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By Ven. Beopjeon
“I’m a simple mendicant. What I have is an eating bowl that I used in prison, a can of goat’s milk, six pieces of worn-out loincloth, and a not so great reputation. That’s all.”
Mahatma Gandhi said this in September 1931 to the Marseilles customs officer who was examining his personal belongings. Gandhi was on his way to the 2nd round-table conference in London . As I read this in Kripalani’s book on the life of Gandhi, I became ashamed. Because I thought my possessions were too many, even for a person like me.
In truth, when I came to this world, I didn’t bring anything. After living out my life, I will leave empty handed from this earth. However, as I lived my life, I’ve accumulated my share of things, this and that. Of course, these things can be said to be of use in everyday life. However, are these so indispensable that I couldn’t live without them? When I think about it, there are many things I could do without.
We accumulate things because we need them, but sometimes our things cause us great aggravation. Thus, to possess something can mean to be possessed by that thing. When the things we accumulated through need have actually bound our freedom, we can say that subject and object have traded places and we become the object of possession. Therefore, having many possessions can be a source of pride, but at the same time there is an aspect of bondage in proportion to the number of possessions.
Up until the summer of last year, I took care of two pots of orchids with all my heart. These were presents from a monk when I moved to this hermitage three years ago. Since I lived alone, the only living things were those plants and myself. I found books on orchids and read up on them. I asked friends to buy me fertilizer for them. In the summer, I moved them to shaded areas. In the winter, I raised the heat for them to a higher degree than I needed for myself.
If I had treated my parents with the same devotion, I would have been praised as a very filial son. So I raised these orchids for the joy of cherishing them. In the early spring, yellow-green flowers would blossom with a faint fragrance to make my heart flutter. The leaves would always be fresh like the waxing moon. Every single person who visited my hermitage would enjoy my bright orchids.
Last summer, during a break from the rains, I went to see an old master at Bongseonsa Temple . When midday came around, the sun, which the rains had long shut out, shone brightly as the voices of cicadas rang out from the forest to blend with sound of the running brook.
Oh! Suddenly, at this moment, a thought occurred to me. I had left the orchids out in the yard. All of sudden, I began to resent the long-awaited shining sun. I could see my orchid leaves going limp in the hot sun. I couldn’t bear it. I hurriedly went back home. Just as I feared, the leaves had dried out in the sun. With utter regret, I brought over some spring water to moisten the leaves and they came back to life a little. However, the fresh aliveness seemed to have gone.
Suddenly, at that very moment, a very strong sense arose within my whole body and mind. I realized then that attachment is suffering. It was true. I had strong mental attachment to my orchids. I resolved to free myself from this attachment. When I was cultivating the orchids, I couldn’t travel around as I had normally done. When I had outside business, I would make sure to leave the window open a little for good circulation, and it wasn’t just once or twice when I had to return to my room to bring in the orchids. This was truly intense attachment.
After a few days, a friend who is as quiet as the orchids came to visit me. I quickly handed over to him my orchids. I felt for the first time that I was free from bondage. It was a joyous sensation of liberation. Although I parted with living things that I had been with for nearly three years, I felt a sense of freedom more than regret and loss. From this time forth, I pledged to myself to throw away one thing everyday. Thanks to the orchids, I came to understand a sense of the meaning of nonattachment.
In one sense, human history feels like a history of ownership. It seems like people have endless fought to have more for themselves. Greed has no limits and no holidays. It surges with the desire to possess even one more thing. Greed will not stop at mere material possessions; we even want to possess people. When we don’t get what we want, we can even do something unthinkably horrible. Loosing our good judgment, we try to possess others.
Greed always calculates gain and loss. This is true not only on an individual level, but in the relationships between nations. Yesterday’s allies oppose each other today, and we can see many examples of nations that once hated each other, now exchange goodwill. This is all based on a relationship of gain and loss of material goods. If humankind could change from an ownership-oriented culture to a nonattachment-oriented culture, what would happen? Perhaps there would be no fighting. I haven’t heard of fighting caused by an inability to give.
Gandhi also said this, “To me owning something feels like a crime.” His wish is that for all who want to have his possessions could have it. Of course, this is impossible. Thus he can’t help but think that ownership feels like a crime. Sometimes, our possessions make us blind. Thus, we’re unable to manage very well even our own things. Alas, one day we will have to leave empty handed. We will leave this body behind and promptly be gone. No matter how great our possessions, they will be of no use to us then.
There is a saying that only those who give up the most will gain the most. These are words to think about for those preoccupied with material possessions. Because the paradox of nonattachment is that when we don’t own anything, we will gain the world.