I was a Stranger and You Took Me In

Although it is not always considered in discussions on love, hospitality to strangers certainly can have all the characteristics of love. What the ancient Greeks called xenia, stranger love, the Buddha knew as sakkāra. Being a stranger or an outsider anywhere is an uncomfortable position to be in. The newcomer will always feel out of place and awkward, at least for a while. In the natural course of things they will gradually become familiar with their new surroundings, start to fit in and be accepted. This process can be eased by the person who approaches them, welcomes them, introduces them to others or to the routine, shows them around, generally puts them at their ease, and makes them feel at home. This is a kindly and loving act. Such a person is saying: “You are noticed, you are welcome and I am inviting you to become a part of our group, to become our friend.” A genuine invitation to “make yourself at home” is a lovely gift.

The Greeks believed that the gods sometimes descended to the world to test humans, to help them or just to see what they were up to. One of the tests they would conduct was to turn up at someone’s door in the guise of a ragged or humble traveller to see how they would be received. [1] If they were treated hospitably and according to custom the host might end up with some unexpected reward. Those who failed to do this might find themselves having to deal with some misfortune. One was not supposed to ask anything of guests, their name, destination or reason for being on the road, until they had been made comfortable. When the guest departed, the host was expected to give a gift, usually something the guest might need on his continuing journey, or to escort him along the road for some way towards the next destination. [2]

While the Greeks’ code of hospitality was an unwritten custom, the ancient Hebrew equivalent was a written commandment. The Old Testament says: “But the stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” [3] In mediaeval Europe, these and similar biblical verses led to many monasteries providing facilities for travellers, pilgrims and wayfarers.

It was already a long-standing custom in India by the Buddha’s time to make what was called the Fivefold Offerings, one of which was to provide food, accommodation and assistance to strangers and guests. However, such hospitality was restricted to some degree by the rules of the caste system, which required people of different castes to have as little contact as possible. The Manusmṛti, the most authoritative Hindu law book, says a Brahman should only invite a Brahman into his home and that he should neither greet nor return the greeting of monks or ascetics of unorthodox sects. It was probably because of such ideas that when the Buddha went for alms in the Brahman village of Pañcasala, the inhabitants refused to give him anything and he “left with his bowl as clean as when he had come”. [4] Nonetheless, the more liberal Brahmans ignored such rules and were very welcoming and respectful towards the Buddha and other wandering ascetics. [5]

The Buddha was familiar with the tradition of hospitality, lauded it and encouraged his disciples to uphold and maintain it. He saw hospitality as the hallmark of a kindly open heart and an opportunity to express generosity and fellow-feelings towards others. It was also to be extended to all, whatever their caste, status or faith. The scriptures often describe the Buddha himself as being “welcoming, friendly, polite, and genial” towards anyone who approached him. [6] Kindliness to followers of one’s own religion and coolness to those of other faiths was, unfortunately, as common in ancient India as it is today.

Once a man came to the Buddha and said: “I have heard that you teach that charity should only be given to you but not to others, to your followers but not to the followers of other teachers. Are those who say this representing your opinion without distorting it? Do they speak according to your teaching? Indeed, good Gotama, I do not want to misrepresent you.” The Buddha replied: “Those who say this are not of my opinion, they misrepresent me and say what is untrue. Truly, whoever discourages another from giving hinders them in three ways. They hinder the giver from acquiring good, hinder the receiver from receiving the charity, and they have already ruined themself through their meanness.” [7]

When Siha, a leading citizen of Vesali and a generous patron of the Jain religion, became a Buddhist, the Buddha asked him to continue offering his hospitality to Jain monks who might come to his door for alms. [8] The Buddha made it a rule that when a wayfaring monk turned up at a monastery the resident monks should go out and meet him, prepare a seat for him, bring him water to wash his feet, prepare accommodation for him and do other things to make him feel welcome. [9]

Amongst the most appropriate times to give a gift, the Buddha said, was when a newcomer turned up and when a guest set out to continue on his or her journey. [10] He considered failure to reciprocate hospitality to be very bad form. “Whoever goes to another’s house and is fed but does not feed them when they come to his house, consider him an outcast.” [11] Likewise to abuse someone’s hospitality is very bad form. “If for even one night one stops in another’s house and receives food and drink, have no evil thought, for to do so would be to burn an extended hand and betray a good friend.” [12] The Milindapañha, a Buddhist work dating from about the 1st century BCE, says that if a stranger turns up at a person’s house and the meal is over, more rice should be cooked in order to feed them and allay their hunger. [13]

Such teachings have had a profound impact on all the societies where Buddhism has spread. When the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang was in India in the 7th century he was accommodated at the great monastery at Bodh Gaya, which had been built by the king of Sri Lanka. Apparently the monastery displayed a copper plaque with the inscription: “Selfless giving is the highest teachings of all Buddhas. Hospitality to all in need is the instructions of the ancient sagesàThe monks of Sri Lanka are entitled to accommodation in this establishment as are the people of this country.” Travellers in Buddhist lands have long commented on the openness and friendliness they inevitably encounter. This is still often the case in rural areas and where traditional codes of hospitality have not been eroded by factors such as the pressures of urban living and mass tourism. The Buddha encouraged his disciples to plant shade trees along roads, construct bridges, dig wells and build rest houses for the benefit of travellers, and to provide water for wayfarers. [14] In his Ratanāvalī the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna encouraged King Gautamiputra to “establish rest houses in temples, towns and cities and set up water pots along lonely roads”. [15]

Such types of indirect hospitality were common in the Buddhist world until just recently. People would build rest houses on the edge of villages or towns or along roads where there were long distances between villages. Other devout folk would undertake to supply these rest houses with firewood for cooking and water for drinking and to keep them clean. In Burma even today groups of friends form “water-donating societies” and place water pots along roads for the refreshment of passers-by. In a hot country like Burma and in rural areas where public transport is uncommon, the easy availability of clean, cool drinking water is a real blessing.

In the modern world, with its hotels, motels and rapid transportation, hospitality to travellers as practised in the past is less relevant and less necessary. Nonetheless, there are still many opportunities to be hospitable. The newcomer to the office or the school, the meditation group or the neighbourhood will always feel uneasy at first. Everything and everyone will be unfamiliar to them. Arriving in a strange town at night, not knowing where the hotels are and with the information booth closed, is an unenviable situation to be in. Being an immigrant or an asylum seeker could be even worse. Welcoming such people, making them feel at home, introducing them to others or offering them accommodation where appropriate would all be expressions of kindness and loving concern.

It is true that encountering a stranger does not evoke the same delight as meeting up with a parent, sibling, friend or someone already known to us. But in some ways, the love of strangers is more robust and more transformative than familial love or friendship love. These last two come naturally, while the first requires an effort. In fact, it seems to be more natural to ignore strangers, shun them and think of them as odd. Therefore, to be welcoming to a stranger requires noticing and purposefulness, and once done it reinforces these qualities. Hospitality and similar acts of thoughtfulness require us to set aside our wishes and go beyond ordinary patterns of behaviour. This contributes to breaking down old habits and impulses and building new and more wholesome ones.

Notes

  1. This lovely belief was later adopted by the early Christians. “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13,2. [back]
  2. In Greek this parting gift was called xenion. The ancient Buddhists called it ātitheyya, A.I,93. [back]
  3. Leviticus 19,34. [back]
  4. S.I,114. [back]
  5. D.I,117. [back]
  6. D.I,116. [back]
  7. A.I,161. [back]
  8. A.IV,185. [back]
  9. Vin.II,207-11. [back]
  10. A.III,41. [back]
  11. Sn.128. [back]
  12. Ja.VI,310. [back]
  13. Mil.107. [back]
  14. S.I,33. [back]
  15. Ratanāvalī 242. [back]