When thinking of the vow of poverty, an image leaps to mind, and it is an image that you will find highly improbable if not downright ridiculous. The image is from a scene in Terminator 2, Judgement Day. (See, I told you!) Here’s the story: Sarah Connor is on a mission to assassinate the scientist who will eventually create the artificial intelligence that in the future will seek to eradicate humanity. She knows this, because others have travelled back in time to tell her how it will all play out. They come to her because she is the mother of John Connor, the future leader of the resistance against the machines. So, in her role as the mother of the messiah, she spends the years leading up to Armageddon in combat training. I’m telling you all of this just in case you are one of the very few who are unfamiliar with the story.
So, the scene is this: it is nighttime, Sarah Connor is in camouflage and armed with an assault rifle with a night-vision, laser-guided scope and a sidearm. Her target is seated at his computer unwittingly engineering the destruction of the human race. She is positioning the little red dot on the back of his head from her vantage point outside, and just as she is about to pull the trigger and save the world, the scientist bends down to reach for something. Her sniper round clinks through the window glass and shatters his computer monitor. He is immediately alerted to the imminent danger and heads for shelter away from windows and into the interior of the house.
Sarah, as I’m sure you would, realizes that her assault rifle will be cumbersome in close-quarters. So, without hesitation she throws it down on the ground and unholsters her automatic. She is intensely focused and disciplined in the pursuit of her target. Now this is the part that speaks volumes to me about the vow of poverty, specifically the part where she throws her rifle down on the ground. When I saw her do that, my first thought was, “O my god, that’s got to be at least $3000 worth of equipment she just threw away!” I mean, couldn’t she have carefully set it down, on the grass maybe? No. She discards it as if it were the one thing keeping her from her goal, a thing vile, to be despised, so worthless as to be hateful. She shed that gun as though it were a tee shirt stained with cranberry juice.
And there’s this other thing, and I promise to get right back to Sarah, because I know you’re dying to know what happens next, but this is also germane to the point I’m trying to make. It was in Traffic School (yes, I went to Traffic School). The instructor said that one of the main causes of traffic accidents is eating while driving, that when faced with the decision of either hanging onto your Big Mac or grabbing your steering wheel, you will hang onto your Big Mac. I thought that was absurd, but it turns out to be true. It’s kinda like the monkey that won’t let go of the morsel inside the coconut shell, and because his hand will fit through the hole but his clenched fist won’t, he’s trapped and gets hauled off to the research lab.
Back to Sarah. When she realizes she’s going to have to chase this guy through hallways and bedrooms, she flings her $3000 rifle/night-vision, laser guided scope to the ground like it was n o t h i n g and leaves it forever. This was attributable, no doubt, to her rigorous combat training, which says that while your rifle is your best friend, it can quickly become your worst enemy if trying to keep from getting a scratch on it causes you to hesitate at a critical moment.
Life is full of such choices. But the combat training we are interested in is the inner kind. What are we hanging onto that is getting in the way of the spiritual goals we have set for ourselves? Is it a house, a job, the opinions of others?
Some say that the vow of poverty is a way to facilitate communal living, as in a monastery. No one owns anything; all goods are shared amongst the community as a way to foster harmony and cooperation. Others say that it is the Western equivalent of the Eastern principle of non-attachment, and while that is true, as an explanation it fails to provide us with a purpose. Why is non-attachment a good thing?
This is where Sarah has a lot to teach us. Her training has enabled her to be intensely focused, but is focus in and of itself the goal? Is non-attachment in and of itself spiritually viable? Non-attachment and the vow of poverty are tools, not goals. Once they achieve their purpose, they can be discarded, just as the ferry boat of Mahayana Buddhism can be left behind once it reaches the far side of the river (enlightenment). Although, in reality, as long as we are in a physical body, it is a safe bet that keeping these tools close at hand and in good working order would be a good idea. Attachment is what the physical body is good at, and for its purposes that works well. But, the spiritual path demands a certain mastery over the body, and non-attachment works well for that.
Too often the spiritual path gets turned into The Destination, a kind of religion in itself. This is a mistake. We need to keep two steps ahead of our religion at all times. As Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” If you are stuck in the mindset that the spiritual path, however that might look for you, is where you have to be, then when moments of liberation lift you above the earth, you will feel like you are doing something wrong, that you are being “unfaithful.” Don’t spoil the moment. Let tools be tools, and when they are no longer needed, cast them aside. This is the heart of the vow of poverty.