Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Upper West Side, April 2007

My Zen teacher gave a talk on Sunday that at one point touched on the notion of "small desire." To have small desire is an esteemed trait in Buddhism, and the Zen master Dogen wrote in his interpretation of the Buddha's teachings that it's one of the "Eight Awarenesses" to be cultivated by Bodhisattvas. My teacher quoted from Dogen's essay on this topic, and I wish I had the exact quote because it was really beautiful.

"Small desire" is not about being lazy or indifferent - in fact, Diligence is another of Dogen's Eight Awarenesses, and diligent practice is not for the lazy. Instead, it's about craving less, learning to quiet the inner hunger that drives us all to endlessly consume.

It's funny how, in American culture and probably in much of Western culture, having "small desire" is a thing to be mocked. If you don't have ambition and drive you're a slacker; if you don't want to get ahead and keep up with the Joneses you're somehow less of a person. If you're not a recreational shopper your coworkers don't understand you. Your family thinks you're odd if you don't want presents at Christmas. If you have a job that meets your needs and you settle into that job, to keep it too long is considered a deficiency, a blight on your resume.

And yet, "small desire" is such a beautiful, freeing concept. Think of it: The realization that we have all we need. It's all right here. There's no need to be hungry. We are complete, and living life in our completeness.

I've been working a lot with "small desire" over the years. Fortunately, I've never been an extremely ambitious person, so to have "BIG DESIRE" is not my nature. I have gradually been whittling down my life and realizing how little I really need.

When I came back from the Peace Corps in 1994, I owned rooms full of furniture and possessions that I had in storage at my Mom's house. I moved it all into a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment, and as I was unpacking it -- I who had recently lived in a single-room mud-and-stone hut -- I thought, "WHY do I own all this?"

Ever since then, I've been gradually giving it away. I'm down now to a studio apartment, and a pretty spare one at that. I love the openness and emptiness of my space, and I often wonder how far this dispersal will go. I keep pushing the limits, taking another box or two to the Housing Works thrift shop, and with every box I get rid of I feel lighter.

I go through moments when I desire a new job, or desire a date, but honestly, those desires aren't very strong, which is why I don't work very intently on finding either one. Really all I desire is a chance to sit out in the sun and pet my cat and watch the sky, to walk around this city that I love, and to practice.

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