Does this sound familiar?
“Something is wrong here. Maybe it’s how I look or how my home looks. Online or in the mall I will find the solution to fill the lack that is at the root of my unhappiness.”
Did our ancestors have this sense that a purchase would cure what ailed them? If they had the same easy access, incessant advertising, and credit cards waiting eagerly in their wallets, many probably would have acted in the same way many of us do.
Gautama Buddha and his generation 2500 years ago didn’t pile up Amazon packaging cardboard in their garage, but it’s easy to imagine a woman of his time believing that emerald green cloth the merchant laid out before her was a shade that would better suit her than the paler one she bought the month before. And wouldn’t that make all the difference in her life?
Who knows? Maybe it would. For a few minutes, hours or days. But then it would begin to look ordinary or even displeasing, so when the merchant visited again, and there was that glorious blue cloth with a golden thread running through, she thought surely wearing that would make all the difference in her life.
The cycles of aversion, craving, and delusion that the Buddha identified as the cause of suffering take different forms, but it is nothing new. It is what happens when we live our lives on autopilot. Caught up in aversion, we find fault with our surroundings and ourselves. Caught up in craving we chase after sensory solutions to our dissatisfaction. We live in a state of delusion, believing that purchases will make us happy. Our delight in them is fleeting and needs to be repeated again and again to keep the high going.
This all may seem pretty harmless, but it’s not. Not to ourselves personally, but that’s our choice, right? If we want to remain entangled in suffering, we are free to do so. But here’s the reality we need to face and we better face it now, this minute, like yesterday:
There are just too many of us wanting too many things that are made from scarce materials got through harmful processes, manufactured by people, often children, who are overworked, underpaid and forced to endure unsafe conditions.
Then these objects of our fleeting desire are shipped halfway round the world at great cost to the environment at every step of the way.
And that’s just the beginning, because we soon get tired of it and toss it out. Where does it go?
It is painful to think about how much suffering is involved in the production of, for example, our mobile phones.
But what are we to do? This world of commerce is not just an optional engagement for most of us. It’s how we live and how we stay connected. We live in these times. The Buddha lived in what to us seem simpler times. His choices did not impact the honey bees or the ozone layer the way ours do.
But what he learned and what he taught is applicable to us in our situation.
When the Buddha recognized the cycles of aversion, craving, and delusion as the source of suffering, he was able to self-correct. He’d grown up in a life of indulgence, renounced it all, and lived a life of extreme self-denial. His awakening freed him to live what he called The Middle Way, a life of simplicity.
Simplicity is not self-denial. It is coming home to simple pleasures, simple needs, and simple happiness. It is a gift we give ourselves that expands out and benefits all beings and the earth itself. Yes, that mobile phone is a lifeline, but does it have to be the latest model even when the one in your hand works perfectly well? Remember the motto of “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
Here is an excerpt from the Pali Canon that I love for its sensible and life-affirming simplicity. It is a conversation between Ananda (the monk closest to the Buddha) and King Udena. The royal ladies had just told the king they had given the monk 500 robes. He thought that was excessive and had a few questions for Ananda:
‘What will you do with those five hundred robes?’
I shall divide them among those of the monks whose robes are worn out.’
‘And what do you intend to do with the worn-out robes?’
‘Of those we shall make counterpanes.’
‘And what do you intend to do with the old counterpanes?’
‘Of those we shall make bolster cases.’
‘And what do you intend to do with the old bolster cases?’
‘Of those we shall make carpets.’
‘And what do you intend to do with the old carpets?’
‘Of those we shall make towels for washing feet.’
‘And what do you intend to do with the old towels?’
‘Of those we shall make dusters.’
‘And what do you intend to do with the old dusters?’
‘Those we shall tear in shreds, and beat with mud, and use them for making floors of clay.’
Then king Udena thought: ‘These monks make general use of everything in a conscientious way, and take nothing as one man’s peculiar property.’ And he presented another five hundred pieces of cloth to the venerable Ânanda.
–Excerpt from SBE 20: Eleventh Khandhaka ON THE COUNCIL OF RÂGAGAHA (I have omitted the repetition of “your reverence” and “great king” to make more accessible to modern readers. I personally do not feel any ‘poetry’ was lost in so doing, but feel free to read the original.)
Clearly, the idea of reduce-reuse-recycle was not invented in the 1970s! Historically every culture around the world had some form of it. In the U.S., for example, people took pride in reworking worn-out clothing, remaking them for smaller family members, redesigning them into a different style, and saving the pieces for a patchwork quilt. Most of our ancestors came to these ways of conserving naturally, as part of living a life of simplicity. They didn’t have the compelling reason we do today: the survival of our species and all life on this precious planet! The idea that we can just manufacture, buy, and throw away goods with abandon was a marketing ploy that began in the mid-twentieth century and continues today in ever greater ways, making products that hardly last past their skimpy warranties. When we see the mass of plastic growing in the Pacific, when we learn that our bodies are full of microscopic particles of it, we have to acknowledge that we as a species have gone very wrong.
Trying to buy happiness as we browse on Amazon, adding things to our cart that we don’t need, that just clutter up our homes and end up as just more piles of stuff to discard, we can see the cycles of despair we are caught in: Aversion, craving, and the delusion that we can buy our way out of our misery.
Maybe we tell ourselves that we are supporting the economy with these purchases, but if the system itself is broken and toxic to the planet and all its inhabitants, then let’s put our minds and our money to solving the problems, not fueling that toxicity.
The Buddha taught about the nature of impermanence and interconnection. If we don’t make sensible personal, national, and global changes, we will experience ever more drastic reminders of impermanence: extreme weather disasters resulting in deaths, homelessness and migration. This is not some other-place problem. There is no place to hide away from it. We need to meet it skillfully, each doing our part.
Perhaps during this time of COVID sheltering-in-place, you noticed how the big pause of frenzied human activity gave the sky a chance to clear. And maybe you noticed how your mind too had a chance to clear, and to discover some simple joys in being alive in this moment. In class this week, one student mentioned finding joy in nature in her own neighborhood: simple sensory pleasures she had missed by always being focused on planning her next big adventure. Several students mentioned finding joy in having more time alone with a loved one, deepening their relationship. Most discovered they appreciated having unplanned free time, a calendar that was empty, a life with room to breathe. To think. To read. To be spontaneous. To play. To live in a simple way.
If we remember the nature of interconnection, we understand that what we do matters. And when we’re about to click to add something to the cart, let’s check in with our wisest intention. And remember the Shaker* song:
‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free,
‘tis a gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’twill be in the valley of love and delight.
*If you think it odd to include an extinct American religious song in a Buddhist dharma post, check out this article.