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.
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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