morocco hitching out of the capital city I met a man under a tree. He had a lump of bread and I a tin of sardines so together we made a meal. With a handful of words between us we made a friendship. He was homeless and thin, so thin that every time I put an arm round his shoulders I was shocked again to feel a human skeleton. Shocked that bones with so little flesh could be so animated. He was a remarkably popular man, a focus of many connections and friendships. We sat under that tree for several weeks with a fluctuating collection of men bringing wine and kif and food and companionship. Some homeless and as thin, some workers relaxing after a busy day, some the sons of rich men trying to break away from the toils and expectations their parents were pushing upon them. One man sat apart with a bag of glue, one man, in the police, had a gun at his hip, one man told stories in a language where I recognised a word every minute or two yet, still, he could hold me captivated for half an hour at a time. In Prague in the spring time a bunch of London friends slept in an abandoned garden until the owner threatened us with dogs at night, then we slept on an island in the city centre, begging and busking and having cream buns and beer for breakfast. In London I lived in squats for years, one Christmas Eve 6 or 8 houses were evicted so my girlfriend and I went to an abandoned hall of residence and managed to break in and change the locks. A dozen or more of us lived there for months, we mended the leaking roof and fixed the plumbing, we threw some huge parties with live bands and djs and hundreds of people. I remember plain clothed police trying to trick me into sharing their drugs and being afraid of the strobe light. The Palace of Delights we called it. Some people went out to work every day, some stayed at home, some lost in a drug haze or lost in art or music, some went out to beg or busk. One man with the gift of the gab begged and big issued, he claimed he could make £200 a day. He also received housing benefit, he told us, for a flat in the west end, and we discovered later, sold drugs and guns. He could convince some unlikely people of some very unlikely things. I’ve hitched hiked tens of thousands of miles and benefited from enormous kindness and generosity. People like to give, it seems.

Now I teach meditation and Buddhism, many times I’ve led a class on ethics and how to live a satisfying life. When I talk about kindness and generosity almost every time the first thing people want talk about is that they feel good when they give to beggars, that they wish they were more generous to beggars on the streets, more generous with money and with time and attention. Yes beggars can make them feel uncomfortable but this is the poking of their own conscience and the opportunity, and challenge, to step out of selfishness. For many people seeing a man on the streets is the most, or even the only time in their lives that they are confronted with the opportunity to put their hand in their pocket and place something in a hand that is in need. I encourage them to use their imaginations and give instead, or as well, to charities where their money can be used in a more structured way. Both are important. Both give us a sense of being connected and kind and a positive part of society. I have found being on the receiving end to be a pleasure, I’ve seen my presence prick consciences and love, prick fear and anger. Prick a new sense of choice, of the courage to step out of the usual rut.

For all beggars it’s a choice, for the Buddha it was a choice, a choice he continued to make even when he was offered riches and palaces, offered wives, even when his Father pleaded with him to return home. I sat in the park knowing that I’ve created a life for myself that is very simple, this has a deliciousness and an openness and a fear. I’ve worked wholeheartedly for the Buddhist centre for 10 years yet nothing ties me to this except my love of the people I work with and the pleasure of seeing the benefit our presence seems to bring to so many. It is a choice I have to make again and again and, for me, this brings an insecurity. I sat in the park knowing that I choose to live a simple life and to be here, today, with nothing. Here, and in my life generally, I choose to respond to my fears and dreams of security with a steady gaze, to experience fears as fears and to make my decisions on other emotions.

Before the streets quietened down we decided we needed to eat, we went our separate ways and meditated on pavements with hats infront of us. After nearly an hour I had almost £3 in my hat, this was I thought enough for a good feed, especially if my friends had similar amounts. I put my hat back on my head and decided to meditate a little more, looking up and saw a security guard watching me and talking into his walky talky. I knew he was talking about me, probably telling the police. I could easily get up and go but decided to wait and see what happened, see what the police had to say. Within a few minutes a uniformed officer turned up and asked me some questions. “Were you begging?” “I wasn’t not begging, I was meditating, I’m happy to receive donations, people like to give...” “You were doing something that could easily be perceived as begging, that is an arrestable offence” he told me. He chose not to arrest me but it did make it clear that we wouldn’t be able to continue our experiment.

Back in the Cathedral grounds, we sat together and were noticed by a friend who joined us to meditate for a bit. When he left a wild young man who seemed to be ineffectually chaperoning his sister joined us. He was full of energy and questions, We taught him to meditate in a totally simple way – watch your breath, be interested in whatever happens, relax... and he sat still for about 15 minutes, speaking only once to ask what to do about all the sounds around – notice them, don’t follow them, let them wash over you, enjoy breathing... More questions “I’m an Atheist, can I be a Buddhist too?” “Buddhists generally are atheists” “my mind’s crazy!.. That was great!..” and he leapt up, whooping he returned to his friends saying “That was amazing. I love Buddhists” He kept whooping and leaping about, his sister, sat on a tome stone, kept snogging her man.

We talked about having a period of silence. After a simple- and tiny- meal we walked quietly, under a beautiful moon to the woods of Cannon Hill Park where we slept amongst mature trees. We all slept longer and deeper than the previous night, we rose, and still with a quietness about us, we wandered to a sunny spot to sit in meditation. Blackberries for breakfast and some discussion until it was time to return to our homes and inboxes. That night Dharmashalin and I taught people at the Buddhist centre to meditate. People with busy lives, people with debilitating illnesses or mental states, people with hopes that they struggle to find a way to embody. People with impressive jobs, beautiful jobs, people with remarkable pasts and remarkable presents. People making choices that bring them to look inwards to their minds, bring them to question and take responsibility for their emotions and the choices they make as they journey through this life.

Thanks to David Clarke and Dharmashalin for sharing this adventure onto the city streets, this attempt to live a life similar to that of the Buddha and his ancient followers.