We all need to have roofs over our heads and enough food and comfort to stay in good health. And we should do whatever is necessary to come to the aid of all the people on earth, numerous indeed, who are still deprived of these things. Remedying the inequalities and the poverty in the world is an essential duty.

Being content with simplicity is the need of getting rid of what is superfluous. I have to acknowledge that that is easier for me. I have taken monastic vows and possess neither house nor lands nor car. I have chosen a lifestyle that makes it possible for me to leave on a moment’s notice for the other side of the world without shirking my responsibilities to a family or to work colleagues. I can do it without slighting anybody.

The notion of lack and privation is very relative. For thirteen years, I slept on the ground in my master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s bedroom, wherever he was in the world. In the morning, I folded up my sleeping bag and put it in a sack with my toothbrush, my towel, and a few other small items. After Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche died in 1991, I slept in his anteroom on a carpet. In the morning, I stowed my things in a little cubby. After three years of this, somebody said, “Wouldn’t you like a room?” I accepted, and it was rather nice. But at no time did I consider my previous situation a privation. Quite to the contrary, what was foremost for me was the joy I felt at the extraordinary good fortune of living close to Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, of benefiting from his presence and receiving his teachings.

I still use the same sleeping bag today. There’s really no reason to be attached to this sleeping bag, which is losing its feathers, but I see no reason to replace it as long as it still keeps me warm in the winter.

Matthieu Ricard with coauthors Christophe Andre (left) and Alexandre Jollien (right)

Attachment complicates life. One day, at the end of a conference, as I was signing books, I found myself with a Montblanc fountain pen in my hand. I looked around. No one claimed it, so I kept it. The problem is, I tend to lose pens. With ballpoints, that’s not a big deal, but a Montblanc, on the other hand, is no ordinary fountain pen—it would be a shame to lose it! So since then, it sleeps in a drawer, and I never use it. I would do better to give it away. But is it a good thing to give away a fountain pen that represents 5 percent pen and 95 percent meaningless attachment?

It’s not objects, people, or phenomena themselves that pose problems, but the attachment we have to them. A great Indian Buddhist master said, “It’s not appearances that enslave you but your attachment to them.” The story is told of a monk who was so attached to his begging bowl that he was reborn as a snake coiled in that bowl and let nobody come near it. So stripping away is not a question of wealth or poverty but rather how strongly we cling to things. Even the richest man, if he is not attached to his riches, is not enslaved by them and can use them for the benefit of others.

That said, it’s unbelievable that, in spite of myself, I end up hoarding. I have a small room, which is three meters by three meters, in the Shechen monastery in Nepal, and a retreat place in the mountains that is even smaller. In each of these places, I have a shrine with some books and a few statues, and beneath them, two small storage spaces. And I end up accumulating more than necessary. Then, once a year, I take out all the garments I have stored there and give away those that I have two or three of. At my workplace in the monastery, I take enormous pleasure in throwing out old files, which go to feed the fires in the kitchen.

Today, when people talk about a financial crisis in the rich countries, it usually means a crisis in the realm of the superfluous. If everybody contented themselves with only the necessary, we would never get into such crises. Recently in New York, I ran into a 500-meter-long line composed of hundreds of people waiting patiently in the street. Intrigued, I asked somebody what it was all about. “A floor-sample sale of brand-name scarves. They’re selling for $300 dollars instead of $500,” I was told.

I couldn’t help but think that at the same moment in Nepal, women were standing in endless lines in the street to buy a few liters of kerosene to cook food for their children. A financial “crisis” obviously looks different in different places in the world!

According to a Tibetan proverb, “Being satisfied is like having a treasure in the palm of your hand.” The truly rich person is one who is not greedy for superfluous things. A person who lives amid opulence and wants still more will always be poor. If you think that having always more will lead to your being satisfied, you are deceiving yourself. It’s like thinking that by drinking more salt water, a time will come when you will no longer be thirsty.

In Tibet, it is said that the true hermit leaves behind only his footprints when he leaves the world. In consumer societies, we accumulate, accumulate, and always want to keep it all for ourselves. My dear mother says that our civilization is centripetal because we always draw more things to ourselves. Traditional parts of Asia still contain many examples of centrifugal civilization, in which people share. I know a Tibetan nun who says when you give her a gift, “Thanks. I’ll be able to make offerings and give to the poor!”

Excerpted from In Search Of Wisdom, by Matthieu Ricard, Christophe Andre, and Alexandre Jollien. Sounds True, June 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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