The Buddha’s Awareness and the State of Homelessness

Smile of Unbearable Compassion

Structures of human interaction, that is to say the patterns of social communication, are varied and diverse but all can be viewed as sharing a common underlying theme.  Each individual physical body has to co-exist within a defined geographical space, and through the agency of behaviour and convention, draw the necessary resources for existence into the general operating sphere of the life of each person.  Generally speaking these strategies for survival can be broadly categorised as ‘civilised’, or ‘barbaric’, depending upon the point of view of the observer.  Cultural bias aside for a moment, it is clear that there are certain tracks of interaction that are less destructive than others, and that as a consequence, there are points of view and certain behaviours that are either socially destructive, or socially cohesive.  Of course, ‘fairness’ is very much an abstract concept and can be interpreted through a wide array of viewpoints.  For some people, if they hold a very large amount of a country’s finance within their influence, and in so doing exercising an equivalently powerful political influence, then from their perspective, or life view, every thing is as it is supposed to be and the world is ordered and at peace.  This kind of wealth and power creates a certain impervious barrier around this life style that does not allow for any images of dissent to emerge within this social oasis.  The awareness of those living within such a tranquil bubble does not need to transcend the social barriers that protect it – and is aimed solely upon the perpetuation of the harmonious present moment.  As long as this perfect moment is undisturbed there need not be any unnecessary speculation about the world that lies beyond the boundary.  Indeed, such a speculation contains within it the potential to undermine the implicit contributing factors that are directly responsible for the experience of the social oasis itself.  Not to allow the mind to go beyond its existential environment is part and parcel of the maintenance of the environment.  The development of any true insight into the situation is dynamically threatening to the fabric of the structure itself – there is awareness, but by necessity this awareness must be firmly limited in its scope.  A situation is created whereby the saying ‘ignorance is bliss’ is established as a mode of existence.  True insight is not required to reap the socio-economic benefits of such a privileged social position.  The mind and sense organs of a person living within such an exalted state do not go beyond the habitual contemplation of the obvious opulence of the situation concerned.  The human being is routinely bathed in the sensuous delight of a continuous, positive stimulation premised upon an apparent and inherent superiority contained within the individual person.  From a philosophical perspective, it is entirely enough that the situation exists as it does, presumably free from any administration errors and structural defects.  The opulence is considered correct because it exists as it does and no other justification is either required or allowed.  No privileged system contains within it an education programme that clearly and authoritatively presents the system itself in an objective manner, and explains how the bubble of opulence exists at the expense of a broader, supportive social structure. 

The Lord Buddha was born into such a privileged social structure around 2500 years ago in ancientIndia.  His father was a chief or clan elder, who was elected as the leader of the Sakya clan for many years.  As a result of this continuous re-election, the Buddha’s family became very wealthy and lived within a walled compound.  This material barrier separated this privileged existence from that of the rest of his society – the members of which lived their lives the best way they could, within the geographical boundaries of northIndiathat defined the Sakya homeland.  According to the Buddhist sutras the trappings of wealth were every where the Buddha turned.  His every desire and physical need was immediately met by the numerous servants that existed to answer his every beck and call.  He was fed, clothed, educated and had his sensuous needs met without end or break.  The Buddha’s experience of life at this point in his existence was one of immense opulence that limited his direct perception to his immediate surroundings.  Life continued for some time in this manner for the Buddha, and if not for a nagging doubt in the back of his mind, it might have continued forever in this way, and Buddhism as we know it today would not have been created through his experience of enlightenment.  Generally speaking, it is the human habit to grasp wealth and fear poverty.  In his example, the Buddha was very different in his life choice.  Whereas the average human being would have been sensually over-whelmed by the continuous experience of a positive and pleasurable life style, the Buddha, whilst living within the opulent state of his father’s house, always maintained an enquiring mind about the world outside of his particular living space.  The Buddha was not born into poverty and therefore his doubting mind about his existential, wealthy situation can not be interpreted as a form of class envy – or an error of judgement inspired by the experience of abject poverty.  Instead, it is the one-sided presence of immense wealth itself that caused the doubt.  This implication is unprecedented in human affairs.  More than this, however, but from the perspective of the so-called ‘status quo’ such an attitude is viewed as an example of extreme illogicality and folly.  Why is this so?  It is so because the Buddha, as a member of the upper class by birth, is effectively questioning the entire edifice of social privilege that his class is based upon.  The upper, or privileged classes are use to being attacked by the poor who lack any real power in society to enforce their protests – but as a class, it is very disturbed by the concept of an enemy within – that is a person who fundamentally disagrees with the structure of the opulence he experiences, and as a consequence, possesses the social influence and power to do some thing about it.  Initially, the Buddha possessed only the curiosity to seek a further knowledge that lay beyond his immediate, sensual experience.  This enquiring mind eventually led him to physically leave the security and predictability of his compound.  This simple act of mind-led investigation has had profound ramifications for humanity ever since.

Of course, the act of physically changing one’s environment for another inevitably has the consequence of a change of mind itself.  For many ordinary beings this change of mind through experience is simply the process of the cognising of new sense-data – to be stored alongside similar sense-data previously acquired. For the Buddha himself, the change of physical experience led to the development of the immense urge within him to seek the answer that reconciled all physical experience, regardless of the nature of that experience itself.  Just as the urge to explore the world beyond his personal circumstance was mind-led, so the quest for enlightenment itself was mind-led.  Life beyond the compound was very different.  Its base sensory position was one of insecurity, unpredictability, and harsh indifference to the reality of life.  The opulent barrier did not exist and the Buddha – for the first time in his life, experienced through his senses the reality of a world that was not artificially mediated or presented as some thing it was not.  His habitual world of pleasure was replaced with a world of grinding poverty that was distinctly unpleasant to experience.  Within this world the Buddha encountered for the first time, old age, disease and death, but he also encountered one more, very important attribute – namely tranquillity in the heart of suffering.  Amongst the filth and squalor there was a holy man who appeared to possess little but whose bearing and attitude demonstrated a certain peacefulness and stability, despite the fact that his outer circumstance were less than conducive to an obvious well-being.  This contradiction affected the Buddha very profoundly.  As well as experiencing a world completely at odds with his life of contrived pleasure, he also witnessed that even within this apparently miserable world a person could achieve a state of mind that remained inwardly ‘free’ of the pressure exerted by an external world of suffering, through the senses themselves.  This is to say that the conditions found within the environment, regardless of the severity of their manifestations, did not create a corresponding inner psychological climate of chaos within the holy man – because the chain of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ that usually directly related the two planes appeared permanently broken.  Within the inner mind, chaos exists in the form of greed, hatred and delusion, regardless of the nature of the outer circumstance themselves.  Circumstances can be pleasurable, neutral and unpleasant on the outer plane but due to the accumulation of karmic habit, the mind always responds with greed, hatred and delusion – until the chain is broken – regardless of the nature of the outer world itself.  An obviously affluent life condition offers a sensual experience that appears continuously pleasurable as the frequency of sensation of such a lifestyle creates a certain frequency of experience through the senses.  A lifestyle of physical deprivation, on the other hand, generally creates a climate of extensive ‘lacking’, as the person experiencing it is continuously made to feel that there is never enough of any material substance to sustain the basic necessities of life.  This ‘lacking’ presents itself to the senses as a ‘desperation’ that never ceases.  The general experience is one of unpleasantness in the world.  The experiences of life present to the senses in accordance to the outer conditions, and are directed toward a certain qualitative frequency. 

Following this experience (which must have been dramatic for a person use to what might be described as an excessively luxurious lifestyle), the Buddha decided that it was within the world (as it manifested for most ordinary beings), that the potential for enlightenment existed, and that at the same time this ability was difficult to achieve within a lifestyle of continuous opulence.  This is a crucial decision that has permeated through the history of Buddhism as both a philosophy and a religion.  The Buddha chose the state of abject poverty over that of excessive material wealth – even though he was born into the latter and had no reason to go into the former.  The Theravada tradition today maintains the idea that people living within lay society are generally unable to realise enlightenment – although even within the Buddha’s lifetime itself the Pali literature speaks of both men and women attaining to enlightenment without necessarily leaving lay society.  Within the Mahayana tradition examples abound of lay people achieving enlightenment and certain schools have orders of monastics who are allowed to marry.  The Buddha’s decision to leave opulence for poverty is making a profound philosophical statement that suggests that those who are socially dominant within society, and who consider themselves ‘superior’ due to their status and wealth, are in fact spiritually of no meaningful status, and that by comparison, the materially poor men and women who have given up wealth and realised the essence of their mind, are spiritually to be exalted, even though on the physical plane they may have no material attributes that appeal to the grasping, gross senses.  The Buddha left his social caste and entered a life of voluntary homelessness.  Despite the rather romantic image this has been presented within the West, the Buddha in fact entered a state of dismal physical circumstances where he wore rags and begged for scraps of food.  This is exactly the same as a person in the West who has entered the state of ‘homelessness’ due to an uncaring society that perpetually blames the individual for the short-comings of that society that allows its citizens to suffer in this manner, despite the existent wealth of those Western nations concerned.  In the West, the state of homelessness is viewed very much as a personal failure on behalf of the person who has entered it – and is seldom viewed as a systemic social failing of an uncaring political system.  For the Buddha, by way of contrast, the homeless state is the Dharma-door to enlightenment.  The giving-up of the trappings of greed on the outer level releases and relieves the mind on the inner plane so that the mind, through will power and meditation, can be developed beyond the state of greed, hatred and delusion.  The Buddha’s example is as much political and economic, as it is spiritual.  His example judges the opulent lifestyle as being spiritually invalid, and the spiritual lifestyle (of homelessness) as being spiritually valid, uplifting and superior.  This statement turns conventional wisdom upon its head.  Wealth, social power, status and influence are the normal way for the unenlightened individuals within ordinary society to judge themselves as superior and valid – this mind-set treads upon all those who do not have wealth, social power, status and influence, and judges their existence as worthless and pointless.  It is exactly this world of judged inferiority where the Buddha chose to make his spiritual stand and meditate his way through to enlightenment.

Voluntary poverty is very much the vehicle of the Buddha’s journey as recorded in the scriptures – regardless of school.  The difference between how the modern condition of homelessness in the West is perceived, and that homeless state as lived by the Buddha and his disciples is that the Buddha, although living obviously outside of the political-economic system of his time, is nevertheless viewed with respect due to the wisdom he possesses.  The homeless person in the West is judged by his society through the lack of wealth he possesses – a social system that does not care whatsoever about the knowledge or wisdom he may or may not possess.  Modern homeless people in the West, although living a lifestyle viewed as ‘noble’ within the Buddhist scriptures, are demonised and despised as the lowest of the low by those people who do not exist within the homeless state.  Even Western religion has conformed to the Capitalist notion that the only thing that matters is the accumulation of wealth.  Within the Buddha’s lifetime, generally speaking the homeless state was viewed with respect – as it still generally is within Asian Buddhist countries today – although the Chinese Sangha does not allow its monks or nuns to beg as such, to make a living.  In the West the heights of education are a product of social status, wealth and birth.  They are never the product of leaving society and going into the homeless state.  It makes no difference how long one lives on the road, or contemplates nature without the involvement of politics or economics – one in the homeless state in the West will never get into Oxford or Cambridge as a result of their wisdom.  Wealth dictates status and social worth today.  However, the Buddha’s example allows for a homeless person in the West to transform how they view their own circumstances by breaking free of the greed motivated conception inherent in their society that is used to continuously judge them without question.  Just as in the Buddha’s day, the old society continued to function around him, regardless of the fact that he had thoroughly freed himself from the inner imprints that the outer society had created in his mind, so the modern homeless person can become free of the judgement of their society whilst still actually living within its confines.  This transforms what is perceived as an immense economic failure to that of a spiritual victory – even though nothing substantial has changed on the (social) outer plane.  The Buddha’s example (and path) transforms the mind out of, and away from the habit of ‘grasping’ or ‘rejecting’ every sensual stimulus that is experienced by the individual.  This breaks the chain between the oppressive and hindering nature of external circumstance, and the calm abiding of the inner mind – the mind becomes free from the affects of the outer circumstance due to the development of non-attachment to the experience itself.  This does not mean that the mind is separate from the external world, but rather that the basic dualistic nature of the deluded mind is transcended so that the gross aspects of delusion are thoroughly smashed forever.  What emerges is the realisation that the world as it is – is the mind itself as a totality free from the idea that the inner being experiences a separate outer world.  The world of physical matter, although karmically derived, unfolds to its own pattern that is observable from the mind view that no longer is attached to it, or that pushes it away.  Things are as they should be, and change slowly over-time.  However, the deluded mind can be transformed ‘here and now’ so that the suffering of dualism is removed from the experience of life itself.   

What is important for the Buddha is that the ordinary trends of life indulged by the multitude are not the highest, spiritually valid experiences that are available to a human being.  Affluence is not really affluence and poverty is not really poverty.  This is a direct attack upon common sense and turns conventional logic upon its head.  Freedom is experienced as freedom when not conditioned by pleasurable, neutral or non-pleasurable experiences.  The difference between the Buddha’s state of homelessness and the average Western experience of the same state is one of education and awareness.  Western homelessness is very much the thin-edge of the wedge premised upon material acquisition and accumulation.  The Buddha’s homelessness is premised upon the exact opposite of this idea.  For the Buddha homelessness is the physical manifestation of the discarding and permanently giving-up of greed, hatred and delusion.  It is not so much a failure as such, but rather a spiritual choice based upon a wise consideration.  Could he, as a wealthy noble entrapped within the luxury of his father’s house, break free of the deluded conditioning that perpetuated its existence, bearing in mind that the Buddha’s father was adamant that his son would only ever be exposed to pleasurable experiences?  It is unlikely that the break with continuously pleasurable stimulus could have been made, considering the intensity of the opulent lifestyle itself.  It must be remembered that until the Buddha secretly left his father’s luxurious residence, he had no experience of any other lifestyle whatsoever.  His mind and environment were intimately merged in cause and effect.  There existed no context to objectify his experience other than an urge to see what lay beyond the boundary wall of his childhood abode.  This urge inspired him to plan an escape, the consequences of which changed his mind forever.  Of course, it is true that after his initial journey into the outside world, he returned to his father’s house for a time, but things would never be the same again.  His journey had been so shocking to his senses that his journey toward enlightenment was very much in progress.  The return to the palace was a temporary measure designed to make arrangements for his eventual leaving.  For this journey to succeed every thing without exception had to be left behind – nothing could be carried from the old life.  Going into the state of homelessness was a powerful physical and symbolic action that loosened the fetters that bound the Buddha to the wheel of suffering.  It was a decision that was not taken lightly, but a decision that once taken had to be pursued with an absolute spiritual vigour in a single direction – there could be no half measures or turning back.  The state of homelessness, by comparison to the worldly state it replaced, was pure, clean and free from sensuous fetters.  Such a state of existence is obviously not without its inherent problems.  Regular and good quality food is no longer available and can not be expected.  Good and fine clothing is impractical and can not be sustained within a homeless state that is exposed to the elements.  Money to purchase goods is absent and as a product the ‘homed’ life is abandoned completely.  Foot-wear, other than the most rudimentary has no place on the homeless path.  The original homeless Buddhists did not live in elaborate monasteries or temples, but made do with whatever shelter was available in the forests of ancient India.  The homeless existence was one abandoned to the elements – with the climate of north India being generally very warm, but with the added reality of the extensive rainy seasons, etc.  A certain indifference to one’s physical circumstances was part of the Buddha’s meditative method.  The physical body and the environment it lives within are secondary in importance to the cultivation of the mind itself.  The minimum of maintenance is applied to the body, covering its outer layer with a disparate collection of rags, and sustain its need for food from left-over scraps and the waste food from the tables of the laity.  Begging sustains the stomach which in many ways becomes the common property of those who feed the monk.  As the monk has no interest in the food he gathers, or indeed whether the begging process itself actually works (and results in donated food), the laity present the food for spiritual-karmic reasons – in a very real sense, by feeding the monk physically, the laity are feeding themselves spiritually.  By allowing the physical body of the monk to continue without dying of starvation, the laity is providing the conditions for the monk to gain complete enlightenment and in so doing are earning the karmic merit associated with such an act itself.  Of course, the act of giving alms – like the act of receiving the alms – should be pure and free from contrivance and hidden motives as such impurities sully the karmic interaction and transform what should be an act of supreme indifferent emptiness into one of an interaction of the ego.  The homeless one, of course, has a mind that is free of attachment and expectation and perceives the world of external phenomena as continuous, self-sustained waves of consciousness that ripple out through time.  

Buddhism in the West has had to conform to a vigorous Capitalist system that has also made extensive head-way in the East.  Of course, the economically poorer parts of Asia still allow for Buddhist monks to walk serenely through the impoverishment of the lay communities, receiving whatever is at hand, or perhaps receiving nothing at all – begging in this way is never a matter of desire or greed.  The monks own nothing – even their robes are donated by others – and their physical poverty is not used as a means to measure their worth in life.  Their worth is measured through the extensive philosophical education they are receiving, and through the fact that they have made a decision to leave the world behind.  Part of the superiority on the spiritual plane of this existence is the ability not to participate in the greed inspired accumulation of wealth.  The state of homeless poverty is in fact very much a badge of honour.  The Theravada school that exists in the UK has had to adapt to a stringent Capitalist ethos as well as a British cultural attitude that is by and large completely unaware of the norms and customs of the Buddhist tradition.  Although monks from some (primarily Thai) Theravada temples in the UK have tried to walk through residential areas, they have either been completely ignored, or been the target of official complaints – either way, they have tended not to receive any food.  This situation has been remedied by a certain modification of the rules whereby the supporting lay community of a temple bring the food offerings (on a daily basis) to the monastery, where it is shared out amongst the monks – or some times it is arranged in advance that a number of Buddhist monks will walk to a particular place where lay people will be waiting to feed them.  By and large, the latter occurrence is more or less ritualised and very irregular, and may well have a reporter from the local press to cover it as an ‘event’.  Of course, once in the homeless state the monk can not ask for food, or take food – it must be actually given to him by another person.  Even though the Thai Theravada remains a very pure tradition in the West, modernisation has sneaked-in here and there, and the floors of the temples/monasteries often have thick carpet, in the winter and summer there is adequate heating and air conditioning, food is plentiful, and some times even ‘quiet’ flushing toilets are installed so as not to disturb the monks in their contemplative practice – this is a far-cry from the abject poverty that the Theravada temples exist in – in northeast Thailand, or elsewhere in Asia.  However, by and large the Theravada tradition has kept the premise established by the Buddha himself which teaches that instruction in the Dharma is provided absolutely ‘free’ of charge, including food, water and a bed for the night.  Other Buddhist traditions that have arrived in the West, have set about conforming to the idea that every one must pay their way – which is a completely anti-Buddhist idea as it places the acquisition of monetary profit over and above that of the acquisition of wisdom that leads to enlightenment.  This distortion of the Buddha’s teaching has led to all kinds of oddities and peculiarities.  The Buddha’s wisdom belongs to all beings and can not be sold by one group, to another.  As the Buddha’s teachings are premised upon ‘following the breath’ in their most essential aspect, it follows that it is immoral to charge people money to ‘look within’ their own minds, using knowledge gained by the Buddha himself.  Looking within is a human right that should not require the mediation of monetary profit for it to be successful.  All distortions of Buddhism in the world today stem from this simple fact.  The search for profit sullies the purity of entering the homeless life.  If a man or woman dons the robe and gives up ordinary existence, what is the point of this dedication if the monastic life itself becomes merely another version of gratifying the senses?  In this reality, lay clothes are exchanged for the monastic garb – but one set of circumstances are replaced with another that meet the needs of the desirous senses.  In this scenario it can be argued (with considerable merit) that one has not actually ‘left home’, despite experiencing the ordination process.  The modern, profit-led temple is simply another form of business designed to generate an income, the dynamics of which obscure the original, true intention of ‘leaving home’.

Simply changing clothes and shaving one’s head does not necessarily mean that one has effectively ‘gone forth’ into the homeless life.  Buddhism that has become infected by the need for profit is simply another version of samsara disguised to look like a path to enlightenment.  Truly having no recourse to any material benefits is difficult to achieve in this kind of psychological climate that distorts the Buddha’s anti-greed message into a commodity that others might wish to possess.  This is the crux of the matter.  Buddhism is often presented to the world as a cure-all for humanity’s ills – if only its material products are bought in abundance.  The Buddhist method is not easy and as a consequence it will not appeal to the deluded mind-set that controls samsaric society.  The Buddha’s message, at its greatest extent actually predicts the end of greed, hatred and delusion, and therefore the conclusion of life premised upon greed and profit.  This can only be ‘sold’ to the society that it strives to replace by distorting it to breath-taking levels of misrepresentation.  The UK abounds with this Buddhist group, or that Buddhist group advertising their Dharmic goods and meditation retreats for hundreds of pounds.  This effectively excludes all but the wealthy from the knowledge of the Buddha’s wisdom by those who have no right to ‘sell’ it.  Focusing upon the breath is free for every one to pursue and it should be a Buddhists moral duty to facilitate the education of those who require such instruction, free of monetary interference.  At no time in the Buddhist teachings is there a single example of the Buddha or his disciples asking for payment for the knowledge and wisdom they possess.  This kind of knowledge and wisdom is rare to achieve and many ‘sell’ it to others without realising it for themselves – indeed, there are certain so-called ‘Western’ forms of Buddhism that denigrate the Asian heritage as being unsuitable for the West, whilst its members shave their heads, assume Sanskrit names and wear Buddhist (i.e. ‘Asian’) robes.  This happens whilst the members themselves pursue a vicious pyramid selling strategy designed to make the movements very materially wealthy, etc.  Ordinary people are continuously misled by these distortions and often become led astray by this situation.  Leaving home is a pure intention that originates with the mind and then is applied to the body.  It may, or may not involve ordination, as many great Buddhist mystics who lived in the hills did not ordain.  In some cases, it may even involve living within lay society but with a detached mind.  Whatever the case, quite often today the only true ‘homeless’ people are those who are the victims of an uncaring social system, who live on the streets in an enforced austerity that is far more realistic than the experience that many modern day Buddhist monastics encounter in their relatively privileged training environments.  It is probably true to say that for many Buddhists (but not all), the experience of homelessness is purely theoretical and symbolic, and does not represent the complete and total disconnection with ordinary life that the Buddha experienced when he ‘left home’.  In this respect the change of circumstance from one life condition to that of another is not as shocking as it would have been for the Buddha himself.  Intention is the key to motivation and those who possess the desire to leave home can do so even in the midst of the worldly life (like Vimalakirti), but if the motivation is not pure, then no amount of exchanging one set of circumstances for another will break the chain of samsara.  If the Mind Ground is penetrated ‘here and now’, and all things are correctly perceived as they really are, then one has already left home without having to go anywhere.

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