One morning many years ago I came across a Zen saying in a book (I believe it was by Alan Watts) that went something like this: “As soon as you posses something, you lose it.” It stayed in my mind all day. I worked in the reservations department of a hotel at the time, and although we used computers, there was still much we had to write out by hand. I had purchased a rather expensive Mont Blanc pen that produced nice, thick lines just the way I like, and I really coveted this pen. I misplaced the pen later the very same day and never saw it again.
Of course, this saying was not meant to be taken literally, and losing the pen was just an unfortunate coincidence. The saying is telling us that possession is an artificial concept, something that exists only as a thought construction, and one cannot truly posses anything.
Non-attachment is one of the core teachings of Buddhism: not clinging to material possessions, not seizing on the idea of “me” or “mine.” The Buddha taught that attachment is a dead-end and a principle cause of suffering. The bhikkhus (“sharesmen”), the Buddha’s ascetic followers, kept only the minimal material requisites, eight in total: three robes, a begging bowl, a water-strainer, a razor, needle and thread, and medicine. At the same time, the Buddha did not disparage his lay followers for owning things, but he did advise them not to form unwholesome attachments to what they held.
Possession in the ultimate sense implies domination and control, and since everything is subject to change, it is not possible to exert control over anything indefinitely. Ownership is always a temporary condition. Furthermore, while we may have possessions that provide us with comfort, care, aesthetic beauty and so on, if our happiness is based upon ownership of these things, what happens should we literally lose them as I did the pen? Do we lose our happiness as well? If so, that sort of happiness has a weak foundation.
Wherever conflicts arise amongst living beings, the sense of possession is the root cause.”
One has no need to guard what is given, but what is in one’s house must always be guarded. What is given is for the extinguishing of desire, while what is at home increases desire. What is given does not rouse greed or fear, not so for what is guarded. One assists the path of awakening, the other the path of corruption. One is lasting, the other transient.”
Giving is the wisdom of the bodhisattva.”