I got a comment on one of my posts asking the following:
Given the Buddhist premise that human suffering is caused by desire, and that we should strive to overcome desire, how can the individual deal with this concept in a capitalist society, and try to live in a non-materialistic way? Do we have to be content with little actions and gestures? Is that enough?
This comment inspired me, not just to comment, but to write an entire musing…
I have struggled with this myself, along the path, but this is where I am am with it at the moment. This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that, of course, this is NOT an official Buddhist answer (which you will clearly see), but one Buddhist’s feeling on the matter in one point of time.
First, it was interesting for me to hear that a non-Buddhist perception is that of the “premise” that human suffering is caused by desire. Not that this is incorrect, but desire is not THE premise of human desire, which may or may not have been implied in the comment. From what I have learned, I would clarify as to say that desire is actually just one of the many thoughts that contribute to our ignorance, and thus, suffering. Ignorance is defined as the misunderstanding that we, as individuals, create a distinction between ourselves and others. In short, that there is an “I’, or “The Ego”. This creates Desire and jealousy (I want what they have), hatred (they are not like me, or are against me), pride (I am better than them), etc. etc. etc. Really, I could go on and on here. It’s just that in our capitalistic / materialistic society, desire can, for some, seem like a bigger obstacle than others. I, for example, really enjoy clothes / fashion. I struggled with this at one time because I felt that this, at its least, was superficial, and at its worst, harmful to others (I don’t know or look into how or where most of my clothes are made). Also, many of the people I have encountered in the Buddhist community are very well off. They live in big homes and have the best of the best in everything that they have. I was slightly uncomfortable with the idea of material wealth mixing with Buddhism. Like an avocado and grapefruit cocktail – they just did not seem to go together. I, too, felt that a true Buddhist had to live life with minimal THINGS in their life. Interestingly, however, there was the Buddha himself. He was a prince with every earthly comfort available at the time. He set out to find true happiness and in this process, renounced all of these comforts. He learned that renouncing material comforts / living in extreme hardship was also not the answer….and eventually just sat under the infamous Bodhi tree, eventually gaining enlightenment (hugely abridged version of his life).
What has been explained to me, and which makes the most intuitive sense to me, is that it’s not having material things, or even enjoying them, that is the problem. It is the ATTACHMENT to material things that may set us off course. Attachment is a HUGE premise in our daily suffering. We, as humans, attach to people (I can’t live without you), attach to the way things are (what do you mean, my position no longer exists?), attach to things we have (I LOVE my house. IT makes me happy)… It’s absolutely FINE to have material things… even lots of them, if you have the good fortune to have them, as long as you don’t ATTACH to them or attach your happiness / well being to them. For someone who has great attachment to things, renunciation may be a good exercise for them, but there is no premise to say that Buddhists can not have things, or nice things. It is true, however, that contentment is something to practice and strive for. So if an intense desire for things gets in the way of this, then it’s something to look at. But if the root of it is not attaching to an idea that something will make us happier (and I think there is a distinction between getting some pleasure out of something and thinking it makes us happier), then OK! And sure, there are lots of stipulations for monks or nuns where they renounce all sorts of things that us lay practitioners do not…..speaking of desire. Ah-hem. But I digress.
Here’s something tricky about most spiritual paths that I am coming around to realizing. Everyone’s path is totally individual, so ‘desire’ looks totally different for every person. For some, a constant wanting of material goods, living in this material society, would be a huge obstacle for them in finding their true selves. Because they are attached to material things and the desire makes them feel like material things will make them happier. Another person, maybe an artist, who is content to live a life without many material THINGS may have an intense desire for recognition. Even the Dalai Lama has an intense desire – to free all sentient beings from suffering. So, desire comes in many flavors. There are some Buddhist scholars who believe that desire can not be done away with – that it is a human trait. I can not source this example, but I do remember one quote/story/ saying that, as humans, if we took everything away but a cot and a chair (like a monk may have), we become attached to our chair. Hmmmmmmmmmm
Another way I think about it is this – if Buddha said to ‘eliminate desire’, what I would take from that is that in a completely enlightened state, desire does not exist. I can certainly believe that. But even then, a desire for material things – from what I know, enlightened beings still desire for other beings to find true happiness. But, in the world of being human, we live in a continuum of many of these idealistic states. On one end is ultimate enlightenment where we don’t have to give up desire because desire no longer exists. On the other end is, let’s use addiction. Drugs or alcohol, sex, even shopping. Any addiction, the strongest form of desire/attachment, that ultimately causes huge amounts of suffering to the addict themselves plus countless individuals who are affected by that person’s addiction – the addicted individual, family, friends, someone a drug addict robs in order to obtain money, etc. Addiction is an extreme case of desire where having the object/substance of choice does not satisfy, but for a moment, and then desire sets in again. Most of us do not live in either one of these extremes, but somewhere on this continuum.
If all paths are individual, then how do we assess what we need to work on? An honest look inward, or an honest look outward at our reactions is all we need. Sometimes we may need help in seeing it – this is where a guru, teacher, or even your BFF will help. Here is an example – going back to my love of clothes. I don’t think that clothes MAKE me happy. I enjoy having new / nice clothes, but in general, would not consider myself dependent upon clothes or anywhere near addicted to shopping, etc. Then there was my Banana Republic ‘zipper jacket’. It was black number with a tiny dashed pin stripe and I called it the zipper jacket because it had lots of zippers on the pockets, which were plentiful and they stood out and defined the look of the jacket. It fit great, I could wear it with anything, and it even had enough thickness that I could wear it for some warmth in cooler weather, but it was not so warm that I couldn’t wear it casually. I loved this jacket. And if you think that is a crazy statement, then you have never owned a jacket like this. But I would not have called myself “attached” to the jacket. Like any good Buddhist, I thought that if one day it disappeared, I would shrug it off. And then it actually disappeared. Literally, just disappeard. I had it in a bag while traveling in Chicago. We had gone out to a bar and then a restaurant, but I had not taken the jacket out. Later that night I went to put it on, and it was gone. I have no idea what happened to it. I was very upset. I retraced my footsteps of the prior day, calling every possible place that I might have left it. I called multiple times. I stopped by. And then I had to accept that it was gone. AND I had to accept that I was attached to this very material thing – a jacket! It wasn’t even sentimental, like being attached to a wedding ring (ooh – that’s a good one, I am probably attached to my wedding ring!). And then I let myself be human, and I MOURNED the loss of the jacket. It took me a couple days, maybe more, but then I was over it. I still have fond memories of the jacket and if I found one like it, I would buy it again. But instead of beating myself up over my attachment, I could see that it was a great EXERCISE in attachment. And that’s what it is to be on the path – practice, practice, practice.
“Living in a non-materialistic way…” (from the comment), well, we can. Maybe we should. It’s up to the individual and what makes sense on their path. If it means to not suffer with constant wanting and not placing our happiness and well-being in the hands of these material things, then yes. If we deprive ourselves of things that bring us pleasure and try to live in hardship, and thus cause us more suffering, then I wouldn’t be a proponent of this.
One final word in responding to the post – Jean also asked, “Do we have to be content with little actions and gestures? Is that enough?” To this, I would say, do we HAVE to be content? Like, these are not enough? Well, again, that depends on the individual. But small gestures can have huge impacts, so we CAN be content with little actions and gestures. Or we can go out and do something big. Little actions and gestures coming from a person in a good place with the right intentions are far better than grand gestures done for the wrong reasons. And I think the quote that was used in a prior post is quite relevant here, and I’ll sign off on this note:
You may never know what results come from your action.
But if you do nothing, there will be no results.