HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH? SPIRITUAL POVERTY IN A DOWN ECONOMY
Due to the length of this article, it is also available in pdf format.
CHANGE YOUR MIND DAY 2009
Saint Louis MO
Saturday June 6, 2009
How Much is Enough? Spiritual Poverty in a Down Economy
Hello Saint Louis! I greet you with the Buddhist bow. (bow)
I have prepared extensive remarks today, and plan to speak broadly about prosperity – how much is enough, about happiness, suffering, and about spiritual poverty. I hope to spark some reaction in your mind, and will leave adequate time for your questions. After all, the most important thing here is your understanding, not mine. I can talk all day, but may say nothing to clarify your grasp of Zen unless I know where you re coming from. Please hold your questions for later. We will also try a little Zen meditation later, but the most conducive environment is the Zen Center, or your home. John will provide contact and schedule information for the MO ZC.
My first talk here at Change Your Mind Day a few years ago was: “You Can Not Change Your Mind.” The kind of fundamental, transformational change that is at the heart of Zen is not a matter of thinking differently. It is not simply a new concept that one can learn, especially from the words of others. It takes a little more effort than that.
Of course, one can change one’s mind in the conventional sense. To be open to a new idea, to be willing to relinquish one’s own opinion. Giving up our own worldview is difficult. You may be challenged to do so in order to hear what I have to say today.
We all may harbor certain beliefs that are precious to us. But they can be subliminal, and based on ignorance, with devastating consequences. Wichita is the scene of a recent example of belief trumping reason, or compassion: last Sunday’s murder of a doctor attending church. A letter about it, to the editor of the NYT this last week, expresses an uncomfortable idea:
The killing of Dr. George E. Tiller is not dissonant to the broader American culture. It was a very American murder, very reflective of national policy where torture is seen as a strategic necessity and the bullet as the final arbiter.i
Whether or not you agree that this may be true, there is something basically wrong, and not only in the deranged mind of the perpetrator, much as that explanation provides some comfort.
We have an affiliate group in Wichita. The Practice Leader developed a quiet mantra when confronting conflict: “I may be wrong…I may be wrong…” Do try this at home, or at the office. Or on the expressway, driving home tonight.
Later on she added: “I may be right…I may be right…” The operative word being “may.”
Zen asks us to set aside all everyday concerns, “thinking neither good nor evil, right or wrong” according to master Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in 13th-century Japan. But that is while we are on the cushion, in meditation. It is immersion in the absolute. When we leave the cushion, we confront the relative validity of right and wrong in daily life. Much of our difficulty, and that of the society in which we live, is based on our view of what — and how much — we actually need to be happy.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH
The title of my talk today is “How much is enough? Spiritual poverty in a down economy.” I chose this subject because, in spite of the economic collapse — plus fear and anxiety amplified by the media, which thrive on conflict and anxiety — it is obvious that we are still living in a land of plenty, compared to most of the world. We live in a culture of such mindless consumption and material satiation that our reaction to the current downturn must appear childish to anyone who knows true poverty or hardship. Just off one of our coasts, most of the denizens of Haiti would welcome the level of material discomfort we regard as a worst-case scenario. Those who are well-off do not even comprehend the problems of the poverty-stricken, and vice-versa. People have the problems they can afford to have.
While writing this, I overheard an East Indian woman interviewed on the radio, commenting on growing prosperity in her area, saying “First you buy a car, then a house; then, you buy a gun.” As we gain possessions, the possessions gain possession of us. What we own, we are owned by. We have to defend and protect it, to preserve “I,” “me,” and “mine.” Including our family and loved ones. We have to protect them against others, who are not, by definition, our family. Not our loved ones. This is a problem.
Sangha, the Buddhist community, is offered as a solution. It is not based on bloodlines, on loved ones. It is inclusive, not exclusive. Sangha is the true family.
They say that an “expert” is a consultant from out-of-town. So my presence here today, coming from the exotic climes of Atlanta and Georgia, may lend an aura of expertise, even of mystery, at least unfamiliarity. Zen is regarded as mysterious, and of course, it is. But my teacher, Soyu Matsuoka-roshi (Sensei, meaning “teacher”), taught that Zen is also ordinary. Zen is for everyone. Its essential truth is not really exotic, in the sense of unfamiliar: Asian, Indian, Chinese or Japanese. It cannot be captured in a cultural bottle. But it is very American in its emphasis on self-sufficiency, directness, practicality and an open-ended, scientific process of discovery and exploration. This open mind is characteristic of its meditation, zazen in Japanese.
Sensei warned me that “You can talk all day and never make them understand.” Any understanding — such as it is in Zen — will come from your direct experience, primarily in Zen meditation. Soto Zen, the approach Sensei recommends for Westerners in his collected talks, emphasizes sitting meditation, zazen (show books). Soto is sometimes called “farmer’s Zen,” in comparison to the second large school, Rinzai, referred to as “general’s Zen.” The latter is relatively intellectual, somewhat militant. Soto Zen is very down-to-earth. Like farming.
I grew up about 60 miles due east of here, in a small town in Illinois called Centralia. So my being here is very ordinary. I spent summers as a child about the same distance to the south, where my maternal grandparents, Jim and Nelly Fox, lived in the Missouri Ozarks. My first impression when I moved to Georgia in 1970 was the similarity of terrain: mountainous, red clay, much like the Ozarks. I felt right at home. And Zen should be at home here in the Midwest.
Between St. Louis and Centralia is farm country. Folks who grew up on the farm as I did know something of the simplicity and directness of Zen in their experience. Authentication is in the cultivation, enlightenment ineparable from practice. No planting—no harvest. Farmer’s Zen.
My grandparents grew most of their own produce. I can remember harvesting huge piles of pole beans and new potatoes in the late summer, and helping grandma Nelly can tomatoes for that winter. They would purchase slabs of bacon and beer at the grocery store, and a few other staples, but that was about it.
My grandfather was a builder. He could rip off one end of a house and move it to the other end, and build fine kitchen cabinets from scratch. All with hand tools, nothing powered, let alone cordless. I remember the summer he replaced the roof on their house, the regular thump-thump—thump-thump—thump-thump of the hammer overhead, each one a nail driven home. It would go on without stopping for hours, all day. His arms were as big as my legs. He was, to me, a giant of a man, in all meanings of the phrase. Physically six-foot-four. Nelly was the opposite — small, thin and spry. Jehovah’s witness. Drank beer and chewed tobacco. But with style and grace.
My grandparents and much of their generation had a self-sufficient way of living that was very close to the earth, very simple and ordinary. Their children fought WWII and were labeled “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw. So how great had to be the parents of the greatest generation? The point is that their answer to the question “How much is enough?” was a lot different from what we seem to think today, a half-century or so later.
I went to college in Chicago around a decade before moving to Atlanta, about 1960. At the Institute of Design, the so-called “new Bauhaus” at Illinois Tech, one of the central questions asked, by professors assigning—and by students solving—design problems, was “How much is enough?” In developing solutions, as in writing this talk, the hardest part is the subtractive — taking out that which is not really necessary. Editing, in the case of writing; simplifying, in the case of design.
Simplicity is held to be a great accomplishment in design. The paper clip, or safety pin, for instance, are considered classics, their designers lost to history. The zafu, Zen’s sitting cushion, is another, probably of Chinese origin. But Zen meditation itself takes the cake. It is “fiendishly simple,” as Sherlock Holmes might say. Very difficult to improve upon. Complexity, especially needless complexity, is easy by comparison. As Albert Einstein said,
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.
The opposite direction of smaller; simpler; less destructive. Like the hoped-for NewCo, formerly GM, smart automobiles rolling off the assembly lines soon. We hope. But how much is enough, in order that our very lives can become smaller, simpler, and less destructive?
Design students and professionals tend to be do-it-yourselfers, an American trait. They are not happy getting it secondhand. They test their design theories on themselves. One graduate student had all of his possessions in a dozen cartons, all the same size, all in a row. They formed a kind of small mountain range 3 levels high in the center of the room. The skyline would change daily as he moved them about to get access to the stuff in the lower levels. He could move to another apartment, or a different city, at the drop of a hat.
Another student allowed herself to have only 500 things. A “thing” might consist of two objects, such as a pair of shoes. She allowed herself to get new things, such as a new pair of shoes, but she had to get rid of another item to stay at 500 max. How many things do you own? Take a look at your closets tonight. How much is enough? How much is too much? How much do we really need? How much do we merely want? Things multiply; we divide them into groups; and we add to them. Try subtracting. It isn’t easy. Especially in the realm of non-material things.
These were students of design, attempting to look at their lives differently. In the method of fostering creativity, the principle is called “making the familiar strange.” This trains us not to take things for granted. Repetition is another technique. Write your signature 1,000 times. It will lose its familiarity. Or repeat a word, like “elephant.” It will begin to sound very strange.
Zen is a way of simplifying one’s life. Or, as expressed by Kosho Uchiyama-roshi—a contemporary of Sensei’s, both born in 1912 — of refining one’s life. This kind of refinement proceeds largely through simplification, subtracting the unnecessary. No one can do this for you. Zen is the ultimate in do-it-yourself. No way to get it secondhand, though a teacher can help.
Serendipitously, a columnist for the NYT, Verlyn Klinkenborg, under the title The Familiar Place, published a familiar experience this last Wednesday June 3rd:
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the geography of familiarity. By that I mean something like a map of my habitat, the paths I travel most often, the places I feel most comfortable…Most days, familiarity seems inherent in the world right around me, but every now and then I remember that it’s really an artifact of consciousness. A form of perception that can be lost, say in someone with Alzheimer’s. It’s disorienting to grasp that the world itself is neutral and that all the familiarity I feel is being carried around in my head.
We’ve all been there, done that. But it can go a lot deeper. When we sit in Zen meditation — sitting still enough for long enough — a similar kind of disorientation sets in, but it becomes profound, in the almost medical sense of severe, or deep-seated. That which we usually take for granted, that which is familiar to the point of numbness or boredom, changes. If we sit still enough, long enough, everything changes. Dramatically. It has to. Mr. Klinkenborg goes on:
The more I think about that seam between the familiar and the unfamiliar…the more it seems that humans instinctively generate a sense of familiarity. You can sense it for yourself the next time you drive someplace you’ve never been before. Somehow, it always feels as though it takes longer to get there than it does to get back home again. It’s as if there is a principal of relativity, a bending of time, in the very concept of familiarity. The road we know is always shorter than the road we don’t know—even if the distances are the same.
Buddhism takes this a step further, holding that the mind imposes a “false stillness” on reality. The discriminating mind, called the “monkey mind,” creates a perception of sameness through selective use of the faculty of attention, and memory. When we sit still enough for long enough, this natural inhibition breaks down. The columnist’s last comment is also relevant for us:
How these matters feel to other species, I can’t even begin to guess. But what they mean for us is that home is ultimately a portable concept, something we’ve nearly all discovered for ourselves in our mobile lives. The trick…and it is a hard one to master — is to think of home not as a place we go to or come from, not as something inherent in the world itself, but as a place we carry inside ourselves. A place where we welcome the unfamiliar because we know as time passes it will become the very bedrock of our being.
This is close to Buddhism’s ideal of our “true home” — the meaning of Zen’s formal ordination as a novice Zen priest, Shukke Tokudo. “Shukke” means “homeless.” Compare this idea with our culture’s derogatory and condescending association with homelessness.
In the 60s, there was a lot of political upheaval, mostly over the war in Vietnam — has a familiar ring, doesn’t it? In those days, with the creative crowd I ran with in Chicago, it was fashionable to call everything into question. In later years while teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art and Design department at the U of I at Chicago Circle Campus, the question of how much is really enough had not gone away, but become even more compelling. Chaos was afoot, with the Kennedy and King assassinations and the 1968 police riots. Rampant consumerism was on the rise, and the first prototypes of the personal computer, with its built-in obsolescence of a much higher frequency, was presaging the new normal.
In the late 1960s, a few years after I had met Sensei and begun training in Zen at the Chicago Zen Buddhist Temple, I invited Baba Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert, to speak at U of I when he happened to be in town. He cooked dinner that night, fishing jars of chipatti and beans from the pile in the back of his car, which if memory serves, was an antique Chrysler Airstream.
His talk was also about how much is enough. He outlined his biography leading up to his trip to India, where he met his guru. Most of the narrative was about his desires — to have a new car; a better job; a new airplane; another sexual conquest; a deeper experience through drugs. He spoke with bemused humility of his status as a professor at Harvard, along with Timothy Leary; and on and on. He’s a talker. But he said he realized at one point, that it would never be enough. It would never. Be. Enough. With the achievement of each new conquest or acquisition, he felt a kind of buyer’s remorse, disappointment that the anticipated new thing did not fully satisfy, did not last. A new normal of dissatisfaction would set in each time.
One translation of dukkha, Buddhism’s great, universal principle of change, often expressed as suffering, is unsatisfactoriness. Which is not even a real word in English. Most of these terms cannot be reduced to a bumper sticker. But we all know what dukkha means, intuitively.
How much is enough? is not complete. It lacks context. How much is enough in order to — what? Enough in order to be happy? Enough to compensate for what we lack? Master Hakuin, a 17th C. Rinzai master, asked, “What is there outside us? What is there we lack?” in his “Sopng of Zazen.”
What is lacking? Sensei said that people go through life with something missing. They don’t know what it is, so they imagine it to be — or can be persuaded that it might be — that new car, boat, perhaps another relationship. If only this were…or that were not…then I would, I could, be happy at last. Some words from Sensei about human suffering, when he lived in Chicago:
Now that the days of winter are upon us, we frequently hear people complain of the cold. “It’s so cold”, they say, and they can hardly wait until summer comes once again. And yet, we remember when they complained of the summer heat. It seems they are never satisfied. This reminds me of a very famous Zen story that I would like to tell you today. It brings out the meaning of suffering in people’s lives.
In a famous Zen koan book called the Hekigan Roku, there is a story of Tozan and Kansho. This story is about a Zen master, called Tozan [founder of Soto Zen in China], and about heat and cold. Heat and cold in Japanese is called Kansho or Kanjo. In this story, a young Zen priest suffered just like many of us from the heat of summer and the cold of winter. He sought a way to escape this suffering.
So, he sought out this important Zen master named Tozan Ryokai to ask him how he might conquer this suffering. The young priest had confidence in the Zen master, since this Master was the 11th patriarch to follow in the footsteps of’ Bodhi Darma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, and the Zen Master was known to be very wise. So the young priest asked him, “I suffer from the cold and I suffer from the heat. Where can I escape them?”
The Zen Master told him, “Why don’t you run away to a place where there is no heat and there is no cold?”
When the young priest heard this, of course he was puzzled. He thought and thought, and yet, he could not think of a place that was neither hot nor cold. Perhaps you might also want to ask the same question as the young priest. You may not suffer from the heat or the cold, but you probably suffer from something.
The hot and the cold in this story of the Zen Master and the young priest means more than just the extremities of temperature. The heat of summer and the cold of winter are symbols for any kind of suffering in human life. Every person suffers from something. And, most people want to escape it. But, before you ask how you can escape suffering in your life, it is best to stop and think about its true nature. Suffering can be about anything and it can be found everywhere. Some suffer from the heat and others from the cold. Some suffer from poverty and others from the cares of having riches. Some suffer from the pleasures they once had and yearn to have again, and others suffer because they yearn for pleasures they imagine but never have. There are hundreds of reasons for suffering in our lives.
Thank you, Sensei. When we sit in Zen meditation, sitting still enough for long enough, we find that place neither hot nor cold. Cold is dependent upon hot, in order to feel it; hot is dependent upon cold. Just as we adapt to the weight of our clothes, we eventually adapt to everything. Including hot and cold. Same for all such opposites.
Most of us think we can escape suffering by escaping circumstances. Indeed, most advertising messages promise happiness through purchasing another circumstance – a better vehicle, a vacation, or better lips, eyes, abs, skin, hair. Someone said cosmetic companies basically cut us apart into little pieces and then sell them back to us one at a time. Some forms of meditation are marketed this way as well, promising greater happiness or even enlightenment. Caveat emptor!
Happiness in Zen is not dependent upon circumstance. Sensei came to this country in 1939. He was renowned as a peacemaker and bridge-builder between the warring nations of his birth, Japan, and his chosen homeland, the United States. When asked about the purpose of Zen, he would often say: “Every day is a happy day, every day is a good day in Zen.” When someone asked me what, if anything, I would add to that, I said: “regardless.” Every day is a happy day — regardless of circumstance. Of course, this does not mean that one becomes ignorant of, or insensitive to, suffering — either of oneself or of others. But happiness, in Buddhism, does not depend upon happy circumstance. Happiness, it might be said, is something that one practices, rather than experiences, as a reaction to circumstance.
Sensei would also often say, “The Zen person is happy with ordinariness.” If we are happy with ordinariness it means we have enough. We now know for sure how much is enough. This ordinariness includes expectations lowered to a realistic level, and includes aging, sickness and death. These are the major attributes of Buddhism’s dukkha. This dukkha is not just human suffering but a universal principle of change, in which humans are caught up, naturally, along with the rest of existence. But humans are the only ones who can add insult to injury.
Beyond material needs and desires, there are others of a different order. Recent developments reveal the dark underbelly — no pun intended — of the desire to bear children, usually regarded as a positive thing. It was once a very material need, in that children, particularly males, were needed to work the farm or family trade. In poverty-stricken countries today, it is the reverse — children are more mouths to feed when many are already starving to death.
In America, we have the phenomenon of children as celebrity, or raison-d’etre: John & Kate Plus 8; Nadya Suleman, dubbed "Octo-Mom," fertility run amok. How much is enough? Many women (and their spouses) choose not to bear children. Some perhaps for altruistic reasons, others for pragmatic ones. But there may be those who eschew childbearing for less than noble reasons as well. Children, as wonderful as they can be, can certainly put a dent in one’s lifestyle. And they don’t always turn out as hoped. I believe it was Kahlil Gibran who said:
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
So the bearing of children as widely conceived — no pun intended — that we have children that are ours, much as we have possessions that are ours, is skewed. Procreation is instead the vehicle by which those wanting to be born come into being. Some are unable to bear children, and often obsess over it as what is missing in their lives. That we associate personal happiness with the ability to bear children, and are frustrated or depressed by impotency or infertility, betrays an ignorance of what Gibran is saying about propagation of the species. It is procreating, not we.
The Hindu mystic Sri Ramakrishna, of 1850s Calcutta, had a horrific vision of the reality into which we are born. Mother Kali, the goddess of creation and destruction, he saw rising from the river Ganges as a beautiful young woman, turning pregnant and giving birth. Her face and demeanor then changed to that of a monster, and, devouring the baby, merged back into the river. That which brings us into being is that which devours us. Each generation dies to make room for the next.
The history of Zen has been largely celibate. It is difficult to defend the desirability of procreation, or the preservation of the human race — let alone its dominion over other species — from this perspective. The quickest way to end the species is to avoid giving birth to the next generation. So how much is enough? Are there enough people yet?
How much is enough wealth? The term earn used to mean something – “by the sweat of one’s brow” I believe the saying goes. But today we have more than one person in the world who is said to earn millions, hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars. What does one do to earn that much? Well, you might say, they own something worth that much. They own a corporation, or the means of production. Or to go even further, ownership is determined by utility. Now I’m beginning to sound like a Marxist, I know, I know. But how long will it last? How long will I last? How long is it mine, and if impermanent, can we own anything at all?
The definition of wealth has become not something that is shared with others, but a measure of difference, and even of comparative self-worth. How can one person earn millions of dollars per year when millions of people per year are starving? And how can they pass it on only to their own offspring?
Well, enough of that. Enough already. I don’t want to go off on a rant. Enough is enough.
Now let’s try a few minutes of Zen meditation. Let me introduce this with a few words from Sensei, followed by some brief instructions:
Zen meditation is different from other kinds of meditation in its emphasis upon seeking an empty mind. Again, it should be repeated, an “empty mind” does not mean you should lose all powers of thinking and reasoning. An “empty” mind is one that is free from fears that can inhibit your action.
Sitting in Zen meditation produces such an empty mind.
Zen meditation emphasizes keeping your mind empty. There should be no misunderstanding that this means to be dead or to be sleeping in meditation. An empty mind is entirely different. Zen meditation is not sleeping, but an intensely heightened awareness and concentration. For example, the difference between sleeping and Zen meditation can be shown quite easily. While you are sleeping, you do not hear noises clearly and your response to them is not sharp and is often distorted in dreams. Your whole nerve system is dulled when you are sleeping. But, in Zen meditation, your mind is alert and empty so that you could hear even the muffled sound of dropping ashes from a single stick of incense. Your mind is so vitally alive that the sound of falling ashes may sound like the roar of a hundred rolls of thunder. Unlike sleeping, your mind is very much aware of the world around you, and yet it is still and undisturbed by it.
Please take Sensei’s words to heart, especially in this environment…John?
[10 – 15 minutes of meditation with instruction (from John?)]
Okay, please relax – let’s stand for a moment and stretch – we are in the home stretch now.
A few more words on spiritual poverty, then we will entertain your questions. Spiritual poverty is an expression that we may think we understand. I am not so sure. It seems that the implication of the term is that, contradictorily, it represents the only true wealth. Ponder that.
I don’t mean to be dropping names here, but R. Buckminster Fuller, whom I also had the pleasure to meet, and who was a mentor, hero and icon to many of us in the design community, had an interesting definition of wealth, which may be relevant. He described it as a formula, (which I may be misquoting): RxK=W, where R stands for resources, K for knowledge, and W for wealth. In other words, wealth is a product of what you have times what you know how to do with it. Examples include replacing miles of copper cable from the ocean bottom with one communications satellite; or recycling Ram Dass’s Chrysler Airstream to yield enough material to produce two of today’s smart cars. This process of getting more from less he identified as the arc of the technology curve, or “ephemeralization.”
So, Bucky concluded, wealth can only increase. Resources are relatively constant, and reuseable, if only we develop renewable energy and practice sustainability. And knowledge can only increase, even if by trial and error. Knowledge, thanks to the magic of language, is also handed down from generation to generation, amplifying what is known as cultural evolution with a multiplier effect. Managed correctly, absent neurotic greed, there is more than enough.
Today, in my neighborhood in Atlanta, the problem is not that there are not enough cars and trucks, which might be a symptom of poverty, but that there is no room to park. Every street is bumper-to-bumper, both sides, mostly late models. The purchase investment on each block will easily approach millions of dollars, an embarrassing display of extravagant consumption.
Please bear with me while I quote from a couple of sources providing a humanistic context for the idea of spiritual poverty. I Googled the term and found a sermon, Spiritual Poverty and Heavenly Riches Preached in London, in 1844, by J. C. Philpot, which begins with a quote from the Christian Bible, Corinthians 2:
Having nothing—and yet possessing all things.
This is, one might say, a religious definition of spiritual poverty, and simultaneously of immense wealth. It calls our attention to the difference between having and possessing. Having is here used as the notion that we can actually, and individually, own anything; while possessing is used to indicate the only true ownership, that of experiencing, however momentary. The former is dependent upon the realm of space, the latter embedded in time, or spacetime, if you like.
For a more secular take, we turn to Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard, writing in the New York Times this May:
Seventy-six years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took to the inaugural dais and reminded a nation that its recent troubles “concern, thank God, only material things.” In the midst of the Depression, he urged Americans to remember that “happiness lies not in the mere possession of money” and to recognize “the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success.”
“The only thing we have to fear,” he claimed, “is fear itself.”
Mr. Gilbert goes on to argue that it is not the relative lack of prosperity that Americans are experiencing in the economic downturn, but the uncertainty, that underlies our anxiety:
Our national gloom is real enough, but it isn’t a matter of insufficient funds. It’s a matter of insufficient certainty. Americans have been perfectly happy with far less wealth than most of us have now, and we could quickly become those Americans again — if only we knew we had to. ii
He points out that in times of crisis, when we know the worst, we adapt and get on with it. It is the not knowing that creates the gnawing anxiety that undermines happiness. However, in Zen, not knowing is held in high regard. The term “the don’t-know mind” indicates a broad and penetrating insight into reality.
Material things may not be the source of happiness unless you consider air, water, food, warmth, shelter, to be material things. Being deprived of any of these things to a great degree for a long enough period of time becomes a source of extreme unhappiness and can lead to premature aging, sickness and death. So, first things first. From a practical perspective.
Paraphrasing from Psychology - The Search for Understanding, by Janet A. Simons, and others, Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist, set up a theory of human motivation positing a hierarchy of five levels of basic needs, a pyramid, based on the physiological (such as air to breathe, food water, et cetera). Safety and security needs come next, but are usually not top-of-mind except in times of crisis. Then needs for love, affection and belongingness, overcoming feelings of loneliness and alienation. When these three classes of needs are met, need for esteem, self-respect and respect for others become important, helping a person to feel self-confident and valuable; or if missing, to feel inferior, weak, helpless and worthless. Present company excepted, of course. Quoting further:
When all of the foregoing needs are satisfied, then and only then are the needs for self-actualization activated. Maslow describes self-actualization as a person's need to be and do that which the person was “born to do.” "A musician must make music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write." These needs make themselves felt in signs of restlessness. The person feels on edge, tense, lacking something, in short, restless. If a person is hungry, unsafe, not loved or accepted, or lacking self-esteem, it is very easy to know what the person is restless about. It is not always clear what a person wants when there is a need for self-actualization.iii
So here we have two ideas, one that uncertainty is at the heart of current anxiety, and that if we just accept lowered expectations we could adjust and be happy. The second idea is that our human needs form a hierarchy, basically of lower needs Maslow defined as deficiencies, and higher needs defined as actualiztions. The understanding of the hierarchy may help clarify one’s felt needs in a larger context, and help one to be happy.
No one would disagree that the physiological needs, which we share with all sentient beings, take priority over the so-called higher needs. Reasonable people might, however, argue about the relative importance of self-esteem and self-actualization, or even their reality. Zen Buddhism goes to the heart of this question by challenging the validity of this very self that needs esteem or actualization. Actualization, in Zen, is going beyond the imputed self.
William Wordsworth (and you have to wonder whether his name forced him into poetry) captured our lack of awe in the face of reality in The World Is Too Much With Us:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.
So, according to a naturalist poet, a great part of what is missing is simple appreciation of existence. Getting and spending is no substitute for experiencing. Let me close with some words from my teacher, Sensei:
While other religions teach meditation to be reflection upon some sacred scripts or lives of saints, Zen teaches you to keep your mind empty of thoughts you might become attached to. Zen leads you to possessing a mind that is bright and clear and sharply alert. It produces a type of “spiritual poverty.” When your spirit is “poor,” the richness of Zen can enter in. But a full cup cannot be filled; however, an empty cup can be filled to the brim.
There was an old man in Japan named “Baisou” because he was old and poor, and because he only sold tea to make a living. And yet, his heart was empty and unattached. He had died to human suffering. People who saw him sell his hot tea to passers-by often felt pity for him or they laughed because of his poverty. But this never bothered him. Instead, the old man wrote a poem that has become very well—known for its wisdom. This poem goes:
Under the pine tree, when I serve hot tea,
Guests, one by one, pay only a penny for it.
But, to them, the sun begins to shine in the Spring.
This old man’s poem contains much wisdom for the people who pitied or laughed at him. He warned the people not to think he suffered. He did what he could to live, by selling tea and clung to nothing else. He showed them how they must empty their minds and not think of poverty as suffering, or of having no riches as poverty.
In his poem, he told them though they pay only a small penny for his hot tea; nevertheless, they obtained the utmost happiness for it. The happiness they got from the tea was as if they could see the sun shining in the spring and it had not been expected. It was not sought for, nor was it clung to. The old man wished to tell them to rise above the search for happiness, and the pains of suffering. In his poverty, he had no suffering. Even though he lived without the luxuries of life, he had comfort and he knew no pain. The comfort came to him without being sought. It came with an empty, unattached and peaceful mind. He had learned to overcome attachments to joy and pain.
So this how Sensei looked back on the Japan of old, and an example of what he chose to point out as admirable behavior, of refined living. How will people of the future look back on us and these times? I am afraid that with the advantage of hindsight they will see the overwrought reaction to a reduction in our standard of living as like a child reacting to being denied ice cream for breakfast.
But more seriously, I am afraid they may look back on these times and compare the barbarity of our actions to those of the so-called Dark Ages, but on an immeasurably larger scale. We can no longer even accurately count the number of victims of genocide and international adventurism. Nor can we dependably assign responsibility for mass killings of innocents. The wars that are waged and the atrocities committed are rationalized based on fear of real or imagined threats, again inflamed by the media’s thirst for conflict and controversy.
How can we be happy with ordinariness if the ordinary includes this kind of insanity? What is needed is a return to basics on the personal level, a sense of how much is enough. In the context of this consumerist society, this will amount to the beginning of a revolution.
Such a revolution in worldview requires unremitting skepticism as far as regards the self, the self that feels these needs and desires. The self that conceives itself as victim, and of others as the cause of its suffering, then as enemies, then as lower than human, and so deserving of our wrath and righteous judgment. And Finally, deserving of death and eternity in hell.
This is the “injured innocence” of psychology. It is a basis for all manner of prejudice and mistreatment of others. But this innocence is false. Innocence in Buddhism is not innocent of responsibility. A newborn is responsible for its own birth in that it stems from desire, the very desire to exist. Buddhism’s discipline is directed to criticism of the self rather than against others, so better to say that “we” are responsible for our own birth – so we are responsible for our own death. And, by extension, we are responsible for each other. Final quote from Sensei:
Yet today, the world is beset by complicated economic and political problems. Nations are no longer able to live in isolation if they so choose. International economics has forced all countries throughout the world to have ties and sometimes conflicts with each other. The world unemployment and inflation problem is affecting the United States just as it is affecting England and Europe. America does have its strata of poor and the disinherited and maladjusted. Perhaps because it is such a vast, free nation, and its peoples are so mixed in a cultural way, traditions are not as strong as in Japan, and some people, in their poverty or disturbed minds, having been hurt in the current economic crisis, take to lives of violence and crime. It is unfortunate that this experience of crime is one of the things about America that has been uppermost in the Japanese news at the present time. These past two years, there have been many incidents of Japanese tourists being robbed or attacked in America’s tourist locations. Of course, the small percentage of criminals in these cities know where to find the tourists, and the incident of crime against Japanese tourists is unforgettable. But the United States police forces are cracking down on this criminal element and I hope you believe that basically, America is a safe country, with loving, open people. (1982)
So I hope this gave you pause to consider the true meaning of poverty, especially spiritual poverty, and to consider in many dimensions of life, just “How much is enough?”
Please join in reciting the Four Great Vows of Bodhisattvas; we will repeat three times, so it will be easy for you to follow:
Beings are numberless…I vow to free them
Delusions are inexhaustible…I vow to end them
Dharma gates are boundless…I vow to enter them
The buddha way is unsurpassable…I vow to realize it
Thank you for your patience and listening. Please join us for Zen meditation.