Notes on a Buddhist path

All the things I am happy without

September 18, 2011 By | 2 Comments

Even Socrates, who lived a very frugal and simple life, loved to go to the market. When his students asked about this, he replied, “I love to go and see all the things I am happy without.” ~ Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

Last month I went to my first auction. The first one at least where I planned to be a participant. Up for grabs was a stunning fine art collection of Asian furnishings: paintings, scrolls, figurines, dining room suites. Everything from a jade puzzle ball to brocaded silk kimonos. The day before the auction I made my way through the crowded room eying all the treasures as I flipped through the pages of the program guide. I was looking for a Buddhist statue that might fit in my home and my budget. I found three that would fit the first criteria, but only one that might squeeze into the latter.

The night of the auction my friend and I squeezed our way into the hot and crowded selling house. The auction had begun an hour before, but we gauged our arrival to be close to the time my treasure (note, it was already mine before I even walked through the door) would come up for sale. The item of my desire was #182, a 4 1/2″ carving of a Buddhist deity. When we arrived the auctioneer was on #92.

We watched the show that unfolded around us. Some pieces went for less than the catalogue predicted; others blew the roof off any estimates. I saw lovely things that had no pull for me being scooped up by ravenous buyers. Bids flew around the room, some arrived over telephone lines, some with a nod or a flick of a finger. Spent bidders dropped out as a newcomer stepped into the fray. One sale went on for well over ten minutes with bidders standing down and then rejoining the match. The ultimate winner was applauded by everyone there, including me. It was fun, it was exciting, it was intoxicating.

And then there was my little statue. I didn’t need it. There were many other things I needed much, much more, but I wanted it and had convinced myself that if I didn’t eat for the next week I could afford the minimum bid suggested in the catalogue. Seemed perfectly sound reasoning until I saw the scenes unfolding around me.

Here was the market of Socrates.  All the trappings of our frenzied cravings to have something, anything, that perhaps another person might get instead. In Buddhist philosophy the realm of intense craving is inhabited by hungry ghosts. The hungry ghosts are tortured by an endless frustration at not getting everything they want. Nothing brings satisfaction and nothing is sustaining. Think of Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” and you’ll get a pretty graphic sense of the hell such yearnings can have on a being. I saw plates and paintings and vases and chairs being scooped up by hungry ghosts who will never be full, never be satiated. If they scored the Ming vases that night there will be something else another night that will call to them, insisting that having it will finally make them happy, finally quiet the unending growling in their empty souls.

As the auctioneer read the description of item #182, my hands were sweating. A part of me still wanted to climb on the merry-go-round market with an opening bid, just to reach out and touch the brass ring even though I knew I wouldn’t be taking it home with me. When he reached the end of the catalogue description the auctioneer announced there was an opening bid already in play that was double the minimum estimate and double my maximum.

I never placed a bid and that was okay. More than okay really. My friend and I were parties to an amazing show and I got to see more clearly my attachment to the things I really am happy without.

A few weeks after the auction as I walked to work I was thinking about our addictions to all the shiny objects there are in the world. The dozens of downtown shop windows offering the newest, greatest, bestest stuff all with unspoken promises to fulfill us, at least for that moment. Just as I was pondering our hunger for pretty things I glanced over and saw the name of the clothing store I was passing: Addictions. I actually blinked a couple of times to be sure I was reading it right. Yep, there it was. The most honest store name in town telling everyone what it was they really were selling. Addictions. Cravings. Desires.

The Buddha taught that desire and ignorance are the roots of suffering. As human beings desire doesn’t leave us. We will always desire some thing, be it food or warmth or the latest iPad incarnation. The work for us is in watching our desires and shifting them towards cravings for true inner peace and not the temporary fix we get from the market’s wares.

Last week I passed by Additions again. There was a big banner in its window that read “Closing Sale.” Additions is going out of business. Sounds like pretty good news for all of us.

After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, by Jack Kornfield, published by Bantam, copyright 2001


  1. […] home this morning after sharing sweet tea and conversation with a friend, I was reminded again of all the things I am happy without. Besides breaking up with my pernicious cell phone, I’ve let go of the notions of owning […]

  2. […] home this morning after sharing sweet tea and conversation with a friend, I was reminded again of all the things I am happy without. Besides breaking up with my pernicious cell phone, I’ve let go of the notions of owning […]

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