In my growing appreciation for the homeless, I have come to believe that people living on the street have a lot to offer us: profound insights gleaned as we process our experiences with them. Although they are not intentionally our teachers and most likely don't realize the insight into life they offer, they can offer us deep understandings about life. Unwittingly, simply through their difficult position, they perform a vital function. They may not intend to be our teachers, but the poor grant us a unique perspective on life we cannot find elsewhere.
What is it that they can teach us? They remind us of the impermanence of this existence and how attached we are to what passes away. We have so much, and when confronted with people who have nothing -- who are vulnerable, helpless, and destitute -- we receive their help in overcoming fear and insecurity. The poor hold this power -- the power of truth itself. When we respond in love instead of fear, when we don't ignore them but instead see them and consider their condition, are we not reminded of our own ultimate fragility and tentativeness as beings in this world?
Fearing the Loss of Basic Security
Of course, we fear the loss of basic security -- the condition the homeless represent. It's a forced loss of attachment, a nonpossessiveness they have no choice about, at least in the beginning. Each moment of a street person's life is taken up with survival, and we become the key to that pursuit. Their situation of being stripped of everything is too painful for most of us to look at. We much prefer to hide in the shadows of a questionable happiness, in our comfortable abundance. Whenever we see a street person, these insecurities and fears surface, like spirits in the night.
The homeless, quite unconsciously, draw our attention to our grasping nature, how we are always pursuing acquisition of more and more things, of power and position, of property and money. If we can prevent ourselves from succumbing to our natural weakness and fear by turning away, they force us to think of our position. They also compel us to see society's gross inequity. More basically still, they prove the truth of the Gospel, which tells us that people are more important than money and property. They allow us to understand how foolishly we pursue things that are useless if we fail in the ways of compassion, love, kindness, and mercy. The poor, through their quiet presence in the streets and elsewhere, continually call us to reflect on our priorities.
Their impoverishment ultimately reminds us of our own poverty of existence and time, that this life is impermanent, regardless of how much we embellish it with wealth. When we are separated from all the goods of this world, we are no different from our homeless brothers and sisters. Even without economic, social, and educational equality, there is an inescapable existential equality among us all.
In the late 1980s, India's tragically impoverished inspired me to reflect on what was really essential in my life. These poor souls -- poor economically, though rich culturally, spiritually, and humanly -- taught me a profound lesson, one I've never forgotten. The homeless poor are everywhere on the subcontinent, and I noticed in the vast majority of them that, though destitute and possessing nothing, they were happy and serene beyond comprehension, a serenity connected with their faith, not their poverty! They taught me that one needs very little to be happy, that happiness is a spiritual quality that has absolutely nothing to do with wealth and possessions. This critical lesson is, of course, universally valid.
Two Vital Principles: Simplicity and Sharing
The overwhelming poverty and homelessness around the globe demand of us all a new direction, one founded on true economic, social, and political justice for everyone. But this justice has a very personal reality for us, not just a political or social one, which is based on two vital principles: simplicity and sharing.
The principles of sharing and simplicity are inspired by loving compassion, kindness, mercy, and a highly refined sensitivity that allows us to see their necessity. This sensitivity is the gift, indeed the grace, of the spiritual life. The more than six billion members of the human family now inhabiting the earth, like all who have preceded us and all who will come after, are part of an interdependent community of sentience and life. This reality cries out to our sense of justice, inspiring us to oppose poverty and homelessness.
We Human Beings Have a Universal Responsibility
The Dalai Lama often observes that we human beings have a universal responsibility for the earth and all its suffering. The truth of this insight I realize more and more in the depths of my own conscience. We all have the task of living a simpler lifestyle that allows resources to become available and distributed more equitably. Simplicity means taking just what we need and nothing more. It translates into living with far less, so that everyone will have something. It requires a process of reducing desires and carefully identifying legitimate needs.
If we change the way we live, if we actually simplify our existence in our time and around the world, then it will be possible truly to share with one another. Sensitive sharing leads us to discern the needs of others whenever we encounter them. As higher sentient beings, we are meant to share with others. Although we may recognize our root biological tendency to horde and fight for our survival, that basic tendency is not what makes us human -- overcoming that tendency is. Unfortunately, most people don't realize the truth simply because of their social conditioning, which blocks them from the awareness of their responsibility to act compassionately all the time, regardless of the situation.
By sharing and by simplifying our lives we can restore balance to the system we inherited from our predecessors. We can replace our self-serving culture with a compassionate one that takes into account the interdependent reality of which we are all part.
Street people present us with both a problem and an opportunity: a problem in terms of the immense dimensions of this tragedy, and an opportunity in terms of the possibility of developing our innate loving kindness for them. As long as we ignore the homeless or apply a Band-Aid solution to the symptoms of a much larger disorder in our world, the problem will grow and finally get out of control. The reality of homelessness alerts us to the need to transform the whole global system, to build a new civilization in which this terrible agony of so many no longer exists.
Toward A Permanent Solution: A Civilization with Heart
A genuine solution to this massive social ill will necessitate a new order of civilization -- a civilization with a heart, a compassionate, kind, loving, and merciful universal social order. In time capitalism will have to be transformed, and this will happen as more and more people wake up to the deeper reality of which we are all equal members. Corporate executives, employees, and stockholders all have the capacity for such an awakening. It's only a matter of time -- if we have the necessary leadership. Our leadership, particularly with respect to the homeless problem, needs a special kind of guidance, that of our spiritual communities themselves.
We must have a mobilized effort involving all churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples -- all the communities of the world's great religions. Our spiritual leaders are in a position to concentrate the minds of the masses on the great tragedy of homelessness. Just as Martin Luther King Jr., with the help of the churches, was able to coordinate the Civil Rights movement, our spiritual leaders can bring the homeless situation to the forefront.
Our spiritual leaders are capable of bringing a new sense of conscience to the popular imagination about the seriousness of this crisis, inspiring a change of direction for our society. What was done in the 1960s and 1970s for civil rights can be done in our time for homelessness and other forms of poverty.
Awakening to the Horrible Inequities
As a monk, a mystic in the world, pursuing my spiritual practice each day, I have awakened to the horrible inequity in the sufferings of the homeless persons I have known for so long. I have realized it is no good depending on an often uneven approach of providing shelters and soup kitchens. We must call on something much more ambitious to transform this problem. We can create such a world, but it demands will and determination; it won't just happen without the insight, leadership, and the mobilization of a movement.
Contemplatives, mystics, and monastics are by nature countercultural. They are in touch, through desire, vision, and experience, with something ultimate. Their understanding of reality and value arises from the Source. Their perceptions and estimation of society, of the world, always put them in conflict with the world's illusions, or more precisely with the illusions most people entertain about themselves, their desires, and hidden agendas.
Being An Agent of Change, of Reform
A monk or mystic contemplative in the mainstream of society is an agent of change, of reform. He or she has a vision of a human world animated by the best qualities of which we are capable, a world where compassion is alive, where love takes precedence over indifference, kindness over neglect, and mercy over oppression. Mystics in the heart of society are a source of radical reform, radical in the original meaning of the Latin root radex, which means going to the root.
The reform I have in mind is the most radical of all: the eventual disappearance of cultural and economic selfishness, and their replacement with sharing, compassionate concern, loving kindness, and merciful consideration of all. In such a new world, street people will find a real home and the opportunities to cultivate themselves and their God-given gifts, thus allowing their innate preciousness to shine forth.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library, Novato, California. ©2002.
A Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life
by Wayne Teasdale.
Wayne Teasdale explores the real world topics of friendship; time, work, and money; the problem and opportunity of the homeless; a contemplative understanding of suffering; the struggle to promote personal and social change; as well as the as the role of the church and nature in building spiritual understanding.
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About the Author
Brother Wayne Teasdale was a lay monk who combined the traditions of Christianity and Hinduism in the way of Christian sannyasa. An activist and teacher in building common ground between religions, he served on the board of trustees of the Parliament of the World's Religions. As a member of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, he helped draft their Universal Declaration on Nonviolence. He was an adjunct professor at DePaul University, Columbia College, and the Catholic Theological Union, and coordinator of the Bede Griffiths International Trust. He is the author of The Mystic Heart, and A Monk in the World. He held an M.A. in philosophy from St. Joseph College and a Ph.D. in theology from Fordham University. Wayne passed away in October 2004. Visit this website for more information on his life and teachings.