Very Little Needs and Much Contentment

I would like to take this opportunity to say what is in my mind, and my heart, about how we can address the challenges that the world is facing today. I am thinking of the environmental difficulties we have seen over the past decade along with global warming, all as a result of capitalist culture and the waste produced by industrialization over the last fifty years.

In particular, there is the consumption of fossil fuels and what this has done to the atmosphere, the melting of the ice and the rise in sea levels, and the effect on the weather which has caused so many disasters.

The situation is not getting better at all and, as scientists have pointed out, unless something is done, it is going to get worse and worse. It is being discussed in countries all over the globe, more and more citizens of the world are becoming aware of these challenges, and concern is mounting every day.

As Buddhists, we have to be able to address these challenges, and do everything we can to avoid making the situation worse. We must, as individuals, try to cultivate a certain awareness and discipline, so as to make real changes and improvements.

These changes and improvements must be based on our own spiritual practice, on the instructions we have received, and on our own principles, so that they are grounded in the genuinely authentic teachings of the Buddha.

In this respect, I feel there is no greater practice or discipline than the one that Buddha always taught, and suggested to his disciples that they should also teach to anyone who came to seek their advice.

In Tibetan this is called dö chung chok shé, which translated into English would be very little needs and much contentment. We have to practise this both as a community, and as individuals.

In the twenty-first century, we live in a capitalist, consumerist culture. The media are constantly bombarding us with advertisements about how we could live our lives, how we could improve them, and how we should buy more things in order to do so.

People fall for it, and fall for it badly. As a direct result, they are struggling - struggling to make ends meet at the end of each day, the end of each week, the end of each month, and the end of each year.

Some of our new technologies can make our life easier, more comfortable and more convenient. But if we have too many, and we need even more, our whole life becomes surrounded by gadgets and machines. And the cost of it all is far from cheap, which puts so much strain on people's lifestyles, all over the world.

The end result is that, ultimately, people are having a very difficult time striving to earn the money to pay for all the things that they need in life.

There is also a huge market for all kinds of international food, and a huge market for clothing, with international designers being marketed all over the world. It does not stop there: there are so many other things to tempt us every time we walk down the street.

We constantly feel: "I need that. I must get one of them. Oh, that looks good. So does that..." Our discontent goes on growing, and if we indulge it, so does our addiction. And often at the end of the day, all we are left with is a feeling of regret.

Counteracting Craving
The whole culture of consumerism is based on people's weaknesses. It preys on this 'mind of craving', or sepa in Tibetan. Since this is a weakness that everybody shares, it is exploited deeply, and this exploitation gives rise to many of the problems in the world, including that of industrialization.

Another problem is that the rich are becoming richer and richer, the poor are becoming poorer and poorer, and the gap between the two is growing wider and wider.

Envy, jealousy, discontent, pride, arrogance and selfishness - all of these come from not having some degree of control over our craving. The various corporations around the world are aware of this: they set out very strategically to exploit it, and they are succeeding. As we can see, it creates such an imbalance throughout the world.

So, if a change is to come in this world, it has to come from people, and it has to come from individuals. If an individual is to change, it is through the practice of 'very little needs and much contentment'.

Now 'very little needs' has to be a remedy against that mental state that continuously focuses on what we don't have, what we are missing out on in life, and what others have but we lack - that whole mindset of looking at the glass and seeing it as half empty.

That is at the root of why we feel we need something, and it is so very important for us to possess it: "Other people have got one, so why shouldn't I? If only I had it, my life would be so different."

In fact, we have already acquired lots of things like this, but our lives have not changed essentially. Except perhaps that our craving and dissatisfaction have increased even more.

Our sense of fixation on external things grows, in order to fix what is inside our mind. As the Buddha said, this is like drinking salty water to quench your thirst. It only makes you more thirsty.

The way we have been behaving in this consumerist culture of ours has increased our discontent and craving more than ever, and it has therefore increased our unhappiness. Now, the opposite is to be able to minimize, or let go of all the extra things, and to focus on our essential needs. This is what we need to do.

So try, as much as you can, to be independent in this way. At the same time, appreciate that you are doing something for the good of your own mind, and for the good of the world, and the earth.

Rejoice at your discipline, and at the discipline of others. And be positive. Don't always think about what is missing; think about what you already have. How many clothes do we have in our closet? How many shoes on our shoe rack? How many purses in our ‘purse drawer'? How many ties? How many gadgets...? The list is endless.

Take some time to reflect about all this. And make a point of feeling positive and content about what you already have, rather than needing to buy or to get more.

Then you can walk out of the door with a big smile on your face and your wallet and credit card intact, and roam around wherever you want. Now you can stroll through a beautiful city like Paris, down a great street like the Champs Elysées, and admire the architecture or look at all the interesting people from all over the world.

You are not trapped in a bubble of desire, or on a strict retreat in one, or many, of the shops. You are able to open your senses and appreciate what sights there are to see, what sounds to hear, what smells to smell, what tastes to taste, and what physical sensations there are to feel. You are not imprisoned within your own bubble of desire.

Appreciating What We Have
Being content, here, means really to appreciate the basics. That is, the basics of this human body, this human birth of ours, where we have sights, and the eyes to see them; where we have sounds, and the ears to hear them; where we have smells, and the nose to smell them; where we have all the tastes of this world, and the tongue to taste them; where the seasons change, there are many physical sensations to experience, and we have the physical body to experience them; and where we have our mind and brain.

This human brain is supposedly the biggest brain that there is. If that is the case, it has to be used properly, as opposed to us having a mind that just instinctually acts on itself, based on its habits, without any self-reflection.

Even animals have that kind of brain and that kind of mind, but a human being's brain is different. Of course, it has awareness, and the instinctual feelings to meet its own needs, but it also possesses critical intelligence.

This critical intelligence can self-reflect, and can discern what is seemingly favourable, but ultimately unfavourable. When something seems like hard work, this critical intelligence can assess what the benefits are going to be if you go about it in a disciplined way.

This is how human beings should be able to apply their minds, with more wisdom and more skilful means. They ought, therefore, to be able to involve themselves in improving their standard of life, standard of thinking, and standard of higher, deeper aspirations for spiritual realization.

So we have to be able to put this capacity to use. Take an example. Losing our eyesight would be an enormous loss. But if we fail to appreciate our eyes when we have them, it is almost as if there is no great advantage in being able to see. We take it for granted. In the same way, we take all of our senses, and particularly the human mind, for granted.

This human body, these human senses and this human mind do not come into our possession so easily. They are the result of a lot of good merit in our past lives. So while we do have them, we must truly and genuinely appreciate them. In particular, we must be able to appreciate the human mind.

Then we must be able really to practise 'very little needs and much contentment', again in a disciplined way, not imagining that this is something that will come to us just naturally.

The 'very little needs' mind never came to anyone spontaneously. It has to come through practice. 'Much contentment' too does not simply arise, just like that, in someone's mind. It has to be practised.

But if you have little needs and much contentment, then, as Nagarjuna has pointed out, even though you lack wealth, still you are inwardly rich. You may not have many worldly goods, but when you possess this 'very little needs and much contentment', you are rich inside.

So if you can genuinely practise the Buddha's teaching on 'very little needs and much contentment' in whatever way is appropriate for you, it will be a great practice for your evolution on the spiritual path, as well as for addressing the problems of the modern world - the problems of capitalist, consumerist culture, and the waste that is damaging the earth and the environment.
The Power of Prayer
Then, as people who are following the spiritual path, we have to pray. And we have to pray realistically for the benefit of all mother sentient beings. But in this day and age, I feel it is also very important to pray for world peace.

This may sound like a cliché, but it is something that is really needed. What is more, we need to pray that peace comes about in the world through the discovery of a new, renewable source of energy from within the dharmadhatu, the universal nature of things.

The dharmadhatu is not fixed in any particular way, so it must be the source of all possibilities. Since this is the case, if we pray that some new, renewable form of energy emerges in the near future, I think that one will be discovered, especially as scientists are already saying that they are on the brink of a breakthrough.

We can pray for a renewable and sustainable kind of energy that is as abundant as the energy of the sun, and able to be fully harvested. We can pray that the technology is not robbed and pirated by corporations, and exploited for profit only, but is affordable and available to everyone.

The point is not to blame anyone, we are simply talking about what needs to happen in the world. If that kind of resource was available to everyone, there would be no need for anyone to fight over it, and maybe there would be more harmony among the countries and citizens of the world.

Perhaps it is also time for western higher education, and particularly the business world, to address the old system of using all our resources just to satisfy our needs and make profit. Because these resources will run out, and bring unprecedented unhappiness.

It is higher education that can play a role in helping the corporations and business people of the world to become more environmentally friendly. Of course, as a businessman, you have to make a profit, but every effort should be made to do so without generating so much waste, and when you have made a profit, you should be able to give some back to your country, and to the poor.

Also, if governments around the world tax rich and poor equally in the name of democracy, it is simply not right. Making someone who earns 50,000 dollars a year pay the same percentage of tax as someone who is making 50 million dollars a year is not fair.

If those who make a lot of money by being good at business paid a little more tax, and that tax was used not for government infrastructure but to meet the needs of the poor, for health care, and so on, it could then perhaps slowly begin to close the gap.

Of course this would be the law, but at the same time some genuine kindness, compassion and generosity would be extended to the needy.

If the mindset of people in the world became one that was kinder, friendlier and more compassionate towards one another, peace and harmony would definitely result, and there would also be greater harmony and peace between humanity and the environment. This has to be our aspiration.

When we aspire and pray for this, we have to make our prayers as strong as we possibly can, because scientists are saying that there is not much time left. If there are perhaps only ten years' maximum left for something to change, we need to pray much more strongly for real, renewable, sustainable energy to come onto the market much sooner than we had imagined.

We need to pray that psychological and emotional changes will take place much sooner, and that more governments will take charge of the welfare of the people, rather than just the welfare of the rich.

Again, I am not intending to point the finger at anyone; we are just talking about what the substance of our prayers could be. If we can actually pray like this, as a community and also individually, I have great faith that something is going to change, and something positive is going to come.

In the past anything that was positive came from people's aspirations and people's prayers. In order to shape a prayer or create an aspiration, first the vision has to be there, and if the vision is clear, the sincerity and power of the prayer can work wonders in the world.

So I encourage you to do two things. In these modern, decadent times, we must first practise 'very little needs and much contentment', and secondly we must pray fervently for world peace.

I feel responsible for conveying this, as a Buddhist, as a teacher, and as a follower of a great sage, the Buddha himself. As he himself said, if you are going to speak about one thing to bring some benefit, speak about dö chung chok shé, very little needs and much contentment, and how that can be such a positive factor in anyone's life.

Please do contemplate on this. As the Buddha has said, we have to examine his teachings like a goldsmith examines gold, and we should not accept his teachings just because we have faith in him.

Here too, the same principle holds true, and you have to examine the points that I am trying to make. You may well see in them some relevance to this time, or some relevance to your own life—and definitely to your own pocket, your credit card debts and debts of all kinds, and to the anxieties of every description that are constantly looming over your head. And if you do so, I will be very much obliged to you for having taken the time to hear me out, and for taking these points into your lives.

This article is based on a teaching given at Rigpa's summer retreat in 2008, at Lerab Ling in France. First published in View, the Rigpa Journal, July 2010.
This article is also found in the book, A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency.

Read more about: