The Gifts of “Lady Poverty”: Franciscan Spirituality in the Bodhisattva Angela of Foligno (1248/9-1309) By: Ella Rozett Presented at the 2000 conference of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies Voluntary Poverty as an Antidote to Consumerism At this conference we are called to ask ourselves: “What can the Christian and Buddhist traditions contribute to global healing? What medicines would the Buddha or Jesus prescribe for the illnesses we call consumerism, environmental degradation, and oppression?” In this presentation I will focus on the traditional antidote to consumerism that was set forth in the New Testament and the Sutras and pursued by the medieval Christian mystics. Christians call it voluntary poverty and Buddhists speak of entering the homeless life and preach a radical letting go of absolutely everything. Of course “consumerism” is a modern word that only recently received the negative meaning of excessive, destructive or addictive consumption patterns. You won’t find it in ancient texts though that doesn’t mean the problem was non-existent. Ever since Adam and Eve couldn’t resist consuming that delicious looking, fateful apple the desire to own and to consume has been a problem. As they say: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Instead of “consumerism” the scriptures are concerned with a deeper and more encompassing condition of which consumerism is only the pinnacle, namely worldly attachments and desires. Both Buddhism and Christianity are radical in their assessment of desire and attachment as the root of all problems and the number one obstacle to achieving the highest goal of enlightenment or the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within. Both are also radical in the antidote they prescribe: get rid of everything you own, leave your home and family, renounce all sense pleasures, securities, and your very self and you will find a heavenly treasure or reach enlightenment. Thus, throughout the centuries mystics and masters in East and West have hailed poverty as an essential part of a spiritual path. E.g. Eihei Dogen Zenji, the thirteenth century founder of Soto Zen in Japan, says: “Students of the Way should be thoroughly poor … This is because being poor is being intimate with the Way.” 1 What Jesus and Buddha recommend is so extreme from a worldly point of view that most people deem it impossible to follow their advice and don’t even try. Even if we think of ourselves as pretty serious Christian and/or Buddhist practitioners, most of us feel it is not plausible or even right to leave our families and all possessions and become a homeless beggar or even just a monk or nun. But what do we do with statements like: “…whoever of you does not forsake all that he has, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33) Or: “Let us live most happily, possessing nothing; let us feed on joy, like the radiant gods.” (Dhammapada 15:4) Maybe once in a while we should revisit that
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