Homelessness Reconsidered

Apr 02

In my column last month I wrote about the problem of homelessness and suggested one personal and immediate thing people could do would be to give a little money to a panhandler. This provoked a bit of a response and I received a number of emails objecting to the suggestion. These readers objected that such money might be spent on drink or drugs and do more harm than good. This is a common and serious objection and deserves a thoughtful reply.

To presume that a poor person will abuse a gift is an unwarranted judgment. It is class prejudice. If we see a homeless person begging in the street, all we can know for sure is that here is a being in suffering. If we then allow a fixed prejudice to stop us from helping, we are in effect dehumanizing both the beggar and ourselves. This judgmental attitude creates a gulf, dividing the world into "us and them."

This division is spiritual poison. Buddhism teaches that it is also essentially false. There is no real division between beings. All, without exception, share the same intrinsic nature. In Buddhist metaphysics, the most essential and deepest aspect of everyone is light, bliss and void. This may be difficult to see and even to understand, but a simpler way of expressing the same universal equality is to say that all beings want happiness and do not want suffering.

When we look at beings in this way, there is no more division. There are only different, more or less skilful ways of manifesting in the world. When we look at another do we see another consciousness, "an entire universe of experience" as the mystical poet William Blake expressed it, or do we see one of "them?"

When the world is divided into "us and them" we don't see others as beings in their own right, we see them as objects of hatred, lust, fear or ignorance. How much of the misery of this world comes from such objectification? It is only by ignoring the reality of the other person, and their suffering, that violence is possible at all. Everything from domestic abuse to war and terrorism follows this same pattern. The perpetrator of violence, abuse or oppression sees his own ego position as "real" and valuable, something to be enhanced and protected. The "other" is relevant only in so far as he satisfies or frustrates the desires of "my" ego, or the big ego of my class, tribe or nation.

History would seem to indicate that human beings, taken en masse, are slow learners indeed. The same stupid destructive attitudes continue from generation to generation. Far from evolving to spiritual maturity, the world at present seems to be sliding into an abyss of tribalism as we divide into the false and dangerous categories of "us and them." If the Israelis really saw the suffering of the Palestinians could they continue with a harsh and brutal occupation? Likewise, if the Palestinians saw the suffering of Israelis, as beings intrinsically of the same essence, could they continue to support the senseless slaughter of the suicide bombings?

We may feel overwhelmed by the scale of horror unleashed by war and terror, but the very same root of suffering is perpetuated whenever we pass a homeless beggar on the street and fail to "see" him. The irony is that by walling ourselves off to protect our own ego position, it is we who suffer the most. We create alienation and perpetuate fear. The only way to peace and happiness is with an open heart.

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