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.
In Zen, we do not try to reform society, or impose our superior world view upon the great unwashed masses. Instead, we believe that, at base, all problems in living, including equitable distribution of resources, begin with the reification of the self, and the consequences that ensue. Our approach is not, however, to accuse those who are not actively helping the homeless, of indifference or cruelty; but to suggest that even the homeless share this same issue. But this does not excuse not doing anything to help, either.
So what is a person to do? Like any other problem area, from a design perspective, the first item of business is problem definition. You may define homelessness as a problem of such-and-such provenance, but I may define it differently. In design circles, we utilize such team approaches as brainstorming and research, following up with analysis to produce findings, conclusions, and recommendations for action. The theory is that the more thoroughly we define a given problem, the more likely the solution, or many solutions, will be found in the definition. If we somehow manage to fully define any given problem, limited to reasonable parameters—such as homelessness in the neighborhood, or in this city; versus country-wide, or world-wide homelessness—then the full solution is implied in that definition. At least, it is a start in the right direction.
In any such research program, you want to include all stakeholders to the problem. One segment is the homeless, themselves. You would want to interview as many as feasible, to asses their personal causes and conditions, the strategies they are using to cope, and the attitudes that they have, regarding their own situation. On a case-by-case basis, some of the common stereotypes may be reinforced; others may be demolished. Whatever the results, this phase would begin to present a holistic picture of the world of the homeless. At least for the population studied.
Another set of stakeholders would be those who are already engaged in trying to solve this problem. This would be a “key person” study, fewer folks involved; but more in-depth with each respondent. Again, stereotypes may be confirmed, such as those in it for political advantage, etc. But we may be surprised, at the depth and breadth of the crusaders, working altruistically for other beings.
I am considering embarking on such a program, to bring Zen to the homeless, based on my own bias that it might help. Of course, in dire straits, where Maslow’s basic needs hierarchy—for water, food, warmth, shelter, clothing—are lacking, it is not likely that meditation will do much good. It will certainly not magically solve all the problems. But it may be a step in the right direction.
I am inspired to consider such a program of personal research, owing partly to some familiarity with the problem on a personal level; but also by a sense of surprise that there are so few homeless people, relative to the general population. Since we are approaching 330 million people in the USA, and 555 thousand homeless; then—do the math—there are nearly 600 who are not homeless, for every person who is. Even allowing for other disqualifying demographics, including age and income, unless there is something amiss in the math, this does not seem an intractable problem, at least not on a numerical basis. If half of that number, 300, cannot take care of one, what does that say about the community at large? Weren’t most early tribal groups around half that number, say 150 members?
Of course, barriers to sharing are not found solely in peoples’ minds and personal circumstances, but baked into the cake of the culture, as powerful memes. So no fault-finding here. Just trying to get a picture of the severity of the problem, in terms of numbers.
Bringing it down to local focus, the city of Atlanta’s population is approaching 500 thousand, while the homeless float around 3 thousand. Again, several hundred living inside, for each individual living on the streets. Round numbers.
I am not suggesting that we turn Zen practice into a program for the homeless; that we should all dedicate our lives to this cause. But if some of their needs are being met by others more capable of dealing with the issue than we are, then maybe adding meditation to the mix can provide a benefit, just as it does in our lives.
We are certainly not qualified, either as individuals or as a group, to compete in delivering support services to the indigent, with those who have been committed to the problem for years. And I am not suggesting that because you are a Zen practitioner, that you should adopt this, or any other cause, such as the death penalty, as an appropriate part of your practice.
In fact, I feel that what we are already doing, by exposing people to Zen meditation, is about as radically positive and revolutionary a program as you can devise. It may be that sharing it with the disadvantaged may have a greater return on our investment, in the sense of improved prospects of the participants, than we may expect. It is certainly worth a try.
When we consider homelessness as the pejorative that it is in our cultural context, we cannot but be impressed by the disconnect with its meaning in the countries of origin, and the development of Zen. Not that those countries are immune from the modern curse of homelessness. But the original meaning of being homeless (J. shukke), is the true condition, or “true home,” of any and all sentient beings, including humans. To be truly homeless at heart, in spite of outward appearance, is the rarefied awareness of the enlightened. We are enlightened to the fact that, whatever grass hut or mansion we may occupy at the moment, it is no more our true home than another planet. At least not for long.
If this aspect of, and attitude toward, the homeless could take hold in our society, it might go a long way to relieving the stigma, and sense of failure, associated with finding yourself on the street.
There is a burgeoning awareness, something like the conspicuous consumption of the gilded age, that all the McMansions, penthouses, and multiple homes around the world, are today’s wretched excess, much the same as yesterday’s. Like the Titanic, they are glorious in their ostentatiousness, as long as they do not run into the iceberg of reality. Once the ship starts going down—and everybody’s ship is going down, sooner or later—the gold-plated lifestyle does not amount to much more than that of the homeless.
We start out in a crib, once free of the womb. Then progressively expand our outreach. Onto the floor, learning to crawl, work the stroller, then walk, then run, then the tricycles, bicycles, eventually the auto. More and bigger rooms, both public and private. Then as we age, run the tape back, until we eventually find ourselves back in the wheelchair, the crib, and eventually, on our deathbed. This is not morbid, just the usual dynamic.
Meanwhile, where did all that need for so much elbow room go? Where did it come from? The monk’s cell is notorious for its lack of floor space, and admired for its simple furnishings. The Zen monk’s is a tatami mat, a roughly three by six foot footprint. Seven basic possessions. How much is enough?
If you expand the math to encompass the possessions, including living space, of the population numbers cited, you get another measure of the disparity. How does it come to be, that so many need so much; and that others can have nothing, by comparison.
Another example that occurred to me is that of sports. The angle I want to examine is the relative consumption of space. The best reference I can think of is the size of the playing field relative to the size of the ball. A handball is a pretty small item, but so is the room in which it is played. Of course, the enclosed building housing that room is another matter, with the requisite electrical service and plumbing facilities in the club. A basketball is larger, but the court is more than twice as large, and including the bleachers, begins to gobble up real estate, requiring a stadium. A football is a bit smaller than a basketball, but you need 100 yards of field, to play the game. The baseball diamond, with its outfields, is a bit larger than a football field, but the ball is much smaller, so the ratio is significantly greater. But the grand prize winner, the biggest consumer of all, requiring acreage, is golf. And the ratio—of turf in proportion to the ball—is outrageous. Truly a rich man’s game. Polo may be even worse. It requires the conscription, not just of real estate, but of the hapless horse. As does quarter-horse racing.
They say that people have the kinds of problems they can afford to have. Once we had finally gathered enough roots and berries, our attention turned to other interests.
“How much is enough?” is a question asked in professional design circles, as well as in Zen. In both cases, it has a material dimension, as well as a spiritual one, you might say. How much does it take to survive, or to just get by? And how much does it take to fill that cavernous hole, at the center of our dissatisfaction?
We each have to answer this in our own way. I think it helps to explore the lives of others, who are either relatively disadvantaged by comparison to us; and those who enjoy a relatively grander lifestyle. Usually, the latter gets all the attention, witness such programs as cover the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It is also true that many of the characters we follow and admire, both in fantasy and in real life, tend to be on the upper end of the wealth curve. I guess we wonder how they do it, or how they did it; where when it comes to the lower end of the spectrum, we may suppose we already know how they got there. As a story, it’s just another downer.
But it may be that we are missing the main point. Wherever we land on the prosperity scale, there may be more to life than that. Wealth, or lack of it, whether in financial form, or simply good health, is not the problem. It is what we do with it that counts. In this life, save the body; it is the root of many lives.