Feeling a little sticky with sweat and having butterflies in his stomach, Anatta was getting anxious and slightly panicky. He realized the irony of racing to the San Francisco Zen Center, but he could not help himself. He was rushing to get there, just so he could sit still in silence to calm his mind, supposedly to see “the nature of reality” as he had read somewhere. It wasn’t the only irony, to be sure, and he got agitated thinking he was running late, though he was actually on time as usual.
Exiting the MUNI station, as Anatta did each week, he was still in his own city, yet in a seemingly different world. Feeling the cool fog on his face, his eyes were struck by the sad sight, and then the awful smell, of so many homeless people in Civic Center. Here he was in a city — indeed, a state, country, and world — with such wealth and abundance, a surplus of everything for those who could afford them, alongside a dearth of everything for those who could not. He was confident that no one needed to be hungry or homeless, without a comfortable place to sleep. “Can you spare a dollar?” a dirty and disheveled man plaintively asked him from the ground. Even knowing about it all too well, each time he personally witnessed the desperation, passed a person lying on the ground with litter blowing by, and was confronted with this harsh unnecessary reality, he was thrown into cognitive dissonance. No matter the reasons, nothing made sense to him about so many people living and suffering on the street. Instead of money, he handed the man his peanut butter chocolate Power Bar, unsure if he was doing so for the man or himself.
Anatta was not rich, but he recognized his privilege of being a middle-class American and having the freedom to be able to sit quietly with other like-minded people in the Zen Center, especially in the middle of a weekday. He recently learned about the concept of privilege — specifically male privilege but also white privilege and various other forms — from a feminist conference he attended. Anatta understood that he was never targeted or discriminated against because of his class, race, or sex, though he still didn’t feel privileged.
In his heart, Anatta wanted to give each homeless person all of the money he had. Even more than that somehow. He would buy their Street Sheet newspaper, sometimes give food and snacks, but he otherwise chose to not give individuals money. Rather, Anatta would regularly donate to organizations such as the Coalition on Homelessness and the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. He also donated to Food Not Bombs and Curry Without Worry, appreciating the compassionate work their volunteers do. In addition to money, he would also share his old laptops, iPads, and iPhones with those organizations, whenever he upgraded to new ones.
Despite taking the Buddhist name Anatta, he didn’t really know too much about Buddhism, having never formally studied it, but he knew and practiced the basics, including regular meditation. Although there was of course much more to learn, he felt like he knew enough for now. And he learned that each moment is now, so he was satisfied with himself.
Anatta understood that the Buddha taught that pain was universal, but everyone could overcome suffering. And the way to transcend suffering is through wise thought, wise speech, and wise action, including regular meditation and active compassion for all beings, whether he liked them or not, indeed whether they were human or not. Anatta simply wanted to observe and accept the reality of the world, even as he sought to change some unfortunate aspects of it.
Easily making it on time to the Zen Center on Page Street, Anatta entered the zendo, or meditation room, feeling much warmer after rushing there. One acquaintance cheerfully greeted him, saying “Hi, Sunyata!” He didn’t know if he should correct her. Quickly lost in thought, Anatta wondered: “Did she make a simple mistake? Am I being teased? Is it a test?” He recognized that Emptiness (Sunyata) was not really so different from Non-Self (Anatta), the name he had chosen for himself, and he knew from Zen Buddhism that he wasn’t his name nor someone’s perception of him, and shouldn’t be attached regardless. Actually, it bothered him that it bothered him, yet another irony he experienced.
He briefly chatted with another practitioner, making small talk, then settled into his regular spot. Anatta wondered about being attached to his usual place to sit. It wasn’t actually his, he realized. As the abbess delivered her opening remarks, the weekly test of the city’s emergency siren wailed in the distance, followed by some garbled words of warning. As he always did when this happened, Anatta said to himself, “Tuesday at noon,”,which is when the weekly test occurred, and doing so somehow brought him a small sense of peace, like a weekly mini-mantra or micro-meditation, connecting him in some way with so many others in this remarkable city.
Sitting on his zafu and zabuton — his meditation pillows — Anatta folded himself into a comfortable position. His mind was calming down, emptying itself as much as possible, and he started his zazen meditation. He settled in quickly and well, so he felt proud of himself. But he immediately thought he shouldn’t be so prideful, which led him to remind himself not to be self-critical, which itself sounded self-critical to him. “Stop right there!” he thought.
He chuckled at himself — recognizing how ridiculously human he was — and went back to his breath, so that he could calm down and meditate, instead of spinning out of control, an unfortunate habit of his. Anatta returned to feeling relaxed and got back into his intentional state of calm consciousness and focused awareness. Within minutes, he was gently snoring, which unfortunately defeated the purpose of practicing meditation in the Zen Center, but was quite relaxing nevertheless.
Dan Brook is Senior Lecturer Emeritus at San Jose State University, from where he organizes the Hands on Thailand program. His most recent books are Harboring Happiness: 101 Ways To Be Happy, Sweet Nothings, and Eating the Earth. He is always working on others.
Featured image photograph copyright (c) Phoebe Heaton, 2016.