Buddha was a homeless beggar on Spring Garden Road. It’s very likely that if Gotama Buddha were alive today, he would be diagnosed by mental health officials as mentally ill, psychotic, delusional. His “teachings” would be classified as the religious ravings of a schizophrenic. Imagine that you go up to a homeless guy who is begging for food on the street and he starts telling you about “emptiness” and “no self”? Today, Buddha would be classified by local law enforcement as a vagrant and arrested for vagrancy or panhandling, because he begged for his food on the street every day.
Buddha lived what he called “the homeless life”, in a twig shelter that he built himself out in the woods, owning nothing but the clothes on his back and a begging bowl. Siddhartha begged for his food everyday. You might object that the homeless on Spring Garden Road don’t beg for food, they beg for money. But in the Buddha’s day, 2600 years ago, no one had “money”. Kings and wealthy tribal leaders had gold and silver coinage. Food was “money.” Food was the currency of the day; people traded food or other goods and services. So if Buddha lived in Halifax today, he would be a homeless beggar on Spring Garden Road, begging for money. If you met the Buddha, you would probably say that he was dirty and he smelled bad, that he was young and healthy enough to get a job—why aren’t you working at a regular job, Buddha?
Want to be enlightened like Buddha? Give up all your wealth, your home, your professional status, your bourgoisie comfort and privilege, become homeless and beg for your food. Buddha taught that we don’t have to engage in extreme ascetic practices in order to attain enlightenment. But once he walked away from his wealth and power as a prince, and the wealth and security of his tribal family, he lived as a homeless person for the rest of his life. He never went back to the wealth, power and security of the “householder.”
Does that mean we should just allow homeless people to remain homeless? No, I’m not advocating that at all. Buddha taught that society must provide for people’s basic subsistence needs. We need to take responsibility for the suffering and poverty of homeless people by building more public housing, providing food, shelter, medical care and education to the poor of the world. We need public health, public housing, public transportation and public education that benefits everyone, including the poor. Moreover, we need to dismantle the systemic exploitation and neglect of 80% of the world’s population caused by the global capitalist system.