By Greg Clark
What does hunger feel like?
I don’t know. Even when I was on a street retreat (from which I knew I would go home at the end), or even when I’m fasting, or when I tried to cut weight to make my high school wrestling weight, or a couple years ago when I tried to lose weight, I did not experience chronic hunger. At any point, I could have driven to the store and purchased a meal. I didn’t go to bed each night hungry. I didn’t have to worry what I would feed my children.
Pediatricians tell us that maternal undernutrition during pregnancy increases the risk of negative birth outcomes, that malnutrition compromises early brain development leading to lasting deficits in cognitive, social and emotional development, that hungry or at risk for hunger children are significantly more likely to require special education services, exhibit conduct disorder, be at increased risk for homelessness and chronic health conditions.
There are seven countries, ours included, which consume on average more than double the 1800 calories which define hunger. Burundi and Eritrea have average caloric intake less than this malnutrition cutoff.
I think earlier in my life, I would have learned about the inequity and made a donation to make myself feel better. Since practicing Zen and learning about Zen Peacemakers and the Three Tenets, I chose to engage differently. The Three Tenets are Not Knowing, Bearing Witness and Taking Action.
I took part in a Zen Peacemakers street retreat in 2017 with two other ZCD sangha members and twenty or so others from the greater mahasangha of Colorado. We were allowed to bring a coat, one dollar and the clothes we were wearing. We stayed on the streets of Denver for three days and two nights. We ate in shelters or pop-up donations made by kind people. We slept in the yard of a church designated as a sanctuary so the police couldn’t arrest us. We had to relieve ourselves in the alley.
What I found was that my brothers and sisters who live on the street have a name. They have the same basic needs as all of us. They need to eat, they need shelter, they need love and attention and respect. They need to know that they matter to someone. The last night of the retreat, a homeless man with whom we shared the church courtyard, told us how grateful he was that we were there with him, how it validated him and made him feel noticed and respected.
Bearing Witness also reminded me that I have received much. I have a lovely family. I am well educated. I have a stable job. I do not fear personal injury from violence. I can practice any religion I choose. I have my health. How shall I return this gift and live with integrity? What is my responsibility to the Earth, to other humans in recognition of all that was given me?
The Buddha said, “A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity.”
To the Potawatomi band of First People, responsibilities and gifts are understood as two sides of the same coin. The possession of a gift is coupled with a duty to use it for the benefit of all. A thrush is given the gift of song—and so has a responsibility to greet the day with music. Salmon have the gift of travel, so they accept the duty of carrying food upriver. So when we ask ourselves, what is our responsibility to the Earth, we are also asking, “What is our gift?”
Gratitude may seem like weak tea given the desperate challenges that lie before us, but it is powerful medicine, much more than a simple thank you. Giving thanks recognizes not only the gift, but the giver. When I eat an apple, my gratitude is directed to the tree whose crisp offspring are now in my mouth, whose life has become my own. Gratitude is founded on the deep knowing that our very existence relies on the gifts of beings who can photosynthesize. Gratitude propels the recognition of the personhood of all beings and challenges the fallacy of human exceptionalism.
Returning the gift is not just good manners; it is how the biophysical world works. Balance in ecological systems arises from cycles of giving and taking. Reciprocity among all parts of the living Earth produces equilibrium, in which life as we know it can flourish.
A daily meditation practice, mindfulness and gratitude go hand in hand. A good way to strengthen mindfulness is to set aside some time every day to fully engage in mindfulness.
My goal is to have a daily gratitude practice. Here is a chant from the late Roshi Jion Susan Postal of the Empty Hands Buddhist Center:
For all beneficent karma, ever manifested through me, I am grateful.
May this gratitude be expressed through my body, speech, and mind.
With infinite kindness to the past,
Infinite service to the present,
Infinite responsibility to the future.
I’ve returned to the streets several times since the retreat. We’ve delivered coats and socks to the needy homeless three years in a row. Two years ago, I participated in ‘Everyone Counts’ which did a census of homeless men and women on the streets of Denver so charitable organizations and local and federal governments can know how many people require services. I met one young man who was discharged from the military in the previous six months and he is now living in a shelter.
Earlier this year, after the Covid crisis hit, I bought five dozen pairs of socks and brought them to people down on 16th Street. I went back the last weekend of September with $100 in one dollar bills and offered $2 to everyone who would sit for a photo portrait.
I met a young person whose skin was ravaged by the hardships she was enduring. I met several vets who served our country now living on the streets. So many homeless people are afflicted with illness. I met a disabled vet, confined to a wheelchair. I met a number of people who seemed to be on some psychoactive drugs. I talked with some people who, moments before, were talking with people I couldn’t see.
Bhikkhu Bodhi said, “The practice of giving is universally recognized as one of the most basic human virtues, a quality that testifies to the depth of one’s humanity and one’s capacity for self-transcendence. In the teaching of the Buddha, too, the practice of giving claims a place of special eminence, one which singles it out as being in a sense the foundation and seed of spiritual development.”
The UN estimates that to solve the hunger of all people in the world would require an investment of between 7 and 265 billion dollars. The lower range replaces deficient calories, the upper range helps correct the causes of poverty, enabling self-sufficiency. If the top 20 economies of the world, with a combined GDP of 70.14 trillion dollars, got together to solve this would take less than 0.3% of their combined GDP and we could establish self-sufficiency for these desperately poor and hungry people
Thich Nhat Hanh said that a “bodhisattva is someone who has compassion within himself or herself and who is able to make another person smile or help someone suffer less. Every one of us is capable of this.”
While I am not close to becoming a bodhisattva, I commit to helping others suffer less. I have a few suggestions if you are inclined to join me:
• Establish your own gratitude practice.
• Volunteer your time at any one of many homeless shelters or kitchens.
• Support a well qualified and highly rated charity. You can check out CharityNavigator.com, greatnonprofits.org or charitywatch.org to find charities worth supporting who manage their donations well, assess e.g. FoodBank of the Rockies, Denver Rescue Mission, MetroCaring and many others.
I am grateful to have been asked to share these thoughts this morning. I wish you a gratitude filled Thanksgiving.