Stirring Soup Kitchen Zen
With a new meditation center, Buddhist priest Rick Slone helps Dorothy’s Place breathe easier.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Ahungry crowd stirs in Dorothy’s Place’s day room, anxiously awaiting the opening of the bright yellow doors for lunch. An adjacent hallway is a frenzied runway: chattering guys asking for shaving cream, calling out for their favorite volunteers, going in and out of the bathroom.
On the other side of the wall, Rick Slone calmly lights a stick of incense as a handful of Dorothy’s guests sit quietly in rows of white plastic chairs. Wrapped in a black robe, Slone leads a memorial for five regulars who recently died. The names Chinna, Freddie, Ken, Frank and Melissa are framed on a small table in the checkered-floor dining area.
“We’re here to say: ‘Their lives do matter,’” Slone says. “If we don’t remember them, who will?” He bows to the altar and kneels, touching his shaved head to his meditation mat.
Friends of the dead share positive memories: “[Fat Kenny] didn’t spend a lot of time sulking in his problems.” “[Chinna] was one of the toughest ladies on the street.” Slone closes the memorial with another round of kneeling. Before returning to Salinas’ unruly Chinatown, the attendants light a stick of incense to honor their friends.
Slone is igniting more than incense at the city’s sanctuary for the down and out. The 52-year-old Buddhist priest and teacher recently welcomed his first student to the brand-new Eyes of Compassion Zen Center, which promises to bring a stronger and steadying Zen presence to the soup kitchen. His students take on double duty honing the practice of meditation and assisting the Franciscan Workers of Junipero Serra as they serve up hot meals and mentor the homeless on how to connect with social services and develop job skills. “This is a way to bridge theory and practice for love and compassion for the Zen practitioner,” he says.
Raised in Los Angeles, Slone first came to Salinas 20 years ago, broke and heartbroken. He ate meals at the Dorothy’s former home across Soledad Street and slept at Victory Mission men’s shelter. He worked at a nursing home and a convalescent hospital and two years later joined the Franciscan Workers. During a visit to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the group’s van broke down and they had to spend the night, introducing Slone to meditation: “I heard this blue jay – I really heard it – without the the usual veil of subjectivity.” He ended up studying at Tassajara for nearly four years. After being ordained a Buddhist priest in 1997, he moved to the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County for 12 more years. In March he was certified as a Zen teacher.
Since rejoining the Franciscan Workers in September, he’s been working the day room providing razors, soap and clothes to the homeless. “Right now I’m just trying to listen, deeply listen,” Slone says. “I really don’t have much to offer but my attention.”
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Slone opens the door to the Hollow, a small square room with pillows and mats on the floor and various prophets on the wall, from Buddha to Jesus. The space is part of the pink Salinas house where the staff members who run Dorothy’s programs, the Companions of the Way, live.
A bell initiates a half hour of silent, seated breathing for Slone and housemates Mia Ferreira and Greg Tippett. They say meditation helps them be present when listening to traumatic stories from the street – and reinforces Dorothy’s mantra of offering hospitality that is nonjudgmental and engaging.
“The practice of mediation just brings me into my current awareness,” Ferreira says. “It’s really helpful in dealing with people whose lives are broken.”
Adds Tippett: “Meditation helps you stay in that calm place even in the middle of chaotic situations.”
Inside the house, over a pot of green tea, Slone recounts a valuable lesson from his teacher: The most important takeaway from meditation is how to live with a broken heart. “The suffering in the world will not heal until we can feel it,” he says.
Slone envisions students coming to study Buddhism while helping the poor for as little as a few days to several months. Slone’s connections to the San Francisco Zen Center, which runs both Tassajara and Green Gulch, could draw more people to the cause.
Myogen Steve Stücky, co-abbot of SFZC, feels Slone’s Zen center is unique.
“What he is doing is a pioneering effort,” Stücky says, “to bring together Zen Buddhist practice and the meditation training as a basis for extending compassion and working with the marginalized people of the world.”