On March 19th, my class took a trip to LA’s Skid Row to act as observers. We were instructed not to bring food or clothing or any other materials to hand out. This is actually a good rule of thumb for anyone entering Skid Row for the first time. Charity is a wonderful endeavor of course, but it is best to arrange charitable offerings or donations through an established charitable group. Otherwise, despite good intentions, more harm may come than good from whatever items are distributed.
I woke up early that day and took a bus from Rosemead to Pershing Square. I opted not to take my
man-purse, ahem… “male tote-bag” which I usually use to carry my tablet, mālā, and school supplies. Instead I packed simply bringing only one book of scripture to read on the bus. The scripture I selected that day was a special copy I have of the Principle Book of Won Buddhism (圓佛教正典/원불교 정전). The copy is written in the old Korean writing system known as the “Korean Mixed Script System” (國漢文混用/국한문혼용) which was used throughout Korean history up until the 1970s when it started falling out of use. To explain it simply, using this system, loan words from Chinese (about 70% of literary Korean) are written in Chinese characters, whereas native Korean words are written in the Hangul alphabet. This is my preferred system to read Korean in because of my Chinese language background. I tend to read faster and with higher comprehension using the mixed script than I do with pure Hangul (phonics only; etymology only indicated through spelling).
I had about a forty minute bus ride which gave me time to read through some of my favorite sections I like to study. I almost always begin with the Doctrinal Chart which I regard as the essence of Won Buddhism. I read through a number of sections, but one particular part stood out in my mind. Towards the end of Chapter One: The Founding Motive of the Teaching, the final paragraph describes the founding motive as “expanding spiritual power and conquering material power.” The ultimate expression of this is supposed to result in “a vast and immeasurable paradise.” “Paradise” (樂園/낙원) always struck me as an interesting and provocative choice of words. Traditional Buddhism certainly has a slew of Pure Lands (極樂世界/凈土/ sukhāvatī/ buddha-kṣetra) and Heavens (天界/ devaloka), but “Paradise” has a decidedly Abrahamic connotation. When I project current trends out far enough into the future, I do not envision a utopia or dystopia. Instead I find myself contemplating “extropia.” Noted Transhumanist Max More defines “extropia” as a future world characterized by its “ever-receding stretch goals for society.” For me, this seems very close to what Founding Master Sotaesan probably meant when he used the term “paradise.” Many Transhumanists believe extropia will be brought about through technological advancements alone. The Founding Master believed it would take “faith in a religion based on truth and training in morality based on facts.” I think it will probably take a bit of both, but “faith in a religion based on truth” might have to be re-engendered as ” a commitment to a lifestyle based on authenticity.” I would love to see the words “faith” and “religion” get de-stigmatized, but it is an uphill battle that I and like-minded others will probably lose in the decades to come.
With these thoughts playing in my mind, I walked from the bus stop to Pershing Square. After arriving, I quickly met up with my professor, Reverend Danny Fisher and my classmates. Danny asked myself and another classmate if we could act as two extra sets of eyes by walking at the back of the group while Danny walked in front. We all understood the implication. We knew that, in all likelihood, there would be no problems, but, just the same, Skid Row has its dangers and in terms of security, proceeding with caution made perfect sense.
While still in Pershing Square, a few presumably homeless people wandered around the perimeter of the square. Once we were ready to start our brief tour of Skid Row, we exited Pershing Square and began walking through the end of the jewelry district which lead right into the heart of Skid Row. The poor and the homeless grew in numbers with each street we passed. We must have looked quite strange to them; a group of monks, a nun, a teacher, and students.
We tried to keep a forward momentum throughout our stay. We did not linger in any areas, and we passed through each location quite quickly. Just the same, it was had to keep such a large group together since we had to cross so many streets. Some of my classmates towards the back of the group nearly feel behind “the extra two sets of eyes.” We reminded them that they had to keep ahead of us, and the group did stay together fairly well throughout the morning.
There was one heavily populated street we passed down with a series of tents that reeked of urine. I involuntarily began gently dry-heaving; which quickly escalated, but I did my best not to draw attention to myself. We kept moving forward. In Chinese Folk Religion (a lively mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, and various other Chinese occult beliefs), there are two popular conceptions of Hell both of which blend, borrow, and expand upon Taoist Hells and Buddhist Narakas. One conception of Hell is “The Ten Halls of King Yama (十殿閻羅王)” and the other is “The Eighteen Levels of Hell (十八層地獄).” The second hall of Hell in “The Ten Halls of King Yama” is presided over by King Chujiang (楚江王) who is in charge of sixteen minor hells. The second hell in that grouping is called “The Minor Hell of Mud Composed of Feces and Urine (糞尿泥小地獄).” There was something undeniably hellish about this street. My heart went out to the tortured inhabitants of those tents and tarps.
As we walked on slowly the locals began interacting with us. It started with simple greetings. Just a “hello” or “good morning” here or there. One man saw some of the Thai and Vietnamese Venerables in our class and greeted them with “nǐ hǎo (你好)，” the standard Chinese greeting. Evidence of drug use was present, but by no means, rampant in Skid Row. There were beer bottles and cans in some locations, cigarette butts, and the occasional waft of marijuana. We passed by several different missions such as “Union Rescue Mission” and “Midnight Mission.” As we crossed one of the streets, a man called out to us, “We got bills that need to be paid.” Some others greeted us briefly and asked the occasional question like what group we were with or, noticing our school’s emblem on our clothes or bags, they might ask about our school. Everyone who approached us was courteous and friendly.
Towards our departure from Skid Row, one of the Thai Venerables stopped to take a picture of a public restroom. A local lady yelled at him in anger and frustration. She shouted something along the lines of “Why would any one want a picture of that?” We moved along making our way towards LA Public Library. After arriving, we began debriefing, and shortly thereafter, a middle-aged local man approached the Venerables in our group and asked to speak to the wisest among them. The group volunteered our Vietnamese nun for his query. The man brought out a book he had on Buddhism and pointed to a picture of a man in meditation. He asked about the location of the “seat of the soul.” Our Venerable pointed to a spot on the drawing that I could not quite see from my vantage point. He told her where Muslims believe the “seat of the soul” resides, and his phrasing implied that he was Muslim. He was genuinely interested in her answer though, and he was not looking to debate her on the topic. He came back about a minute later and asked her if her answer came from intellectual learning or her own experience. She replied that she experiential knowledge that it was true. Satisfied, he walked away.
This trip left me pondering the current hells of poverty in America, and wondering about the ways in which a future extropia might be able to alleviate sever forms of material poverty. For more details about my thoughts on that matter, please read my previous entry in this series which can be found here:
Waiting for the future is never an option though. I also began to think about what could be done in the here and now. This daunting challenge followed me as I left Skid Row.
Notes on this entry:
*I did not use any of my classmates’ names out of respect for their anonymity. My own name is likewise not used. Reverend Danny Fisher’s name was used because he already has an online presence, and as far as I know, is comfortable with his real name being used online.
*All the quoted sections from Won Buddhist scripture are not my own translations, but instead were taken directly from the English translation released by “The Committee for the Authorized Translations of Won Buddhist Scriptures (원불교 교서 정역위웡회)”
*The terms regarding the hells from Chinese Folk Religion were my own spontaneous translations, but might be similar to other existing translations; I did not check or compare.
*The picture I used has been altered to avoid any potential copyright infringements, but I doubt the original poster has copyrighted the image. The poster seems to just be a native tourist in Japan who, while in the city of Izu in the Shizuoka Prefecture, visited “The Pure Land Garden of Izu (伊豆極楽苑)” which is famous for its “Tour of the Pure Lands and Hells (地獄極楽めぐり).” The writing I added at the bottom of the picture identifies it as “A River of Urine, Feces, and Mud (糞尿と泥の河).”