What is needed
In his final essay, Dōgen, 13th century founder of the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan, said the first awareness is to have few desires, and the second is to know what is enough. “This,” he said, “is the way to contentment.” The third awareness follows: serenity. This is the presence of mind that can absorb and be nourished by what is simply present, and true. There is no need to be distracted by an appetite for more than what is needed – the insatiability that describes the Hungry Ghost. The gourmet who is content with small plates is never the gourmand, who must remain unsatisfied with all-you-can-eat bottomless buffets.
Dr. Gabor Maté, a psychiatrist whose thoughts I follow closely, has said the inhabitants of the Hungry Ghost Realm live in the domain of addiction, constantly seeking something outside themselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment. “The aching emptiness is perpetual because the substances, objects or pursuits we hope will soothe it are not what we really need. We don’t know what we need, and so long as we stay in the hungry ghost mode, we’ll never know. We haunt our lives without being fully present.”
We know these people – we sometimes are these people. A story by Leo Tolstoy called “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” tells of a peasant who was given the opportunity to own as much land as he was able to circle in a day’s walk. He walked farther and farther afield as he discovered more and more land to include in his peregrination. “The further one goes,” he thought, ignoring his growing fatigue, “the better the land seems.” Finally, noticing the sun begin to set, he turned to hurry back, running faster and faster until, exhausted, he collapsed where he had begun, and died, and was buried; and, as Tolstoy says, “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”
Addiction is a spiritual problem as much as a material one. When Bill W. wrote to Carl Jung about his treatment of Roland H., who had figured in the events leading to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous, Jung replied: “His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness… You see, alcohol in Latin is “spiritus”, and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”
I’ve written before about José Mujica, president of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015, who once said “I am not advocating poverty, I am advocating sobriety.” Mujica lives with his wife and a three-legged dog in a one-bedroom home on a small farm near Montevideo, where they cultivate chrysanthemums for sale. He drives a 1987 Volkswagen Bug, and as president donated 90 percent of his salary to charity. In an article about his austerity, he quoted the Roman philosopher Seneca: “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.” We know these needy people. We need not be these people.
Those who live according to a craving for abundance, in defense against their fear of scarcity and lack, are swept up by a pendulum that swings between the mania of spending and the despair of poverty. They seek increasing power and control over something that lies, inevitably, beyond their control. Their frustration takes on a ravenous, often predatory nature. I’m aware that there are those prominent in politics who want to manipulate our country toward the dangerous shoals of their own benefit. They would take personal advantage of society’s needs to feed their own hungry ghosts, rather than taking responsibility to model an alternative – moral – ethic. The solution lies in bringing the arc of the pendulum to rest at sufficiency, where there is only what is needed.
Nineteenth century Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing famously wrote: “To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common: this is my symphony.”
There is a great difference between devouring something, such as our relationships and our environment, and being a steward – between using something up, and participating with it in a sustainable, symbiotic exchange of mutual benefit. As we discover this world is truly sufficient, and become sufficient unto ourselves and responsible for our levels of consumption, we are no longer consumed by our own hunger. As we accept what is with gratitude, without wanting more, we become appreciative, learning to trust our own resilience and self-reliance, using what we have effectively, efficiently, without hunger and without waste – feeling completely satisfied by what it is that we have.