In Aberdeen, the town I call home, I often walk the alleys, which are wide and filled with art work and graffiti. One of the graffito says: “To all of those I have not met/ Let me light my cigarette.” The first line is in iambic pentameter, the second is in trochaic. As the oldest child in a huge, chaotic Irish Catholic alcoholic family, how do I know this? Or that the singular of graffiti is graffito?
Because I was taught these things by Brother James Ash, a homeless Catholic monk. The La Salle Brothers were poor as individuals but not exactly poor as a group. The congregation owned a winery and a champagne cellar in the Napa Valley and a brandy distillery in the foothills of Central California.. But the profits helped fund many high schools, a liberal arts college, a tutoring center in Oakland, an adult education and resettlement center in Tiajuana, an elementary school in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and, not inappropriately, a quietly professional residence for clerical alcoholics.
Brother James died this year and I attended his funeral, at the monastery in Napa. At the service, the eulogist proudly announced that, years ago, James had realized he was an alcoholic, sought treatment and changed his whole life. In sobriety he went back to university, became a licensed clinical psychologist and, over the years until his death, helped many fellow religious, students, parishioners and just-plain-crazy people to find their way back to a life of balance and sanity.
These days I walk the alleys of Aberdeen in the robes of a Buddhist monk. And in our tradition the word for a monk, Bhikkhu. means “home leaver.” The idea here is that, like the historical Buddha, we leave the Palace of Parental Care and go over the walls into the world of sickness, old age, homelessness and death. We leave family allegiances to join a bigger kin.
In the Christian tradition, St. Francis of Asissi took off his bright brocades and dropped them on the cobbles. He stood there, naked in the town square, embarrassing everyone but himself. So off he went to re-enact the life of Christ. In the western tradition, the spiritual ideal of home-leaving can be found in the words of an aria toward the end of Bach’s “St. Matthews Passion,” “I will intune Jesus into my self so that in my self he may forever take his sweet rest.”
The other day I met a friend in an Aberdeen alley. He smiled to see me, ran up and placed a small polished river rock in my hand. “It’s sacred,” he told me bleary-eyed, perhaps forgetting that he’d run this game on me before. He chanted a blessing that sounded pretty sacred then made a bow to me.
“How much does the blessing cost?” I asked matter-of-factly.
“Whatever you’ can spare,” he says, mock humble.
I think to myself that his homelessness might be spiritual too, but more likely is due to to the devastating powers of addiction. He finds the total institutional support for his sobriety only in jails or prison. “I’m an alcoholic so I have to drink,” he told me once, with all the logic of his Jesuit education. “Sometimes when I get out I last for a few days or weeks at my sister’s doublewide. She looks after me and I do a lot of chores for her. But then the craziness always comes back and I drink … and then I feel at home again.”
I reach in my pocket and give him some ones. He smiles. He bows. He heads toward Safeway.
Thay Kobai Scott Whitney is the spiritual director of Plum Mountain Buddhist Community. Among his published works is a book called Sitting Inside: Buddhist Practice in American Prisons.and articles on the spiritual life in such periodicals as: Tricycle, Parabola, BuddhaDharma and Salon.com. His talks and writings can be found at www.plummountain.org.