By Enrico Blanca
I now reside in a home for those who are old, disabled, feeble or have serious mental disorders.
We are all lumped together in small rooms and some linger in the halls or outside the dining spaces looking utterly dejected and hopeless. As one might expect, their eyes are empty and show a look of bitter resignation to their sad fate.
I am a Zen Buddhist and though my drinking caused me to fall short of the lay ordination I had prepared for, I remember my teacher’s advice that if I wanted to be a monk I should act like one. So, I go about my day doing small acts of kindness when I can such as helping those half blind to navigate from place to place and pushing those in wheelchairs up ramps or to the dining room.
As I walk around I try to make eye contact to at least acknowledge their presence or engage them in simple conversation.
I would guess that three quarters of the population here are Latino and their English is not the best and I have no Spanish. But we make an effort to communicate as best we can.
The other day Luis, who befriended me when we were both in a men’s shelter before coming here and showed me much kindness, suffered an epileptic seizure triggered by excessive alcohol consumption. When he returned from the hospital I offered to speak with him about his drinking. I told him that I had been a worse drinker than he and was a credentialed substance abuse counselor. I said we could talk about anything any time.
Some residents I try to avoid since they are psychotic and may be violent. EMS or the police come here frequently for those who have fallen from too much drink or who need medical attention for other reasons. And the cops are called when everyday altercations turn violent. One time I saw a resident pummel another to a bloody pulp over a dispute about a missing phone. I try to imagine these people, locked in their inner worlds of voices, visions and the demons which haunt them, as small children and wonder what had happened to them.
Lately I have been absorbed in the writings of Simone Weil the great political activist, philosopher and mystic.
Often she ate meagerly out of sympathy for the poor she fought for and devoted herself to. Weil believed that attention was the greatest form of generosity and that it requires an emptying of the self in order to receive the fullness of others. This jibes beautifully with the Zen Buddhist practice of cultivating the experience of no self and the empathy and compassion for others which flow from it.
The second Zen precept (or ethical reminder) encourages generosity, not just with material things, but with time and attention. So closely does Weil’s life of selfless service to the most impoverished and oppressed resemble the noblest ideals of Buddhism that I am inclined to think of her as a Bodhisattva. She was someone who had a profound experience of God which compelled her to be of service and give everything for the maligned and marginalized.
It was said that Simone Weil died of love.
Right now outside my door, I hear people here quietly moaning, calling for their medications, asking for help from their aides or trying to reach out to fellow resident for simple conversation.
If I can simply see them as they are, recognize their suffering and attend a small bit to some of their needs, I can start on my way to being the lay Zen monk to which I aspire.
Enrico Blanca is a free range intellectual (of pecking intelligence), poet, flaneur, socialist and cosmopolitan bon vivant who lives in New York City. He has had a nearly 30 year career as an academic librarian and is now embarking on a second one as a substance abuse counselor. A long-time Zen practitioner, he now studies with Barry Magid at the Ordinary Mind Zendo. He has a passion for music, cooking, writing and performing his poetry, and cherchez les femmes. Right now he is all about Ikkyu.