What Does the Theravāda Buddhist Religion Have to Say about the Poverty on Skid Row?


The following reflection paper was written after a visit by the Spiritual Leadership class of University of the West to Skid Row in Los Angeles California. The class was led by Professor Rev. Danny Fisher to experience the poverty of those living there by walking through the heart of Skid Row.

This reflection considers the poverty of Skid Row from the perspective of Theravāda Buddhism.  If our religion means anything in today’s society, it must be able to address in a significant way the conditions of the poor in places like Skid Row.  What follows is divided into two parts.  First there is a consideration of the Theravāda Buddhist teaching of kamma.  Second, the divine abodes (brahma-vihāra) of loving-kindness and compassion are discussed.

The question arises, first, whether the poor people in places like Skid Row are somehow personally responsible for their poverty.  Did they do something to bring this condition upon themselves?  Traditionally, in Theravāda Buddhism kamma (Sanskrit, karma) is understood as a person’s wholesome or unwholesome volitional actions that produce results (vipāka) in his or her present life or future lives.  In this way the idea of kamma goes together with the idea of rebirth and is interpreted in terms of three lives: past, present, and future.  Therefore, in accordance with the traditional teaching, if a person is suffering poverty in the present life, this condition can be seen as a result of inappropriate behavior in a previous life.  This is especially true if a virtuous person is suffering in the present life for what appears to be no good reason.  The reason must be that the person did something unwholesome in a previous lifetime to bring about the present-day suffering.  If, then, we view the poor people of Skid Row in these terms, we will tend to think their suffering is something they deserve because of what they have done previously.  We may tend to blame them for the conditions that exist in their lives.  We may be less likely to try to help take away the poverty to which these people are subjected.

There is another way to interpret kamma, however, besides considering it in terms of three lives.  If the focus of the Thereavāda Buddhist life is on suffering and the elimination of suffering here and now, all speculative matters being set aside as not pertinent and useful,[1] then kamma is more properly interpreted in terms of the law of nature in the present world.  “The Law of Kamma is nothing other than the Law of Nature [conditionality, causes and conditions for the way things are] expressed in terms of action.”[2]  Conditionality as the law of nature means that given this and this, this and this is the result.  And if this and this is not given, something else is the result.  The law of kamma as the law of action can be said to apply to everything in the world, that is, to natural phenomena, to human beings, and to society as a whole.

In terms of natural phenomena, the law of kamma means, for instance, that if you plant a mango seed, a mango tree will grow up and eventually give you mangos, not an apple tree from which you will pick apples.

In terms of human beings, the law of kamma applies to the bodily, the mental, and the spiritual.  In each aspect of human life, causes and conditions exist that must be considered to fully understand the human situation.  So in the case of the poor on Skid Row, for instance, many people suffer from physical illness.  There are causes for this: the people most likely cannot afford health care and may not even know what is available to them.  If these causes are to be addressed by would-be benefactors, certain actions have to be taken—for example, information about health care has to be made available.  Many people on Skid Row suffer from mental illness.  Again, there are causes and conditions for the mental illness that have to be taken into account if something is to be done to help those who are ill.  Furthermore, many people on Skid Row suffers spiritually, that is, they experience various forms of suffering in their lives, for instance, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, and lack of purpose.  These are forms of suffering that a Buddhist chaplain could help them deal with—all these forms of suffering having causes and conditions that have to be understood if solutions to problems are to be found.

Interpreting kamma as the law of nature as it applies to human beings does not mean the poor are not to some extent, in many cases, responsible for and cause their situations.  If a father abandons his family because of a drinking problem and ends up on Skid Row, his suffering and that of his entire family have a lot to do with his irresponsible drinking—unwholesome, non-beneficial behavior that has to be corrected.  But this interpretation of kamma does also mean there may very well be extenuating causes and conditions at play here and now that need to be addressed to fully appreciate the situation of the poor people and to understand what courses of action are possible to improve their lives.  Perhaps better job opportunities for the drunk father on Skid Row would have kept him from succumbing to drinking and destroying his family.

The law of kamma as the law of nature in terms of human action applies not only to individuals but also to society as a whole.  Sometimes the law of kamma is described simplistically as “Do good, get good, and do bad, get bad.”  This simple understanding works in the case of kamma as human action, applied to society as a whole.  According to the law of kamma for the welfare of society, the good or the bad things that we do affects for good or bad society as a whole: “There are immediate effects on the society and the person’s external circumstances.  The welfare or decline of a society is thus dependent upon the good and bad actions of each of its members.”[3]  The good that we do accumulates and lives on after us for the betterment of all, but so does the evil for the harm of all.  For example, in terms of the poor people on Skid Row, why are there so many African American homeless and not so many White?  Does not even this particular situation exist to some extent because too many Americans, by their individual actions, contribute to the prejudice that exists in our society as a whole toward Black people?

In terms of the individual, however, “Do good, get good, and do bad, get bad,” does not always apply.  The law on conditionality complicates the situation, and the law of kamma is not so simple.  For example, if a man robs a bank, say on Skid Row, he may not get caught: he might be clever enough to avoid suffering incarceration.  (He might suffer, however, in other ways.  He might live a life of constant fear of being discovered by the authorities.)  Also, the person who does good deeds may not always receive good in return.  Things may not be that simple for him.  For instance, if he lives in a bad neighborhood—if he lives on Skid Row—the law of conditionality being what it is, he may very well be the victim of a violent crime—not because of something he did in a previous life but because he lives on Skid Row!  Yet if conditions in the neighborhood can somehow improve and incidents of violent crime decrease, the person who does good will more likely get good in return.  This is the law of conditionality, too.

The above is sufficient for a consideration of the Theravāda Buddhist teaching of kamma in a reflection on the poverty that exists on Skid Row.  Kamma is action in terms of the law of nature regarding human beings with respect to their bodily, mental, and spiritual aspects.  As such, kamma works in accordance with causes and conditions: if this and this are done, this and this are the results.  Let us turn now to the second part of this reflection: a consideration of the abodes of loving-kindness and compassion as these apply to the Skid Row poor people.

There are, then, four divine abodes, brahma-vihāra, in Buddhism: loving-kindness (mettā), compassion (karunā), sympathetic joy (muditā), and equanimity (upekkhā).  Regarding loving-kindness, traditionally this abode has been understood as getting rid of ill will and spreading friendliness.[4]  Loving-kindness, however, can be interpreted as more than mere lack of ill will and mere friendliness.  It can be interpreted in terms of the desire to assist those who are in need: “the desire of bringing (to one’s fellow man) that which is welfare and good.”[5]  The latter interpretation, however, can be pushed even further.  Loving-kindness then becomes not just the desire to assist those in need but, rather, actively helping those who are suffering.  This is the view of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu: “Unlike Buddhaghosa, Buddhadāsa regards loving-kindness as denoting explicitly assisting others, and not simply as the development of the intention of benevolence.”[6]  Loving-kindness, it is not too much to say, can become a kind of social activism in accordance with which we are actively engaged in good works for the benefit of other people.

How does this view of loving-kindness apply to the poor on Skid Row?  What the previous discussion about loving-kindness implies is that it is one thing to go to Skid Row to try to experience first-hand the poverty of the people who are there.  It is one thing to feel a certain friendliness (“loving-kindness”) toward them.  It is, however, quite another thing to show the poor true loving-kindness, that is, actively helping them in some way to rise above their condition of poverty.  Active involvement would mean, for instance, helping feed the poor in a soup kitchen, enabling them to get information about health care or affordable housing, or teaching them about the Dhamma in a Buddhist ministry.

What can be said, then, about the divine abode of compassion in the present context?  Compassion in the Western tradition is understood primarily as sympathy for another in a difficult situation and as sorrow at the other’s misfortune.  In fact, both compassion and sympathy mean, literally, suffering along with someone else (com-passion).  How does this meaning of compassion as a kind of suffering relate to karunā in Theravāda Buddhism?  Surely compassion in Theravāda Buddhism does not mean we assume another’s suffering: suffering, whose ever it is, is something to be rid of, not something to be taken up.  The idea of assuming the suffering of others is a Christian notion (consider, for example, the suffering servant, Christ the Redeemer dying on the cross for the sins of others, and the lamb led to the slaughter); it is not a Buddhist one.

The Pāli karunā in the Canon does not denote suffering as the Western word does.  As the Commentary on the Sutta-Nipāta 73 (128) explains, karunā is “the desire of removing bane [destruction, ruin] and sorrow [suffering] (from one’s fellow men).”[7]  The desire to help, purely and simply, by alleviating sorrow is what the word means.  There is no sense here of participating in the state of suffering of another.  The compassionate person tries to relieve the suffering of one in need while maintaining equanimity in  the face of this suffering.  Sharing in the suffering is not wholesome: the idea is to help the other get rid of it while not undergoing it oneself.  And it is important to note, furthermore, that true compassion in the Theravāda Buddhist sense should not be limited to merely the desire to take away the suffering of another but should be, rather, the explicit activity of doing so.  True compassion—like true loving-kindness—entails actively doing something.  Compassion is active involvement in the life of someone else in helping the other get rid of suffering.[8]

Showing compassion to the poor on Skid Row, then, rises above merely feeling pity for them or feeling sorry for them.  In the Western tradition compassion for the Skid Row poor would mean suffering along with them.  For Theravāda Buddhism, however, compassion as karunā is something else: it is the explicit activity of helping get rid of the suffering someone else is experiencing.

[1] Compare the Samyutta Nikāya 56.31: “And what, bhikkhus, have I taught?  I have taught: ‘This is suffering’; . . . ‘This is the origin of suffering’; . . . ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; . . . ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’  And why, bhikkhus, have I taught this?  Because this is beneficial, relevant to the fundamentals of the holy life, and leads to . . . enlightenment  . . .”  The Connected Discourses of the Buddha; A Translation of the Samyutta Nikāya, translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), p. 1858.

[2] Varasak Varadhammo, Suffering and No Suffering (Hinsdale, Il.: Buddhadharma Meditation Center, 1996), p. 214.   For what follows immediately in this reflection, compare pp. 214-20 of Venerable Varadhammo’s book.

[3] Ibid., p. 218.

[4] Compare Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), translated by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli (Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1956), IX, 93, p. 344.

[5] T. W. Rhys Davids and  William Stede, Pali-English Dictionary, Pali Text Society (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1993), p. 197.

[6] Peter Jackson, Buddhadāsa; Theravada Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2003), p. 223.

[7] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pali-English Dictionary, p. 197.

[8] This interpretation of compassion complements Buddhadāsa’s interpretation of loving-kindness

March 30, 2013

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31 thoughts on “What Does the Theravāda Buddhist Religion Have to Say about the Poverty on Skid Row?

  1. 3ratna3kaya says:

    Thank you for your teachings, Venerable. Your explanation of kamma was very clear and insightful.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much 3ratna3kaya.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nice, thanks.

  4. […] What Does the Theravāda Buddhist Religion Have to Say about the Poverty on Skid Row? (dharmadialogue.wordpress.com) […]

  5. Tom Tom says:

    It is very nice teaching, Venerable. Thank you so much. I learn so much from you.

  6. Patika Moonmee says:

    I really like the way you teach!!! Thank you…

  7. Patika Moonmee says:

    I like it so much, it help me a lot!!!

  8. The liitle says:

    Thanks for sharing your thought.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I think it is depend on you that you can choose that we have to stand by yourself at the first time ,you can be homeless or not by your good thinking ,good livelihood ,good concentrate what you doing, For me karma is the result of our doing .

  10. Kanungnit ninlagit says:

    I really love this, Thailand need to have this!!!

  11. Anonymous says:

    nice teaching Dhamma for us.

  12. Anonymous says:

    What an interesting topic!
    I believe the readers must have some idea about the Theravada Buddhist religion n the skid row in order to easily clearly understand what it’s all about the article. However, I have to thank you for providing this useful knowledge in an friendly way.

  13. Du Wayne Engelhart says:

    Thank you for the discussion about kamma. What you say can be seen in a wider context. There is not only, roughly speaking, white kamma (with good effects for actions done), black kamma (with bad effects for actions done), and black and white kamma (with mixed effects for actions done). As the Buddha teaches us, there is also no kamma at all. No kamma at all is the state of Enlightenment. I think many times we worry too much about getting the effects of good kamma (in this lifetime or in future lifetimes) for the good actions we perform. We should, however, not worry too much about simply good kamma. We should try to reach the state where we are beyond kamma–where we are enlightened. We can reach this happy state by letting go of everything in the world, and that means everything–even letting go of trying to get the results of good kamma.

    Du Wayne Engelhart

  14. Anonymous says:

    It is good thing and awesome!!

  15. Suchada Sorasa says:

    It is awesome and I really live it!!!

  16. mae_muu says:

    If only the world can live in such a state, we would all be better off. Not just for the conditions on Skid Row. Compassion is needed for all. Theravada Buddhism or at least the foundations of it should be taught to people so we can understand the basic mental and emotional needs of human beings. This is needed everywhere.

  17. Bhante Neil, Boston. says:

    Because of laziness, effortless, drugs for pleasure, illusion, want quick money, result of their own action karma of now etc. ref: other Suttas, Ciao

  18. […] on April 1, 2013 at 8:19 PM, I got the first comment from my classmate named 3ratna3kaya, who said, “Thank you for your […]

  19. Patika moonmee says:

    Wonderful reading

  20. Patika moonmee says:

    I am so proud to read this post!!

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