During these days of imposed restriction, it is easy and natural to lament the loss of the easy freedoms that, just a few months ago, we took as given: the ability to meet with friends, to go to a restaurant or bookstore, to pick up an item or two at the grocery store without having to wait in line to enter. And, perhaps most importantly, to walk down a street without a mask and not instinctively shy away from our neighbors. But in the midst of these very real losses, it is good to recall that there are others who face an even more challenging loss: the loss of food due to unemployment, illness, or poverty.
While there are many heroic organizations in the Bay Area committed to making sure that everyone is fed, we are all called, as individuals or as a community, to do our part.
Sara Tashker, the farm manager at Green Gulch Farm, reports on the efforts undertaken there:
Seven students arrived from Tassajara recently and many of them will be working on the farm this season, bringing our crew up to full size. We also have an active social justice group whose members are focusing on augmenting the farm’s labor to harvest and distribute extra produce.
I have been sowing and planting with an eye toward having a regular supply of extra food to donate to those who need it. For many years now we have been working with the SF-Marin Food Bank. The great thing about the Food Bank is that they do pick-ups, so all we have to do is call and they will send a truck. It is a wonderful partnership and we are looking forward to working with them again this season, knowing there is so much need everywhere.
We have long standing relationships with HaMotzi, a food distribution program at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco and with The Cultural Conservancy’s Native Foodways program, a Native-led nonprofit which distributes fresh, organic food to Native community members in the Bay Area. Every week, we send cooked food to Poor Magazine for distribution.
What a gift it is to be able to produce good food and get it to those who need it.
This is how dana paramita (the perfection of giving) moves through our lives.
The Gift—a leaf of chard, an apple, a potato—is called into being by innumerable causes and conditions
The Givers—the farmers, cooks, truck drivers, volunteers—nurture the gift and deliver it to
The Receivers—those who come with empty hands to bless the gift with their acceptance.
San Francisco Zen Center has opened the gates of teaching and practice to all who come to us. But most of those who receive food from the Green Gulch fields may never have heard of SFZC, may never sit in meditation, may have no interest in or ability to hear a talk, or attend a class. For many of these people, the Dharma is food.
Last week, former Green Gulch Farm apprentice Jack Thomas stopped by City Center to pick up potato chits and lettuce and collard starts gifted by Green Gulch Farm to San Francisco’s Alemany Farm. The hand-off was distinctive to the current circumstances: not entering the building, wearing masks and gloves, and maintaining six feet of distance. Nevertheless, the starts made it to Alemany Farm where they were planted this week and where they will be harvested and delivered free of charge to low-income residents of San Francisco.
Jack lived at Green Gulch Farm over four farming seasons, 2015 – 2019. He was an apprentice, then regular farm staff, and then Assistant Farm Manager. Jack arrived at Green Gulch with no farming experience. He had recently graduated from college and briefly worked in what he described as a soul-crushing sales job.
What he brought to Green Gulch was his own immense suffering, the realization that meditation was one of the only things that seemed to help, a desire to engage in physical work in the company of a team, and a desire to find a community and a livelihood that allowed him to be in alignment with his aspiration to contribute to the healing and well-being of the world.
Asked what he took away from his time at Green Gulch, he laughed and exclaimed, “There is so much!” Among the gifts is a growing ability and readiness to turn towards whatever is arising as opposed to ignoring, minimizing, or numbing himself from present circumstances.
He also points to an ability to take himself more lightly, to laugh at himself. Asked to elaborate, he tells this story:
“I was in the fields cutting lettuce with [Green Gulch Farm Elder] Emila Heller and cut too many of the precious Little Gem lettuces. I instinctually hid my mistake by tucking the extras in a box that was already packed. And Emila, being a hawk, of course found me out! But her only remark to me was, ‘Jack, you don’t have to hide here.’ She essentially told me that I could make mistakes and still be part of the family. That was huge for me. It catalyzed the possibility of accepting my imperfections and mistakes, which opened the door to being in relationship with who I actually am. And that, in turn, gave me more agency in regard to my perceived flaws as to whether to enact them or not. And I watched as some lifelong patterns began to fall away as I could acknowledge them and relate to them.”
Jack further points to having grown in the awareness that we only ever live our lives together and that relationship–as opposed to a feeling of isolation, independence, or the idea that we ever accomplish anything alone–is the whole project. And in the process, he says, “I found family, friends and teachers that I will always stay in relationship with.”
“My time at Green Gulch gave me practice. It gave me a language through which to express spiritual longing through forms and sutras. It gave me a lattice onto which I could grow and learn as a young man. And it gave me the precepts.”
In November 2018, Jack received the precepts from Eijun Linda Ruth Cutts who gave him the name Myojun Yasho, which means Wonderous Pure Heart, Midnight Song.
Last year, Jack left Green Gulch with the dual aim of taking his practice outside of the refuge offered by San Francisco Zen Center and engaging more actively in social justice. He lives in San Francisco, a stone’s throw from City Center. Jack continues to farm and is currently the Alemany Farm Assistant Manager and Operations Lead.
Alemany Farm is a 15-year-old non-profit urban agricultural project in Bernal Heights, a historically low income community. The mission of the farm is to grow fresh, local, organic fruits and vegetables with and for marginalized communities with the broader goal of sowing the seeds of economic, social, and food justice. To those ends, the farm gives away 100% of the produce grown on site, approximately 25,000 pounds annually.
The farm maintains an open harvest policy, meaning that the gates are always open and food is available to all for picking. In service of promoting food sovereignty, the farm offers gardening workshops at no or low cost and partners with City College to offer green jobs training.
The Alemany model has been that most of the farm work is done by volunteers. During this time of pandemic, in which the farm is not allowed to host volunteers, a skeleton farm crew does most of the work. However, because this experienced crew does not have to teach and host volunteers, production hasn’t diminished.
The crew hopes to be able to deliver approximately 40 pounds of greens per week to the housing project adjacent to the farm. Additionally, Alemany has a new local food partner who is supplementing these offerings with food that a grocery store would otherwise throw away. In response to an explosive interest in home gardening due to the coronavirus, the farm is also hosting online workshops, including one with long-time Green Gulch farmer and gardener Wendy Johnson.
Thanks to Jack’s relationship with Zen Center, Green Gulch Farm has contributed seeds, starts, and potato chits to Alemany. Sweet pea seeds have long since germinated and are now blooming at the property line between Alemany Farm and the adjacent Section 8 housing development. Kentucky Wonder and Scarlet Runner Bean seeds are in the ground. The lettuce and collards will be ready for harvest in under two months. Potatoes are in the ground and will be ready at the summer’s end.
Reflecting on the major threads that form the continuity of farming at Green Gulch and Alemany, Jack points not only to similarities in the operation of the farms and an openness to volunteers and school groups, but to an ethic of being in respectful relationship to the earth, regarding it as a mother who provides what we need to survive and whom we need to reciprocate with in some measure.
“We talk consciously about our relationship to the earth. And we talk openly about how we are in relationship with each other as regards the division of farm labor,” says Jack. Both of these things are reminiscent of farming and practicing at Green Gulch Farm.
Please note that several of these photos were taken pre-pandemic and therefore show people in close contact without protection. We feel it is important to continue to share these photos when they are appropriate to the story being told.
In the midst of this global pandemic, many of us are asking ourselves, “How can I be of service?” Jeffrey Schneider, Coordinator of the Zen Center Outreach Program talks to us about how he is turning that question.
For the past ten years, City Center resident and priest Jeffrey Schneider has served as coordinator for the Zen Center Outreach Program. Today, in the midst of this global pandemic, Jeffrey is asking with a beginner’s mind, “How can I be of service?”
Sometimes this question is answered with simple ideas for simple actions that help us stay connected with others in our community. For example, those at City Center with sewing skills have made masks for the residential community and have now produced enough surplus masks to give them to others in need. Jeffrey reached out to neighbors at Clara House, a transitional housing building that’s home to thirteen families, to begin delivering the surplus masks.
The Prison Correspondence Program is also providing a continuing opportunity to be of service during the pandemic. This program, which SFZC has coordinated for well over a decade, matches prisoners who wish to discuss their Buddhist practice with volunteer pen pals who have a well-established Buddhist practice of their own.
The need is even greater, as many prisoners now find themselves in lockdown 22 to 23 hours a day, visits have been prohibited, and volunteer-staffed programming has been discontinued. The program allows prisoners to stay connected and rooted in the Dharma, and to share the impacts of the pandemic across vastly different experiences. Jeffrey is always looking for volunteer pen pals. Anyone with an established practice, an understanding of basic Buddhist teachings, and about half an hour a month is welcome to get involved.
Jeffrey and SFZC volunteers have also led a twice-weekly Meditation and Stress Reduction Program at the San Francisco Jail. The city jail is now closed to visitors but the meditations have not been moved online. “This is one of the situations in which it becomes so easy to feel powerless,” says Jeffrey. “It renews the question, ‘How can I be of service?’ which is at the core of my practice right now.”
Some other outreach activities have successfully moved online. For the past several years, Jeffrey has been offering guided meditations at Lighthouse for the Blind which provides education, training and community for the blind and visually impaired. He is now hosting these meditations via conference call.
The San Francisco Food Bank has stepped up to host pop-up pantries with grocery bag giveaways and Jeffrey will be volunteering with them next week.
Other programs, such as providing meals for the Winter Shelter Program and breakfast for unhoused men and women at St. John’s Episcopal Church, are also on hold. The San Francisco Food Bank has stepped up to host pop-up pantries with grocery bag giveaways, which the Outreach Program is now helping with.
Also on hold is the weekly offering of cooked meals to the residents of the Richardson Apartments in Hayes Valley, where formerly unhoused individuals need some assistance in order to live independently, as well as the memorial services Jeffry offers in his capacity as a Buddhist priest at a sister organization to the Richardson Apartments.
As our ability to reach out to members of our community who are in need is curtailed by the current pandemic, Jeffrey is asking himself and encouraging us to think anew about how we can be of help. Often, we can feel helpless and this feeling is amplified as we are asked to maintain physical distance for the wellbeing of all. “This requires us to get creative about how we can be of assistance to our communities,” says Jeffrey. And in the spirit of opening to the new reality we are facing, he encourages anyone with ideas about how SFZC can be a source of additional support during this time to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you, Jeffrey, for inspiring us with your thriving practice of dana paramita.
We have one week left of our annual Membership Drive and have welcomed 56 new members to the Zen Center community. That means we’re 44 members away from reaching our goal of enrolling 100 members in 30 days.