The middle of June contains the most auspicious day of the year. On this day, spinning a prayer wheel one time is like spinning it (or praying) a hundred times. It is very easy for your good karma to increase exponentially if you behave well on this day (but the reverse is also true--if you do bad things on the most auspicious day then you get 100 times worse karma). School and work are on holiday so you have plenty of time to work on your karma.
That day I walked the kora, the path around His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple. There were more beggars than usual, every one of them helping you increase your good karma by giving you the chance to give to the poor. On a regular day, there are about 10 beggars at various points of the kora. On the holiest day in Tibetan Buddhism, there are 2,000.
I don't know if I can really explain what it means to walk amidst 2,000 beggars. They were all Indian. They lined the path on each side, mothers and fathers and grandparents and children. Lepers with missing fingers and limbs. Men with gory, bleeding sores, prominently displayed to arouse revulsion and sympathy. Children without pants or diapers. Women no older than myself with four children. Nursing mothers. Wizened faces. A small family gathered around a saucepan, dipping spoons into a mush of corn. Monks and holy men. Beautiful, brightly colored saris. Gold jeweled nose rings. rumpled hair. Brown skin. Sad, perplexed, angry, excited eyes. Squatting on dirt, on mats, on rocks. Holding silver plates and bowls. Begging for rupees.
Two thousand. At least two thousand.
I was the only white person in sight. I was swept in a river of Tibetans and outstretched begging hands. The Tibetans gave hundreds of coins to these hands. Some of them had been saving coins in a jar all year for this day.
At first I looked away. How do I face this? Children would smile hugely when they saw me and say, "hello!" I said hello and smiled in return.
Then I stopped avoiding gazes. I looked these men and women and children in the eyes. I greeted some. My eyes locked with one woman. She was close to my age. She is my sister and neighbor. I walked past her and a thousand other women.
When I reached the midpoint I pulled out my rupees. I handed five rupees to a group of four children who looked lost and angry. Three reached for the note. One girl snatched it and quickly hid it away.
I had only one rupee left besides my big bills. I gave it to a little boy who called "money! money!" as a hundred others had. When I gave it, ten others rose and help out their cups, calling to me. I showed my empty hands and felt sick. I resolved to change all my bills to coins and go along the kora again, giving to as many as I could. I went to two places but couldn't find anywhere with change before I had to go to my group meeting. I did not return to the kora. I did not give to any more beggars.
I wish I had given the money that I used to buy choco balls. I wish I had given more. I wish I had given the widow's mite and been the good Samaritan. I wish I had done what Christ would have done.
What do you do after you see 2,000 Indian beggars in thirty minutes? You go to your group meeting. You stay after, talking to Rachel, Elizabeth, Julia, and Matt in Jimmy's Italian restaurant. You meditate for an hour. You eat chowmein. You do some travel writing homework. Life goes on.
But maybe I left part of me on the kora that day, part of me that I lost when I saw that girl and knew that she and I are sisters. Now I can't remember her face or the color of her sari, but I can't forget her either.
Maybe one day I will have to answer for my actions on the kora that day. I have walked by many beggars and given only occasionally. The good Samaritan did not ignore his neighbor in need, though you could argue that the unconscious man needed a lot more help than the beggars in McLeod. Still, I think of King Benjamin's sermon in Mosiah--are we not all beggars? We're not supposed to suffer the beggar to put up his petition in vain. I've always thought that was quite a straightforward rule, and when I see a homeless person in downtown Salt Lake I don't have any problem emptying my change pouch into his hands. This is possible because I don't spend much time walking around downtown Salt Lake.
Here in McLeod things are different. I walk everywhere I go, and walking the full length of the town takes no more than 30 minutes. In those thirty minutes you will see at least five beggars sitting or leaning on crutches at the edge of the road in high traffic areas. They are strategically placed in the least avoidable locations, sometimes around a corner so you nearly trip over them. Many of the beggars are lepers and hold out their fingerless hands for money. They usually extend their hands, kiss them, and then extend them again. This motion draws immediate attention to their disabilities. Usually they have silver jars beside them because they can't hold the money.
Much more persistent are the young mothers in dirty saris who approach you directly, carrying half naked babies, to beg for food. I once tried to give one of these women money but she refused, insisting I buy milk for her. Well, a box of milk costs 280 rupees (which is far more than I was going to give to her) and I have since heard that the women sell the milk right back to the store and keep all those rupees. Since she refused, I gave the rupees to a crippled man a few feet away, and he was grateful to receive them.
In the end, though, these are my neighbors as much as anyone else. Here is my game plan: I am going to start buying things that cost 12 rupees rather than 10 or 15 so that I will have rupee coins. Then I will be able to give coins to beggars. When it comes down to it, giving out two rupees per day for a 90 day field study would be less than five dollars. Really, I can afford that.