One City

One City

How would Sid treat the homeless?

It’s not always this straightforward to tell where your money is going

by Lodro Rinzler

Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment at age 35 he was a confused
twenty and thirty-something looking to learn how to live a spiritual
life. He had an overbearing dad, expectations for what he was supposed
to do with
his life, drinks were flowing, lutes were playing, and the women were
all about him. Some called him L.L. Cool S. I imagine close friends
just referred to him as Sid. 

Many people look to Siddhartha as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. But here we look at a younger Sid as
a confused guy struggling with his daily life. What would he do as a
young person trying to find love, cheap drinks, and fun in a city like New York? How would he combine Buddhism and dating? We all make mistakes on our spiritual journey; here is where they’re discussed.

week I’ll take on a new question and give some advice based on what I
think Sid, a confused guy working on his spiritual life in a world of
major distraction, would do. Because let’s face it, you and I are Sid. 

Have a question for this weekly column? E-mail it here and Lodro will probably get to it!

I live in a neighborhood where there a lot of homeless people. Each day I walk by and they ask me to help them. I don’t want to be cold-hearted but I also don’t want them spending money on alcohol or drugs. It’s hard to trust they will spend what I give them on food. Any advise?

A few years back Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche was on tour for his book Ruling Your World. During his New York City talk he spoke quite eloquently about compassion. At one point he spoke in depth about supporting people in their everyday endeavors. At that time something had been buzzing around my head for a while and I got up to ask him something.

“Rinpoche,” I said, “you’ve spoken a lot about how we can wish the best for someone but more often than not people are interested in a new car, or a new promotion, or ice cream. From a Buddhist perspective I understand that none of these things will really make them happy in the long run. Is it true compassion to support people in things that ultimately will break down, or lead to more desire to advance at work, or a stomach ache?”

The Sakyong paused for a minute and then responded by telling me that while these desires may not bring them ever-lasting happiness not everyone is going to see that right away. In fact, it’s not compassionate to highlight that. If I turned to my friend and said, “Nice new car. It’s going to break down someday and leave you stranded” they would think I am just being mean. The Sakyong said that on a very basic level it’s best to support other people in their happiness. Of course, dear commentors, on an ultimate level it’s best to lead everyone to perfect enlightenment (but seriously, take some time to enjoy your friend’s new ride).

All of this is a round-about explanation for how I have since related to the homeless in my neighborhood. I give semi-frequently and without judgment. If the person I make an offering to puts that money towards a night of shelter then that’s great. If he or she chooses to buy a beer instead then who am I to judge? I enjoy beer too.

It doesn’t strike me as fruitful to try to determine exactly what sort of person I’m giving to and how he’ll spend my money. I don’t know about you, but more often than not whatever estimation of character I come up with upon my first meeting with someone ultimately proves to be wrong. Instead of passing judgment, when someone asks me for money I look upon it as an opportunity to flex my generosity muscles.

I’m not the biggest gym nut (as is evidenced by my avoiding going to the Y right now by writing this post) but my understanding is that when lifting weights if we go just a little bit beyond what we feel comfortable with then that is when our muscles grow. We can think of our patience, discipline, generosity, and many other virtues in the same way. If we go just a little bit beyond what we feel comfortable giving to the Vietnam vet on the corner then we see our capacity for generosity begins to grow.

Our capacity for generosity is not limited to giving money but also includes offering our full presence when we talk with a co-worker, our time to someone who asks us for directions, or a friendly wink to someone who looks unhappy. The more generous we are the more we open our hearts to the world.

In this sense it is always good to give. When he became a buddha Sid was able to walk around and basically give the gift of the dharma to anyone he encountered. If you read enough stories of the Buddha you’d think that if you ran into him and he winked at you you would get enlightened. Unfortunately for you or me or our homeless friends we don’t have that effect on people (yet). And, before he was a Buddha, neither did Sid.

Let’s not forget that Sid himself was homeless after leaving the palace and relied upon the offerings of others, both before and after he attained enlightenment. I think if Sid were living and working in your neighborhood today he would return the favor by giving generously to his fellow human beings. He would do it wholeheartedly by engaging the individual, smiling at him, looking him in the eyes, saying a few kind words, and making an offering.

If you are uncomfortable offering money to people because you believe they will use it to harm themselves then you can buy food and offer it to them. The important thing, and I imagine Sid would agree, is that you acknowledge your homeless neighbors and treat them to as much generosity you can muster, even if that is just a smile.

Comments read comments(13)
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Anan E. Maus

posted December 4, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Giving is always the right impulse. The mind can come up with a million clever reasons to deny the heart. The heart is right 99% of the time.
If you see a homeless person and are concerned about giving them money they will spend on booze, then go around the corner and buy them a cup of hot coffee and a roll. I used to be in NYC all the time…and I used to do that frequently. I didn’t do it alone in a dark alley with a very scary individual, but I did it. Even if they are going to spend some money on booze, they are also going to spend some money on food.
And if that is not your speed, then simply direct your giving to a charity that serves that community.
Here’s one group:
Coalition for the Homeless

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The Barking Unicorn, Denver, CO

posted December 5, 2009 at 12:37 am

“If you want happiness, help someone,” said the Buddha. That’s all there is to be said.

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posted December 6, 2009 at 1:51 am

There is a difference between helping and enabling. And giving out of guilt to enable a lifestyle of continued suffering may not be a particularly wise choice. Giving to a homeless shelter or meal provider or neighborhood free clinic or literacy program is something else to consider.
Happiness cannot be bought by altruistic acts. And if one is trading altruism for personal gain that perspective might merit some consideration.

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Christopher Mohr

posted December 6, 2009 at 6:41 am

I’ve not come across that specific quote in scriptural sources. can you point me to where, precisely, the Buddha said that?

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My Name

posted December 6, 2009 at 10:52 am

Thanks for sharing this. I guess, if you give with pre-programmed judgement in your head, you are detracting from your own generosity, and it is a way of looking down on someone, a condescending attitude towards their values and way of life, revealing a superiority complex on your part, and this display of ego can’t do anyone any good at all. I guess, then, just give, and never mind what they ultimately do with it. Part of your gift to them is the freedom of choice they have to use your gift wisely or not. And for that, I’m sure they’ll thank you.

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posted December 6, 2009 at 10:53 am

We all do things and spend money where others may think we are foolish, irresponsible, and not taking the best path in caring for ourselves….so how can we judge what is good for another person? The kindness that we can show may only nourish his or her soul…but is that not enough?

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posted December 6, 2009 at 11:58 am

I was on the subway, and there was a kid with turquoise deadlocks and a cart of belongings, including an electric guitar and small amplifier, who played a song by the casualties for our enjoyment. he was ragged, but I could imagine my son bringing him home (some of my son’s roommates look homeless) I can’t not give money to a young punk. the older men I was crushed up against didn’t agree with that. I just said, that could be my kid. he’s somebody’s kid, and he’s clearly not living an easy life. I hope my dollar does something, whatever, to make it easier.
bernie glassman of zen peacemakers has led street retreats for many years. he says the hardest thing for people who are living as the homeless do for a week is the feeling of not being seen. I carry small bills in my pocket that I’m willing to give away. I smile and say hi. I’m grateful for my home. I have friends who’ve stayed in homeless shelters, not because they’re not intelligent and hard-working but due to circumstances coming together in a certain way. I know in my heart that homeless person is just like me.
check out charities before you give to them. see how much money goes to services and to administration.

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Your Name

posted December 6, 2009 at 2:43 pm

When i see beggars in the street,i feel for them.I always put myself in their shoes or situation not thinking the cause why they were homeless,it’s an unconditional giving that i always feel.If i don’t have money to give,i pray for them right away,asking God to bless them,like He blesses me or lesser,that doesn’t matter,i just say,God,my eyes can’t bear this suffering of my fellowmen,i thank you for your blessing to this poor man,and thy will be done,that’s my prayer.Even if i have a better life than the least of our fellowmen,i never considered myself as living and having a better life,even in the natural realm that its evident that i still have roof over my head,i consider myself the same with the homeless in God’s eyes,we are all homeless when we never learn to be compassionate to our fellowmen regardless and inspite of.Jesus Christ died on the cross because of God’s unconditional love,and the spirit of truth will reveal it when we have the spirit of truth within us.May we all be a blessing to anyone with whatever contribution we can give,what matters most is that the joy of giving is within us,it’s an opportunity always to give.

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Your Name

posted December 6, 2009 at 2:54 pm

The picture above requires more on double thinking of desserving and receiving charity or not.Insanity needs the mental hospital,lol.and the money we can give will be considered concealing to the sin he is still going to commit,lol.

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Your Name

posted December 6, 2009 at 2:54 pm

The picture above requires more on double thinking of desserving and receiving charity or not.Insanity needs the mental hospital,lol.and the money we can give will be considered concealing to the sin he is still going to commit,lol.

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Bernard Long

posted December 6, 2009 at 9:38 pm

Surely the main consideration is our state of mind when we give. If we give with metta and karuna, then our act is skillful.
What the recipient does with the money we give is their business, not ours.
Bernard in Borneo

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posted December 8, 2009 at 6:38 pm

I’ve tried an experiment off and on for a week at a stretch. I keep a few single dollars on me at all times and I make it a rule to give a dollar to anyone who asks for money without precondition or judgment. I also make it a rule to look them in the eye and smile when I do it. I don’t ride the train much, so I may not be a good test case, but the first week I gave out a total of $7. I don’t think it’s ever cost me more than $10 and I’ve always felt good acknowledging someone else who needed something. I’m not sure $1 really does much, but it’s better than pennies. When I was with friends, I didn’t talk about it unless they asked but it seemed to be kind of contagious.

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posted November 19, 2012 at 12:25 am

Well the presidents helath care legislation will put the homeless in jail because they cannot afford helath insurance or the fine, so I guess you could say that is taking them off the street.Personally I will bet that the presidents helath care will put 25% more homeless on the street.With all the tax increases that take effect immediately and most of the benefits do not happen until 2014.

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