meeting the "wandering jew"

While eating a burrito, a homeless man walked in and sat next to me, asking me for change for the bus.
"Sorry, I don't have any."
"You don't have to be sorry. I'm sorry for having to ask."

He had recent sores on his face, his hands were swollen, and his nails were craggy and yellow. He had graying, curly hair and eyes hidden behind puffy eyelids. We got to talking about where he came from and where he's been, where I'm from and where I've been. He fell asleep in a snowbank last night, explaining his swollen hands. "It was comfortable!"

He told me that his father used to call him "the wandering Jew". Surprised, I asked him if that meant he was destined to live forever, but he didn't understand the reference. When I asked how he felt about that nickname, he said, "you can't argue with the truth..."

He was too proud to go on welfare, he said, but he asked me where to find a Western Union, apparently in order to pick up some money. I remembered that I had 50¢ in my coat pocket, so I gave it to him, knowing that he would spend it on booze (he was already half in the bag). He thanked me profusely.

He decided to visit Cambridge today, the first time he's left Southie in 15 years. Despite asking for change "for the bus", he said he would walk back to Southie later. He walks everywhere. "Taking the bus makes you fat and old. Walking gives you time to think." Despite this, he looked older than he should've been, and fatter too. Maybe more thoughtful than other street people I've met, but just as lost and addicted.

I gave him the code to get into the bathroom, and when he went in, I gathered my things and left.
Cowardice, really. It took me a moment to engage with him when he first asked me for money, but I cannot just ignore somebody. Seeing his pain, what can I do? Ultimately, not much. My cowardice in leaving, however, comes from knowing that I could've done more. It's going to be 0ºF tonight, yet the "wandering Jew" worries not about his fate.

I didn't ask his name, and he didn't ask mine. Why am I in the position I am, now writing this text in the comfort of a library, in relatively lavish circumstances, while he wanders, penniless and drunk, periodically beaten by other street people? He spends his days riding the subway; I told him I used to spend my days riding the subway. But what a gulf between us today.

I can decide that the only thing I can do is treat him with dignity, to show some amount of kindness. But that is an arbitrary decision. It is like Beop Jeong said, when I see someone living with less than I have, I feel shabby and embarrassed. In the end, I can walk away, avoiding the shabbiness, the responsibility to the suffering. The Wandering Jew cannot escape his burden, his fate, the totality of the causes and conditions throughout time.

"Well, I hope it doesn't get colder than it has been." he said.
"It will!"

prophet, stevie wonder

Listening to Stevie Wonder's "As" this morning, I started to tear up. There are so many perfect aspects of it, but what struck me today were the driving drums, like the rhythmic undercurrent of our lives, the universal constant and eternal heartbeat represented in the lyrics.

I checked out a couple of covers on Youtube, but none can touch the original, because they don't know what it's about, nor can they see through Stevie's eyes. This goes far beyond romantic love -- it's transcendental love. It's a devotional prayer, expressing the love of eternity, the longing to be one with God/infinity/the Absolute. The song expresses in so many ways the impossibility of destroying the Absolute. It's similar to George Harrison's explicitly Hare Krishna "My Sweet Lord", but Stevie could turn the same principle into an uplifting, relatable pop song.

Then he gives his intentions away in his mini-sermon:

We all know sometimes lifes hates and troubles
Can make you wish you were born in another time and space
But you can bet your life times that and twice its double
That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed
so make sure when you say you're in it but not of it
You're not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell
Change your words into truths and then change that truth into love
And maybe our children's grandchildren
And their great-great grandchildren will tell

Herbie Hancock played the Rhodes on "As", and he related an anecdote of a time when he and other Buddhists asked Stevie for a break so that they could do their chanting. Stevie enthusiastically joined them, chanting nam-myho-renge-kyo and staying when the others chanted from a book. Who knows if "As" was inspired by such chanting ("Pastime Paradise", on the same album, features Hare Krishna chanting mixed into the background with a Gospel choir), but it's clear that Stevie deeply appreciated devotional music and felt open-minded enough to embrace many traditions. His sermon expresses the Prajna (words into truth) and Mahakaruna (truth into love) of the Bodhisattva path.

Only someone living in Eternity could create such a song and bring it to fruition with the collaboration of so many others. He wove together the unreal: "Until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky" with Suchness: "And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May". Stevie Wonder was and still is a prophet and a genius.

Here he is performing the song a few weeks ago, reunited for the first time with the original bandmates:

embracing imperfection

Sitting across from me in starbucks sits a beautiful young woman with her son in a baby carriage. I notice that the only imperfection on her face is a mouth full of scraggly teeth. When I take off my headphones to eavesdrop, of course, she speaks with a faint French accent.

Here, what reasonably well-off family would allow their daughter to grow up with crooked teeth? No, they must be bent back into shape using wires and glue, or else she won't become the perfect flower she's destined to be. Without straightened-out rows of pearly whites, shiny and conforming, her prospects in the job marketplace and romantic racket may be greatly reduced. If you want to make it in this town, baby, you've got to hammer yourself into the perfect mold. Think of it as an investment -- as we do about everything, it seems.


A person of the Way can be likened to a whetstone. When Buddhist faithful come to increase their store of spiritual merit by making offerings to the monks, it is knives being sharpened on the whetstone: the knives become sharp, but the stone is worn down by this. And yet despite this, there are still some practitioners who always worry that people may not come to sharpen their knives on this whetstone.
What a pity! So Sahn: "The Mirror of Zen"

Losing the Self

In the past, I had been concerned about "losing myself" in a relationship. Partners have expressed the same reservation: "I don't want to lose myself!". Years ago, I felt this as a real possibility, and I tried to be aware of any loss of self (as I understood it at the time). More recently, I considered the possibility less likely because I "have a strong sense of self"; how could I lose something so solid?

Now I've come to realize what I really meant by "losing" and what that self actually is. The self that changes in a relationship is the constructed, conditioned self -- basically, thought patterns, emotional responses, the physical body (to an extent). This incredibly malleable self changes all the time due to a vast network of conditions -- choices we make, effects from the environment -- although some aspects seem more solid than others. For instance, a person's morality or character can seem to remain constant over many years; it can even be apparent from a young age. Moral stances can and do change over time, although they might be more difficult to change by force of will. Other aspects of the self-in-flux change much quicker -- fashion, humor, language. But it's all up for alteration.

This conditioned self will change in any relationship. When you look into it, you can see the truth of the expression, "you are the company you keep". The conditioned "you" changes its conditioning with exposure to other conditioned selves. In large groups, the changes can be so drastic that someone may be driven to join a riot or a genocide, when they never would have considered it otherwise. When living with other people, the changes may be much more subtle, because they occur over a longer time. One may pick up destructive habits because one's friends or roommates are constantly bringing their own destructive habits to the relationship. The more intimate the relationship, the more possibility there is for significant changes to one's conditioning.

A "strong sense of self", in this situation, really means having solid boundaries. Someone with a strong sense of (conditioned self) could live among heroin addicts without becoming a heroin addict, while somebody with a weaker self would take on the destructive energy of the addicts. But what's going on is that the "stronger" self is continually renewing his past conditioning with willful choices (some people might say "grace" instead of will). He decides, "this is how I am", and renews that sense in relationship to others by using memory and the will to resist changing his own conditioning. In the case of living among addicts, building boundaries by renewing one's conditioning seems like a healthy form of protection against developing a destructive habit. But always maintaining strong boundaries doesn't work in an intimate relationship.

A trivial example of "losing one's self" in relationship might be changing one's taste in music. "Before I met you, I loved only death metal, but now, because all you listen to is bluegrass, I've lost my love for metal!" Someone with a strong sense of self might resist such a threat to his preferences -- "I like my music and hate your music, so let's just agree not to share music collections". A weaker self, who notices that he's lost his love of metal, may react by fretting over "losing his self" in the relationship, but that's just because he desires to have a stronger self! On the other hand, with the awareness that the conditioned self always changes, I can ask: how important is the particular conditioning that I'm defending? Maybe, when it comes to music, I won't have any boundaries, making those tastes totally open to change. Perhaps, if it comes to physical health, I'll resist taking on habits that I perceive as unhealthy; I'll place stronger boundaries around that conditioning. Or maybe it's the other way around.

In any case, I want to participate in the process of this changing self, with the total acceptance of inevitable change. Participating could mean being open and vulnerable at times while renewing the conditioning at other times. Two people in a relationship bring their conditioning (all 13 billion years of it!) to the situation, and then those two paths start to intertwine deeper and deeper. Memories become shared, tastes change, and values can change. All of that usually happens subconsciously, with more or less resistance. Without awareness of the malleable self, a relationship can easily become mired in conflict or just a low-energy replay of the same patterns, day in and day out. With awareness, intimacy, and participation, two constructed selves begin to reconstruct themselves, for the better. They each will always carry their individual conditioning, but where they meet and intertwine, a beautiful harmony can result. I would like to aim for this intimate harmony.

Of course, none of what I'm talking about pertains to the "true self" -- unconditioned, unborn, infinite. In that sense, when I used to pride myself on having a strong sense of self, that really meant having careful awareness of the conditioned self, combined with strong boundaries. But all of that is irrelevant with regard to knowledge of the true self, which is unknowable... (and the funny thing is that the true self of individuals in a relationship is identical -- since all conflicts are about conditioning, there can be no conflict in the realm of the unconditioned self. On the other hand, because variety is the spice of life, and conditioning=variety, we can't ignore the sort of conditioned self we're creating, in favor of some idealized union of capital-S Selves!)