Sunday, April 25, 2010

earthly goods

One of the things that can wow others when assessing monks, nuns and others seriously involved in spiritual exercises is their apparent willingness to forsake their earthly goods.

In Buddhism, for example, you can hear the expression, "with one robe and one bowl" used to describe the earthly possessions with which monks ply daily trade.

And for those sniffing the edges of spiritual endeavor, there can be a sense that accumulating and/or flaunting material goods is no way to go about a happy life. There can even be a certain virtue-prone scorn heaped on those whose wealth exceeds any known need: "Not having is good; having is bad" ... that sort of thing.

What brought this to mind was -- as it seemed to me -- the impossibility of imparting to anyone else the fact that it is not the possessions that need revising (anyone who doubts this should try running away to a monastery), it is the mind that relies on and perhaps adores those possessions.

For example: When we assess the properties of money, what is its central requirement, the cornerstone from which all other assessments flow? I would say that the cornerstone is simply belief: We believe that a twenty-dollar bill is worth so-and-so-many groceries. And since others share that belief, we can put supermarket food on the dinner table.

But suppose you were in the middle of the Sahara desert and ran into a shambling tribe of Bedouins from whom you wished to purchase some water or a sheltering tent? Would the $20 bill have much meaning? If the nomads agreed with your belief system, perhaps it would. But if what they say in your hand was a greenish piece of paper ... well, you'd be screwed.

And the business of belief imbues everything around us. It is the sine qua non of whatever "value" we care to conjure. Without our belief or the belief of others, earthly goods seem to have no other option than to somehow evaporate.

Love affairs, business matters, a mansion on the hill, a Big Mac in times of perhaps desperate hunger, cars in the driveway, grand philosophies and even grander religions ... all such acquisitions, all such earthly goods relate solely to mind.

It is nothing fancy or erudite or virtuous ... it's just the way things age. There are many churches and other establishments that lead successful lives according to these beliefs.

And it's not a bad starting point. It can inspire investigation when pursuing a peaceful life.

But that investigation needs to go forward -- to step beyond the earthly-goods of belief. Belief may console in the same way a Ferrari or house on the hill may console, but is consolation ever really the consolation anyone seeks? Is agreement with others really any cornerstone for a happy life?

Perhaps the first step in investigating the earthly goods of belief is to ask, whose beliefs are these? It's an easy question to state, but it is not so easy to pursue. If it is I who hold the belief in $20 bills or religious persuasions, then it is I who am responsible. Not God, not Donald Trump, not Mahatma Ghandi ... it is I. And if these earthly goods do not console with the indubitable consolation I seek, what does? Will another one-night stand or another religion do the trick? Maybe so ... lord knows most of us have gone that route before ... seeking out something better, something more believable, something more delightful.

Earthly goods depend on my mind, so if there is some hope of relinquishing that which does not bring surcease, well ... I'd better make some effort to revise or reform that mind.

But then comes another question -- what the hell is this mind that believes in the earthly goods I have surrounded myself with ... the $20 bills, the religious persuasions, the cheering crowds, the sharing-is-caring advisories?

All of this and a lot more like it requires effort and patience and courage. It accounts, I would guess, for why it is impossible to transmit to the earthly-goods mind the mind that is unwilling to settle for earthly goods, the mind that is determined to settle matters.

You can't make it sound good or sexy or even very satisfying ... all that hard work with no very concrete result to be described ... and therefore believed. All you can do is make suggestions and rely on the suffering and uncertainty of others to inspire some effort.

Yes, I know, there are wonderful and inspiring tales to tell and I have been as guilty as the next person of telling them. But what transmission is that? Something that builds a fire under your ass still requires you to make the moves that will alleviate a hot ass.

I always liked Zen Buddhism as an approach to all this -- something to believe in and then make the effort that will clarify that belief. Thought, word and deed -- Zen, that minuscule sliver in the spiritual firmament, encourages some understanding that such things are not separate any more than they are conjoined. But there is no capacity to transmit the usefulness or even truth of experience ... there's just the willingness to expend the effort, to summon the determination, to get your own ass out of the fire.

And as I read somewhere -- or perhaps wrote, I can't remember -- "Where I am going, you cannot go. Where you are going I cannot go. But we can go together."

This is more than earthly-goods belief. There is no virtue in it. The sun comes up in the East and not only is it enough, it is also enough to make anyone smile.

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