Pliskin/My Turn: Expanding the plate of food

In her letter to The Recorder commenting on Time Magazine’s recent declaration of “The Mindful Revolution,” Marilyn F. Shea wrote “Buddhist’s greatest strength lies in its adaptability to local culture, while Christianity remains firm in its mission to aid the poor and feed the hungry.”

Adaptations of the Buddhist tradition are indeed what attracted to me enter training to become a Buddhist minister. As far as we can discern from the accounts of the Pali Buddhist Canon, the Buddha taught meditation as a means of awakening to the interconnectedness of life. His most dedicated contemporary followers abandoned their homes and possessions and wandered around, begging for food and meditating daily. To keep dry during the monsoon season, they cloistered into static locations, establishing the basis for the Buddhist meditation retreat.

This and the Mahayana reformation, which established, among other things, that lay Buddhists could become enlightened just like renunciant monks, inspires the lineage of Socially Engaged Buddhism in which I practice. My teachers have created practices and retreats for householders that integrate Buddhism with modern life.

What doesn’t jive with me is Shea’s suggestion that Buddhists don’t do a great job of feeding the hungry. The primary liturgy of the Zen Peacemakers tradition in which I practice involves invoking a magical spell to expand a plate of food to become large enough to feed all the hungry ghosts in all of the universes. We see this Gate of Sweet Nectar as a metaphor, wishing our capacity for service to grow to feed as many dissatisfied aspects of others and ourselves as possible.

When I embarked upon a helping profession as a high school teacher fresh out of college, I had no explicit spiritual practice. I didn’t have the tools to take care of myself or manage my own triggers. Approaching life as a rational problem to be solved, I burnt myself out. The path of socially engaged Buddhism and yoga have proven to be a powerful vehicles for clarifying my personal mission and developing a sustainable path that integrates my inner life with my personal relationships and a vision for a more humane and sustainable society.

My Buddhist worldview is that all life is One and interconnected and I experience suffering when I operate under the illusion that I am separate. In recent years, overcoming separation has taken the form of feeding the hungry in Franklin County. Through the Stone Soup Café, I’ve been working to decrease food insecurity and feed the hunger for social connection.

Through the Zen Peacemakers and Off the Mat into the World, I have learned various strategies adapted from Buddhist and yoga traditions to disabuse myself of the illusion of separation. I get stressed out when I cling to my opinion and through meditation, I breathe spaciousness into my thoughts. Through the Way of Council, I learn to experience my voice in the context of the voice of a circle. Because I experience guilt and fear when I want to ignore the homeless person I pass on the street, I do street retreats, spending days at a time living on the streets, without money, in an attempt to bear witness to the wholeness of life.

The Stone Soup Café emerged from our experiences living on the streets. Eating in soup kitchens around the world, we experienced that providers would often treat us with love, but not dignity. As a response, we created Stone Soup as a non-denominational pay-what-you-can café intended to blur the separation between those serving and being served and instead create a diverse, inclusive community in which people of all backgrounds are nourished.

This proved to be a natural fit for the Pioneer Valley, evidenced by the fact that attendance has quadrupled since we started with 30 people per week when we started in Greenfield in January 2012. As local civil liberties lawyer, author and radio host William C. Newman told an audience at Greenfield Community College in November, an invaluable sense of community in the towns along the Connecticut River Valley manifests itself in spontaneous acts of generosity and in “genuine interest in collective experience.”

Through my work at the Stone Soup Café, I have experienced great resonance with fellow practitioners of yoga and Buddhism and also with Unitarian Universalists, Christians, Quakers, Muslims, Jews, agnostics, people of no faith and others. Because many have expressed interest in the Buddhist and yogic foundations of my approach, my friend John Sprague and I will lead a series of Dharma in Action meetings to support community leaders to look within, build connections and create a service project together. If you might like to participate, please join our introductory gathering from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Recover Project Extension (RPX) at 1 Osgood St. in Greenfield.

Ari Pliskin isdevelopment director of the Stone Soup Cafe.

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