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
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!