Buddhism and Social Action: How Would Sid Treat the Homeless?

Many people look to Siddhartha Gautama as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. Every other week in this column we look at what it might be like if Siddhartha was on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? What would Sid do? is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Every other week I'll take on a new question and give some advice based on what I think Sid, a fictional Siddhartha, would do. Here Sid is not yet a buddha; he's just someone struggling to maintain an open heart on a spiritual path while facing numerous distractions along the way. Because, let's face it, you and I are Sid.

This week's question comes from Sally:

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 advice?


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 I had a question buzzing around my head so I got up to ask him.

"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," he would think that I am just being mean. The Sakyong said that on a very basic level, it's best to support other people in their happiness. This is a roundabout 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, it 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, 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. You can think of your patience, discipline, generosity, and many other virtues in the same way. If you go just a little bit beyond what you feel comfortable giving to the Vietnam vet on the corner, then you will likely see your capacity for generosity begin to grow.

Your capacity for generosity is not limited to giving money but also includes offering your full presence when you talk with a co-worker, your time to someone who asks you 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 around us.

In this sense it is always good to give. The historical Buddha 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 Prince Siddhartha 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.

To read more What Would Sid Do columns, tune in to The Interdependence Project blog.