Calcutta is Everywhere
For Mother Theresa there are two Calcuttas: there is the actual city of lepers and outcasts, where “suffering … is much more physical, much more material”; and there is the Calcutta of the mind, where “suffering is much deeper and more hidden.” The tangible Calcutta is a seething Indian metropolis; the intangible Calcutta is a soul lost in a burb somewhere in the West.
“You can find Calcutta all over the world,” she says, “if you have eyes to see; not only to see, but to look.” To look at the tangible Calcutta is to contemplate the causes and effects of a rigid, hierarchical social system and the lopsided distribution of scarce material resources. To look at the intangible Calcutta is to contemplate box store USA, whose superabundance of material wealth cannot hide the anomie that wastes away its citizens.
Who is hungrier: the living skeleton that a Missionary of Charity wraps in a blanket or the zoned-out football fan who hauls into Costco in his SUV, hunting down the perfect 60’ flat screen? The former is too weak to stand, the latter too emotionally compartmentalized to love his family. The Beatitudes differ on the question on poverty. Luke’s Jesus says that the materially destitute are blessed in the eyes of the Lord; Matthew’s Jesus says that it is the mentally impoverished who are blessed. Jesus himself makes no such distinction between the atrophied body and the sickly mind.
In Dharmic terms, Mother Theresa’s Calcutta is the lair of the Three Lords. As warriors, the right attitude to adopt in order to eradicate materialism in all forms is that of daring and renunciation:
What the warrior renounces [says the Druk Sakyong] is anything in his experience that is a barrier between himself and others. In other words, renunciation is making yourself more available, more gentle, and open to others. Any hesitation about opening yourself to others is removed. For the sake of others you renounce your privacy. (Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, 59.)
Jesus’ approach to renunciation is distinctive of the warrior. Jesus heals and hence becomes the leper shunned by the village. He embraces the denizens of all the Calcuttas of his time: tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, and so on. For him there is no “other”; there is just us—each made in the image of God, or, if you will, the embodiment of basic goodness or tatagathagharba.
The dissolution of self and other is at the heart of Jesus’ kingdom message, a kingdom which is within you, in front of your eyes, or in your midst. In other words, it can be tapped into on the spot. (It resembles Shambhala vision in its immediacy.) Of course, if comes with a cost, the crucifixion of one’s own ego fixation. But how else are we going to clean up the world’s real and imagined Calcuttas? If you won’t save this world, asked Trungpa Rinpoche, who will? This is a question that all of us, regardless of our faith tradition or philosophical inclination, are called to answer.