Aug 14, 2007

Enough Already

You can go to any fast food restaurant today and “Supersize” your order. For a little more money you can get twice as much food. Marketing calls it Value. As if we needed a half pound of hamburger, two potatoes of french fries and 64 oz of drink for our midday meal. American culture today makes it so difficult to say “I am satisfied, I have enough.” People look at you funny and ask what is wrong with you. We think we need to have a bigger house, fancier car, the latest gadgets. Consumers are what drive the economy. People are working longer hours, looking for the next promotion in order to satisfy the financial obligations of buying on credit for more electronics, more clothes, more exotic vacations. We are exhorted daily with messages to have more, do more, be more, more, more.

Some of us may get layed off from our job or have health problems that halt the headlong pursuit of having more. But such events rarely allow people to appreciate their circumstances. But what happens to those who step off this acquisition merry-go-round? I read a news story the other day about a high-powered executive that quit his job to spend more time with his family. None of his co-workers believed that he made the decision to do it. They thought it was a polite way of saying he was fired. Choosing a simpler lifestyle not easy. How can we get to a place where we can say that we have enough, we are satisfied?

Lessons from Chado the Way of Tea

According to D.T. Suzuki, who introduced Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture to the West:

“… to understand Japanese culture is to understand the desire not to be dependent on things worldly – wealth, power and reputation – and yet to feel inwardly the presence of something of the highest value, above time and social position.” (from Zen and Japanese Culture)

Rikyu, who codified Tea as we know it today, left many sayings about how much is enough:

“There is shelter enough if it keeps the rain off, and food enough when it staves off hunger. We draw water, gather firewood, boil the water and make tea.” (from the Nampuroku)

“Tea should not be an exhibition of what the tea man owns. Instead the sincerity of his heart should be expressed.” (from Rikyu’s 100 poems)

Not everyone can take these lessons from Chado and put them into practice in their own everyday life, but we can strive for them as we study Tea and the Way. Little by little, in my own study, I have understood more about what Rikyu was talking about.

While I was living in Japan, I stayed in a small Japanese room that was my living room, bedroom, study and dressing room. My actual living space became smaller and smaller as I acquired things. My choices often came down to “can I live without it?” rather than “do I want it?” Returning back home after living with absolute essentials for a year, I wanted to clean out my house and get rid of so many things that were cluttering up my space.

So the lifestyle question for me is not “can I fill up the empty spaces?” but “what can I eliminate and still be satisfied?” It is like sculpting a life. What can I remove to reveal the art within rather than add something more to clutter and obscure it. Removing many of the things that distract us, allows time for reflection on what are our deepest values are so that we may consciously live a life of meaning according to those values.

Also, by getting rid extraneous things, I was amazed at how unburdened I felt. Ownership implies that I have taken responsibility for it: finding a place for it, caring for it, storing it, keeping it in good working order. I did not notice when I was acquiring things how each thing weighed me down a little more until I was mentally dragging it all around with me.

Another aspect of having enough is being thankful for what we already have. It may sound trite, but getting up every morning and being thankful for the life we have seems to make the desire for more less strident. And there are many things to be thankful for: good health, family, and friends, to name a few. Especially after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, we ought to look right here now and appreciate our lives as they are before we think about the future, knowing that at any random time, our lives can be changed forever.

The Japanese kanji for contentment is made up of two characters: chi soku, literally to know sufficiency. Nobody can tell us how much is enough. If we rely on external sources to tell us, there will never be enough. There will always be something more that we do not have. Only we know what it is in our lives to know sufficiency. It comes from inside us. It comes from appreciating what we already have, from knowing what is really important to us, and deciding what we can live without.

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