By John Author
I was standing outside work the other night, enjoying the crisp air during my lunch hour, then—seemingly out of nowhere—she materialized.
She was bundled in layers of mismatched clothes hiding all but her weathered, but youthful, face. A wind-worn backpack seemed to protrude from her spine. What few possessions she had, she housed in a road-weary stroller. Yes, it wasn’t a shopping cart, it was a stroller.
The wheels didn’t squeak so much as weep. I’ll never forget the sound; a lonely and desperate whine reminiscent of gray scaled post-apocalyptic movies like The Road. She was talking to herself, though even as she passed within feet of me, I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
A few years ago, I met a man who heard voices. I asked him how loud they were. “Louder than you are. They shout, they’re always shouting.”
She made her way into the store and bought some produce. If she couldn’t have afforded it, I would’ve broke protocol and bought her some myself. If she would’ve stolen some, I wouldn’t have said anything about it. When she was done shopping, she restlessly moved from bench to bench, napping for a few moments on each one until something stirred her and compelled her to move on.
“How are you doing?” I asked. “I’m doing okay,” she replied in a distracted, monotone voice. She hung around the store for a few hours. When I went outside for my last break, I saw her huddled on a nearby bench. She was practically camouflaged. At first glance, she resembled a crumpled pile of cast off clothes more than a human being. She laid there like a leftover, a remnant, a once prized possession that was thrown out after collecting years of dust in a musty crawlspace.
A noisy truck pulled in, disturbing her rest. She sat up suddenly, looked around, and then quickly gathered her things. She headed in my direction, but made a huge arc so as to not get too close. “Have a good day,” I offered. She responded with an unintelligible whisper.
There is nothing that the Dharma could do for her. I could have provided the most astounding and skillful transmission of the teachings the world had ever known, and they would’ve passed right through her. Feeling helpless, I fixated on anything I could do to help her, but there was nothing. Sometimes, instead of being a genuine act of compassion, kindness is a way to relieve our own discomfort.
Without options, all I could do was at least treat her like a human being.
I’ve met a lot of schizophrenics over the years, especially among the homeless population. I’m not sure what saddens me more: them having to suffer such a ruthless illness or them having to suffer the scorn and alienation of an entire culture. I’ve seen very kind people turn away in fear and disgust when coming across a hallucinating wanderer.
The thing is, homeless schizophrenics are often the ones in danger rather than being the dangerous ones. While offering metta to this woman, a whole host of images flooded my mind: her being stolen from, ridiculed, assaulted and raped; unable to defend herself and unable to go to anyone for help—not even the police.
The wandering population swells in this area around this time of year. The local homeless shelter closes its doors when the weather warms up, but at least they keep the soup kitchen up and running. Since I work at a nameless retail giant, it’s kind of a homeless hotspot. There are, at times, as many as four people camping out in the parking lot. That might not sound like a lot to a city dweller, but it’s statistically significant out here in the corn.
A few store managers in the past were anything but tolerant of them. One manager didn’t even want truckers laying over for the night. In response, one trucker ran over a pole after he was told to leave. Either our current manager is more understanding, or he just isn’t fully aware of the mini Hoovervilles that sometimes spring up in the lot.
Why do we hate and fear the homeless so much, especially the mentally ill nomads? Is it as simple as fearing for our safety, or does this tension run deeper than that? What is it that we don’t want to see or be reminded of?
Sometimes I think that we all want to live in a home decor magazine where everyone is a perfect 10, the houses are immaculate, and there’s no sign of impermanence. Where there’s nothing to remind us of how short and fragile our lives are. It’s like we want to be mannequins, frozen in the perfect pose throughout our lives. How did we even develop this desire or, even more astonishing, the feeling that such a life is somehow owed to us? What a bunch of emotionally handicapped and intellectually stunted cowards we can be.
As if poverty is the worst thing ever, as if anything short of perfection is an abomination. In times when my dad was worried about money, you know what I told him? We’d survive. Time can take our money, our house, our cars, our clothes, our food and every last crumb of our inessential leisure items and yet…we’d survive.
When did we start demanding anything more than that out of life? When did the feeling of cool grass beneath our feet and the warm glow of the sun overhead become inadequate conditions for our well-being? They say that idle hands are the devil’s plaything, but I think that it’s the full belly that causes most of our problems.
As we gorge on food, tech, ideals, knowledge, disposable relationships and security, well… maybe we don’t want to be reminded that all of this plenitude is held inside of a teeny, tiny bubble. The laughing stock of the whole thing is that our little bubbles aren’t even that great or comfy, and their concave membranes make the world outside of them seem more grotesque and distorted than it actually is.
There isn’t a huge difference between that suffering stranger I met and anyone else. She’s haunted by her own mind—by words and images that no one else can see or hear. She’s mostly unaware of the people she comes across and the things people say and do are filtered through the noise in her head, the paranoia and confusion.
Basically, she’s just like us. The only difference is that our hallucinations and delusions are socially acceptable—probably because they don’t prevent us from going to work. You can be sure that if any of us decided to follow in the Buddha’s footsteps—quitting work, leaving home, begging for food and searching for liberation—we’d be considered certifiable as well.
Everyone would ridicule you, ostracize you and tell you that you’re making a mistake because they think that “having” is somehow better or fundamentally different from “not having.” But impermanence turns every “have” into “not have” and interdependence imbues the whole thing with uncertainty.
“What is having and not having? What is it that we have or don’t have? Who is it that has it or doesn’t have it?”
Bodhidharma would answer, “Vast emptiness—nothing holy.” An ancient Buddhist gatha would say, “OM. All things are pure by nature, and pure by nature am I.” So what’s with all this fear and anger? Toss it the hell outta here already.
Life’s too short—way too freaking short—to spend even one second of it stressed out, bummed out, or pissed off. There’s a lot of really cool stuff happening right now; just take a look around and within. I mean, even thinking is a mystery. How can neural blips be experienced as thoughts? How can these arbitrary thoughts contain such intricate messages? The mind is mind-boggling.
So with all that said, don’t dally when it comes to freeing your mind. Like Huineng quipped, “See your nature, become a Buddha.” That’s the whole of it in a nutshell. In order for our practice to truly benefit us and those we meet, we can’t set our sights on anything less than Buddhahood—that has to be the goal.
Any other motive is like filling a room with gorgeous artificial flowers and saying, “Wow, there’s gonna be so much more oxygen in here now!” Then we give these pretty artificial flowers to others while saying, “This will put more oxygen in your house, which will help you breathe easier.” We’ll feel better for awhile, but it won’t last.
The up, down, up, down cycle of practice is the signature move of synthetic flowers. This never works because the one that Siddhartha held up to Mahakyasapa wasn’t made in a factory, it was plucked straight from the ground—and it’s the ground that we’re trying to get to here.
In order for practice to work, we have to have Right Intention. Without that, all progress is tedious and tentative. Right Intention is vowing to become a Buddha and vowing to help all these other Buddhas become Buddhas as well.
Then, maybe we’ll feel comfortable around schizophrenic homeless women.
Photo: Robby Campbell
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”