Leaving home

The call to homelessness which we find in the Gospel of Thomas (and other gospels) is just as clear in other religious movements that aim at the transformation of experience.
A Tibetan Buddhist text, after a story about an encounter between the Lord Buddha and his father King Shuddhodhanna, inserts this comment:

If you can reflect properly about this story of what happened when father and son met, you can understand the need not to be attached to your relatives and dear ones of this life when you try to practice a pure Dharma. If you really want your relatives, dear ones, and friends, you will transcend the home and enter homelessness, abandoning concern for greatness in this life and even the perfect successes of the life-cycle. Abiding in pure ethical conduct, you must apply yourself to practice the path in solitary places, and you will feel a firm certitude about the keys of the preparations, practices, and applications of the stages of the path to enlightenment.

— Tse Chokling Yongdzin Yeshe Gyaltsin (Thurman 1995, 83)

This ‘firm certitude’ is a pragmatic decisiveness, not a dogmatic certainty on doctrinal matters, which would be just another sort of attachment that must be severed. One’s own feelings, down to the most primordial, are signs along the path, signs which must be left behind even as they guide one’s progress. This is implicit in guidance going back at least to the Vedas:

Unerring in his discrimination, sovereign of his senses and passions, free from the clamor of likes and dislikes, he leads a simple, self-reliant life based on meditation, controlling his speech, body and mind.

Free from self-will, aggressiveness, arrogance, anger, and the lust to possess people or things, he is at peace with himself and others and enters into the unitive state.

Bhagavad-Gita 18:51-53 (Easwaran)

Even a temporary, tactical withdrawal from external engagements can be a way of ‘centering,’ of eliminating distractions, the better to clarify vision. To eliminate the noise is to enhance the signal, the better to hear the turning sign.

If Jesus came with a ‘sword’ that divides people from their families, it was ultimately for the sake of healing and ‘making the two one.’ As for the squabbles over property and privilege which often arise within families, he wanted nothing to do with adjudicating those:

A [person said] to him: ‘Tell my brothers that they have to divide my father’s possessions with me.’ He said to him: ‘Man, who has made me a divider?’ He turned to his disciples (and) said to them: ‘I am not a divider, am I?’

Thomas 72 (5G)

The path of the bodhisattva also requires home-leaving, although it renounces a personal ‘salvation’ in order to save all sentient beings; indeed the compassion embodied in the bodhisattva vow requires detachment from social obligations.

It is not that buddha ancestors lacked family obligations and attachments, but they abandoned them. It is not that buddha ancestors were not bound by relationships, but they let them go. Even if you are bound by relationships, you cannot keep them. If you do not throw away family obligations and attachments, the family obligations and attachments will throw you. If you want to cherish the family obligations and attachments, then cherish them. To cherish the family obligations and attachments means to be free from them.

— Dogen, ‘Gyoji’ (Tanahashi 2000, 150; a different translation in Kim 1975, 20)

Meaning never settles down into a single residence.

— Mark Turner (1996, 106)

Compare this poem from The Books of Bokonon:

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, Why, why, why?
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

— Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1963, 182)

Yes, we all have to rest from the quest now and then, but the point of being on the human path is not to arrive somewhere (or ‘be somebody’), but to ‘become passers-by,’ as Jesus puts it so concisely in Thomas 42. According to Patterson (1993, 128-33) the Coptic saying could also be translated ‘Be itinerant,’ or even ‘Come into being as you pass away’ – or as Dogen might put it, ‘Embrace impermanence (and go beyond it).’ Impermanence of things is the other side of the continuity of time.

Even if man is not indulging in self-deception when he tell himself he understand, it is not possible for him to know this about his understanding as if he were outside of it looking in, or above it looking down; the best he can do is to carry on in the belief that what he tells himself is true enough to guide the next step or two. Perhaps the ‘unitive state’ of the Bhagavad-Gita and the ‘repose’ of the Gospel of Thomas point in the same direction as Peirce’s ‘fixation of belief’:

And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life. … As it appeases the irritation of doubt, which is the motive for thinking, thought relaxes, and comes to rest for a moment when belief is reached. But, since belief is a rule for action, the application of which involves further doubt and further thought, at the same time that it is a stopping-place, it is also a new starting-place for thought.

— Peirce (EP1:129)

(The content of) a revelation offers us a new resting place; the process of semiosis moves on. The hesitancy often condemned in the Qur’án is the refusal to move on (by carrying the revelation into practice).

When you think you’ve arrived at a permanent understanding, it’s probably a sign that your understanding has temporarily shut down. If it’s a decision you’ve arrived at, though, it might mean something – if you venture forth and act on it. Clinging to certainty means immunity to revelation, just as death means immunity to experience. The living are homeless.

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