Greed for Good

NovalesicBlackEagleIn 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

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April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”


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40 Responses

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  1. mika
    mika September 18, 2015 at 9:34 am |

    Regarding anthropogenic global warming there may come a point when small changes are not enough anymore to halt catastrophic raise of global surface temperatures. Some say we’re fast approaching that limit and some say we have already passed it. Now, life on Earth will adapt, it always has (unless we manage to turn Earth into a Venus with runoff greenhouse feedback loops), but I think it would be a shame if 90% of land dwelling animals (homo sapiens included) went extinct just because human’s couldn’t control their greed. When you’re speeding towards a cliff with a deadly drop at some point it becomes necessary to hit full brakes instead of just slowly slowing down, if you don’t start doing it early enough. It’s the same with many global environmental issues.

  2. GennaC
    GennaC September 18, 2015 at 10:30 am |

    I was listening to an Alan Watts lecture on you tube the other day with my dad and he was talking about Satori. Alan Watts quoted some master as saying, when talking about satori, “No! No Satori here!” he explained that was the approach – because when you feel the floating feeling of satori, you may want to hold it and grasp at it, then start searching for the feeling of satori instead of the path. It was a wonderful lecture and your discussion of greed above reminded me of that.

  3. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer September 18, 2015 at 11:23 am |

    Greed, hatred and delusion? I spend 99% of my zazen in one of those states.

    Greed = Why aren’t my sits more like they should be?
    Hatred = Why the hell am I wasting my time with this crap?
    Delusion = Why not spend all my sitting time thinking about !!everything else!! so I can avoid the boredom of now.

    All in all, I’m doing a darn fine job as a zen student. Seriously…


  4. skatemurai
    skatemurai September 18, 2015 at 11:37 am |

    I am looking forward to your new book Brad.
    I really do. Really really I really do. Yay!

  5. Zafu
    Zafu September 18, 2015 at 12:32 pm |

    Have you watched your greed for attention?

  6. drocloc
    drocloc September 18, 2015 at 1:44 pm |

    Buddhism outside of Asia –

    Is it natural and necessary that Buddhism embrace materialism? Is our thinking that because Buddhism changed in China and Japan it is therefore okay that it evolves under materialist influences in the West?

    Shakyamuni Buddha said: ‘I teach only one thing, suffering and the release from suffering.”
    (MN Alagadduupamasutta)

    1. Zafu
      Zafu September 18, 2015 at 2:22 pm |

      It’s not about suffering or the release from suffering. It’s about meaning. If it were about anything besides meaning then our greed might not be merely “interesting.”

      1. Fred
        Fred September 18, 2015 at 2:38 pm |

        There were Buddhas before Shakyamuni and Buddhas after Shaky-a-muni
        Some weren’t concerned with suffering or the release from suffering.

        And meaning is for a self trying to acquire a spiritual high.

      2. Son of Zafu
        Son of Zafu September 18, 2015 at 6:17 pm |

        If meaning didn’t exist, all the greed in the world would have no meaning.

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 18, 2015 at 2:52 pm |

    Shake-ya-money-maker Dylan said: “All my songs are protest songs.” He wasn’t greedy.

    Same guy, different take: “You can’t be wise and in love at the same time.” Is that what’s wrong with Silicon Valley?

    Uchiyama sat it out. Many years after he saw the lovely lady, he hardly ever never thought of her at all, except for writing about it to illustrate a point.

    Am I making sense, is this meaningful yet?

    I’m very greedy, I would like to find the zone just breathing in and out, whenever I feel even the least little suffering. The zone just breathing in and out turns out to be very close to relaxing into activity around the fluid ball of the abdomen. So close I feel akin to the 120 AC in the socket next to me in the wall. Maybe I’ll light up- that would be meaningful.

  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 18, 2015 at 2:59 pm |

    alrightee, just to remind myself, comprehending the long and short of breathing in and out, which I experience as the flip side of pressure in the fluid ball, is only one of the elements (of the Shakyan’s way of life):

    Mindful [one] breathes in. Mindful [one] breathes out.

    Whether [one] is breathing in a long (breath), breathing out a long (breath), breathing in a short (breath), breathing out a short (breath), one comprehends ‘I am breathing in a long (breath), I am breathing out a long (breath), I am breathing in a short (breath), I am breathing out a short (breath).’

    Thus [one] trains [oneself] thinking, ‘I will breathe in experiencing the whole body; I will breathe out experiencing the whole body.’

    [One] trains [oneself], thinking ‘ I will breathe in tranquillizing the activity of body; I will breathe out tranquillizing the activity of body.’

    [One] trains [oneself], thinking: ‘I will breathe in… breathe out experiencing zest… experiencing ease… experiencing the activity of thought… tranquillising the activity of thought.’

    [One] trains [oneself], thinking: ‘I will breathe in… breathe out experiencing thought… rejoicing in thought… concentrating thought… freeing thought.’

    [One] trains [oneself], thinking: ‘I will breathe in… breathe out beholding impermanence… beholding detachment… beholding stopping (of “voluntary control… concealed from the consciousness by habit”) … beholding casting away (of “latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’ in regard to this consciousness-informed body”)’.

    (4) (parentheticals added, from Feldenkrais and from MN III 18-19 Pali Text Society III pg 68; “zest” and “ease” from SN V 309-312 Pali Text Society, in place of “rapture” and “joy” (9))

    1. Fred
      Fred September 18, 2015 at 3:11 pm |

      ‘The universe will breathe in… breathe out beholding impermanence… beholding detachment… beholding stopping (of “voluntary control… concealed from the consciousness by habit”) … beholding casting away (without “latent conceit ‘there is no doer, not I is a doer’ in regard to this consciousness-informed body”)’

      Behind the curtain is vast emptiness

      1. Mark Foote
        Mark Foote September 18, 2015 at 3:26 pm |

        Fred has caught me in the midst of editing- he references a remark I had at the close of my comment, which I excised: “pay no attention to the root teacher behind the Chinese/Japanese screen”

        We’re all greedy to get out of Oz, and the wizards of hot air “don’t know how it works”, in the clutch. Ruby slippers can only be acquired in the midst of vast emptiness (they’re a little tight on those cadaver feet, maybe a little rock and roll, twist & shout).

        1. Zafu
          Zafu September 18, 2015 at 3:32 pm |

          What does the universe do, Mr. Footy?

          1. Mark Foote
            Mark Foote September 18, 2015 at 3:35 pm |

            The universe sits zazen; zazen sits zazen.

            Senseless wonder.

            I know a guy in Kansas; he’s been around.

          2. Mark Foote
            Mark Foote September 18, 2015 at 6:24 pm |

            How do you do, Mr. Zafu!

      2. Zafu
        Zafu September 18, 2015 at 9:35 pm |

        I do goody, Mr. Foote.

  9. Fred
    Fred September 18, 2015 at 4:10 pm |

    “or blowing my brains out on 5-MeO at this very moment, even the most blissful or painful experiences start to get old after you’ve been doing it long enough”

    “The onset of effects occurs within seconds after vaporizing/injecting, or minutes after insufflating, and the experience is sometimes described as similar to a near-death experience. Peak effects last for approximately 5–10 minutes when vaporized. When insufflated, the peak effects are considerably less intense, but last for 15–25 minutes on average.”

    You experience near death? or no you? no world? just the flow of plasma?

    1. Fred
      Fred September 18, 2015 at 4:13 pm |

      “. Things come together and things dissolve, it’s only our clinging to appearances that makes existence so painful.”

      Right on. The inside and the outside transmuting.

      1. Cygni
        Cygni September 20, 2015 at 6:28 am |

        I was being a little tounge in cheek, this stuff is still over the head of most neuroscience and psychiatry, unfortunately we cant go back in time and put Buddha in an fMRI machine under the Bodhi tree.

      2. Shinchan Ohara
        Shinchan Ohara September 21, 2015 at 8:58 am |

        “, it’s only our clinging to appearances that makes existence so painful”

        Yeah, that. And pain that makes pain so painful.

    2. Cygni
      Cygni September 21, 2015 at 1:07 pm |

      If you can already drop the body/mind you don’t need a description, find out for yourself.

  10. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 18, 2015 at 6:44 pm |

    Let’s give Brad something to get greedy about, that won’t upset gods and goddessess:

    …as a skilled bath-attendant or (bath-attendant) apprentice, having sprinkled bath-powder into a bronze vessel, might knead it while repeatedly sprinkling it with water until the ball of lather had taken up moisture, was drenched with moisture, suffused with moisture inside and out but without any oozing. Even so… does (a person) saturate, permeate, suffuse this very body with the zest and ease that are born of aloofness; there is no part of (the) whole body that is not suffused with the zest and ease born of aloofness. While (such a person) is thus diligent, ardent, self-resolute, those memories and aspirations that are worldly are got rid of; by getting rid of them, the mind is inwardly settled, calmed, focused, concentrated.

    (MN III 92-93, PTS pg 132-134; “zest” and “ease” from SN V 309-312 Pali Text Society, in place of “rapture” and “joy”)

    Dis-ease ceases in this, the first of the material meditative states. Saturate, permeate, suffuse; gravity the source of activity that supports the posture through pressure in the fluid ball.

    … a (person)… enters on and abides in the second meditative state which is devoid of initial thought and discursive thought, is born of concentration and is zestful and full of ease. (Such a person) drenches, saturates, permeates, suffuses this very body with the zest and ease that are born of concentration; there is no part of (their) whole body that is not suffused with the zest and ease that are born of concentration. It is like a pool of water with water welling up within it, but which has no inlet for water from the eastern… western… northern… or southern side, and even if the god does not send down showers upon it from time to time, yet the current of cool water having welled up from that pool will drench, saturate, permeate, suffuse this very body with the zest and ease that are born of concentration.

    (MN III 92-93, PTS pg 132-134; “zest” and “ease” from SN V 309-312 Pali Text Society, in place of “rapture” and “joy”)

    The infinity pool of the second meditative state. The surface tension of the senses, all the senses including the mind; unhappiness ceases in the second state.

    The alternation between a singularity and totality continues in the third and fourth meditative states. Ease ceases in the third meditative state as the stretch that exists exceeds ease, and happiness ceases in the fourth meditative state as the distinction of the senses that takes place exceeds happiness.

    The extension of the mind of friendliness through the four quarters, above, below, throughout the world may be associated with the induction of the fourth state. Friendliness with the folks on the other side of the wall, who sit when I sit- only they don’t take the posture (as Kobun put it).

    Equalibrioception and proprioception, the forgotten senses.

    1. mb
      mb September 18, 2015 at 7:33 pm |

      Equalibrioception and proprioception, the forgotten senses.

      I’m afraid that cats and marine mammals are “more enlightened” than humans in the matter of equilibrioception. According to Wikipedia:

      Some animals have better equilibrioception than humans, for example a cat uses its inner ear and tail to walk on a thin fence.[3]

      Equilibrioception in many marine animals is done with an entirely different organ, the statocyst, which detects the position of tiny calcareous stones to determine which way is “up”.

      Still, there’s hope for humans catching up to felines and marine creatures with statocysts. In hatha yoga, learning to practice balance postures (e.g. “tree pose”, standing on one leg with the other leg off the ground) with eyes closed can accelerate development of equilibrioception. My personal experience with this is that some kind of “substitute” “inner vision” develops with eyes closed which fills the visual field with “imagined but realistic” perceptions which aid in maintaining physical steadiness (and thereby extends said steadiness to more subtle realms etc. after practice matures) without exterior visual input through the eyes.

      1. mb
        mb September 19, 2015 at 4:44 am |

        519 undefined and 06 seconds

  11. Mumbles
    Mumbles September 18, 2015 at 9:06 pm |

    I’m greedy for more: Just got the amazing new Keith Richards lp “Crosseyed Heart” -Wow. Hope I can sit up in a chair let alone rock the fuck out like KR at 72 yrs old.

    Also watched the great new doc on KR/The Stones “Under The Influence” streaming on Netflix as of right now. Keith is and has been fluent in many many styles of guitar playing, as evidenced in this film. Great how the Stones revived the careers of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and other great Blues performers by their early homage & continued support.

    They weren’t “rip offs” they were and still are uber fans. Like most of us.

  12. Andy
    Andy September 19, 2015 at 2:58 am |

    “If it were about anything besides meaning then our greed might not be merely “interesting.””

    ‘meaning’ is a gerund. Any use of the word ‘meaning’ refers to an activity. ‘Meaning’ is beside itself already, each time.

  13. Frustration and Greed | Zen Mischief September 19, 2015 at 4:34 am |
  14. Dog Star
    Dog Star September 19, 2015 at 8:14 am |

    Thank you, Brad. Greed is often viewed in an unrealistically simplistic way, i.e. “Greed bad, altruism good.” There’s a bit more to it.

    1. Zafu
      Zafu September 19, 2015 at 9:35 am |

      Greed, like all things, are often viewed in the way you describe. They are viewed this way by everyone, including yourself.

      Do you actually believe that you don’t hold the “unrealistically simplistic” impression that “Greed bad” somewhere in the primal recesses of your mind?

      Also, to say that “there’s a bit more to it” implies that you understand all the complexities involved. Do you understand all the complexities involved? or has being a rats God gone to your head.

      And lastly, apropos of nothing, what sound does a bee make, Numbnuts Jr.?

      1. Fred Jr.
        Fred Jr. September 19, 2015 at 10:56 am |


        bzz bzzz bzzzzz bzzzzzzz zzzzz zzzz zzzzzzz zzz zzzzzzz bzzzzz bzzzz bzzz zzzz bzzzz bzzz bzzzzz zzz zz bzzzzz ?

        Smell ya, bro.

        Fart Jr.

        1. Zafu
          Zafu September 19, 2015 at 2:49 pm |

          Yes, very good.

      2. Son of Zafu
        Son of Zafu September 19, 2015 at 11:56 am |

        What do you want meaning for? Life is greed, not meaning.

  15. constantine
    constantine September 19, 2015 at 10:27 pm |

    Deer Brad Warner,

    Your commenters are writing stuff that is much more interesting than your original articles. I suspect that your readership and clicks are in no small part increased by this lot of zen and anti-zen blog commenters.

    You are the noodles, your commenters are the sauce.

    You are the pizza crust, your commenters are the cheese, sauce, veggies, and spices.

    You are buns, your commenters are the meat and condiments.

    You are the hot dog, your commenters are mustard and relish.

    You are the nori, your commenters are the rice, fish, and veggies inside. . . and the damn wasabi.

    You are the oatmeal, your commenters the syrup.

    You are the tofu, your commenters the soy, the garlic, the ginger, the jar of peanut sauce.

    You are the featherless wings, your commenters are the colorful feathers that give majestic flight to your blog.

    You are the ice, your commenters the cream, fruit, and sugar.

    You are the Google earth map, your commenters are the Amazon jungle,

    You are the wall builder, your commenters are Hui Neng’s verse upon the wall.

    You are the sand at the bottom of the sea, your commenters are the bioluminescence that lights up the dark.

    You are the first 20 minutes of any movie made in the 70s where they spent too much time on poor story development that didn’t matter, your commenters are the last hour of any movie made in the 70s when shit actually happened.

    There’s nothing anyone can do to change this. Be thankful that there are commenters here.

  16. economy news
    economy news September 19, 2015 at 11:28 pm |

    Nice post. thanks admin.

  17. Kyla
    Kyla September 22, 2015 at 4:17 am |

    I found this to be a very insightful blog. Makes me think of my motivations in my work.

Comments are closed.