I’m stuck here at a Days Inn in Wytheville, Virginia after my alternator belt broke just outside of Bland, Virginia (yes, it’s a real place) on the way down to Durham, North Carolina to clear out a storage space I rent down there. I’m gonna type a blog post until the repair shop calls me. Hopefully this will be short!
The reason I have stuff in storage in Durham is because a couple years ago, I decided I had to leave Los Angeles. I was paying a lot of rent on an apartment I wasn’t even living in half the year as I traveled around spreading the Good News of Zen to the people of the world. But I wasn’t earning as much on these trips as I was paying to rent that place. Something had to give.
I’d heard good things about the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area and had a few friends there. So I decided I’d move to Chapel Hill. I was about to leave for two months in Europe. So I packed up everything and sent it to a storage space in Durham. Then I lived in other people’s houses, apartments, closets and floorspace for nearly a year. At the end of that year I decided I didn’t want to move to Chapel Hill. After a brief stint in Brooklyn, I ended up living in Akron. But I didn’t intend to stay in Akron for the long haul. So I just left my stuff in Durham.
I used to scoff at people who had storage spaces. If you had so much stuff that you needed to put some of it in a place where you couldn’t even get to it, then you had too much stuff! And now here I am having to deal with my own stuff…
There’s an idea that a good Buddhist should have no stuff at all. She should only own one bowl and two robes. She should live off the good graces of people who respond to her calling to the truth by supplying her with food and shelter.
That’s a nice ideal. Buddha’s original group of monks and nuns were able, it is said, to live like that in Northern India 2500 years ago. But times have changed. I doubt many people could live like that in Northern India today let alone anywhere else in the world. I also have nagging doubts about Buddha’s original monks actually having lived that way even back then. For one thing, to “leave home” in those days meant going a few miles or less away from home. Which meant you could leave your stuff there if you needed to. I’ll bet you a case of doughnuts a lot of monks and nuns did just that. Of course, some were probably very strict with themselves about this. I just doubt that all of them were.
There are lots of misconceptions about contemporary Buddhist monks with regards to stuff. For example, one would think that a guy whose nickname was “Homeless Kodo” probably owned nothing but his robes and a change of underwear. In fact, the word yadonashi (???, homeless) that was applied to Kodo Sawaki referred to the fact that he did not have his own home temple like most Zen teachers. He did, in fact, have a home to live in. What’s more, his student Kosho Uchiyama complained that as Kodo’s attendant he was required to lug mountains of Kodo’s books whenever Kodo went out on the road to lead retreats. Homeless Kodo had stuff.
Like Kodo, most of what I own is books. It’s probably no shock that most writers are terrible book fanatics. I’ve got a Kindle and I can see the logic of it. But I’ll never get over my affection for actual books on real paper. Which is unfortunate because books take up lots of space and they weigh a ton. They are made of wood!
Every Buddhist monk, male or female, that I’ve known has owned stuff. Most of them are fairly modest in terms of what “normal” people own. But they all have more than their begging bowls and their robes. Most of them, in fact, suffer from the same book collecting disease as I do. Though most of them have “better” books than me. I have lots more Three Stooges books than any other monk I know.
Stuff is a burden and a responsibility. I wish I had less of it. I understand that my inability to simply get rid of things is a sign of being too attached to them.
But it is much easier to espouse an ideal of living simply than it is to actually throw things away that you put a lot of effort into acquiring. If you’ve tried it, you’ll know exactly what I mean. This weekend I have enlisted the help of my good friend Catie who I have instructed to ignore my pleas when I tell her that I absolutely have to keep certain things. I’m very lucky to have a friend like that. Plus I’m giving her some of my collectibles so she can sell them to pay for her upcoming wedding in exchange for this service.
I always feel unburdened whenever I can get rid of things. And yet, having things is not always bad. It is because some people held on to their stuff and took care of it that we know about our history. My friend Jimi (lead singer of 0DFx) is a pack rat who collects all kinds of stuff related to Northeast Ohio rock and roll history. He’ll be exhibiting some of his stuff soon in downtown Akron (I’ll have the details when I get them). I’m very grateful for his work. Historians everywhere are grateful for pack rats like Jimi. This includes Buddhist historians. We wouldn’t even have some of our most important sutras if it weren’t for people who valued their personal stuff and kept it nice. There were times in history where Buddhism was persecuted and most of these precious materials were destroyed. At the time, those who had the few copies left may not have known their real value and may have been inclined to just toss them away and go off wandering. I, for one, am glad they didn’t.
Which isn’t to say that’s the same as me and my Three Stooges books. It’s just that to universally condemn the habit of holding on to stuff is a big misunderstanding.
Buddhism is always about doing what is better. It’s not about being austere for the sake of being austere as if austerity itself were a virtue in its own right. For some, giving up all possessions, having no job (in the usual sense) and living off the good graces of others is freeing. For some, this would be intolerable. I’m one of the latter. There is too much Midwestern work ethic instilled in me for me to ever be comfortable living that way. So I work in the world and as a consequence of that I have stuff. It’s a matter of exchanging one sort of burden for another.
I would not encourage Americans, Canadians and Europeans — or in fact most Asians, Indians, Africans or Inuit — living in the 21st century to try to adopt the ideal lifestyle espoused by the earliest Buddhists. It’s too hard to make that sort of thing work anywhere in the world these days. Sure, it was not easy 2500 years ago either. But nowadays it’s damn near impossible.
Plus I don’t think it really helps others that much. In the society we live in today, it’s important for everyone to contribute economically. It’s OK to go off on a retreat for a while, maybe even for a few years, to get yourself together and suchlike. But I believe it’s also important to be part of the regular world. A retreat is just that. It’s a retreat from the world. Sometimes it’s necessary and honorable to retreat. But I don’t think we should live our entire lives in a state of retreat from the world.
Hey! They just called about my car! Hooray!!!
(The photo I’ve chosen to illustrate this piece is NOT my stuff, by the way!)
In case you missed them last time, here are the new Zero Defex videos