In one of my dokusans at my recent retreat in Lammi, Finland a guy named Larri made an interesting observation. In a talk at the retreat I’d mentioned the formula used by Buddhists to talk about the three poisons. They are usually listed as “greed, hatred and delusion” or sometimes “greed, anger and delusion.” There are a few other variations. But the first one is always greed. Yet sometimes greed is hard to define.
Larri was talking about his zazen practice and how he had suddenly noticed a new form of greed that he had been unaware of before. Sitting there, with the usual mix of daydreaming, trying to stop daydreaming, and thinking of better, more “enlightened” states of mind, he noticed that he was greedy for those clearer, more stereotypically “meditative” states.
He wasn’t the first person to ever notice this. But it’s a pretty rare observation. I found it very useful to be reminded of it, because I do the same thing myself. I think anyone involved in a meditation practice does it. In fact, it gets even worse once you start having some of those supposedly “higher” states (sorry for all the “scare quotes” but I think they’re necessary when writing about this stuff). Once you have one of those, you start wanting them to happen all the time. It’s more frustrating once you know such states are real and that you are capable of entering them than it was when you could still tell yourself that maybe that kind of stuff was all just made up to sell you on meditation.
Greed, it seems, does not differentiate between good and bad. We’re used to the term greed being applied to things that are either bad for us or to things that are good or neutral except when over-indulged in. Greed for candy. Greed for money. Greed for power, for sex, for the newly reissued Ibanez Black Eagle Bass just like Krist Novalesic used to play (see photo).
But the Metta Sutra says, “One should not desire great possessions even for one’s one family.” It’s a reminder that greed doesn’t just get directed towards bad things. You can also be just as greedy for good stuff, for things no one would ever say you shouldn’t want.
I think this is what’s wrong with a lot of movements whose aims I support. Whether it’s cleaning up the environment, stopping man-made global climate change, saving the whales, defending minorities and women, preventing human rights abuses, and so on and on, a lot of people make the mistake of getting greedy in their work for these noble and worthy causes.
Back when I was an employee of Tsuburaya Productions, I found myself getting really frustrated with how things were going. I was very dedicated to the company and I knew we could be doing much better than we were. I saw great opportunities for us internationally that we were just passing by because our management refused to see them or take steps to realize them.
During this time I went and saw Nishijima Roshi and complained bitterly about the situation. Nishijima had been a businessperson most of his working life. He understood that side of things very well. I recall once telling him that Tsuburaya Productions was wasting its opportunities because it had no goals. I caught myself and said that I knew Zen was supposed to be goalless. He said, “Yes. But in business you must have a goal.”
So he got what I was saying that day about my frustrations with the company. But he said I needed to be satisfied with making small changes. Those small changes were important and eventually could lead to greater things. He didn’t exactly tell me not to be greedy, but that’s what he was saying.
The same attitude can be applied to the kinds of noble and important work a lot of people I meet are involved in. A lot of these people are terribly frustrated because they can’t seem to make the sweeping changes they know need to be made in order to fix the problems they’re working on. But many of these problems are global in scale. And human beings are animals. Animals like to find one reasonably comfortable and effective way of living and stick to it. No animal likes to change its routine. In fact, most animals stress–out and even die if their routines are altered. Some can’t even adapt to the slightest change.
Human beings are remarkable in that we change our routines constantly. But each change is accompanied by stress. We rarely seem to acknowledge just how hard it is to adapt to a new way of doing things. But it is. Our animal nature gets very threatened by the prospect of having to find a new way of living. Like many other animals, we’d often rather die than have to change.
It’s unrealistic to expect great changes to happen quickly. Getting greedy for good things only makes matters worse. We start getting angry and depressed, leading us to be unable to be effective in our important efforts to do what needs to be done.
My friend Tonen O’Connor, former head of the Milwaukee Zen Center, once gave a talk in which she mentioned the idea of allowing ourselves “just a little bit of greed.” She said that never really seems to work. You can never have just a little bit of greed. Either there is greed or there isn’t.
Of course, if you find yourself being greedy, you can always make your efforts to stop it. It’s not like once a bit of greed enters your mind you’ve committed a deadly sin from which there is no turning back.
But it’s important to be aware when you indulge in just a little bit of greed. Zazen practice is a great way to see it in slow motion. Much of the frustration we feel in meditation practice is really just greed. We have the physical/mental state we have, but we want more, or we want different, or we want better.
And that’s fine. Just leave it be. Sit there with your greed and watch it in action. Where does it come from? Where does it go? Above all, resist the urge to be greedy about getting rid of greed.
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September 20, 2015 London, England THE ART OF SITTING DOWN & SHUTTING UP
September 21, 2015 7:30pm Newcastle Zen, Northern Ireland SHIMNA INTEGRATED COLLEGE (Zazen & Dharma Talk)
September 22, 2o15 6:30pm Belfast, Northern Ireland THE DARK HORSE (Talk: Punk Rock Commentaries on Zen)
September 23, 2015 7:00pmBelfast, Northern Ireland BELFAST ZEN MAITRI YOGA STUDIO (Zazen & Dharma Talk)
September 24, 2015 7:30pm Belfast, Northern Ireland Oh Yeah, Belfast (Q&A)
September 27, 2015 Glastonbury, England 1-DAY RETREAT
October 26-27 Cincinnati, Ohio Concert:Nova
November 6-8, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY RETREAT
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
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