Taking Action on Hunger

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.

Bearing Witness

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.

Cultivating Gratitude

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, or 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.

You Have to Say Something

By Karin Ryuku Kempe

I feel that all of us are practicing pretty hard right now and much of what we are experiencing is our difficulties, our differences. We try to practice right speech, speech that is truthful yet respectful, timely and clear. It would be nice I suppose if our words could always soothe, support harmony and never cause pain. But there are times when even our most sincere efforts may hurt, even sow division, and when it appears that there is no way forward without potential harm – times when, as Katagiri Roshi said, “You have to say something.”

As a community, we are struggling with this now. Probably some of you, like me, can only sleep every other night. We second-guess ourselves, and even more, we second-guess our practice and this training path and where it leads. We may feel disillusioned, angry and reactive, or misunderstood, ignored. Where is our place of refuge, how do we hold our seat? You already know the answer. It’s right here, right in the flame where we find ourselves.

Dogen has a quote important to me: “When the truth does not fill our body and mind, we think that we have enough. When the truth fills our body and mind, we realize that something is missing.” When we think we have all the answers, especially if there is a subtle sense of being righteous, we need to ask, have we stepped off the path? And when we very much feel that something is missing, that sense that something may be incomplete or off? There, right there is our place to look with patience and trust, the place to question.

What is it we don’t want to see? What is fueling our strong opinions and reactions, the ones that arise with such immediacy that we are overrun? Is it grief, loss, an aching heart? A sense of injustice, estrangement or our own secret shame? Or just feeling overwhelmed? Is it possible to look with open eyes, become transparent to ourselves, so that we can see ourselves, even see the cloud of our own conditioning? This doesn’t mean that we are off the hook and don’t respond, that we don’t do our best to come forth in a difficult situation. But it does mean that we speak from a place which is open to possibility, filled with heart, respectful of life and of others.

This is the time to practice with great gentleness, with love. To let your posture be relaxed and receptive, maybe with open hands, to appreciate the many small beauties of each day, to be in contact with family and the friends you love. To reach out, if you can, to those who are suffering. And yes, to stay aware of the wider discussion. Because a community can only heal through upheaval by the doorway of kindness aligned with honesty in our relationships. Through remembering and risking to trust…and making amends.

Facing who and what I am, facing who and what you are, can be one of the deepest forms of exertion, because it asks of us to give up our limited labels and ideas about ourselves and about other people. Can we remember that, as John Welwood wrote, “We are not just humans learning to become buddhas, but also buddhas waking up in human form, learning to become fully human?”

Another teacher sent me a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye (from Words Under the Words), good for these times:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Longing to Heal

By Peggy Metta Sheehan

Mosquitos love me. And last week I was doing a good deal of scratching, scratching in my sleep, at work, in the shower. There is something quite satisfying about scratching an itch, too hard to stop at times. I would stop only to feel a stronger urge that I could not resist, and scratch away again. However, I could begin to notice when I’d crossed the line: Uh-oh, now it’s bleeding and oozing. Okay, stop! And I could. Often I can catch myself before that point, but not always.

You might be familiar with Pema Chödrön’s wonderful teaching on shenpa in Getting Unstuck. Shenpa refers to becoming hooked, and to this urge to move, to scratch the itch, and to reinforce the habit of moving and scratching by moving and scratching. Tibetan teachers have described the human condition as children having a bad case of scabies, being old enough to scratch, but not old enough to know that scratching spreads the scabies.

Most importantly, it is said that two conditions are needed to heal. First, a desire to heal. Second, enough love for oneself to begin the process.

Most find their way to a meditation center such as ours having touched the first, a deep and profound longing to heal, to find a true place of refuge that is the ultimate healing. Yet, this deep and profound longing, though it exists within each of us, does not belong to us as individuals. We awaken together in community, as community. This sangha and the mahasangha, the earth, moon and stars, rely upon each other, cannot stand alone and will only awaken together. I hope you find that a relief. It’s not up to you alone—never has been, never will be.

Now, how about the second necessary ingredient—enough love for oneself to get started? What is enough love? Well, just enough to get started. That’s all you need, and from there it grows exponentially in community, in sangha.

That has been obvious in these past few weeks. There is love and there is longing. Something essential is occurring in our community. It is not to be feared but rather welcomed and embraced. There is love and there is longing. There is love for each other, for our strengths and our weaknesses, for heartaches, miscommunications, for integrity and principles, for standing together and supporting one another in uniqueness and difference. And there is longing. Longing to stand up, to grow our hearts and our humanity. Longing to heal the disease of separation and the sickness of injustice and delusion. The forces of love and longing are converging, and we can trust what will unfold. Together, we and all beings heal.