A Practical Peacemaker Ponders . . .

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Covet Nothing


A story is told about 14th century Zen master Bassui speaking to a dying disciple.  After urging him to continue in his practice, Bassui closes by saying, “Covet nothing.  Your end, which is endless, is as a snowflake dissolving in the pure air.”

Advice to the dying is usually sound advice for the living, so I’ve been thinking about this. To covet, warned against in the Judeo-Christian Tenth Commandment, is to desire the property of another person.  Its close cousin is greed, the desire for more material goods than we need.  In our time, living on an overpopulated planet, the distinction between covetousness and greed is blurring, because when some people want more than they need, they are in fact desiring the property of others.  That is, when we take more than we need, we are appropriating the resources necessary for the very survival of others—and even for the planet itself.  In this inequity, the stage is set for environmental degradation, scarcity, crime, terrorism and war.

Are you making New Year’s resolutions this year?  They often take the form of what we want to achieve or acquire; we want to add some desired quality or possession.  Resolutions may be very helpful in keeping us committed to changes that can increase our health, happiness and expertise.  What if, in addition to adding things, we also resolve to cut back on something?  What if we choose one area of life where we habitually take more than we need—perhaps food, car trips, clothes, leisure goods—and determine to take less?

Our society, in the name of economic growth and through seductive advertising, gives powerful support for covetousness and greed.  As practical peacemakers, however, we need to be alert when we feel a desire for things we don’t need.  For me this comes up especially at thrift stores and yard sales, where items are low-priced, secondhand, and being sold to support a charity.  It’s extremely hard to resist, yet unneeded items clutter our homes and our lives, and keep greed alive.  Once basic needs are met, additional goods do not really increase our happiness significantly.  Let’s also remember in this New Year that the flip side of greed is despair—the despair of those who are jobless, homeless, or hungry; and the despair many of us feel at our planet’s being despoiled to produce greed-driven goods.

How much do we want peace and environmental restoration?  Can we stop short of consuming more food, fuel, household goods, and toys than we need?  I have certainly not mastered this yet, but I’m pledging to work on it in 2009, and invite you to join me.  As we walk the path toward coveting nothing, we will gradually become—in our living as well as our eventual dying--as light and free of encumbrance as Bassui’s snowflake.

A happy, peaceful New Year to you!

--Kate Lawrence