I have a Christmas story for you. I have tried to keep it short but it didn’t work out.
When I was in Kaua’i on from 2017-2019, an 18 month run, I made it a point to go for alms by the house to house loving-kindness method on Tuesdays and Wednesdays as a way to get food. Early on, I was invited to Waiapua Road while standing in front of Hanalei Big Save which was my Monday stop. This lady offered me food from the store after I refused to accept money and explained how things are normally done in Thailand for house alms. I explained further that the supermarket is a another way to get food in the West. After I gave the blessing, she said, “Oh, you really should come to our neighborhood! My house is such and such with the two palms, etc.” And so an alms round was born. I went to her street for well over a year. Ironically, most of the time, we would not see each other. Houses in America are often isolated, and the residents often don’t know what goes on outside on their street.
Eventually, just about everyone came outside at least once to say hello and find out what I was about. After some time, I was able to get food from that neighborhood but not always. In those cases, I had some backups. The local pharmacy owner named “Shri” offered me “shoplifting rights,” but since I’m not allowed to take things that are not offered, I had to wait for a worker to take the items off the shelf for me and put them in my bowl. I often asked for the dented cans of soup as a priority over the new ones and sometimes joked that I forgot my hammer (to make them dented). That pharmacy had really kind, open minded and happy staff.
The other back up was Subway sandwiches. New York Mike would queue up some phone-app orders with a special note telling them to save the slip for the mendicant monk for when he needs it. The meal tickets were taped to the wall by the register and they knew me when I walked inside. Upon entering, they would take the slip and make a sandwich for me. They would even cut the sandwich with the magic monk words to “make it allowable” and pour a drink for me which I am not allowed to do for myself.
My house to house loving-kindness style of alms (piṇḍapāta) took a while for people to catch on that I was collecting food. They knew early on that I was blessing the houses but I didn’t tell people that I was collecting food unless they asked. Sometimes I just didn’t have the heart to talk about food even when I had the opportunity to say so. That is the proper monk way, even if it meant we would go hungry. But, we are always taken care of and there were some backups.
My style for alms was simple. I would stand in front of a house and wish the four loving-kindness phrases. It was the style of the original monk name Venerable Subhūti Mahathero (whom I was named after and for that loving-kindness reason). This style would allow for me to be silent in front of the house in order to draw attention; not too long and not too short. It allowed for them to come out and ask me what I was doing. It also gave me something wholesome to do to keep my mind focused. My goal was to get my meal for the day. If I didn’t not eat before noon, I would need to wait for the next day. Because of this, the mind can get upset if we don’t keep it focused. This loving-kindness mind keeps my mind and face fresh and I feel so happy when I do it. People could see and also feel it too. I know this because many would tell me so. Loving-kindness also protects oneself from danger. The phrases are below.
- May you be free from enemies and danger
- May you be free from mental trouble
- May you be free from physical trouble
- May you be well and happy
I would stand in front of each house and recite those phrases until I felt I had done a good job. Then I would move onto the next house. People did not know I was collecting food but they knew something was up. One man closed his eyes while opening his arms-spread-eagle to “receive” my loving-kindness. Then he said, “thanks” and went inside and didn’t come back out. That was it. I must admit, recalling this process makes me smile even though no food was given! Later on this man also figured out the food thing too and gave many times.
One house around the corner had a man come out and he introduced himself as a Christian. When they do that, it often means they have their guard up and they are ready to counter-preach to me. I expect nothing when that phrase, “I’m a Christian,” is said. I know what to expect. He asked what I was doing and I told him about getting my meal and the loving-kindness practice with the four phrases. He listened to what I had to say and then he said, “I appreciate what you are doing, but I think you are the Devil and I’m not going to give you food.” Really… he really did said that!
My response to him was: “Is it still okay if I still wish loving-kindness in front of your house?”
“As long as you stand on the road, and not on my property, you can do what you want.” he said.
He knew the laws, my religious rights and let me be. However, I asked if it was okay to stand on the road by his house because if my presence outside his house freaked him out or made him angry, then I would not want to do it. The goal is to make people happy and not to make them feel uncomfortable.
A few weeks later, his father came out to greet me and apologized for his son. It is common for multiple generations to live in one house in Kaua’i. He told me his son was a police officer and sees the worst of Kaua’i.
I knew what he was talking about. The lady who invited me to the neighborhood has a son who is addicted to “ice,” which is a smokable form of methamphetamine that supposedly gives you brain damage and addiction on the first dose. Because of the brain damage, they keep doing it again and again and it is difficult to stop, similar or worse than heroine. I have seen her tears as she told me about her troubles. To make things worse, she is a “harm reduction” social worker and distributes clean needles and other items to people who need it. She knows where the road ends, and her son has just begun.
Another man down the same road (it is a very small road) has a daughter addicted to ice too. He did not cry but the pain in his mind was evident by his voice as he told me why his grandchildren were coming for an extended Christmas stay. I knew more than a hairdresser, but I only know how to shave heads. I had already known from other parents’ ice stories why a police officer would be so cold. Kaua’i is a beautiful place, but not for raising kids. Almost all of the houses on that road were worth over $650,000 and some well over a million. Nobody is exempt from the dangers of their kids falling through the “ice,” even in the isolated tropical island of Kaua’i.
So he tells me the problems his son sees as a police officer and then he offered me a job to work in his garden in exchange for some food. It was nice gesture of him, but I had to refuse since it is against our monastic code of ethics. He said, “Okaaaay,” with some disappointment and then he went inside. That was the last I spoke to him.
So every week, I’m in front of his house wishing loving-kindness. Six months have passed and it was now Christmas Day, 2018. I went down the road, turned the corner and there was his house. Outside his house were the kids of that same house playing with their new toys in the road. Instead of standing right in front of them, I stood off to the side before his house about 30 feet. I didn’t want to get in their faces, but I still wanted to wish them well.
Out of the house came a voice. “Hey, would you like some quiche?”
I said, “sure” and out came a paper plate with a plastic fork with quiche, papaya and a vegetable… I still remember that moment. I had always made an effort to wish loving-kindness to that house never really expecting anything in return. It was just my job to bless all of the houses. I went during all the scheduled days, and even on Christmas. I once even went during a washed-out-to-sea hurricane day a few months earlier.
As long as you stand on the road, and not on my property, you can do what you want.
And once again, I had won with the power of loving-kindness and with a little help by the gentle nudge of the Christmas Spirit. Christmas Day is a day when Christians are more likely to act like Real Christians. So there I was, standing on the road to help them do just that.
And so that is my Hawai’ian Christmas Story for you.
Below are just a couple of the many regular donors: They are not the parents I spoke of above, but it is a small neighborhood and they all know who is who. This neighborhood was really kind to me.