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Sweating Buddha

“In charity there can be no excess and neither man nor angels can come to any danger by it.”

– Sir Francis Bacon

Marcus has a profound odor. He stinks.

It’s 93 degrees with high humidity in New York City and Marcus is wearing every item of clothing he owns. This includes a heavy winter coat and a hat. He is sweating in the sun as he sits in a bus stop shelter. I notice him as I walk by and he catches my eye.

I pretend that he hasn’t caught my eye. I don’t want him to know that I have seen him, that I can smell him. I am busy and focused as I consult my dying phone, trying to find the best walking route to Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street where I am going for dinner. The tavern is New York’s oldest and most historic restaurant and a National Landmark. It is most famous as the site where, on December 4, 1783, George Washington gathered a group of his officers, nine days after the last of the British troops left American soil, to thank them for their service and bid them an emotional farewell. The tavern also serves good food.

I am walking in the heat, having abandoned my Citi Bike rental. I have elected to not take a taxi or the subway in some poorly conceived idea this will help me stay in shape and save money. I am perpetually penny wise and pound foolish. Although my hotel stay is a perk from my Bonvoy credit card, parking overnight cost me fifty dollars. At Fraunces Tavern I will spend eighty-eight dollars for “Filet Mignon on a Stone” with truffled spinach mashed potatoes, button mushrooms and pearl onions followed by an espresso, no dessert. My foregoing of dessert, which is somewhat of a rarity, is a variation called calorie wise and pound foolish.

I have taken approximately fifteen steps past where Marcus is sitting before I stop. Something doesn’t feel right and I need to do something about it. Whether this something is guilt, shame, or compassion, I don’t know, but it is working me over and I struggle to find release. I stand there in the heat and my uncertainty and inaction begin to cause me even more distress. I cannot walk on in peace and somehow homeless Marcus is to blame. I also realize that many of my greatest sorrows are for moments I did not act when the situation called for it. I am too often a coward.

But, what is this fellow to me? I am not his friend. I have never seen him before. I don’t care to make his acquaintance. And I don’t feel as if this is a case of my being noble, Christian, or kind. I am behaving like a man whose carrion thoughts are bothered by buzzing flies and I must swat at them to make them go away. As I turn around and head back toward Marcus, I am not thinking generous thoughts. I just want the buzzing in my head to stop.

Arriving at the stop I extend my palm; Marcus takes it and we shake hands. As my hearing is poor, I lean in and ask him his name. The smell is powerful. He looks up with sad, watery eyes and mumbles his name.

“How are you Martin?”

He corrects me. “It’s Marcus.”

“I’m sorry, how are you Marcus?”

He doesn’t respond. It’s actually a rather stupid question, I can see quite clearly that he is not all right and no amount of his explaining will clarify the picture I see of a fellow human being in distress.

I reach in my pocket for my cash, hand him twenty dollars and wish him well. He thanks me and then mentions that he needs new shoes. I can see this as he points to his feet. But, I have to get going. I tell him that’s the best I can do right now which, of course, is a patent lie. Well, it’s a sort of a lie. It is true it’s the best I am ‘willing’ to do right now, but not because of resource constraints. It’s because I am too often a man of limited objectives, not larger spiritual aspirations. I also realize that I have been here for ten minutes and I don’t want to spend more time or money. This genuinely troubles me most of the time but I have work arounds to assuage my guilt. I shake his hand again and say goodbye. He thanks me and says “God bless” as I walk away.

This particular fly has been swatted but I sense a nest has been disturbed in my being (my head? my gut?) as I continue to try and find the restaurant. My phone dies in the next few minutes and I lose my Google Maps connection. I am lost without it. In one of my recently adopted new behaviors, I ask for help. I walk up to a young couple standing on the street and ask them if they might Google the restaurant location and provide me directions. The young man gives me a tentative look but when I tell him the name of the restaurant, he lights up.

“It’s right ahead. See that scaffolding? That’s it. It’s an excellent restaurant, we have just eaten there; you will love it. George Washington once gave a speech there.”

I thank him and we part. This is the third time on this visit that I have asked for help which is a new record for me. I am proud of myself. I arrive and immediately go to the restroom to wash my hands, motivated by my culturally induced fear that I have been contaminated from shaking hands with the homeless. I order dinner and ask the waiter if he might have a charger as my phone is dead. Request for help #4. He takes my phone and is gone for a good while but returns with a Samsung charger and shows me where the electrical outlet is. I am beginning to enjoy asking for help.

Marcus was the second of four people I gave twenty dollars to during this weekend trip. Earlier that day, I gave twenty dollars to Jesu who noticed me eating ice cream while sitting on the stoop on MacDougal Street. At first he walked past but then turned around, walked back, and sat down right next to me, disturbingly close. Sweat was running down his face as he turned to me.

“Hello my friend, how are you?”

I replied that I was fine and enjoying my ice cream. In the back of my head there is a small fear. I wonder if I am about to get hurt but the thought quickly passes as MacDougal Street is very crowded and a robbery or mugging is very unlikely.

“Can you please spare a dollar for a bowl of soup as I haven’t eaten all day?”

I reply, “Why on earth would you want a bowl of soup on such a terribly hot day?”

Jesu just smiles back at me.

I give him twenty dollars and tell him to buy himself a proper meal. He smiles again, says “God Bless”, shakes my hand and leaves without turning around. I watch him walk away and then return to my ice cream. Two young women are passing by and I ask if they will take my picture. The younger one smiles and says sure, snaps four photos and hands me back my phone as her friend looks on with alarm. She then asks what sort of ice cream I am eating and wishes me a pleasant afternoon. The photo captures me in a moment made beautiful by giving and receiving.

The next day, on my way to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Park Avenue Amory, John is the third fellow I meet. John is an army veteran sitting on the sidewalk leaning against a trash bin. I know he is a veteran because he has a sign that says so. It also says he could use any donations offered. I walk by him, just like Marcus the previous day, and pretend I don’t see him. I had just stopped at the Morton Williams Market on 3rd avenue to pick up a cold bottle of San Pellegrino and sesame noodles as a snack before seeing the play. I find a bench outside what appears to be a senior living high rise off 2nd avenue and sit down to enjoy my snack. A very old woman is also sitting on the bench, attended by a young woman. When I sit down the young woman gives me “the eye” as if to say, you don’t belong here.

I finish my snack and consider finding a different route so as not to pass John, but the flies are once again buzzing in my head and besides, I have mapped out my path and I don’t feel like recalculating. As I pass by John and toss my trash in the garbage bin, I notice that he has a nice haircut and that he does not look up at anyone. His gaze is sharply focused on the ground six inches in front of his sign. I extend my hand and ask him his name. He looks up, we shake hands, and he whispers “John”, like he is wounded. I give him twenty dollars. He thanks me and turns his gaze back to the ground. He does not bless me.

My final encounter was with Vincent, who was lying on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk. He wore only sandals, a pair of dirty slacks and no shirt. He was hot but dressed for the weather. There were five or six empty plastic water bottles around him and a sign asking for money. I stopped in front of him and, invoking my usual protocol, I shook his hand and asked him his name. He listlessly responded, “Vincent”. I gave him twenty dollars. He didn’t thank me. He gave me a look that I took to mean that he appreciated the gift but he didn’t feel obligated to thank me for something that one ought to do for fellow humans in distress. He just looked away and I continued walking.

I am now eighty dollars deep in charitable giving with no receipts to accompany my tax filings. I’d like to think that I have done some good in the world for these four fellows, but it’s hard for me to believe that twenty dollars is likely to change one’s life. But for me, money is not the critical component in these exchanges. It’s the physical connection made by shaking hands and asking the invisible to say their name. It’s to acknowledge their existence. We can’t help one another if we can’t see one another.

Before returning home, I stop at The Asia Society on Park Avenue, one of my favorite destinations in the city. After paying the six-dollar senior entry fee, I tour two exhibits (one disturbing, one fun) and then stop in the gift shop where I purchase two small sitting Buddhas and three small Tibetan bells to hang on my garden gate. The total cost is forty-four dollars and ten cents. This is for stuff I want but really don’t need, which provides a somewhat shameful indicator of my deeper sentiments and fodder for the flies always buzzing in my head. They are pesky but helpful.

The sweaty, smelly, homeless possess Buddha nature (or the Christ within) just as you and I. This spirit within can be realized by all sentient beings. We are all called to be a light in the world. Some are called to be bodhisattvas. For me, I have a dimmer switch that I turn up or down because it’s hard work to keep spirit flowing. Really hard work. There’s always a call to action, to do something specific and to extend oneself beyond customary constraining limits. On biblical streets, the apostle Matthew suggested that if you passed by someone who wanted your tunic you should let them have your cloak as well, perhaps even your shoes?

If I am to grow spiritually, and this is always optional, I must be willing to abandon limited objectives for greater spiritual objectives. I must risk going toward the cliff’s edge of charity and compassion and jump, trusting that in doing so, I won’t get hurt even as I fall. For we are forever falling and we are forever being caught.

But again, I am too often a coward. I am not yet that brave. I know the risks of leaping but I am beginning to better understand the greater risks of inaction and half measures. Perhaps if I jump, I will leave the buzzing flies behind.

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