In this age of electronic banking, some people tend to concentrate enthusiastically on amassing more and more possessions. Possessions are undeniably important as the material basis of our lives. Thus the interest in acquiring more of them as efficiently as possible is natural. But single-minded devotion to the desire of the moment and the acquisition of belongings leads to the delusion that happiness can be calculated in terms of money, a delusion that can blind us to the most important aspects of our humanity.
To prevent that kind of delusion and the mental agitation it causes, we must understand exactly what is important and assimilate the spirit of the Buddhist teaching of the true basis for satisfaction. The Dhammapada, or Verses on the Law, contains the following explanation of the relation between people and wealth: "Various kinds of property and wealth destroy the ignorant people who do not seek the other shore [enlightenment]. By desiring property and wealth, they ruin themselves and others as well."
Although possessions are necessary in life, they can ruin the ignorant person who fails to seek enlightenment. Knowing how to use possessions to good ends determines one's attitude toward them. Someone who consistently pursues philanthropic and altruistic ideals uses wealth beneficially. But for the person who lacks such ideals and is guided by selfish desires alone, the very possession of wealth can spell ruin.
It is fine to have possessions, but happiness is possible without them. The most important things in life are love, respect, trust, and harmony. Though materially poor, anyone who has cultivated these has great spiritual riches.
Amassing intangible wealth of the spirit makes life truly rich and meaningful. Buddhist teachings outline seven kinds of intangible wealth: faith, morality, contrition, fear of doing evil, knowledge of the teachings, giving, and wisdom.
Certainly these seven intangible treasures are rewarding and uplifting; unfortunately, however, people tend to be dissatisfied with the intangible and to prefer concretely calculated material benefits. But as long as they are obsessed with satisfying immediate desires, they cannot attain tranquillity, or unconstrained thought. The Sutra of the Last Teaching (I-chiao-ching) says: "One who would escape all suffering must contemplate the meaning of satisfaction. Knowing what satisfaction means brings spiritual riches and tranquillity. One who understands what satisfaction is sleeps peacefully even on the bare ground. One who does not understand it would be dissatisfied even if living in heaven and would be spiritually deprived even if rich. The person who understands satisfaction is rich in spirit."
Possessions are indispensable to everyday life; letting the ideal of wealth of the spirit guide our thoughts and deeds enables us to use possessions to advantage.
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Athletes prepare themselves psychologically to do their best at crucial moments. The pressure of participating in major competition - which is greater than nonathletes might imagine - often prevents contenders from doing their best. Being able to face keen competition with calm and composure, without nervousness or undue excitement, plays a decisive role in athletic performance. The same calm is necessary in ordinary life.
Becoming too tense or excited narrows our perspective, making it impossible to take a sweeping view of situations and thus distorting our interpretations. This is why our wise forebears insisted that at times of excitement it is vitally important to pause, catch one's breath, and regain composure.
The habit of one broadcast journalist illustrates the importance of a calming pause. Whenever the network gives him an important assignment, after making all necessary preparations to cover the story he goes to the washroom and shaves. This calms him. As he moves the razor slowly over his face, he organizes his thoughts about the assignment.
When we are calm, we avoid obsessions and can make objective, comprehensive assessments of situations. Although the intense pressure of daily activities and work sometimes makes flexibility of mind hard to achieve, such flexibility can change our lives for the better. People who thoroughly understand their own goals and ideals and constantly strive to achieve them have the power to preserve the necessary flexibility. Such people are naturally aware of how to live and enthusiastically pursue their own goals. Laxness in pursuit of their goals, however, may cause people to become obsessed with trivialities. When this happens, they lose sight of life's true meaning and become troubled, confused, and incapable of taking a comprehensive, objective view.
Recently Michio Nagai, a former education minister of Japan, remarked that people today, even if they are materially well off, often suffer from a spiritual poverty that makes them impatient and inconsiderate. Affluence does not necessarily ensure happiness. Indeed, there are many people in the world who, while poor in monetary terms, lead happy, spiritually rich lives. True mental flexibility comes from living always to the best of our abilities and as humanely as we can, with neither impatience nor greed.
Religious faith, especially daily Buddhist training, renews in us the spirit of gratitude for the benefactions we enjoy and helps us achieve flexibility of mind. Flexibility of mind in turn leads to happiness. We should all strive to find time each day to pause and rediscover ourselves and in this way give our lives greater meaning. Rediscovering ourselves contributes to our happiness by giving us flexibility of mind.
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Deep emotion is the greatest spur to self-improvement, but it should always be accompanied by careful thought.
A statement in the Analects of Confucius urges daily self-reflection with the goal of discovering one's mistakes. Following this excellent advice can play a major role in imparting meaning to one's life. The initial exhortation is followed by three specific subjects for reflection: confirmation of the purity of one's motives in serving others, confirmation that one is being perfectly sincere with friends, and confirmation that one offers to teach others only things that one has mastered oneself.
In other words, instead of hazily recalling the things that happen from day to day, we ought to be specific in our daily self-examination. It is equally important to occasionally examine ourselves more thoroughly and deeply than usual so that we stay on the course of sound development.
Keeping a diary is a good way to organize the mind and analyze thoughts and deeds more deeply. Expressing ourselves in writing helps us focus our thoughts. Thus a diary must do more than record a string of events: it must also include inner, spiritual matters. No one can keep such a diary for us; we must do it ourselves. Furthermore, the person who rereads a deeply thoughtful diary can trace his or her development as clearly as a physician traces heartbeats on an electrocardiogram.
Because of the fast pace of life today, we are so pressed for time that we risk losing sight of ourselves. Setting aside time for self-reflection not only establishes a refuge in our lives that keeps us from being controlled by the force of habit but also gives us an opportunity to rediscover ourselves. The effect of self-reflection is heightened when the time for reflection is made the time for keeping a diary, as well.
The late theoretical mathematician Kiyoshi Oka said that as long as he was in the habit of doing research, he could begin work the minute he sat at his desk. But if he had been away from his research for a while, his attention wandered. It then took some time before he could lose himself in deep thought. The same problem occurs in keeping a diary: when the habit has been broken, getting started again is difficult.
The opinions of others are an important source of material for self-reflection. Instead of relying solely on our own perceptions, we need to see ourselves as others do. In this connection, family discussions are extremely valuable. For instance, conversation after dinner, when the whole family is together, provides an excellent stimulus for self-reflection and deepens family ties. Of course, not everything said will be pleasing, but even harsh comments deserve to be listened to calmly.
Since flexibility of mind can improve the way we live, we should all strive for mental flexibility and resolve to set aside a definite time each day for self-reflection, renewal, and self-improvement.