Homelessness in America is now the “lifestyle” of over half a million people; in Atlanta alone it affects seven thousand. I know homeless people; and have had some in my own family. This article, however, is not about my personal issues, but about the meaning of homelessness in Zen Buddhism. The teachings of Buddhism are not to be used as criticisms of others, but as a mirror reflected back on the self. So we are not interested in blaming others for unsatisfactory and unjustifiable conditions in our society. As a designer by training, however, I am interested in looking for solutions. And many other people appear to be engaged, as well. But please believe me, this is not a plea, nor even a suggestion, that you should be engaging in so-called “good works” as part of your Zen practice. Not my call.
To speak of leaving home (J. shukke) in Zen is not to rationalize that those who are suffering exposure to weather, and other deprivations associated with living without shelter, are somehow okay; that they are like the mendicants and hermits of old. How each person we see on the streets and alleyways of our cities, and, increasingly, in rural areas and small towns, has come to this situation is likely a unique story. There are many commonalities, of course, having to do with “poor choices,” as the critics like to point out; including involvement in addiction, and other maladies. But these stereotypes, while carrying a grain of truth, do not necessarily point to a solution. “Just say no” is not a viable option, in many cases.
Some sobering statistics from around the world suggest that the problem is not an American one, and that “throwing money at it” may not be the best approach, at least as long as the use of that money is in the hands of politicians and their agents, however well- intentioned. East Germany has been the beneficiary of largesse from West Germany since the fall of the Berlin wall, but has remained essentially flat, in terms of overall financial recovery. So where does the problem begin?
In Zen, it is a standard to say that it begins at home, with the individual. But this is not the same argument of the “haves”: that the “-nots” are responsible. And it does not lobby for the opposite, that the haves are to blame. But it does suggest that for there to be the homeless, there have to be those who are not. And that no one is really not part of the equation, if not part of the problem.