Calmness as a revolutionary act

Extract from  "Reasons to Stay Alive" by Matt Haig.

I came across this extract from “Reasons to Stay Alive” by Matt Haig this morning. I thought it was worth sharing:

The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an antiaging moisturizer? You make someone worry about aging. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind.

To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own nonupgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.

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Archbishop of Canterbury: meditation is the key to living in this insane world

John Bingham, The Telegraph: Dr Rowan Williams said people in the modern world were struggling with “chaotic” emotions as a result of living in an “insane” consumerist society driven by advertising and the banking system.

He called for a revival of centuries-old monastic traditions to help people become “properly human”.

His call came during an important address to the Pope and the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church from around the world at the Vatican last night.

Benedict XVI invited Dr Williams, as leader of the Anglican Communion, as well as the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, to address the Synod of Bishops …

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Zen and the art of protecting the planet

wildmind meditation news

The Guardian, UK: It is not exactly a traditional Sunday stroll in the English countryside as 84-year-old Vietnamese zen master Thich Nhat Hanh leads nearly a thousand people through the rolling Nottinghamshire hills in walking meditation.

The silent procession takes on the shape of a snake as it wends its way extremely slowly through a forest glade and an apple orchard. The assembled throng are asked to deeply experience each step they take on the earth in order to be mindful in the present moment.

Thay, as he is known, steps off the path into a field of tall grass and sits quietly in meditation. He exudes a sense of serenity, born of his 68 years practice as a monk.

Despite having hundreds of thousands of followers around the world and being viewed with the same reverence as the Dalai Lama, Thay is little known to the general public. He has chosen to shun the limelight and avoid the shimmer of celebrity endorsement in order to focus on building communities around the world that can demonstrate his ethical approach to life. There are monasteries currently in Germany, Australia, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong.


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He is seeking to create a spiritual revival that replaces our consumption-based lives with a return to a simpler, kinder world based on deep respect for each other and the environment.

He rarely gives interviews but recognises that the enormous challenges facing the world, combined with his own increasing age and frailty, means it is important to use what time and energy he has left to contribute what he can to re-energising society and protecting the planet.

For a man of his age, Thay keeps to a punishing schedule. After having lectured to thousands at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, Thay has come to Nottingham for a five day retreat, then goes on to a three month tour of Asia, before returning for a winter retreat at his Plum Village community in France, where he has lived in exile for more than 40 years.

Thay, a prolific author with more than 85 titles under his belt, has taken a particular interest in climate change and recently published the best-selling book ‘The World We Have – A Buddhist approach to peace and ecology.’

Tranquilising ourselves with over-consumption

In it, he writes: “The situation the Earth is in today has been created by unmindful production and unmindful consumption. We consume to forget our worries and our anxieties. Tranquilising ourselves with over-consumption is not the way.”

In his only interview in the UK, Thay calls on journalists to play their part in preventing the destruction of our civilisation and calls on corporations to move away from their focus on profits to the wellbeing of society.

He says that it is an ill-conceived idea that the solution to global warming lies in technological advances. While science is important, even more so is dealing with the root cause of our destructive behaviour: “The spiritual crisis of the West is the cause for the many sufferings we encounter. Because of our dualistic thinking that god and the kingdom of god is outside of us and in the future – we don’t know that god’s true nature is in every one of us. So we need to put god back into the right place, within ourselves. It is like when the wave knows that water is not outside of her.

“Everything we touch in our daily lives, including our body, is a miracle. By putting the kingdom of god in the right place, it shows us it is possible to live happily right here, right now. If we wake up to this, we do not have to run after the things we believe are crucial to our happiness like fame, power and sex. If we stop creating despair and anger, we make the atmosphere healthy again.

“Maybe we have enough technology to save the planet but it is not enough because the people are not ready. This is why we need to focus on the other side of the problem, the pollution of the environment not in terms of carbon dioxide but the toxic atmosphere in which we live; so many people getting sick, many children facing violence and despair and committing suicide.

Spiritual pollution

“We should speak more of spiritual pollution. When we sit together and listen to the sound of the [meditation] bell at this retreat, we calm our body and mind. We produce a very powerful and peaceful energy that can penetrate in every one of us. So, conversely, the same thing is true with the collective energy of fear, anger and despair. We create an atmosphere and environment that is destructive to all of us. We don’t think enough about that, we only think about the physical environment.

“Our way of life, our style of living, is the cause of it. We are looking for happiness and running after it in such a way that creates anger, fear and discrimination. So when you attend a retreat you have a chance to look at the deep roots of this pollution of the collective energy that is unwholesome.

“How can we change the atmosphere to get the energy of healing and transformation for us and our children? When the children come to the retreat, they can relax because the adults are relaxed. Here together we create a good environment and that is a collective energy.”

Capitalism as a disease

Thay talks about capitalism as a disease that has now spread throughout the world, carried on the winds of globalisation: “We have constructed a system we cannot control. It imposes itself on us, and we become its slaves and victims.”

He sees those countries that are home to Buddhism, such as India, China, Thailand and Vietnam, seeking to go even beyond the consumerism of the West: “There is an attractiveness around science and technology so they have abandoned their values that have been the foundation of their spiritual life in the past,” he says. “Because they follow western countries, they have already begun to suffer the same kind of suffering. The whole world crisis increases and globalisation is the seed of everything. They too have lost their non-dualistic view. There are Buddhists who think that Buddha is outside of them and available to them only after they die.

“In the past there were people who were not rich but contented with their living style, laughing and happy all day. But when the new rich people appear, people look at them and ask why don’t I have a life like that too, a beautiful house, car and garden and they abandon their values.”

While Thay believes that change is possible, he has also come to accept the possibility that this civilisation may collapse. He refers to the spiritual principle that by truly letting go of the ‘need’ to save the planet from climate change, it can paradoxically help do just that.

The catastrophe to come

“Without collective awakening the catastrophe will come,” he warns. “Civilisations have been destroyed many times and this civilisation is no different. It can be destroyed. We can think of time in terms of millions of years and life will resume little by little. The cosmos operates for us very urgently, but geological time is different.

“If you meditate on that, you will not go crazy. You accept that this civilisation could be abolished and life will begin later on after a few thousand years because that is something that has happened in the history of this planet. When you have peace in yourself and accept, then you are calm enough to do something, but if you are carried by despair there is no hope.

“It’s like the person who is struck with cancer or Aids and they learn they have been given one year or six months to live. They suffer very much and fight. But if they come to accept that they will die and they prepare to live every day peacefully and they enjoy every moment, the situation may change and the illness may go away. That has happened to many people.”

One Buddha is not enough

Thay says that the communities his Order of Interbeing is building around the world are intended to show that it is possible to “live simply and happily, having the time to love and help other people. That is why we believe that if there are communities of people like that in the world, we will demonstrate to the people and bring about an awakening so that people will abandon their course of comforts. If we can produce a collective awakening we can solve the problem of global warming. Together we have to provoke that type of awakening.”
One Buddha is not enough

He stops for a moment and goes quiet: “One Buddha is not enough, we need to have many Buddhas.”

Thay has lived an extraordinary life. During the Vietnam War he was nearly killed several times helping villagers suffering from the effects of bombing. When visiting America, he persuaded Martin Luther King to oppose the war publicly, and so helped to galvanize the peace movement. In fact King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968.

In the following decade Thay spent months on the South China Sea seeking to save Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees from overcrowded boats and in more recent years, he led members of the US Congress through a two-day retreat and continues to hold reconciliation retreats for Israelis and Palestinians at Plum Village.

His whole philosophy is based on watching the breath and walking meditation to stay in the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

He says that within every person are the seeds of love, compassion and understanding as well as the seeds of anger, hatred and discrimination. Our experience of life depends on which seeds we choose to water.

To help the creation of a new global ethic and sustain those positive seeds, Thay’s Order of Interbeing has distilled the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path into five core principles.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings, updated in the last year to make them relevant to our fast changing world, are not a set of rules but a direction to head in. Beyond calling for mindful consumption, they encourage an end to sexual misconduct as well as a determination “not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programmes, films, magazines, books and conversations.”

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“To Buy Or Not To Buy,” by April Lane Benson, PhD

To Buy Or Not To Buy. April Lane Benson.A new book offers help to those caught up in the painful compulsion to over-shop, from advice on how to untangle the financial mess that results from living beyond one’s means, to exercises for uncovering the unmet needs that drive the addiction to over-consume.

“For every Imelda Marcos — who fled the Philippines leaving behind more than three thousand pairs of shoes — there are countless unknown overshoppers: a businessman whose collection of fountain pens has grown obsessive; a language teacher whose closets are stuffed with unworn, still-tagged garments; a waitress who’s succumbed to the Jewelry Television Network.”

April Lane Benson, PhD has written a self-help book that could quite easily be transposed to other addictions. But, this book is written specifically for the overshopper who is motivated to change their own addictive behavior. To Buy Or Not To Buy is more of a workbook than simply an explanation of overshopping. As such, there are specific exercises to follow, journaling, and a healthy dose of honest self-reflection required for the reader hoping to finish this text. Benson also points out that a significant measure of patience with the effort and with oneself is necessary.

Title: To Buy Or Not To Buy
Author: April Lane Benson, PhD
Publisher: Shambhala/Trumpeter Books
ISBN: 978-1-59030-599-7
Available from: Shambhala and

Right from the beginning the reader is asked to take on some substantial work; there are questions to consider/answer, there are shopping myths to examine, and there are shopping behaviors to identify — all with the aim of helping the reader identify traits they may be unaware of. This work is intensified in the second chapter by looking at emotional/psychological triggers for overshopping and the fallout that inevitably results. Inventories, matrices, and journaling exercises lead the reader to better understand the mechanisms at work in their own overshopping behavior. The third chapter ties this work together by having the reader sketch a portrait of their overshopping self-image, really asking that a close look be taken so as to see and understand that the behavior is not the person, it is a behavioral profile. With this identity groundwork laid out the text turns to ways of changing.

 Right from the beginning the reader is asked to take on some substantial work  

Chapter four digs into the often delicate matter of sorting one’s financial tangle, the wreckage that usually accompanies overshopping. In some ways this chapter is the most straight-forward, and for many will provide the first outwardly visible change others close to the overshopper will see. As with prior chapters there are exercises and journaling work to help the overshopper move forward. Putting one’s finances in order can be both liberating and exhilarating, feelings that are generally noticeable by anyone paying attention.

Now we come to the heart of the matter, dealing with unmet needs, the root of the overshopping behavior. For many this will be a delicate subject requiring much sensitivity and kindness, compassion even. But, readers who have come this far and done the work prescribed earlier will have started to develop the understanding and patience that fosters momentum. Chapter six turns the magnifying glass away from the reader for a moment to look at how society is permeated by and buys [sic] into consumerism, how marketing aims specifically at luring us all into spending money. This chapter also draws upon the self-knowledge developed in earlier chapters in order to de-magnetize the places and feelings that repeatedly snare the overshopper. This sets the reader up to consider shopping more mindfully and with greater intentionality.

 The heart of the matter [is] dealing with unmet needs  

Chapters eight and nine dive back into the space of personal experience, looking in detail at what the body, heart, mind, and soul are doing/not doing when overshopping is occurring, and considering the consequences for living more fully in the present moments that make up our lives. The work here continues with the aim of building a vocabulary for identifying and describing our experience, in itself valuable for everyone not just overshoppers. Lastly, there is a chapter to brace the reader for overshopping lapses and/or relapse. Included are preventative exercises and journaling methods to prepare for the likelihood of resolve slipping or being overwhelmed by unforeseen circumstances.

Weaknesses of the book are few and relatively minor. They include the author, early on, citing a study that men are as likely to be overshoppers as are women, but failing to use a balance of examples to back the assertion. The first chapter lists six gendered examples of overshopper types, five of which are female. As the text progresses this ratio evens out at close to 7:1 making the reading easier for women than for men. The cover also is designed to appeal more to women than men. Another weakness — perhaps glitch is a better term here — is that the author offers the reader seductively easy access to obtaining a shopping journal, buying a ready made journal from the author’s website, ‘if they prefer.’ This seems ill-advised for one trying to help others curb an overshopping habit.

In spite of these two very minor complaints, To Buy Or Not To Buy is well thought out, well written, and contains a great deal of useful, sensible, and wise advice. More than that, it offers an effective and personal method for grappling with the very modern problem overshopping has become. More than thirty years ago Erich Fromm wrote To Have Or To Be, pointing out the alarming trend of materialism in Western culture. Today, April Lane Benson, PhD, provides the very necessary tools each of us can take up to regain our sense of self and worth in the face of this maddening materialism that is overshopping.

Priyamitra was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2005.

He lives in Spokane, Washington where he is active as a prison Dharma volunteer. Previously, he worked in a variety of jobs, as diverse as software-tester and hanglider test-pilot.

In February and March 2009 he fulfilled a life-long ambition of going on pilgrimage in south Asia.

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Stop samsara, I want to get off!


Finding contentment in a materialistic world, or, how our author didn’t buy an iPhone, and then did, and then didn’t again.

I admit I struggle with an attraction to shiny objects, and in my mind nothing shines with quite the seductive luster of a latest-model iPhone. When I first heard that the iPhone was in the works, about three years ago, I was filled with what can only be called technolust — a powerful desire to own the latest shiny toy (which at that point was not even available).

So what’s the big deal, you may ask. Isn’t it normal to be full of craving for something you want? And isn’t craving an iPhone a pretty mild form of desire? True, it is normal to experience craving. The thing is that craving hurts. It’s painful to really, really want something. There’s an element of pleasure involved in craving, to be sure, because in our mind we see ourselves possessing the object and so we experience, in our imagination, the pleasure and joy of holding the shiny toy in our eager hand. But that element of pleasure is outweighed, vastly in my experience, by the pain of the sheer wanting.

In English, the word “want” means both “desire” and “lack”

An interesting thing in the English language is that the word “want” means both “desire” (“I want to talk to you”) and “lack” (“I want for nothing”). What I find interesting about this is that sometimes when I “want” (desire) something like an iPhone it points to a “want” (lack) of something in my life. Back when the iPhone was just a glint in a marketer’s eye, I found myself thinking more and more that I barely even needed a cell phone. I had one, to be sure, but I was on a pay-as-you-go plan and even at a hefty 10c per minute I struggled to get through $50-worth of calls in a year. (Yes, I talk on the phone for less than 500 minutes a year. I guess you could say I’m not a big phone user.) And I already had an iPod to listen to music on and a Palm LifeDrive, which was a super-duper PDA (remember those?) that could also play music and videos as well as storing all my contacts, calendars, and allowing me to email and surf the web wirelessly. Basically all my information, media, and telephonic needs were taken care of. So why was I jonesing so heavily for an iPhone?

One obvious answer is the sheer beauty of the product itself. The iPhone is a joy to look at, to hold, and to use (my two-year-old daughter loves zooming in on photographs by spreading her little fingers, and adores swiping through screens. And so do I). And this is one problem — the continuing emergence of better and more attractive technological toys. You buy an iPod (as I had done) and find it beautiful. You just want to look at it, touch it (carefully, so as not to smudge the stainless steel), and play with it. And then after a shockingly brief amount of time a new, improved, model comes out. You look at your iPod (perhaps now 6 months “old”) and it no longer looks as sleek and attractive. It’s now apparent that it lacks the functionality that you’ve seen in the newer models — functionality you now want. And despite your most paranoid of attentions, dings and scratches have begun to dull the luster of your lovely device. Really, you now want — really want — a new iPod.

Samsara is the endless round of desire, disappointment, and renewed desire

And this cycle will continue indefinitely. You succumb to temptation and upgrade, only to find a few months later that your current model is woefully out of date. (I remember going into Best Buy to get some attachment for my one-year-old iPod only to be told that they didn’t stock accessories for “older models”). This is an illustration of what Buddhism calls samsara, or the endless round of desire, disappointment, and renewed desire. In the Buddha’s day iPods, of course did not exist, but the Buddha expressed the dissatisfactions of materialism by saying “Even a shower of gold coins will not take away craving.”

There’s a deeper level to my wanting an iPhone, though. When I crave an iPhone I’m not just wanting (desiring, lacking) a new device, I want (lack, desire) to be The Kind Of Person Who Owns An iPhone. I want to be seen as cool, hip, and ahead of the fashion curve. I want people to look at me and my iPhone and think that I’m as cool as the shiny toy I’m carrying. So I’m craving approval — approval from other people.

But wait, there’s more! Why am I craving approval? Why’s it important for me to be seen as the kind of person who’s cool enough to own an iPhone? Why do I need approval from others? Surely it’s because I don’t give myself enough appreciation. I don’t love myself enough. In the sheer busyness of life, keeping up with writing books, recording, publishing articles online, teaching in prison, doing people favors, taking care of my family, etc, I forget to pause and remind myself that I’m a pretty cool guy. I forget to remind myself that if I let go of craving I can be happy. And because I forget to do this, I feel a “want” of appreciation. And because I feel a want (lack) of appreciation from myself I “want” (desire) appreciation from others. That, I think, gets closer to the root of my painful craving. Without that factored in, whether or not to buy an iPhone is just a question of deciding what technology I need, rather than scrabbling to be seen as a particular kind of person.

If I let go of craving I can be happy

This too is samsara, the endless round of trying to fill a need in an inappropriate way. Getting appreciation from others on the basis of owning a cool gadget is another cycle, not just because cool gadgets don’t stay cool for long (or because other people are not necessarily a reliable source of appreciation), but because it just doesn’t work. Appreciation from others can never replace a self of self-appreciation. Giving myself appreciation is more reliable. It cuts right into the cycle of craving and allows me just to be.

Another way to use iPhone craving as a basis for insight is to appreciate that the object of desire is impermanent. When I find myself craving a new toy, I can visualize it gathering scratches, breaking, and being consigned to the landfill, where it is buried with old banana peels and soiled diapers. Looked at as a process and not as a thing, even an iPhone seems less attractive. (And eventually, by seeing through, once and for all, the shell game that is neurotic craving, we let go of it altogether. That’s we call Enlightenment, but let’s leave that to one side for now).

Anyway, did I buy an iPhone three years ago? No, I didn’t, because I realized that I didn’t need the phone, although it would be handy to having something that was like an iPhone but wasn’t a phone. And then the iPod Touch appeared (something that was like an iPhone but wasn’t a phone), and I sold my LifeDrive on eBay and gave my iPod to my wife. And it was only when my iPod Touch broke, several months ago, that I decided to get the iPhone, reckoning that the ability to check email and get online anywhere would be a handy asset, and that I could simplify the ecology of my pockets by having just one device (iPhone) rather than two (iPod Touch plus cheapo cellphone).

But now the iPhone 3G S is coming out, which has rekindled the whole “should I upgrade” question. But no, I’m not going to upgrade until I have some good, objective reason to. Perhaps when the battery life on my current model is impractically short, or when I can upgrade at minimal cost, I might then decide to get the latest iPhone. For now I’m going to step off of the painful round of samsara, or at least the part that’s involved in craving iPhones. I’ll content myself by living with an appreciation of my own merits — the good qualities I embody and the good things I do — and recalling the impermanence of my objects of desire. And that’s more fulfilling than any shiny new toy.

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The Upper Middle Way – Have North American Buddhists renounced renunciation?

woman meditating in front of an Indonesian shrine

Historians of religion often repeat the accepted truth that it takes about two centuries for a culture to absorb a new religion and make it its own. Buddhism is certainly not a new religion on the world scene; nevertheless, it may be turning into something new as it is adapted to fit Euro-American culture. And this revised Buddhism might be neglecting crucial elements of the original teachings in favor of values and practices that give comfort to us in the receiving culture. As North Americans and Europeans, we seem particularly attracted to the enticing and psychologized project of spiritual enlightenment, but we are neglecting, at our peril, other fundamental Buddhist values and practices.

As we find ourselves one-quarter of the way through this two-century process, one of the original themes of the historical Buddha’s teaching, namely, the ideal of renunciation, is being conveniently renounced in the West. While the original Pali term (nekkhamma) means the negation of kama (desire), or “withdrawing from sensuality,” the English word has come to mean something like “putting aside the things of the world.” Thus, in English, we refer to monks and nuns as renunciants. Yet the suttas show us that all serious practitioners must in some way be renunciant. The Buddha held forth a rather strict standard of renunciation for his monks compared to his householder followers. The Pali canon makes clear in many places that householders, as well as monks and nuns, can all attain nirvana. A particularly beautiful expression of this truth is found in the Mahavacchagotta Sutta:

Just as the river Ganges inclines towards the sea, slopes towards the sea, flows towards the sea, and extends all the way the sea, so too Master Gotama’s assembly with its homeless ones and its householders inclines towards Nibbana, slopes towards Nibbana, flows towards Nibbana, and extends all the way to Nibbana. (Majjhima Nikaya (MN) 73:14)

Although the layperson may not be “homeless,” to use another phrase that refers to monks and nuns, it is still very clear that renunciation must be a part of every follower’s path as they incline, or slide, toward nirvana. In the Dantabhumi Sutta, the Buddha addresses Aggivessana and talks about the layman, Prince Jayasena:

So too, Aggivessana, Prince Jayasena is obstructed, hindered, blocked, and enveloped by a still greater mass than this—the mass of ignorance. Thus it is impossible that Prince Jayasena, living in the midst of sensual pleasures,…could know, see, or realize that which must be known through renunciation, seen through renunciation, attained through renunciation, realized through renunciation. (MN 125:10)

Here, the Buddha is talking about someone very much like himself as a young man. Some Western teachers have explained that what the Buddha meant by renunciation was that his followers should relinquish their attachment to things, not necessarily the things themselves, a notion that the American Theravadin teacher Santikaro calls “a liberal legalism, à la Bill Clinton.”

There is perhaps confusion between the term relinquishment (patinissagga), which could be defined as this mental exercise, and the more concrete concept of renouncing those things which embroil us in desire. But both these actions are necessary in the Buddha’s outline of the path to nirvana. We must give up things, people, and concepts, as well as extinguish the mental mechanism of attaching to them.

Abandoning the trappings of wealth, as Gotama did, is still put forward in the teachings as a practice for householders. Speaking to the monk Udayin in the Latukikopama Sutta, Gotama says,

There are certain clansmen here who, when told by me ‘Abandon this’ …abandon that and do not show discourtesy towards me or towards those bhikkhus desirous of training. Having abandoned it, they live at ease, unruffled, subsisting on others’ gifts, with mind [as aloof] as a wild deer’s. (MN 66:12)

In the Dhammapada, one of the most revered and accessible of Buddhist scriptures, it says, “I do not call him a Brahman merely because he was born in the caste of holy ones, or of a Brahman mother.… But one who is free from possessions and worldly attachments—him I call a Brahman.” (XXVI:396) (The word brahman referred originally to any holy person, but now when capitalized refers to the caste of Vedic priests.) This quote makes clear that both the mental attachments and the possessions themselves are to be renounced, but Buddhist teachers in the West rarely cite such passages.

Santikaro says that the Buddha never required his lay disciples to lead lives of voluntary simplicity, they just did it as a result of their deepening spiritual insight. “You see that most of the really important lay leaders in the early sangha renounced their wealth and status,” explains Santikaro. “King Pasenandi gives up his throne, the merchant banker Anathapindika gives his wealth away; Citta, the foremost dhamma speaker among the laity and Visakha, a very accomplished laywoman, do the same.”

Writings and dharma talks by North American Buddhist interpreters soothe middle-class devotees with the diminished expectations of Buddhism-lite. Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire, to pick only one recent example, says: “Renunciation need not mean a turning away from desire, but only a forsaking of the acting out that clinging creates.” Zen teacher Ed Brown once summarized this concept by saying, “It’s OK to pick something up, as long as you can put it back down again.” These simple dicta are true as far as they go, but emphasizing the importance of detachment, or nonattachment to things, as mere mental attitude, without any real-life implications, compromises the nature of the original teachings. This smoothed-out version of Buddhism gives us permission to have our lifestyle, to be wealthy—even pampered—without having to wring our hands in guilt. It requires no concrete action in the real world—except for the occasional retreat with our favorite teacher.

But it’s important to notice a few things before we rest easy in this comforting interpretation of the dharma. The first principle that should not escape our attention is the original teaching on generosity (dana). The Buddha saw poverty as a curse and wanted householders to earn enough to support themselves and their families—and to help their villages. He even gave very specific advice to Anathapindika, one of his wealthiest lay followers, on what today we call “asset allocation.” As Robert Aitken Roshi said once, “Someone has to make money so others of us can be poor.” And this is indeed the Buddhist formula for supporting monastics. It relies on a laity with enough disposable income to support the monks.

In Asia, Buddhist teachers summarize the path for laypeople as being composed of dana, sila (ethical behavior), and bhavana (spiritual development). In the West, however, the formula is recited, and emphasized, in reverse: bhavana (more specifically, “meditation,” which was the formula for monks) sila, dana. Middle-class North Americans want to become accomplished meditators, and many of us spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year to attend retreats and workshops in an effort to “get” enlightenment, as though it were one more accomplishment, one more thing to cross off our to-do list. We want to buy enlightenment rather than sacrifice for it.

But instead of getting, the early teachings suggest that we engage in the practice of giving. Dana is really a spiritual method. Practicing generosity helps us to overcome greed and clinging; it facilitates the realization of no-self—and it feels good. The Dhammapada says clearly:

These three ways lead to the deathless realm:
living in the truth,
not yielding to anger,
and giving, even if you have
only a little to share. (XVII:224)

The difficulties of householder life are also noted:

Renunciation of the worldly life is difficult;
difficult it is to be happy in the monastic life;
equally difficult and painful it is
to lead the householder’s life. (XXI:303)

Renunciation is difficult, yes, but as contemporary Buddhists, we have fled from this challenge and we have turned renunciation into a painless mental exercise. It’s much easier to say, “Yeah, but I’m not attached to my BMW.” That way we never have to question what could have been done with the money we spent on an upscale car, house, or vacation. Thus, we avoid the implications of simplicity, nonconsumption, and generosity enshrined in the original teachings. And few Euro-American Buddhist teachers call on their followers to set aside wealth and comfort for the practice of real, tangible renunciation and simplicity.

There are some exceptions. Ajahn Brahmavamso, an Australian Theravadin abbot, was recently teaching in the U.S. and, referring to practice, said, “You don’t have to go for the big idea, but just keep moving forward, toward greater simplicity—a smaller home, for example. Less clutter in the physical world leads to less clutter in the mind and more freedom.” As Buddhist discourse in the U.S. goes, this is a very rare sentiment.

Of course, I cannot know in any statistical sense what my Buddhist colleagues are doing with their incomes, but I have plenty of anecdotal experience. For instance, I’m on the board of a small Buddhist nonprofit called Paramita House, which helps released prison inmates reintegrate into the community. In our routine solicitations to sanghas in the region, only a few Buddhist groups have responded positively. When we ask groups why they can’t contribute, they often say, “We’re raising money for the new temple.” If they’ve built their temple, they say they need money for landscaping. If the landscaping is done, they talk about keeping a prudent reserve and, of course, once there are sufficient reserves, it’s time to fund the endowment. Some sanghas do engage in social justice commitments, but all too many spend their time fluffing up the meditation cushions, waiting for the next retreat.

Many in my own generation, the boomers, are immensely wealthy—yet we don’t feel that way. Investment firms and retirement advisors constantly challenge us with the huge amounts of money they say will be needed to fund our retirement lifestyles. So we feel we haven’t saved enough to support that eighty-six-year-old person who does not yet—and may never—exist. As Buddhism entered various cultures over the last two and a half millennia, it changed as it incorporated various spiritual traditions—the Brahmanistic and animistic traditions of South and Southeast Asia, Taoism and Confucianism in China, and the Bonpo practices of Tibet. But Santikaro points out that “As Buddhism is adapting to the West, rather than incorporating a healthy or effective spiritual tradition, it is adapting to secularism. This is unique in Buddhist history. It is being molded and changed—not by the Western monotheisms—but by pop-psychology and consumerist capitalism. Perhaps the only thing Western Buddhism is inheriting from monotheism is a tendency toward dogmatism.”

I am not asking that North American Buddhists turn into tottering Mother Teresas or throw the BMW keys to the ground and walk off into the mountain mists, but if we really took up the ideal of householder renunciation, we would become more generous—much more generous—with our time and our money and our talents. We could vow to make do with less and stop consuming needlessly. Boomers might consider the old Indo-Aryan ideal that the final decades of life ought best be devoted to simplicity and spiritual development. Many of us will play golf in gated communities till that final trumpet sounds, but those of us who call ourselves Buddhists owe the world, and ourselves, much more. What if we turned our backs on the false security of our L.L. Bean lifestyles? What if we gave generously to the causes that stir our hearts? What if we worked hard to improve the lives of the poor and the marginalized in our own communities? That would give us what Buddhism promises, and what we’ve longed for all along—the taste of genuine freedom.


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