Message 88, “Finding Spiritual Truths from World Religions: Buddhist Contentment”, 3-11-12
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Perhaps many of you remember the Academy Award winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire” of 2008. While the film is an uplifting rags to riches story of a young man who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, India, it also depicted one particularly horrifying side story. A young orphan boy is blinded by a gang of criminals so that he can earn money for them by begging. Sadly, the incidence of forced maiming of children in India and other nations around the world is more commonplace than we want to believe.
Recently, a man traveling through India personally witnessed a young mother give her three year old daughter a strong mix of milk and alcohol. Once the child fell into a drunken sleep, the mother grabbed a meat cleaver, laid her daughter’s arm on a chopping block and, with one swing, cut the girl’s hand off. The screams of the girl were piercing. The mother tearfully and helplessly explained she had to do this. It was the only way she could find to make money to feed her daughter. The girl could now earn enough money through begging to avoid starvation.
This haunted and shaken man immediately went out to the nearest bakery and purchased all the loaves of bread that he could – nearly four hundred at approximately 25 cents apiece. He drove a truck load of the loaves to a street corner and began handing them out to street kids. Many loaves fell to the ground and were pounded into the dirt. Even so, hungry and desperate children created a near riot in the clamor for free bread.
What desperation, he thought, could drive a mother to maim her own child? What kind of hunger causes children to fight and scramble for pieces of dirty bread? What do these stories say about the abundance of wealth and luxury in other parts of the world?
Gandhi’s words that the earth provides enough resources for every person’s needs but not for every person’s greed resonated with this man. He has since learned to put his material desires into perspective – and to live according to a simpler ethic. Today he works for a small community newspaper, supporting his family of four on about two thousand dollars a month. He reports that his family has enough to eat, sufficient shelter and, fortunately, adequate health care. He has the time to read and play with his children, cook with his wife and take their version of vacations by planning picnics at a nearby state park. In comparison to the horrors he witnessed in India, he says he is rich in things and in happiness.
It is both difficult and inspiring to hear this man’s story. What gives us happiness? What brings us contentment? Why do so many of us believe that the key to such feelings is through more money, more things and perfect relationships? With each succeeding level of income, we tell ourselves we need more in order to really be happy. With each new gadget, trinket or article of clothing we buy, we stimulate a brief trigger of happiness only to lose interest in the item and want something else. We often complain about our boring lives or find fault in those we love or those who are friends – choosing to see the few flaws instead of the beautiful and good. We often desire in all areas of life bigger, better, perfect, more. For most of us, in the midst of great plenty – friends, money, food, family, love, sex and success, we are still starving much like that poor and desperate young mother in Bangladesh. We tell ourselves we are happy and content and yet, are we really? Why do our lives seem to be an endless cycle of desire and discontent with things, events, money and people? We are addicts in a constant search for a happiness fix – while the source of real and lasting contentment is so near and yet so very far.
According to Buddhist beliefs, our cravings and desires make us unhappy. They are the source – the ultimate root – of our suffering and only through letting go and not craving in the first place will we find inner peace and contentment. This singular aspect of Buddhist spirituality is one I find particularly appealing – and one that resonates in many western and developed cultures – places where materialism has become almost a religion. The endless desire for external sources of happiness can leave us unfulfilled, empty and jealous of what we don’t have but believe we need. In our culture we have bought into what the late Duchess of Windsor infamously said, “You can never be too rich or too thin.”
Discontent can take many forms. It usually means not being satisfied with the present things, experiences or people in our lives. One’s partner may not do things the way we would like. There are tiny flaws in him or her we wish to change. Our homes may not be big enough or beautiful enough. Our jobs may have become a bit of a chore – boring, difficult or lacking excitement. Our bodies have aged and we are no longer a fit and trim 20 year old. The ways we find pleasure – reading, listening to music, going to movies, visiting with friends, engaging in sex, travelling – may also seem no longer exciting. And so we are discontented. We yearn for more or better or different. We implicitly tell ourselves that our lives could be better because things are not good enough or sufficient enough.
But how do we find and then practice genuine spiritual contentment? How do we inhabit that sense of being truly content – at rest and at peace with the present circumstances of our life, health, family, friends, homes, living standards and entertainment? Indeed, Buddhists say that it is not enough just to deny ourselves the things we want in an attempt to live simply. We must empty our minds of most desires so that we neither crave nor feel we are being denied. Living a contented life is not by force of mental will – a practice where one sacrifices for one’s own good. Contentment is a spiritual way of life, a way of being that is fully integrated into one’s thoughts and actions. To be genuinely content is to acquire a spiritual mystery that is elusive and difficult to achieve. As many Buddhists say, one lives out the ethic that the basics of life are “good enough”, “well enough” and “just this much.”
In that regard, Buddhists have unfairly been criticized for allegedly teaching the poor, marginalized and sick that they must accept their present station in life. This is not the case. Contentment comes from having one’s basic needs met and it is a strong part of Buddhist practice to have compassion for those who lack the basics. It is the negative mindset of craving that Buddhists say perpetuates suffering and this is true for all people – rich and poor. Those who find peace, find wealth. They are not depressed, weary or jealous. And that state of being, say Buddhists, leads to the state of being that is genuinely content. Those who are at peace, help others. Helping others encourages others to return the help. Those who are not depressed practice attitudes like hard work and compassion which further insures that one’s basic needs will be met.
Buddhists therefore do not tell anyone to simply be content in difficult situations. Rather, the teaching is to look for the source of unhappiness. Ultimately, the source of discontent is regretting an action or event in the past that caused a present difficulty or alleged shortage. One then desires a future where the supposed difficulty is wiped away. Instead, Buddhists believe that if one is at peace in the present moment, a solution to any problem is usually found. This belief echoes something obvious that all of us know but fail to remember. We cannot change the past. We cannot determine the future. The ONLY period in life we can directly affect is the present. And in the present, in the right now, we can be content if we so choose.
You might at this very moment begrudge the fact that you are here and listening to me. There might be a thousand other things you could be doing that you believe would be more enjoyable. But the fact is, you are here and you cannot change whatever happened that brought you here. So, by choosing to make the best of the moment – to be thankful for the person next to you, for the good coffee you have had, for the small nugget of wisdom you might obtain, for the simple pleasure of sitting, resting and contemplating, you can be content and at peace. And that will lead, if added to other moments of contentment, to a mind and soul that is always at peace. As the Buddha once said, “The mind is everything. What you think, you become.”
If we are to find contentment, implicit in that, according to Buddhists, is being mindful of how one thinks each and every moment of life. We must be aware of our cravings and then let go of them. To be aware that we are craving something, we must ask why we want a particular thing. Do we really need what we want or is it simply a part of our negative nature to always want something newer and supposedly better? If we truly examine our thoughts, we realize that the root cause of wanting something new or different is not being content with what we already have. As the Dalai Lama once said, “Not getting what we want is often a wonderful stroke of luck.”
Can we – in any moment of desire or craving – say to ourselves that what we have in that moment is good enough? If so, we will be content. We will be happy with the journey of our lives – each contented second turning into hours which turn into days which turn into years which build a contented life. One will have found contentment in their very essence and being.
Buddhists do not aspire to specific goals of achievement or acquisition. Goals are a form of craving. Rather, Buddhists appreciate moment by moment living. The journey is what brings happiness. Not the end. Ironically, if we let go of desiring a specific goal or thing, we usually end up attaining it anyway.
Such a truth, however, does not mean we are passive in life – sitting in some meditative lotus position and waiting for blessings to fall into our laps. We live, work, love and meet daily challenges as a means to acquire only what we need to live in simplicity – food to nourish our bodies, shelter to protect us from the elements, clothing to warm us and provide social decency, health care to address illness. When good fortune gives us more than we need, we should give generously to those who live in true poverty – persons who lack the basics.
When we seek beyond what we really need, we make ourselves unhappy. We yearn for what we cannot afford, cannot have or do not need. If we do satisfy a craving, we end up worrying about maintaining and protecting it. As we all know, bigger and better things create bigger worries. How can I keep a big house clean? How will I protect that new I-Phone I just bought? How will I not get sick and be safe on my vacation? How will I adjust to a partner who changes, or to a different friend? With simple things, events and desires in our lives, we often eliminate our worries.
Achieving real contentment is, as I have said, a spiritual process over a lifetime. It is not a one-time decision. We live it out moment by moment. We live it out by mindfully examining why we desire a new gadget, new experience or changed partner and then choosing to be truly happy with what we already have. We mindfully choose to be grateful. We love and accept people in our lives as they are – not as we wish them to be. We appreciate their goodness and the beauty they give. We practice regular appreciation for all whom we encounter – offering a smile, a hug, a word of thanks – to the waitress, the clerk, the stranger. We replace the complex with simplicity: a trip to the park, a nourishing meal at home prepared with a partner, time with a friend, a good book, meditation. We practice giving and sharing instead of desiring and receiving. Compassion to all. Service to others. Empathy. Nurture. Caring. By remembering the needs of others we forget our own cravings. The more we focus on the needs of others, the more we find our own sense of contentment.
In this series on finding spiritual truths from world religions, I believe contentment is near the top of any such list. As a way of life, it is not easy to practice. Being at peace – truly living in contentment – requires continuous heart and mind surgery. To say that being content is difficult does not mean it is not worth our effort. Our sufferings can often be so painful and yet we know how they might end and we each have the ability to cure them. I have hurt at the pain of loneliness, the pain of broken relationships, the pain of losing friends, the pain of watching my parents age, the pain of life change and work challenges. But those hurts are all products of my thinking. I am on a personal quest to be at more peace in my life and thus find real happiness. I still have a long, long way to go. That journey begins inside of me and how I think and act towards myself and others. Ultimately, I want to be content – in the quiet and good place of who and where I am in each moment of my life.
We are all loving souls who are richly blessed. We have so very much. May we be grateful. May we live with sufficiency. May we offer love. May we practice compassion. May we serve others. May we be at peace………………..I wish that for all of us in our search for lasting joy.