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Occupying the Neighbor’hood

Occupying the Neighbor’hood


Following meditation, each morning I make my bows to the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. When I come to Sangha, I think, if I think at all, of my neighbors, those to whom I extend whatever wisdom and compassion I’ve garnered from the Buddha Way and who teach me what the Way is on the street. What I give out and what I get back fully engages me with the world. In fact, this apparently narrow sphere of operations has become my very field of Engaged Buddhism. As I leave my backyard meditation hut and advance into the word of activity, it greets me on my front doorstep. After decades of living in and around Dharma centers, practicing in the company of my Dharma brothers and sisters, I’m happily transplanted to Rose Drive (a real enough street although for confidentiality I’ve changed the name), a one-block community of some 70 homes, located in an East Oakland suburb and bordering the territory of one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. Thankfully, here we enjoy an oasis of relative peace, all credit due to generations of vigilance, tradition and the cohesion of a community characterized by diversity on all counts: age, ethnicity, place of origin, socioeconomics, education, sexual orientation and religion. As a Buddhist, not to mention a Buddhist of European descent, I’m a distinct minority, but that hardly enters into my neighborhood persona, known—the  same as for any of us—more for what I do than for what I believe. I sit in my hut in silence, unknown and unseen, as it should be. Active in the neighborhood, member of the board and contributor to the newsletter, as an aspiring Bodhisattva I’ve been fully employed within the manageable scope of the neighborhood—that is, up until Occupy Wall Street and our own local Occupy Oakland, has made me not so sure my employment is as full as it could be .


I’m sure as ever that our round of activities throughout the year—a neighborhood watch group, progressive dinners, a winter holiday program that invites in the larger community of Oakland, disaster preparedness, a directory, a newsletter——promote in their own modest ways the peace and protection, if not of all beings, then of a select number of them, a number whose faces and names I can keep in mind. But fulfilled as I personally am by what’s near at hand, it’s not clear to me, borrowing on the vocabulary of the occupy movement, what it means to fully occupy one’s neighborhood: not only to live in it and make the living as good as can be but to bring it more into the greater world beyond our bounds, a world in need of what we’re fortunate enough to have. In the last year the movement has brought front and center the complex truth that the ills of society are pervasive, interconnected and infect us all—or at least the 99% of us. That includes 100% of us on the block and we’re beginning to feel the fragility of our sanctuary. Foreclosures are cropping up, leaving vacancies in our cohesion. Police forces are being cut, local schools shut down, parolees from California’s overcrowded prisons dumped off just blocks away. Gradually our buffer against what’s going on around us is deteriorating. Being active in the neighborhood is a great deal in itself, but I’m thinking that perhaps there’s a greater deal possible: for us to pitch in at the seasonal workdays of our local school, make our voice as an association heard at city council meetings, participate in the crime prevention councils going on in adjoining neighborhoods.


And yet I’m not convinced that I, or we collectively, have the energy and time to up the ante from preservation of a local peace to peace and protection for all. Whether or not I’m operating out of prudence or a failure of heart, I’m daunted to have the conversation—yet—with most of my neighbors, for whom not rocking the boat, as low as it is in the water, is the thing. A conversation with the Buddha Sangha is easier to imagine, and so, with support from the editors of our newly published on-line version of Turning Wheel, I’m stepping up to pilot the Occupy Neighborhood blog. My intention is that while exploring possibilities of neighborhood as a field of engaged Buddhism, we get a sense for where one block ends and another begins. With that perspective, I trust we’ll return, a touch more informed and enlightened, to our blocks and villages, towns and cities: great or small, ours to occupy.


So then, my neighbor of the sangha’hood, just how do we do it?


Photo by The Fayj

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Comments (2)

  • Michael Brackney

    In short, my dear Patrick, we occupy our neighborhoods just as you describe: in occupying ourselves, responding to our neighbors as ourselves or in the words of Aitken Roshi responding to ourselves in our neighbors, friends, and family members who “guide us as we walk the ancient path”.

  • Patrick McMahon

    Since Michael joined the conversation, a story he sent me some time ago came to mind which takes this business of “occupying the neighborhood” to yet a more intimate level, occupying the position of one’s neighbor, however transient: “Seeing myself in his position,”as Michael puts it. I can imagine that the Good Samaritan might have been operating out of the insight into the interchangeability or helper and helped, benefactor and beneficiary. Thank you, Michael, for permitting me to redirect your story to the sangha’hood blog.

    Christmas Eve Story (2010)

    Walking down to FedEx–Kinkos in a light misty rain blown about by gusts of wind a few nights ago, tap tapping along with the point of my unfolded umbrella, I cut through the parking lot behind the corner store and came across a figure lying on the back sidewalk next to a dumpster on some pieces of cardboard extended outward from under the eaves all curled up in fetal position under a single, light cloth-for-blanket drawn completely overhead and tucked in all ’round gathering and soaking up all the water droplets blowing in. Seeing myself in his position I stopped to check on his condition, to make sure he was alive, heard him breathing, and saw him stir for a moment and then settle back into what seemed to me his miserable retreat, and then I turned and walked on wondering what I could do for him. After taking a few steps it occurred to me that I could at least go get my big plastic ground cloth for him out of the back of my car, and then I thought well yeah that’ll keep the rain off but what about the cold? — what about going and getting my dad’s spare blanket for him too? And what about food, and money, and then again, how much would it be OK for me to insinuate myself into this person’s life at all? Wondering deeply about all this I walked on to FedEx–Kinko’s, had a pleasant conversation with the clerk on duty, walked back to Trader Joe’s, bought some good stuff, and while chatting with the friendly young woman working at the check stand with line behind me I told her about my wonderings and decided to go for the ground cloth. In a matter of minutes I got it and was back behind the corner store, standing once again beside the huddled figure. Again he stirred, a bit more than before, and this time I asked him softly, “Hey dude you OK?”, and when he poked his head out blearily I told him what I’d brought for him and asked him if he’d like to have it, to which he replied “Sure”, and as I moved to spread it over him he pulled back into his cocoon leaving me to tuck it in under his curled up feet, then up on the right under his bended knees, and finally over on the left under his butt, as though he were one of my own children — and that was all. In the morning I looked down at the spot from the apartment building nearby where I live with my old dad and saw that he had gone and left nothing behind.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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