July 18, 2012

The Buddha on 11th Avenue

This sweet story has been forwarded to Tricycle more than a few times. It appeared in Oakland Local's "Community Voices" almost a month ago. You can click the following link to read the original piece, by Dan Stevenson, in its entirety: "Saving Oakland's 'Favorite' Buddha."

For years the street divide of 11th Avenue in Oakland, where Stevenson lives, was a mess. Garbage and mattresses were dumped there illegally and constantly. It was a favorite spot of graffiti taggers, drug dealers, and public urinators. But because of the city's slow response time to neighborhood complaints, Stevenson and another neighbor were left with the responsibility of cleaning up the trash, human waste, and graffiti.

Until one day in 2009, when Stevenson took a trip to ACE hardware, buying a small garden statue of the Buddha and installing it on the divide. Stevenson writes,

The garbage and mattresses didn’t stop arriving but the dumping occurred on the other end of the street divide from where Buddha sat. Buddha just sat there and never said a word.

Within the first year the graffiti was reduced by 50% and the drug and urination problem was lessened as well. And all the Buddha did was sit there. It was well into the second year that someone painted the Buddha a beautiful soft white and a short time after that offerings started to appear.

At first, oranges and pears. Then flowers and candy. And then large flower arrangements and bowls of fruit and finally the incense.

For a long time I did not see anyone bringing the offerings. They just appeared. Along with all this new activity the area continued to change and the illegal dumping all but disappeared.

Many neighbors started to pick up and clean the area more. And due to people being present at different times of the day the drug and urination problem ended.

Buddha just sat there saying not a word. As time passed the immediate neighbors and extended neighborhood tended to stop and view the Buddha. Whether they were walking their dogs or taking an evening stroll they would stop and seem to ponder and many times get into conversations while viewing the Buddha. People talking to each other.

Eventually, another neighbor offered to build the Buddha a "little house," which you can see in the photo at right. The statue, Stevenson says, has completely transformed the neighborhood, making it friendlier, safer, and cleaner.

For a while the powerful statue was endangered by the City Public Works department, who planned to remove the Buddha on the basis of a single complaint about it. Luckily, an outpouring of support has saved it for the time being, and there are currently no plans to remove the statue.


Image: The Buddha on 11th Avenue, by Dan Stevenson. From Oakland Local.

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wanwaimeng's picture

It has been mentioned by my lama many times even when we have an angry if we see just a line drawing of the buddha it will actually deposit seeds of enlightenment within our mindstreams. That the power of the Buddha images, which makes we understand why in certain areas people have built huge monuments of the Buddha to bless the region and also to plants good imprints in the humans and animals in that place.

If having a Buddha statue makes people think twice about being not civil or some form of shame arises in them, then it is a great thing have more Buddha statues everywhere.

Dominic Gomez's picture

What about the destruction of the buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley by the Taliban in 2001?

davide's picture

I didn't get the sense that wanwaimeng meant the statues were a panacea, just that they can be helpful.

Dominic Gomez's picture

He says "having a Buddha statue makes people think twice about being not civil". The Bamiyan statues had an opposite effect on the Taliban.

jackelope65's picture

In a country where clean public toilets are few, it takes a buddha to clean things up. As a survivor of radical prostatectomy for cancer, holding my urine is difficult, as it for the elderly, multigravida women, people wit neurological disorders, as well as for many other reasons. Go to Australia and you will find public toilets on most city blocks and most beach and camping areas. Let us start by calling it a toilet, not a rest room or a powder room, and accept many people need to urinate frequently. When we begin to accept and respond to people's needs, they begin to respect their own environment. Your actions are commendable, but a public toilet will help.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhists don't discount karma. It was in full effect Friday, July 20, at 12:30 am in a movie theater in Aurora, CO. Not to sound pat, but what more can be said about that? Such incidents disturb most normal people's dispositions. And such realities of the human condition are what make life difficult enough, and not just for Buddhists. As bodhisattvas practicing the Law, don't you think it's one of our responsibilities to help our fellow humans discover and access their own buddha nature and begin to change the course of their karma? My experience has been that this is not easy work and over-the-top intellectual theorizing often aggravates the situation.

Tharpa Pema's picture

A dove, lamb, or children with living Jesus with would make another interesting experiment.

wanwaimeng's picture

It is said looking at the line drawing of a Buddha can plant innumerable seeds of enlightenment in our minds. But for something to work needs both sides. The buddha statue form is powerful but the people who are in that area must have the merit or karma to react/change in a positive manner. Otherwise it will be as useful as showing the Taliban the location of more Buddha statues.

Eric Rafaloff's picture

This makes me smile. What a wonderful story.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Do you think similar changes would've occurred if a crucifix were erected instead? Be interesting at another neglected spot as an experiment.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Interesting question. Stevenson writes in his article: "Lu and I are not Buddhists and we installed this Buddha because we felt that he was a neutral being that denotes compassion, brotherhood, and peace." I'm not sure if a crucifix would send the same message; personally, I know I'd find a neighborhood cross to be a bit aggressive, but perhaps that isn't fair.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Compassion, brotherhood and peace is also denoted by the crucified Christ, but through intense pain and suffering for the sake of all living beings. This path to "salvation" (nirvana) is anathema to Buddhism.

roadrunner's picture

Dealing with ones suffering is not anathema to Buddhism at all. In fact buddhists are very up front and honest about addressing our suffering. Everybody suffers Muslims buddhsts Catholics Jews everybody. Different traditions deal with it differently that's all.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I agree: dealing effectively with life's vicissitudes in order to overcome them IS the practice of Buddhism. But you don't have to sacrifice your happiness or your life in the process. Life is to be enjoyed, not agonized over because of some divinely imposed mandate.

TravellerThruKalpas's picture

True enough but: please don't forget karma. One's personal karma might yet have some unpleasant surprises in store, you never know... even with what appears to be an abundance of fortuitous circumstances due to having attained a good rebirth, one never knows what trials or sacrifices might be required or come one's way... like karma, death can be quick and sudden enough, while neither is divinely imposed. And like the contemplation of death, karma is consistently under-engaged...

Dominic Gomez's picture

The life-condition of Buddhahood developed through the practice of Buddhism allows you to courageously face, manage and eventually change your karma.

TravellerThruKalpas's picture

My comments were intended to address what I take to be your sometimes too glib or simplistic way of putting things… You said that "you don't have to sacrifice your happiness…" as if this would be true for every Buddhist a priori. My point is: how do you know what someone will have to sacrifice or not? One may actually have to sacrifice a lot of happiness, if one's karma demands it. One would then need to become disillusioned with prioritizing happiness or with any ideas of what the Buddhist path should be for oneself, and accept the one which is genuinely unfolding instead, with all its variable discomforts.

This process which you disingenuously refer to as "courageously facing, managing and eventually changing your karma" may well be one in which you may still lose a lot -- and happiness may be the least of that which you could be parted from. For example, we may have generated what appears to us a substantial amount of merit, and things seem to be going very well in general for us… and the truck can still suddenly come and run us over, so better not to presume. I would also say that, while we should desire happiness for others, our own happiness shouldn't necessarily be a primary concern for our daily practice.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Life is difficult enough. Why make it harder to lead it with unnecessary theorizing? To me that's the beauty of practicing Buddhism: its direct simplicity vis-a-vis the four sufferings of birth, aging, illness and death...the hard-core realities ALL living beings experience. These universal realities are the starting point of our work as bodhisattvas, don't you think?

TravellerThruKalpas's picture

Who's theorizing? Are you willing to discard karma, which is always directly discernible, and NOT a theory? I like leaving things open for all kinds of possibilities to arise, hopefully as a little wisdom, and avoid overly programmatic or pedantic attitudes. I do find what you say is valid most of the time, and yet I often discern a pat quality (as if "that's all there is to say about it") which I find irritating and provocative (which I suppose triggers my karmic disposition ;-)... As to "life is difficult enough," I'm not sure things should merely be labelled as "difficult" for a true practitioner. Some Buddhist teachers have said, "heaven is for wimps" (against theistic rewards), suggesting that difficulty and challenges are things which provide meaning to our work... it's all grist for the mill, isn't it? Yes, "these universal realities are the starting point," but if so then there will always be more to say, no? Don't simplify at the expense of reducing the conversation, as well as meaning...