Possession

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.”

Anantamukha-nirharadharani

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.”

Ugradatta-pariprccha

Giving is the wisdom of the bodhisattva.”

Ratnamegha Sutra

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3 thoughts on “Possession

  1. Good question. “What is in one’s house” refers to our possessions, the things we keep, our “stuff” that must be guarded lest someone steal it from us or we misplace it. There are other things that we regard as our possessions as well. Time for instance, which we often feel we must guard so that no one wastes our “precious time.” What we give, whether it be material things, compassion, time or whatever, doesn’t need to be guarded because we have relinquished possession of it. It’s no longer ours to control or protect, and it really wasn’t “ours” in any permanent sense to begin with. Whenever we give, especially when we give out of a pure sense of selflessness, it helps cool the fire of desire that is the root of attachment, whether it was our intention to do that or not. In most cases, keeping stuff “in our home” does not help cool the fire but only fans the flames, for often we not only have to protect our stuff, but sometimes, as George Carlin noted, “you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore.” And so it goes, on and on.

    We need to take this figuratively, of course. It doesn’t mean that it is bad to have things. A bhikkhu can cling to his begging bowl just as easily as a layman can cling to the expensive car parked in his garage. But we should understand that our possession are not really ours, and that they don’t define us and cannot determine our ultimate happiness. That’s why when we give, and when we receive, it has more meaning than when we “go out and get…more stuff!”

  2. Great post, David!

    I used to consider myself a “minimalist,” and I have VERY few possessions now, although I don’t follow minimalist philosophy for its own sake anymore.

    At the height of my identifying with “minimalism,” I wrote a blog post, saying that my sailboat was my soul. Two years after I wrote that, I eagerly parted with that very boat, to start a new life across the country. It wasn’t the boat I loved–it was freedom, community, sailing, and the sea in general.

    We often confuse our attachment to possessions with what we truly value.

    1. Thanks, Bethany. You make a good point. Our possessions are really just a means to an end. Living in this consumer society, it’s a wonder we are not more confused than we are.

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