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Bearing Witness: Austin Street Retreat 2005

Report By Hope Malkan

Bearing witness is the opposite of denial. We all tend to look the other way. That’s not what Buddhism is about. — Kojin John Dinsmore, Austin Zen Center

Last month fourteen people set out on foot from the Shambhala Center in the midst of Austin’s triple digit heat wave with the intention of, as one participant put it, “seeking insight into a world [we’d] only seen through a windshield.” We were men and women ranging in age from our mid-twenties to mid-fifties, many of us afraid of the physical challenges we would face in the next four days, and all of us determined in our intention not to look away from society’s class of untouchables, the homeless, but rather to join them where they are—the streets.

We headed downtown to 6th and Red River, ground zero for homelessness in Austin, with services like The Salvation Army, ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless), Caritas, and Trinity House all in close proximity. Despite preparations for this “plunge” into homelessness (the men hadn’t shaved for a week, and none of us had showered or washed our hair in days) we were relatively clean and thoroughly green. When we rounded the corner at 7th we were broadsided. In the alleyway between The Salvation Army and ARCH roughly two hundred people were waiting in a jumbled line, sitting, lying, standing, and smoking. They cadged cigarettes from one another or slumped against the wall with the thousand yard stare. The heat radiated off the asphalt, settled between the two buildings and smothered us. It smelled of urine. One of the retreatants called it “a human junkyard.”

We walked towards the back door to The Sally, down the line of bodies we would later refer to as the gauntlet. A guy catcalled. Another tried to sell me crack. By the time I got inside and upstairs to the dining hall I was shaking. I sat in stony silence at a round table with three other guys, my dinner untouched in front of me. Then one of them got up, folded the newspaper he’d been reading, and sat down at an old upright piano against the wall. He started noodling around, improvising some light jazz tunes. I took a deep breath and my whole body relaxed. I was the only one listening and watching him play. This private concert was my first introduction to what Fleet calls “the generosity of the streets.” It would always come in the most unexpected of ways.

For most of us this rough introduction was the last time we would feel so alienated from the Street. From here on out we began to merge with those standing in lines, carrying packs or plastic bags, and stinking of sweat and body scum. We gradually identified less with our peers, those clean and pressed people stopping at Starbuck’s for a latte on the way to work, and more and more with the street people with whom we shared meals, conversations or cigarettes. Pat Yingst, a member of the Austin Zen Center, said it became difficult for her to make eye contact with “privileged people,” but that she found her connection with the street people just as valuable–perhaps even more valuable, since these were the ones who told us where the grub was good, how to avoid the law or find a cup of coffee.

In fact, the most memorable generosity we witnessed was from the homeless themselves: a bag lady at a bus stop scrounged change to give to a panhandler, a homeless guy gave me several copies of the newspaper, “The Austin Advocate,” to sell on the street for change, and a woman at a soup kitchen gave up her seat at the breakfast table thinking that Jeff Abrams and his retreat “buddy,” June Caine, were married and insisting that they sit together. The last day of the Retreat an article about us appeared in the Austin American Statesman. Tom Broughton, a participant from outside of College Station, was featured in a photograph on the front page of the Lifestyle section. A guy at the ARCH where we went for morning coffee recognized Tom from the paper and walked up to him. He said, “I’m a Buddhist too,” and pressed something into Tom’s hand. It was a mala. Jeff, a mediator who came from Dallas to join the Retreat, remarked that it was the same “internal shift” that distanced us from our daily lives and attuned us more to life on the streets that enabled us to see the dignity of many of the people there.

But we were hard pressed to find that dignity for ourselves when it came time to seek out the generosity of others. Fleet and Genro asked us to practice panhandling one day in order to bear witness to the discomfort of those we asked for money and our own discomfort in asking. People turned away from us and we felt shunned. They ignored us in droves and we felt invisible. They became upset and irritated by our request, clearly sending the message that we were violating them, and we felt guilty. It was not easy, and many of us were unable to bring ourselves to do it. I panhandled by the freeway for an hour and a half and didn’t get so much as a quarter. What I did get was advice from a fellow panhandler passing by who suggested that the exit ramp at Oltorf was a far more lucrative location. I thanked him profusely.

For the same reason the “raising of a mala” which preceded the Retreat may have actually proven to be the hardest part. Bernie Glassman, founder of the Zen Peacemaker Order, planned it that way. He designed the fundraising to mimic monks’ begging. Each participant is to solicit 18 small donations and one large one. “It brings up vulnerability, dependency, and rejection…and we’re afraid of rejection,” he relates in his book, “Bearing Witness.” For many of us the process seemed impossible. Ken Owen said he was “stymied” by the prospect of raising that amount of money, and John Dinsmore said that asking for any amount was too hard for him. Many of us raised partial malas. Among the Retreat participants only Jeff Abrams raised the full mala along Glassman’s guidelines, getting over $3,600 by asking unabashedly for what he needed. He said the key was asking potential donors for the specific amount, in this case $108 each. Bernie Glassman says that the practice is meant to remind us “what it’s like to need and ask for someone’s help.” In fact, he does not allow people to go out on the Retreat if their mala is incomplete. In retrospect, as the organizer, I would begin to work with people on this practice months before the Retreat to enable everyone to be successful. “It’s important,” Bernie says, “When we don’t ask, we don’t let others give.”

Donations have been made to Trinity House and Angel House on behalf of Peacemaker Institute Colorado.

I asked Retreat participants to recall some of the images that have stayed with them. Pat remembers a man at her dining table at the Salvation Army that first night, shaking violently while trying to read the label on a bottle of medication. “He had the most beautiful face,” she said. Kelly Hill, a recent transplant to Austin from Boulder and a former Denver Street Retreater, went as far as to say she’d been “haunted” by the faces of several whom she’d met on the street. One day she stood in line next to a woman in her mid-fifties, waiting for breakfast at the Trinity Center. The woman turned to Kelly saying, “I’ve never been homeless before and I’m really scared.” Over the next few days Kelly talked more with her about how she came to be on the streets. “I haven’t been able to stop seeing her face,” Kelly said.

Ken Owen, a member of both the Austin Shambhala and Zen Centers, recalled a young man nodding off across from him at the breakfast table. He wore a big backpack and carried a smaller bag that he would periodically open and paw through, scattering laundry, bottles of Vicodin, and a baggie of heroin onto the table. He’d replace everything until he nodded off again. He held a Diet Coke in his hand that would tilt and spill each time he began to slump. Then he’d abruptly reawaken with the need to reassure himself that everything was still there and the process would repeat. Ken remarked that this man offered an object lesson in the almost psychotic need to “find ground,” a neurosis to which none of us are immune.

For John Dinsmore the most lasting image was of “a lot of walking,” and it seems we were constantly on the move seeking out meals, a restroom, or a place to sleep, in what Dinsmore calls “the non-problematic dealing with things.” This reconnection with the basic simplicity of life is something several retreatants pointed out. Pat Yingst said she was surprised by “how little we really need,” and that she “enjoyed the realization that I could just lie down on the ground and go to sleep.” John, who lives at the Austin Zen Center and can fit all his worldly possessions into two suitcases, said this Retreat took things one step further for him, and that he realized that the things “we generally think we need don’t make a lot of sense.” Yingst elaborated, “We think it’s normal to have a house that takes tremendous energy to maintain. Why should we be surprised that a certain segment of the population doesn’t do that?”

I was struck by meeting Spoons. We ate dinner together at the University Baptist Church. I don’t know if he has ever had a fixed domicile; obtaining one does not seem high on his list of priorities. Spoons has been among the transients here in Austin since the 60’s. He likes nothing better than to camp out undisturbed by the police and meet up with his “Breakfast Club” buddies in the morning. They pool their change and each buy a beer while they shoot the breeze over “breakfast,” relating yesterday’s events. Spoons has a set of spoons with which he accompanies his boom box. He makes enough cash for cigarettes and beer. He also has nine recent citations from the local police for violations ranging from illegal panhandling to public intoxication—most are for public intoxication. Spoons’ attitude couldn’t have been more upbeat. Figuring it had gotten a little hot for him in his hometown, he was planning to thumb to North Carolina. Greensboro is reputed to be downright hospitable toward the homeless, and he’s going to take them up on their hospitality.

Kelly Hill reacted differently to the need to be constantly on the move, and was struck by “how hard it is to be homeless.” She recalls meeting a homeless woman who’d dozed off at a Congress Ave. bus stop and whose ribs were bruised from the proddings of police nightsticks jarring her from sleep. But on one early morning walk heading downtown across the Congress Ave. bridge from Auditorium Shores where we’d spent the night, I saw a homeless man stretched out on the lush green lawn at Congress and 2nd St., peacefully asleep with his head on his pack. Behind him a sign announced his host and the proprietor– Merrill Lynch—in an unexpected display of generosity.

For some, nothing was more onerous than the lack of decent food. Shambhalians Karuna Ananda and Shawn Greathouse both remarked on the poor quality of the soup kitchen meals. “Some of the meals are not fit for human consumption,” said Shawn, adding, “These people are treated like they’re less than, when a lot of them on a heart level are more than.” While Kelly Hill said that no one on the Denver Street Retreat goes hungry because of the abundance of food and snacks, I simply choose to go without the slop that was offered and ignore my hunger, not eating a full meal until lunch the last day when we discovered the Angel House east of I-35 on Caeser Chavez. There it appeared that volunteers from the Junior League were dishing out a hearty homemade soup, and I engaged in warm conversation with several tablemates, in contrast to the isolation and tense silence that characterized meals at Caritas or The Sally. Perhaps Shawn is right in his observation that when service providers treat their client population as “less than” they create an atmosphere in which we treat each other that way too. Choosing to live on the streets for a week is a “plunge” practice developed by the Zen Peacemaker Order to instruct social activists and Buddhists in the three tenets of the Order: not knowing, bearing witness, and loving action. In this the Retreat bore abundant fruit. Any retreat encourages the experience of groundlessness, the realization that there is nothing holding you up; but as John Dinsmore pointed out, “This practice puts you there very quickly. Everything that’s making you feel secure is just imagined.” Further, the simplicity imposed by homelessness assures that there is little else to do other than bear witness to what is going on around you or inside you. For Tom Broughton it was a four day walking mediation that opened up new awareness. “My mind never wandered off into anything else. I was always present in the experience, alert to the here and now,” he concluded.

From that newfound openness, loving action seemed to arise spontaneously. Sharing spare change, cigarettes or extra food, and lending a respectful ear for listening became our medium of exchange with those we met. We brought their stories back with us, and many of us are inspired to keep the connection alive. Ken Owen says that everyday since the Retreat he takes the Ten Precepts (see end of article) and then observes throughout the day where and how he offends them. He is also more disciplined about his meditation practice. Jeff Abrams plans to join the group Bearing Witness at Auschwitz in November with Genro. June Caine, who traveled from Tennessee to do the Retreat, was moved by the quality of deep listening in our Council Circles each day, and is committed to creating a structure for that kind of support at home. She will be attending the Peacemaker Training program with Fleet in Boulder. Kelly’s response was that of a seasoned activist, asking herself what unmet needs she saw and how they can best be addressed: “It seems so huge and overwhelming sometimes, and other times it seems like one little thing would help.” She has begun the process of incorporating a non-profit and is accepting donations to set up a Sunday breakfast for the homeless.

Everyone who participated said they would do it again. Some of the responses I received: “in a heartbeat,” “absolutely,” and “not only yes, but hell yes.” It seems we found a path with heart into an “intimate connection with the suffering of the world.” Unexpectedly, we found much joy there.

“In Buddhism you face your own demons and those of the  world, and you start from there.” ~ Kojin John Dinsmore Austin Zen Center

1. Not killing 2. Not stealing 3. Chaste conduct 4. Not lying 5. Not being deluded 6. Not talking about others’ faults 7. Not elevating self over others 8. Not being stingy 9. Not being angry 10. Not thinking ill of the three treasures.


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