One of my favorite traditional Japanese poems is by Muso Soseki (1275-1351). It reads:
When there is nowhere
that you have determined
to call your own,
then no matter where you go
you are always going home.
Soseki was a Zen priest in the Rinzai sect. He became famous for the network of Zen monasteries he established, the gardens he designed, and for the poems he composed. Many of his poems and a few of his dharma talks have been translated by the current United States Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin, and Soiku Shigematsu in Sun at Midnight – Poems and Sermons of Muso Soseki. In “West Mountain Evening Talk”, given when Soseki was abbot at Nanzen-ji, a fellow senior priest reproaches him,
[For] the last twenty years, ever since you finished your study in the monasteries, you have been moving from one place to another. By now, you have changed the place you live more than ten times. I think this is harmful to a Zen student. It exhausts him and interferes with his practice.
To this, Muso Soseki replies,
[I]t was not because of the Buddha’s words that I kept moving on. I think of his enlightenment as my home, and I never left that whether I went off to the east or stayed behind in the west. Some people stay at one monastery for a long time, but they do not always sit on the same Zen mat. Sometimes they leave it to wash their hands or faces. Sometimes they walk in the garden or climb a mountain to look out over the country. You might say that they too were rather frivolous. But, because their minds are fixed on the one point, even when they are moving around, it is not correct to say that they are somewhere else.
We usually think of “home” as a physical place. From Soseki’s poem and dharma talk, we get another sense of home.
In Buddhism, “monks” are called bhikkhus. Often this term is defined as “homeless ones” or “beggers” but both of these are incorrect. The term literally means “sharesman.” In the Buddha’s time, homeless ones were called parivrajakas. Not all of the bhikkhus were actually “homeless.” Some had relatives take care of their possessions and the family home was always waiting if they decided to give up the bhikkhu life, just as it is done today, and of course, the bhikkhus had temporary homes when they sought shelter during the rainy season.
The act of “going forth”, a ritual in which one symbolically severed all ties with the “whole system of Vedic social practice and religious culture with all its signs and symbols” (SN Dasgupta, History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. I) is not unique to Buddhism, it was already a long established practice in Indian spirituality by the time the Buddha began to teach.
However, in Buddhism the idea of “homelessness” goes much further than merely standing outside of society. You can stand inside and be homeless if you break free of conceptual limits, and as the quote from Tagore the other day mentioned, “the limits of love.” Zen priest Akizuki Ryomin has called it a “homelessness of the heart.”
This may seem rather bleak to some individuals. But, paradoxically, being homeless in this way does not mean we have no home. When we fare on the Buddha Path the Buddha’s enlightenment is our home because it represents our enlightenment, too. Moreover, as long as our mind is fixed on the path, on the process of becoming enlightened, we’re not just always going home, we are already home.
Thich Nhat Hanh puts it this way:
Every time we listen to the sound of the bell in Deer Park or in Plum Village, we silently recite this poem: “I listen, I listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” Where is our true home that we come back to? Our true home is life, our true home is the present moment, whatever is happening right here and right now. Our true home is the place without discrimination, the place without hatred. Our true home is the place where we no longer seek, no longer wish, no longer regret. Our true home is not the past; it is not the object of our regrets, our yearning, our longing, or remorse. Our true home is not the future; it is not the object of our worries or fear. Our true home lies right in the present moment. If we can practice according to the teaching of the Buddha and return to the here and now, then the energy of mindfulness will help us to establish our true home in the present moment.