In one sense, at the core of sanctuary is the failed quest to find home in the places where we live. For centuries, millions have sought refuge from genocide, violence, economic loss, and political oppression, forced to venture into unfamiliar places. Some have climbed mountains, some have swum the seven seas, others have crossed deserts to save their families’ and their communities’ lives. Millions have been forced to leave when their ancestral lands were destroyed; others have fled refugee camps when it has become too dangerous to remain, leaving generations of descendants with an insatiable yearning to return home. Displacement is an embodied experience, imprinted on our bones. Since the advent of nations and boundaries, the discarded have left home and their descendants have sought to find it again.
Spiritual teachers espouse the thought that home is in the heart. When I ask, “Where do I belong?” they respond, “Look within.” But it is difficult to find oneself without acknowledging the social and cultural dimensions of homelessness.
In 2013, my partner and I had fallen into serial homelessness, pressed by the quadrupling of rents in Oakland, California. At the time we were renting a home in Oakland and renting out a home we owned in Albuquerque. We tried to buy the home we were living in in Oakland, so we sold our New Mexico home to have the funds. The bidding system for purchasing the home was not in our favor, and we didn’t get the house. It led to six sublet agreements in other places, one after another, to stay in Oakland, and our savings dwindled.
As a Zen priest, I was asked by several people, “What lesson did you learn from losing your home and having your financial resources drained?”
I couldn’t respond.
A quick answer would have minimized the emotions that were erupting inside me. I didn’t want to reduce a journey into the depths of my suffering to a simplistic response. If I had been looking only for a physical home, it would have been easier. But I needed a place that would fill the ancient hunger for home that resides in me from an ancestral past.
My feeling of displacement has its roots in the African diaspora and the systemic dehumanization of blacks in the Americas and around the world. I needed time to reflect, to explore the nature of intergenerational homelessness without figuring anything out. I could barely breathe.
During my time of reflection, I met with the former owner of the home my partner and I had been unable to purchase. It was a beautiful day in Berkeley’s Elmwood district. My landlord and I each expressed our disappointment in our not being able to purchase her home. I tried to stave off feelings of victimhood, but the struggle persisted. As I continued, it became clear that the sense of not belonging, the loss of language and culture, and the wish for a perfect home is imprinted on my bones. I saw that trying to purchase her home was an effort to resolve an experience of uprootedness that goes at least as far back as the slave trade. With this insight, I walked out of our meeting as if I’d never seen Berkeley before. I was in an altered state, feeling as lost as my ancestors must have felt when they landed in this country. My world had changed, and I was trying to reorient myself to a very new perspective. The loss of her home had uncovered what had been buried beneath each response to rejection my whole life. It marked the beginning of a slow, gradual path toward compassion.
Pema Chödrön, the renowned Western Buddhist nun and teacher, reminds us that the mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra is meant to ease fear and cultivate compassion within suffering: “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely be-yond, awake, so be it.” Yet we aren’t transcending or going beyond suffering. Our lives are gradual paths of groundlessness. When we can accept that people and things are always shifting and changing, our hearts can open.
When we’re overwhelmed by pain and suffering, or by groundlessness, we move to the next beyond. Pema Chödrön says that we are developing a compassionate and patient
relationship with our fear. The quaking in our lives is the very nature of going beyond, flexing and extending our heart muscle that is often stiff with arrogance, opinions, anger, self-righteousness, and prejudice.
The experience of renting six sublets, one after another during our period of homelessness, forced me to ask once again, “What is home?” Each time we found a physical home and experienced suffering, we were living out the mantra, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, awake.” The experience wore down our fixed views of home and of life. As it became too much, we had to go back to basics, to the ordinary things of our lives, not waiting for a gigantic breakthrough but allowing the disintegration one step at a time. When fear, angst, frustration, or “Why me?” arises, ground yourself in the ordinariness of your life and live one day at a time. Suffering teaches us this. When we suffer this much, we can only be still and take each moment as it comes.
Homelessness is like walking in a dark forest, step by step. It’s an initiation. Feel into the mystery, not knowing what you may touch. In this way, homelessness can be the beginning of a new life even when it feels like the end. In the midst of an initiation, how you see life is tested and if you are open, it will transform you. Going forward, you’ll see the world in a different way, as when I walked out of the meeting in Berkeley and saw a new and different city. A gradual breakthrough of consciousness began when our bid to purchase the house was declined. The seed for transformation was planted.
Homelessness is more than just the loss of a physical home. It is also the loss of culture, connection, identity, and affiliation. This hunger for home is deep and wide, touching the nerve of ancient displacement and dispossession. In modern times, we see homelessness as a crisis of industrialization. But its roots are ancient and visceral, a trauma that passes from generation to generation.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
. . . Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion. . . .
I first heard this poem before entering the path of Buddha and recognized in it the cry for a lost ancestral home. The tears welling from deep inside me expressed a longing for connection with my origins, to know the ancient ceremonies, medicines, rituals, dances, and ways of the land that were lost when we became American slaves. Later I realized that Thich Nhat Hanh is encouraging us to see ourselves in the other, to open our hearts to every living being, including perceived enemies, and to forgive everyone.
I couldn’t do it right away.
I couldn’t feel the interbeing of joy and pain. I couldn’t digest the lines in his poem, “I am the twelve-year-old girl, / refugee on a small boat, / who throws herself into the ocean / after being raped by a sea pirate. / And I am the pirate. . . .” I couldn’t be both the mayfly on the river and the bird that eats me. I couldn’t be the slave and the master, the one who hates and the one who loves, the oppressor and the oppressed.
I did not feel interrelated to other living beings as the poem teaches.
I had mountains to climb before I could reach that understanding.
A reflection on the naming of enslaved Africans helped me to see more of what was tangled with the feelings of homelessness. While other ethnic groups’ names were changed at Ellis Island, enslaved Africans—more than ten million purchased and traded—weren’t even considered human and were given the last names of their owners. Although many have since changed their names, most people of African descent still have surnames that are more like brandings.
My last name, Manuel, is Portuguese. King Manuel of Portugal, the largest slave trader of the time, brought Africans to the Caribbean, in particular Haiti, and so I carry the name of a man who was blind to my ancestors’ humanity. At the same time, our slave owners’ names are not without connection, because they evoke a relationship with our new origins in America.
We are admonished by patriots, “If you’re not happy here, go home!” “I am home,” we think, or even say, but you may not feel you are home in a place where we are told in many ways we don’t belong.
Those who have reclaimed African names, who have been given them at birth or when entering the priesthood of an African tradition such as Ifá, Candomblé, Santeria, or Vodoun, still work hard to fit in, in America and even on the continent from which enslaved Africans were dispersed. It’s not just that descendants of enslaved Africans have suffered enormously; we’ve had to do so without our names or knowing our blood lineages. For us, the effort to find our place can feel abstract, even numbing. Without our true names, it is difficult to consider anywhere home. The destruction of names, tribes, lands, cultures, languages, and truths, and the absence of documented lineages are a large part of our struggle. Wise spiritual teachers rarely consider this when they offer guidance for “finding home.
When the journey of finding home takes ancestral homelessness into account, we begin to understand the need for sanctuary in a new way. The hunger for home is deeply layered. When we seek a vision of being healed, multigenerational displacement motivates within some of us a desire to find our indigenous lands of origin or to create sanctuary or shared community with those of similar ancestral origin, places where we can enter life fully without fear. We need places to breathe and heal our disconnection from the earth. Our spiritual journey requires us, first of all, to understand the pain of the loss of our ancestral identity and to experience the extent to which we have wandered. This loss of home is in our bones and begs to be acknowledged, not merely transcended.
Those who have tasted dispossession through slavery, holocaust, war, ethnic cleansing, massacre, or forced migration are admonished by patriots, “If you’re not happy here, go home!”
“I am home,” we think, or even say, but you may not feel you are home in a place where we are told in many ways we don’t belong.
A friend who lives in Haiti told me that in the Haitian Kreyòl language, the word for home is lakay, which literally means “being at home.”
This is significant because having a home and being at home can be entirely different experiences. Having a home conjures up a physical locale. We are born in a place, indigenous to some land, somewhere. We have residency, or citizenship. Among Haitian people, it is important to know exactly where you are from. When first meeting you, Haitians try to situate you in relation to others. The question “Where are you from?” means, “Where are you a person?” And if you are not at home, when homelessness is deep-seated and outside our control, where are you a person?
From the moment we acknowledge that there is discord between our homeplace and who we are, we no longer feel at home. Suddenly, we’re uncomfortable with our surroundings and become distressed. We may find ourselves living on the streets, because we don’t feel at home anywhere. Being at home is an experience in which our heart and spirit resonate with the place where we dwell. It’s being settled and still—as we are in sitting meditation.
Home cannot be an experience of shame, terror, or rejection, but rather one of safety, freedom, and respect, an experience of love and being embraced, of being known and knowing who you are.
Offering sanctuary to those who are invisible, displaced, or discriminated against because of class, ethnicity, heritage, beliefs, race, religion, sexuality, gender, or physical ability is to respond to the hatred expressed in the world. Accepting refuge in a sanctuary is a chance to reclaim who we are.
“Taking refuge” is the English translation of saranagamana; sarana in Pali means “shelter, protection, sanctuary”—a place where safety and peace are possible. To take refuge in the three treasures—buddha, dharma, sangha—is to follow a path that leads us home to who we are, a path of awakening.
Zen master Shunryu Suzuki says, when you “strive for God, it means you are striving for yourself.” We reach out for love and acceptance, and through practices like prayer and meditation, ceremony, drumming, and chanting, we honor ourselves and evolve in a creative spiritual community. Revitalizing ourselves in community gives us the energy we need to shift our sense of who we are and transform the way we live.
Taking refuge, we gain insight and see possibilities. With the support of others, we awaken to the conditions that cause us suffering. When we say, “I take refuge,” we’re appealing to what brings us home to ourselves.
Tenshin Reb Anderson writes, “If taking refuge is the return flight to our own true nature, the appeal is not made to something outside ourselves nor to something inside ourselves. It is made to the great openness of being that transcends outside and inside and from which nothing is excluded.”
Buddha, when he discovered that he was subject to old age, illness, and death, left his privileged home. He could no longer live in the family palace. The illusion of comfort vanished. In the sanctuary of the forest, he began to recognize a path on which he could understand the full range of suffering and experience his connection and interdependence with others. He found a place within himself where no one is less than or other or invisible.
Like Buddha, sanctuary as part of the path in finding home was to invite into my life the possibility of coexisting despite an experience of oppression. Without sanctuary, I wouldn’t have had a place to meet myself, which is simply to say, I wouldn’t have arrived home.
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