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On Relationships, Greed, and Generosity

There was once a man who gave away his children in order to prove that he could master letting go. When his wife returned home, she thought his approach made sense. But does it?

Earlier this year, in a discussion on the Death Dhamma podcast, Dr. Seth Zuihō Segall reminded me of the importance of our relationships with other people. Specifically, he mentioned the fact that we need other humans in order to flourish. He said:

Our relationships with our parents and our spouses, our children, our friends, those that would give our life the most meaning and the most sense of fulfillment. If we’re giving those up, we’re giving up a major area where we might actually create well-being for ourselves. And I’ll also say that it’s within that field of relationships where it’s the most crucial place to practice mindfulness and equity and compassion and loving kindness. All the virtues that we’re trying to develop along the Buddhist path.

There are monks and nuns who practice in solitude and attain enlightenment. There are also monks and nuns who live side-by-side with others, teach the rest of us, and attain enlightenment. The rest of us are fortunate because we benefit from the meditations and goodwill generated by the solo practitioners and from the lessons from our teachers. As laypeople, we are meant to interact with others. It is important for us to be discerning about how we spend our time and with whom we spend our time. In these relationships there is attachment. And that is not wrong or bad.

What is it we attach to? We attach to sensual pleasures, ideas and views, rites and rituals, and our view of ourselves. You are going to have human relationships. You are going to want to eat and stay hydrated. It’s the lōbha, the greed, that brings us to unskillful attachment or unskillful desire. In the book or list of threes, you will find:

“Monks, there are these three roots of what is unskillful. Which three? Greed is a root of what is unskillful, aversion is a root of what is unskillful, delusion is a root of what is unskillful.”

(AN 3.69)

Unskillful. This is a useful and helpful word. It is not wrong to want something. You will seek out time with friends, you are going to want to eat certain foods. Your body will prompt you to thirst and to quench that thirst. When you have enough and want more, that can lead you to unskillful behavior. When you hoard resources that are needed by others. And you try to collect more of those resources. Or when you try to monopolize someone’s time. You enjoy being with that person and you do not want to share him or her with others.

Anytime you want something so intensely that you lie or cheat or steal to get it. That is clearly unskillful attachment and that is greed. Sometimes, in order to secure the time and attention of others, we might make up false emergencies to keep that person focused on us. Or try to get them to commit to dates far in advance so that we know that their time is ours.

Relentlessly wishing your time with your loved ones is unending, that is greed.

After my family members died, I remember some of my friends telling me that I had been handed a gift in terms of the opportunity for practice and spiritual growth. Initially, I understood their perspective, but it did take some time for me to acknowledge the truth behind their words. And I would not have grown through the experience of grief without the loss of my loved ones. And they would not have been my loved ones without some form of attachment to them, those relationships, and my sense of how those relationships defined me.

During this time, one of my teachers encouraged me to meditate on the losses of others. To consider the fact that I was not the only one whose family had died. And to contemplate the suffering of others. As part of this meditation, I sent loving-kindness to all who were currently struck by grief, and then to all who would be stuck by grief, with the final realization that everyone has been or will be visited by grief. This helped me to develop context, perhaps even equanimity, with regard to my situation. It is not unfair to think that my grief came from an element of greed. There would be no more time spent with the people who died. It was hard for me to process the end of those relationships.

The teachings do not say never want something. The teachings do not say never love someone. It is how you crave or create clinging for those humans who help us on the path. And for those of who are yet to be enlightened, we will probably have experiences of greed, or unskillful attachment in our relationships to ourselves and others. The way to overcome greed is generosity.

Conquer anger
            with lack of anger;
bad, with good;
stinginess, with a gift;
a liar, with truth.

(Dhp 223)

By teaching me to meditate on the losses of others, and sending them loving-kindness, my teacher helped me to find a way to practice generosity during a time when I would have said I was too weak to help others. 

See more

Margaret Meloni: Death Dhamma
The Death Dhamma Podcast (Margaret Meloni)
Nakula Sutta: Nakula’s Parents (Access to Insight)

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