For our street retreat, we have to raise a minimum of $500 apiece, to be donated to worthy causes afterward. I started by drafting a humorous email I intended to send to everyone I could think of. This seemed like a painless, comfortable way to raise this money, and if there was a shortfall, I figured I would ask my parents for the rest.
But a couple of days later, I woke up knowing that would be a ridiculous way to proceed—the point is not to do what is painless and comfortable. As Bernie Glassman writes in Bearing Witness: A Zen Master's Lessons in Making Peace, "Asking—begging—is not the norm. But behaving according to your norm doesn't cause a shift anyplace." He took a bunch of Zen students on a street retreat in New York City for the first time in 1991, and required them to raise more than $3000! Each participant had to "sell" 18 small mala beads for $108 apiece, and a large one for $1,080. I'm sort of glad I don't have to do that, but also sort of sorry, because even raising $500 has already proven to be a remarkable experience.
I decided that I would not send a mass email but rather that I would ask people one at a time, on the phone or via email, per our customary mode of communication, and knew I had to call Lisa in Seattle before she read this. (Thank you for reading my blog, King!)
I also decided that I will panhandle outside for some of this money, and thought about how people doing this often say, "Spare change for something to eat?" or, "I'm trying to get $12 for a room." Maybe people say this because it sounds better than "I need the money for drugs," (if that does happen to be the real reason) or maybe people more often give when there seems to be some good reason for contributing, or perhaps the person asking feels weird not offering a justification. I thought about a fellow who hangs around in my neighborhood who usually doesn't say anything when I walk by, but who once in a while asks, "Can I have three dollars?" It's quite charming precisely because he doesn't say what he wants it for, and also because he asks for such a specific amount. I always say, "Sure!" Sometimes I add, "You can have five dollars!" Once I gave him twenty dollars. It will be interesting to be the person outdoors asking strangers for money.
Having made all these decisions, I telephoned Lisa and asked, "Will you please give me twenty dollars?"
"Sure!" she said.
I was positive the next thing she was going to say was, "Uh, what do you need twenty dollars for?" But she actually asked, "How is your day going?" and then I teared up because she didn't ask what I needed the money for. If no other gift comes from this retreat and the fundraising beforehand, that was more than enough. My unusual request was met with perfect open-heartedness and nothing was requested in return, not even information that would be very reasonable to ask for.
Of course then I explained the whole thing and Lisa in turn explained that my request had slightly alarmed her, since she knows I am starting a new career. Maybe it wasn't going so well? However, rather than ask, "What's wrong? Are you losing your apartment?", she asked about my day, which was a very gentle and tactful approach. So on top of receiving her unthinking generosity, I got to remember what a wonderful, kind friend she is.
Next I made the same request to David, Lisa's husband, who said, "Sure!" Then, "What do you need—oh, never mind, it doesn't matter what you need it for."
Then a call to Carol-Joy, who also said, "Sure!" and didn't ask what I wanted it for.
I ended up having really interesting conversations with all three of my friends, and Carol-Joy told me some stories I'd never heard in three decades of friendship—yet another gift of this process.
I called Sam, who immediately asked why I needed the money, but once I told him what it was for, he said he was good for it. After that, I emailed a relative with whom I've had bitter fights in the past over money. Given that, I decided four dollars would be the right amount for this request. My relative immediately emailed back, "Sure, I'll give you four dollars."
By the end of the day, I had raised more than a hundred dollars, which felt great until I realized I'd already asked most of my very closest friends: Where was the other nearly $400 to come from? Thus another learning was that I should have asked for more money. I felt OK asking for twenty dollars. I would not have felt at all OK asking for fifty dollars, so that is probably what I should have done.
When Lisa and David's check arrived, I was relieved to see that their cat, JoJo, had also decided to contribute.