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Spirituality

On Buddha and burglary

The Christmas shopping season allows newswriter Jennifer Bagwell to meditate upon the glaring differences between Western materialism and the Buddhist principle of nonattachment.

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Published 12/8/1999

"'To give is nonattachment,' that is, just not to attach to anything is to give."—Shunryu Suzuki

Nowhere, it seems, is the difference between Western materialism and the Buddhist principle of nonattachment more pronounced than during the Christmas shopping season.

Buddhist writings contain many illustrations of the principle of nonattachment, which is related to the idea of samsara, or suffering. In Buddhism, there is the belief that our desires are at the root of all our suffering. The only way to free ourselves from this samsara is to stop being led around by our desires. If we can pull back from our desires and recognize them simply for what they are, we can reduce the suffering that comes from not always having those desires met.

Think about it. Have you ever lost something (or someone) you thought was very important and noticed that underneath the feelings of loss you were somehow relieved?

"Imagine that you come home one day after work to find your door smashed open, hanging on its hinges," Sogyal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. "You have been robbed. You go inside and find that everything you own has vanished. For a moment you are paralyzed with shock, and in despair you frantically go through the mental process of trying to recreate what is gone. It hits you: You've lost everything. Your restless, agitated mind is then stunned, and thoughts subside. And there's a sudden, deep stillness, almost an experience of bliss. No more struggle, no more effort, because both are hopeless. Now you just have to give up; you have no choice."

Such an event, he suggests, presents an opportunity to escape from suffering. All you have to do is recognize it. Congratulations. You've suddenly got nothing to lose. What a relief!

If nothing else, it's the kind of philosophy that tempts you to shorten your Christmas list.

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