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I recently came across an interview on the BBC website in which Tibetan-Buddhist nun Lama Zangmo, living in London, speaks about the virtues of having no material possessions:
"When you go deeply on a spiritual path," she says, "your values change. You don't focus your whole life on having a job so you can make money to pay for all your material possessions, that's not your focus in life."
Listen to the entire conversation here. Beyond Lama Zangmo being quite sweet and likable, the interview touched on some very important issues. As yet another year of global recession continues, I find myself wondering how Buddhists around the world are doing. My hope is that the recession has presented an opportunity to practice—to work with desire and attachment, to live with intention, and to contemplate the difference between want and need. But I know this view may be idealistic; I'd be hard-pressed to tell someone who just lost their job, who just lost their home to foreclosure, or who is living under the pressures of massive debt (or even of feeding themselves and their families) that their situation is fortuitous. I'm one of the many who are fortunate enough to have a choice, and for me it is indeed an opportunity to practice.
Aside from being lucky enough to have work, I also have the tremendous privilege of not owning much. I've lived a pretty nomadic life and while I have far more possessions than a monastic like Lama Zangmo, compared with the average American I own very little. Some clothes, a stack of books, a few shrine objects, some art prints, and a few gadgets (laptop, camera, ipod, and a speaker)—that's it. I used to pride myself on being able to fit everything I own into the trunk of my car, but then I sold the car. Whenever I have a home other basic stuff like furniture, culinary items, and other miscellaneous debris tend to accumulate, but then when I move on I give them to the next tenant or whoever else has use for them. My computer is the most valuable object I own. Last summer, before coming to Tricycle, I was mugged by a pack of wild teenagers and they got my backpack with my computer in it. If my net worth had been graphed like a stock that day, the ticker would have displayed a 90% drop in value. Yet worse than losing a valuable machine was the fact my computer had six years' worth of photographs, about 100 gigs of music, and pretty much everything I had ever written on it. The pictures and writings were irreplaceable. Nevertheless, as I began working with the experience in my practice I realized that if I can't let go of some pictures, music, and writings, then how can I possibly prepare for death?! Contemplating this I saw something much more important than anything I'd ever seen on my computer screen. (As for the computer itself, it only took about a month of hard work and thrifty living to replace it.)
When looking back at all this, I feel tremendously grateful to be a Buddhist, and to have been instructed on the dangers of attachment, material and otherwise. I have never invested in stock or property, but instead, in study and practice. For happiness, joy, comfort, and entertainment I look to loved ones and friends—or just the interesting and odd happenings of my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and not to ownership, consumption, or accumulation. I've heard that a great lama once said that money is essentially concentrated energy, somewhat similar to electricity. In the same way that electricity can both illuminate or electrocute, money is only as good or bad as its use. And just as we need food to sustain us, we also need money to thrive in the world. Whether we take the ascetic or the abundant approach (I prefer the Middle Way), I think it is important for us as Buddhists to continually keep the dharma in mind. So in response to this post's title, my answer is simple: Invest in study and practice. For further reading, here are some previous Tricycle pieces on Buddhism and money:
Jambhala, Buddhist Wealth Deity (HAR 970) Collection of the Rubin Museum of Art