If you do not know how to be satisfied,
Even if you are rich you will be poor.
If you do know how to be satisfied,
Even if you are poor you will be rich.
— Sutra of Bequeathed Teachings
Desire is the most basic bond that binds us to the delusions of this world. Due to our desires we are born over and over again in one of the six realms of existence.
The Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra says that desires kindle feelings of dissatisfaction from start to finish. When we begin to desire something, we feel dissatisfied because we do not yet have it. If we get it, we feel dissatisfied because it has not lived up to our expectations or because we now fear that we may lose it. After we have lost it or after it has grown old we feel dissatisfied again. If we are wise we will take heed of this inevitable process.
The great poet Su Dongpo said, “Human desires are boundless and endless, but the capacity of objects to satisfy our desires is not.”
The Avadanas say, “Even if the seven treasures were to rain down from heaven they still would not satisfy desire. Desire gives rise to few pleasures and many troubles. To understand this truth is to be a sage.”
The Sutra of Bequeathed Teachings says:
People with many desires are always looking for gain and thus they suffer and have many troubles. People with few desires feel no need to lust after things and thus they are peaceful and free of many troubles.
When the sutras talk about desires in this way they are talking about desires for things we do not need. The desire for a drink of water when you are thirsty is not going to bind you to this world. The desire to own a swimming pool and sip lemonade beside it when you are thirsty, however, will bind you to this world.
The Joy of Knowing How to Be Satisfied with What You Have
Knowing how to be satisfied with what we have is a very important starting point for the successful practice of Buddhism. We should look upon what we have with a more or less neutral sense of satisfaction. Our possessions should not lead us to feel shame or guilt or desire. If we truly have a need to acquire something we do not have, we should pursue that need level-headedly and without the imbalanced feeling that we must have whatever it is immediately and without delay.
Needs should not be confused with desires. Once our basic needs have been met we should allow our consciousness to roam freely within the glory of existence and the beauty of the Dharma. Don’t burden yourself with useless desires that can only lead you away from the truth. As Buddhists, our primary area of concern is the mind and not the material world.
The Bodhisattva Gocaropaya Visaya Vikurvana Nirdesa Sutra says:
People who are greedy are always trying to accumulate things and then even when they get them they are not satisfied. Their thinking is disturbed and full of ignorance and this state leads them to prey on others and often think of how to gain advantages over them. Their behavior produces resentment and anger in this life and once they die they will be reborn in the evil realms. The wise understand these consequences and thus they learn how to be satisfied with whatever they have.
The Avadanas say, “Knowing how to be satisfied is the best good fortune.”
The Eight Realizations of the Bodhisattva Sutra says:
A mind that does not know how to be satisfied, but always wants more and more, only adds to its misfortune and trouble. The bodhisattva is not like that. The bodhisattva knows how to be satisfied; he is peaceful in poverty and able to uphold the way. His only desire is to become wise.
The World of One Who Is Satisfied
Our minds are the world. When our minds know how to experience a sense of sufficiency in all circumstances, we are free. Beyond distinctions, beyond greed, beyond the lusts that impel us toward yet another embrace with delusion, the mind that knows how to be satisfied rests in the equality of complete truth. Such a mind has no need to make comparisons, it does not calculate, it does not suffer and it does not experience pain. Once the mind achieves this state, it understands that everything in the universe already belongs to it; the birds, the flowers, the stars in the sky, the rippling of running water—all of it is the mind and all of it belongs to the mind. Where is the need for possessiveness or greed then?
Yan Hui, an imperturbable disciple of Confucius, was described by his master as “living in mean quarters, with simple food and drink, in a state which most people would despise, and yet he was full of joy.”
Mahakasyapa, one of the Buddha’s disciples, spent years living in remote graveyards as part of his ascetic practice, and yet he did not feel as if he were suffering or as if his life were lacking in anything.
The Japanese Zen Master Ryokan (1758-1831) lived “with a little grain in a sack and a little wood by his stove.” Nevertheless, he “sat cross-legged and at ease in his thatch hut under the rain.” He was always satisfied and would have been perplexed by the idea of wanting anything to be different than it was.
Today, it is difficult to live as simply as people in the past did for they lived in slow-paced agricultural societies. Modern societies are complex technological achievements that require a much higher level of activity just to maintain basic needs. While we can no longer copy the lifestyles of the sages of the past, we can learn much from their spirits. The spirit of people like Master Ryokan or Yan Hui was one of acceptance, equanimity and deep satisfaction. Those of us who are alive today may have to make car payments, housing payments and struggle with many complex factors just to maintain ourselves, but we can still live in a way that honors a basic trust in the flow of life and that gives us basic satisfaction with whatever we have. We can still live with our feet on the ground and our heads in the sky.
How to Be Satisfied with What You Have
Since desire is incapable of producing satisfaction, it follows that we cannot cure a sense of dissatisfaction through desire. Dissatisfaction must be overcome by wisdom and by helping others. If our minds are in the habit of always chasing one desire after another, we must force ourselves to recognize this and understand what we are doing. Once consciousness is turned to any area of our lives, a change for the better cannot be far behind.
The Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra says that one way to overcome desire is to realize that desires need a seed within and a stimulant without. These two aspects go together. When we begin to feel an untoward desire, the sastra says, we should examine both the seed within and the stimulant without. Then we should consider that they are mutually interdependent; there cannot be one without the other. Having understood that, the sastra then says we should disentangle ourselves from both factors at once. The sastra says that we should remove the seed within while simultaneously turning away from the stimulant without.
Desires can also be overcome by considering their consequences, the amount of time they cause us to waste, their inherent emptiness and the time they steal from the much more important work of studying the Dharma and improving ourselves. Whenever we overcome a desire, we experience an increase in energy and understanding. The level of our consciousness is raised by just that much every time we turn our gaze away from a low attachment.
If we have tried the above techniques and still failed to overcome our desires, we should redouble our efforts to help others. The bodhisattva helps himself primarily through his willingness to help others. When we focus our attention more on the needs of others and less on our own desires, we will go a long way toward seeing beyond the delusive mirage of greed and desire.
When one seeks an object of desire, one suffers.
When one gets an object of desire, one fears losing it.
When one loses an object of desire, one is greatly troubled.
At each and every point, there is no joy.
If all desire causes suffering like this, then how is one to be rid of it?
One can rid oneself of desire by learning the joys of samadhi found in deep meditation.
— Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra