It Makes Great Press

"A poverty that would keep us free."

"A poverty that would keep us free."

Sensei Grover Genro Gauntt sold real estate–dream homes in Southern California–until he became a Buddhist. Now, he sells the experience of homelessness on the streets of New York. “Of course I understand the cynicism,” he told one reporter recently. “It makes great press–a 100% profit venture, with no costs. It’s a marvelous story.”

Grover Gauntt teaches as part of Roshi Bernard Glassman’s Peacemaker Community, an international organization that practices socially-engaged Soto Zen Buddhism. They mix East and West, poverty and plenty, isolation and social activism. Glassman himself quit the space race to study Zen, left an aeronautical engineering position with McDonnell Douglass in the mid-’70s for monastic study at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Glassman continued working to fulfill a lifelong goal of living on the streets of the Bowery, and in 1995 he began retreats into homelessness, which he called “Bearing Witness.”

“We discuss what to expect,” the Zen master wrote of his retreats, “but the unexpected is the main teacher on the street.”

I met Roshi Glassman unexpectedly. I had never studied Zen. I had not been living on the streets, nor had I been passing a “talking piece” around a council of aging hippies at one of his Peacemaker study circles. Rather, I’d been working on a narrative about going “back to the land.” I’d learned that anti-war journalists in the Liberation News Service had moved to a Western Massachusetts farm in 1968, and when I drove to the farm thirty-five years later to see what had happened to the middle-class activists, I found Bernie Glassman instead.

“Bernie’s perfect,” one former communard told me. Another said, “He’s living out the dream we envisioned. We were too wacked out to make it happen.” The move to the farm, a third former resident explained, was intended to create “a poverty that would keep us free.” For thirty years, the commune thrived on bowls of oatmeal, anti-nuclear activism, and “non-commercial lifestyles.”

Part of me wanted to follow them, as a long line of leftist journalists had done before me. Orwell had spent time “down and out” in London and Paris, Stephen Crane had wandered New York, James Agee had written by lamplight in Alabama, and Barbara Ehrenreich had scrubbed floors in Maine.

But the farm I discovered on my arrival was a far cry from my expectations. Because before I got there, Bernie Glassman had arrived at the old hippie commune with a cigar in his hand, and everything changed. As he walked around the farm, he ordered a nineteenth-century dairy barn torn down, and rebuilt. He installed, after successfully raising two-million dollars, a new campus center, a “barndo” with high-speed Internet lines, a humidor, and circular windows designed to catch “the light of the rising sun.”

When I got to there, I was surprised at what I found, but still I considered living there–to write about life on the newest New Age farm. However, I felt uncomfortable about Glassman’s expansive offices and the expensive programs that guided students into playing at poverty. One program director told me the organization led “plunges” where students begged for change. Peacemaker students went from riches to rags in search of inner and world peace. They humbly begged for coins, and the resulting revenue was donated to an anti-poverty organization that Glassman had founded in Yonkers. At journey’s end, students returned home to watch TV, eat spaghetti, and walk their dogs.

As unnerved as I was by this–feeling that short-term street retreats brought attention to homelessness and then laughed in its face–I remained curious. In March, I asked to go on one of Glassman’s street retreats, and I received an invitation from Grover Gauntt for a weekend in the city.

“Participants will live on the streets of New York,” he wrote, “experiencing homelessness first-hand, having to beg for money, find places to get food, shelter, to use the bathroom, etc. By bearing witness to homelessness, we begin to see our prejudices directly, to recognize our common humanness.”

I admit that I liked the idea of myself unshaven, dressed in old clothes, and armed with plastic bags to collect food. I was excited about “Bearing Witness” to suffering in society not merely by observing the homeless, but by becoming one of their number.

Then I read the small print– total cost of the three days down and out? Three hundred dollars. I couldn’t afford to be homeless.

So I returned to my daily grind. I slung coffees, made lattes, and abandoned my dreams of life on the streets, until Grover Gauntt sent me another invitation. “Hope Spring is in the air where you are,” he wrote invitingly from New York.

My job at the coffee shop was wearing thin. Homelessness had never sounded so good, but I was still broke, so I wrote to Grover: “I have been considering attending the retreat, but I think three hundred dollars is a bit steep.” In lieu of the fee, I offered to cover the retreat as a journalist. I suggested that the free publicity would more than pay for my tuition.

Grover replied:

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your response. Our experience has been that journalist participants tend to skew the energy as they don’t fully participate–but observe, objectify, and interview. If you planned to write about it–we would kindly ask you not to participate. I am not open to an interview. Interviews have never resulted in anything I was proud to see in print. I wish you well in all you do.

Please take good care,


Grover killed my story and woke me up. It surprised me at the time, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it shouldn’t have come as a shock.

After one retreat a year ago, British papers headlined, “Hobo holidays anger charities.” They reported that the group had been threatened with arrests for posing as a crowd of the homeless. Another reporter, in Colorado, spent time on the streets, and said that members of the group had met a homeless man named Jesus–who saved their lives. When the reporter spoke with Grover Gauntt, Gaunt said, “Getting personally enlightened is kind of an oxymoron. Enlightenment is really a diminishing of the difference between oneself and others.”

So then what exactly is the point–for Grover or for me?

My attempt to cover an educated, middle-class descent into poverty was nothing new. From Agee and Ehrenreich to hippie communards and New Left journalists, the downwardly mobile–writers, bohemians, and postmodern Buddhists–have never really exposed much more than personal desire, often a desire to become classless. Who needs a retreat to experience poverty? After all, the streets have always been full of the poor. It’s nearly impossible to walk around without bearing witness to homelessness, class difference, and poverty.

That knowledge carries a burden of guilt, and an experience like a street retreat actually relieves it.

I haven’t heard back from Grover Gauntt about his retreat, but I think I missed the point. Maybe street retreats were not intended to reveal poverty at all, but actually to alleviate the shame of being middle-class, socially aware, and culpable. Not quite what was I was looking for.

One photograph of Bernie Glassman in the Bowery shows him wearing suspenders and a smile. He reclines on a wall under some scaffolding, a lit cigar resting on his knee. A wandering street dweller. One hundred dollars a night.

Peter Smith studied journalism at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he completed a narrative from which this rant has been adapted. He works weekends, and writes freelance.