Buddhism and Christianity: Homelessness as Renunciation?

IMG_2234Despite the quick conclusions of some Western sympathizers, there is nothing more opposed in this world than the modern doctrines of Buddhism and Christianity. Sure they both want you to be good and do good, but beyond that the ways and means are almost exactly the opposite. Christianity plays offense. Buddhism plays defense. Christianity is a religion of action. Buddhism is a religion of renunciation. Christianity is a religion of passion. Buddhism is a religion of dis-passion…

Originally, though, that word ‘passion’, in Latin, meant ‘suffering’, and so at that point, they indeed did have something in common, the bond of suffering, and the bond of enlightened transcendence, through the experience, and hopefully release, from suffering. Since then, they’ve largely gone separate ways, through the vagaries of circumstance, cultural and otherwise. So that today, the Western Christian ideal would be to achieve eternal life, this life. The Buddhist ideal is to escape ‘the wheel’ entirely…

Now it may be that the original conception of Eternal Life in the Bible’s Old Testament and the Buddhist concept of the ‘unborn’ or ‘undying’ may be something very similar, or even the same, but fast forward to the present and there is no doubt of the difference. Some Western Buddhists are even openly in love with ‘delicious samsara‘, so seductive is the world to us Yanks, traditionally, so that the Western charge that Buddhism is ‘life-denying’ can almost immediately be discounted, considering that ‘life’ to the average American is generally something similar to an amusement park…

So the idea of ‘renunciation’ is antithetical to Western sensibilities. Yet still we do it. Inner cities are full of renunciants, and countrysides have their fair share, too. But unlike in Asia, there are no devotees waiting to regale them with food supplies and best wishes, in exchange for perfunctory blessings. No, in general they are reviled, marginalized and left to fend for themselves in a hostile environment which neither wants them nor tolerates them…

I’m referring to homeless people, of course, many of whom are there for much the same reasons as monks in Asia, that the world is too much, and too unwanted, while others not, and often just the opposite, for in Asia, this is a chance for a poor person to attain an immediate bump in social status, all for the price of foregoing the life of friends and family, they reduced to fetters, and defilements of the pure Buddha-heart…

I’ve been there, if only briefly, homeless by choice. But trying to make sense of my own life is hardly important, once one relinquishes ownership of that and much much more. More important to me is making sense of the homelessness that largely defines Western civilization, whether America or England or France, where they are largely written off as the dregs of society and a national disgrace, whereas in a dozen countries of south and southeast Asia, they could simply ordain as orange-robed monks and bring honor to their families, and food to their bellies…

But is the average homeless person truly a renunciant? Aren’t many, if not most, there because of circumstances which they did not choose? There are some of both, I suspect, solo travelers much the former, homeless families more likely the latter. And what about discipline, you ask? Isn’t a monk the epitome of discipline, and the average homeless person not?

Good point, but you might be surprised at how much discipline it takes to live by your wits, “a complete unknown, no direction home…like a rolling stone,” to quote The Bard. Of course it takes the aforementioned discipline, to be sure, but we shouldn’t assume that homelessness breeds bad behavior, any more than we can assume that monkhood breeds the good stuff. Most monks seems like a dedicated bunch, but there are bad apples…

And homelessness took on new meaning, too, when the homeless bottle collector down around Hollywood and Vine assured me that he, too, had a job to do—collecting bottles for recycle. He got mine, and a vote of confidence, too. Enlightenment means that the discipline is natural and not forced…

Asians renounce, become monks and are revered. Americans renounce, become homeless and are reviled. So WTF? Money is a cruel master, unrepentant and unforgiving. Anybody who thinks Christianity and Buddhism are the same has missed a very important point, a vanishing point of engagement. All religions came into being to remind us of something we used to know, instinctively, before life become so complicated, and settled, didn’t they? Homelessness as renunciation? Consider the possibilities…