A lit­tle while ago, I was a vol­un­teer shop­per for Code 3/​Clothe the Kids (third year for me). This is a local char­ity that exists because of the com­bined efforts of the KPD, the KFD, the Kiwanis, and oth­ers. Disadvantaged kids are taken shop­ping for clothes by vol­un­teer adults, who have a pre­de­ter­mined bud­get. The pur­pose is to ensure that the kids have some decent out­fits with­out being sub­ject to undue parental influence.

That lat­ter require­ment became clear in years past; orig­i­nally, some par­ents would take the kids’ clothes, get a refund, and turn around and spend the money on cig­a­rettes and booze (true story). The sys­tem is con­sid­er­ably less exploitable now, but attempts to work around the lim­its still get made, every year.

This year, “my” kid was a boy of about eight. It started off well; he seemed ami­able and not par­tic­u­larly shy, and picked out some shirts, undies, shoes, and other neces­si­ties. Then came the moment all the kids love: The troll down the toy aisle.

The rules are fairly clear. The major­ity of the bud­get is to be spent on cloth­ing, with only ten to fif­teen dol­lars or so spent on the gew­gaws. “My” kid, who seemed at first to have such a good oper­a­tional grasp of the pro­ce­dure, quickly lost track of what we were doing.

He wanted a Nerf dart gun, one of the high-​​end ones that ran about $40. Well, no, too expen­sive. All right then, how about this MP3 player? $30. No, sorry, still over the bud­get. Okay, well, here’s a radio-​​controlled Humvee. $40, and we’re back up to way over the line.

Back to the elec­tron­ics, where he con­fided that his dad had asked that he pick up a CD boom­box for his and his sister’s bed­room. In addi­tion to the cost — yes, again over the allowance — it became clear that he was now oper­at­ing under a parent’s instruc­tion, which is a no-​​no for the shop­ping day.

I worked with him a lit­tle about bud­gets, explain­ing that the toy allowance was only so large. He could have one thing that was just that large, or two smaller things that, added together, were that large; or three lit­tler things that added up, and so on. Explained in those terms, he seemed to get what I was say­ing, and made a counter-​​offer: If we put back some of the clothes, can we get the radio or the Humvee then?

Clever lad. He lacked fore­sight, but he under­stood the idea of bargaining.

In the end I was able to con­vince him that his wheedling wouldn’t get him any­where. After sev­eral aim­less turns around the toy aisle he came to rest before a tall, wide shelf fes­tooned with toys that fit his bud­get; and there he stopped dead.

He was faced with a bewil­der­ing array of brightly-​​colored good­ies, all clam­or­ing for his atten­tion; yet none of them were actu­ally the things he wanted. He was numbed by the wealth of choices lav­ished before him, and dis­sat­is­fied with all. It caused a kind of paral­y­sis. He did even­tu­ally set­tle on some­thing, and it seemed to sat­isfy him in the end.

Meanwhile, my fiancée was shop­ping with his older sis­ter (we didn’t know that at the time). The girl was slightly bet­ter behaved, to the point of get­ting a fairly good wardrobe; but their jour­ney began with her dec­la­ra­tion that Dad wanted her to get a DVD player for her and her brother’s bed­room.1

That, of course, didn’t hap­pen; and as my fiancée and I waited for the kids’ mother to come and col­lect them, we learned that she couldn’t be there imme­di­ately because she was at Radio Shack, get­ting a cel­lu­lar phone for their older brother while her kids were buy­ing clothes on char­ity.

This is not typ­i­cal of the Code 3/​Clothe the Kids expe­ri­ence; if it were, the entire project would have been aban­doned years ago. But it is rep­re­sen­ta­tive, in no small way, of how many of us live our lives. We want the glit­tery things, the fun things, the excit­ing things. We aren’t as inter­ested in the neces­si­ties, and may be will­ing to exchange them for a moment of plea­sure. Sometimes we even want the fun things so badly that we’re will­ing to take advan­tage of oth­ers. Why do we get so hooked? What is the source of our difficulty?

Nonattachment is one of the core tenets of Buddhism. Essentially, nonat­tach­ment means more or less what you’d expect: No crav­ings, no obses­sions, no unhealthy focus, no stalk­ing, and so on. I don’t think Buddhism is unique in this regard; Christianity reminds us that the love of money is the root of all evil, and what is the love of money if not attachment?

What’s dif­fer­ent in Buddhism is the rea­son­ing behind the prin­ci­ple of nonat­tach­ment. It’s not rejec­tion of worldly temp­ta­tions or dis­trac­tions; that is an out­ward man­i­fes­ta­tion of nonat­tach­ment, but the true rea­son has to do with an insight into the sec­ond Noble Truth and the nature of impermanence.

The sec­ond Noble Truth tells us what the nature of suf­fer­ing is: Attachment, also called dukkha. (It can also mean cling­ing or unskill­ful thought, depend­ing on con­text.) When we cling to things, par­tic­u­larly things that won’t last,2 we end up suf­fer­ing. This is partly because we want to freeze that thing, to make it per­ma­nent, to act as though it’s fixed in time and will never change.

Even a cur­sory glance at the world around us shows what non­sense it is to believe any­thing will ever be per­ma­nent and unchang­ing. A cloud is a cloud, to be sure; but we don’t gaze upon clouds and believe that they’ve always been shaped and scat­tered as they are now; nor do we believe that they’ll always appear in the sky as they do right at this moment. Why would we then believe that any­thing else is ulti­mately any more per­ma­nent than a cloud?

Yet we behave oth­er­wise, every day. You ever get a brand-​​new car? Remember how it felt the first time you noticed a ding in the paint, due to someone’s door or a wind­blown shop­ping cart? That moment of irri­ta­tion is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of dukkha — in essence, suffering.

Why are we so irri­tated? We knew the car’s fin­ish and sheet metal would not remain pris­tine. We knew it would be scratched, dented, scuffed. Yet that first dim­ple always seems to hurt. What it really comes down to is that we don’t want to be reminded that the things we like are not per­ma­nent. (To put it more opti­misti­cally, the things we dis­like won’t go on forever.)

In some schools of Buddhist psy­chol­ogy, it’s believed that our ego — our sense of self — is actu­ally offended by these reminders of imper­ma­nence. Subconsciously, we’re reminded that we our­selves are imper­ma­nent, that we’re sub­ject to ill­ness, old age, and death; and we don’t like to be reminded of those facts. It’s never par­tic­u­larly com­fort­able to imag­ine one’s own dis­so­lu­tion and ces­sa­tion, after all.

As a result, the ego, in order to dis­tract itself from these basic truths of exis­tence, tries to sur­round itself with diver­sions. These diver­sions can take the form of music, enter­tain­ment, drugs, sex part­ners, books, toys, and other such games.

But none of these diver­sions ulti­mately sat­isfy; in the end, they get dented, they get scuffed. The music becomes jejune. The lover becomes pedes­trian. The bat­ter­ies wear out. So we go on, start­ing out on another quest for some­thing excit­ing, inter­est­ing, thrilling, dis­tract­ing — for­get­ting that it won’t be any more ful­fill­ing than what we’ve abandoned.

I don’t know how valid this school of thought is in an objec­tive sense, but it does seem to explain quite a lot of our behavior.

Beneath that psy­chol­ogy is a deeper recog­ni­tion of imper­ma­nence in all things, what some Buddhist tra­di­tions call empti­ness; oth­ers call it unsat­is­fac­tori­ness. The Heart Sutra, a brief but pithy exposé of Buddhist thought, says in part:3

The five lev­els of aware­ness
(thought, feel­ing, per­cep­tion, con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion, and con­scious­ness)
are imper­ma­nent; they are empty of inde­pen­dent reality.

Form is imper­ma­nence and empti­ness;
empti­ness and imper­ma­nence are form.

There is no form, no feel­ing, no recog­ni­tion, no voli­tion, no con­scious­ness;
no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind;
no vis­i­ble form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no tan­gi­ble thing, no concept.

This is fairly deep stuff, but in essence what it’s telling us is that noth­ing lasts, and when we behave to the con­trary, we’re already mired in a some­what delu­sional state. We can end up so believ­ing in the real­ity of our momen­tary crav­ing that we’re even will­ing to bar­gain away the things we need, in order to obtain some­thing we both can­not afford, and have no real use for.

My” kid wanted a Humvee so badly that he was will­ing to exchange cloth­ing for one. What toys do we all crave to the point that we trade what’s nec­es­sary for what’s ulti­mately unsatisfactory?

It is my wish that we can step back, take a breath, and ana­lyze our wants and desires. Perhaps we’ll be able to see past them and grasp the ulti­mate imper­ma­nence of our objects of desire; and, in so doing, we’ll be able to apply a lit­tle nonat­tach­ment to our decisions.

==

1. Apparently “clothe the kids” means “get the kids a bunch of elec­tron­ics” to some peo­ple. ^

2. Which is every­thing. ^

3. This is my inter­pre­ta­tion of a Sanskrit pas­sage, which is trans­lated into English in myr­iad ways. It’s not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of canon­i­cal Buddhist thought, at least in part because I removed a lot of the buzz­words and spe­cial terms that only Buddhists are prob­a­bly famil­iar with.

The title of this post is a loose trans­la­tion of the Sanskrit word parasam­gate, which is a por­tion of the mantra intro­duced in the Heart Sutra:

Gate gate para­gate parasam­gate bodhi svaha

…which means Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone alto­gether beyond; enlight­en­ment! — aha.

The Heart Sutra then goes on to declare that the dharma itself — all of Buddhist thought — is every bit as imper­ma­nent as any­thing else. It con­firms its own non­re­al­ity. As I said, this is deep stuff. ^

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