Through the Eye of a Needle
As I struggled this week through book deals, contracts, part-time jobs, and watched the train wreck that is our political system take a bizarre and unexpectedly pleasant detour into "don't fuck with female senators" land (while still being, by all objective accounts, a train wreck), I found myself thinking about Jesus. Odd, really, because I've never believed in the God of Abraham and was never all that interested in what Jesus has said, even the good and noble things. But as I watched the Obamacare repeal unfold (and refold) while simultaneously doing a bunch of business of my own, a line from Matthew kept ringing in my head: "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for rich person to enter the kingdom of God."
It's hard to make good health care reform if you are primarily concerned with being reelected.
There are many similar quotes in the Buddhist canon. Dogen often wrote and spoke about the pitfalls of fame and money. For example, he says quite explicitly in the Shobogenzo gyoji, "Fame and profit are the one great enemy... do not chase after the empty sounds and forms of fame and gain." Thich Nhat Hanh's precepts include an intention to let go of fame and wealth. His fifth precept reads: "Do not accumulate wealth whilst millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life, fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need."
I try not to idolize poverty. I don't believe that being poor necessarily makes us more in tune with spiritual truth. Living in poverty takes a very real psychological and physical toll, and I question the value of encouraging historically disenfranchised people to stop making money. And yet it seems clear to me watching our political system at work, as well as watching my own greedy and reactionary mind as I navigate business contracts, that pursuing fame and wealth often runs counter to the project of doing good for others, waking up, and living in tandem with what is true.
Why is giving up wealth so important, and why is this advice that is repeated, countless times and in countless ways, in religions across the globe? The first reason is similar to why it's hard to pass healthcare reform if you're worried about reelection. Humans have a hard time doing more than one thing at once. It is said that sharks have to keep moving-- they can either move forward, backwards, or die-- and a similar thing happens with human beings making value judgements. Our priorities point us in one direction, and it is very difficult to move in two directions at once. The directions of fame and wealth are in a different direction than living a simple life in which you always speak the truth and are kind to people in a quiet and authentic way.
I wish that this weren't true; I wish that quiet kindness was valued more than youth, beauty, social media presence, political lobbying, etc. But the reality of samsara and capitalism is that it is very, very, very, very difficult to become incredibly wealthy without lying, manipulating, or in some other way disparaging the people around you. So this is one reason that the Buddha and others encouraged us to live simply-- as a way to guard against breaking ethical precepts, and as a way to insure that our priority is goodness.
The other reason for abandoning fame and wealth is that seeking happiness on the basis of external circumstances is inevitably unstable. This isn't limited to money and fame of course. The Buddha spoke of "Eight Worldly Winds" (gain, loss, pleasure, pain, criticism, praise, fame and disgrace) that swirl about our lives. In the Lokavipatti Sutta the Buddha points out that these conditions are "inconstant, stressful, and subject to change." He's not saying that they're inevitably bad or immoral, but that relying on them for our happiness is kind of a silly move. If I were trying to describe the economic realities of the publishing world, "Inconstant, stressful, and subject to change" is a pretty good description.
Personally, I find this balance to be tricky. As a woman, I'm working through centuries of conditioning that tell me to rely on the men in my family for economic security, that being a wife and mother is sufficient. Pushing back against this message is important to me, and so is figuring out how to contribute meaningfully to society. So making some money and having a career is useful and good.
And yet on the other end of the extreme is drowning in the pursuit of money. This extreme, especially for Buddhist teachers, results in becoming a kind of spiritual entrepreneur, who bases their self worth not on the depth of their practice but on book sales, retreat attendance, fame, and the number of their twitter (and real life) followers. This is in part how we get teachers abusing students and communities-- because they value having their ego massaged more than the hard work of renunciation and simplicity.
There is a big part of me that wants money. I'm not gonna lie. I like nice things. I like the ability to buy what I want. And there is a smaller, more hidden shadow part of myself that wants fame. I want to be acknowledged for what I do, for my talent. It's embarrassing to admit that. I'm more ashamed of that part and so I don't look at it as much. But I'm getting more clear that I have those impulses.
Money and fame are like drugs-- there's a blissful high when you get them, but it always comes crashing down. I would be more seduced by fame and money if I didn't know that with the high comes a horrible comedown, and then, after the comedown, a desire for even more than I had before. I stopped taking drugs in college because I realized the comedown wasn't worth it. And for the same reason, I'm wary of fame and wealth. I have experienced little whiffs of both and there is no real end to wanting them after they're gone; the pain of coming down off of fame and money is strong enough to make me not chase after them so rigorously. Yet like any addiction there is always a flicker of wanting.
When my bank account slips dangerously low, I try to tell myself that what we are cultivating is something that doesn't wax and wane, that doesn't fluctuate with external conditions. Whatever you want to call it-- practice, morality, goodness, internal compass-- it's hard to notice because it is not loud or flashy. It's not valued by society. As a culture, we are really afraid of the truth. We don't value truth, and it doesn't sell as well as false promises and fantasy. But truth keeps us steady. It's always there, it doesn't fly or crash. There's no comedown.