10 Pentecost

The Rev. Noel Bordador

One of the souvenirs I got when I traveled to Bangkok, Thailand a few years back is this bowl. Actually, it is not a bowl but a cup used by Buddhist monks. I got it in a part of Bangkok called Ban Baht, or the Monk’s Bowl Village, a place where monks’ bowl are made.  In fact, one morning I saw a barefoot monk, clothed in saffron robes, carrying a bowl, and people were going up to him placing their gifts of food inside his bowl. The bowl is not huge and just a little larger than this one. Monks are allowed to accumulate only so much food as the bowl can contain- - and no more. They are not allowed to hoard food beyond what they need to eat for the day.

            Another story- -this one from the Jewish tradition.
            Around the end of the nineteenth century, a tourist from the United States visited the famous Polish rabbi, Hafez Hayyim.
            He was astonished to see that the rabbi’s home was just a simple room filled with books. The only furniture was a table and a bench.
                        “Rabbi, where is your furniture?” asked the tourist.
                        Where is yours?” replied Hafez.
                        “Mine? But I’m only a visitor here.”
                        So am I,” said the rabbi. 1

The point of these two stories is that the truly wise, the truly free person, the truly liberated person is one who is not encumbered by possessions, someone who is a not a slave to objects- material or spiritual, and most importantly, someone who is not a slave to his or her desires, someone who is not controlled by his wants and passions.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying the all our desires are wrong. I am not saying that all our desires are evil. In fact, our desires have a certain legitimacy. For example, hunger, our desire for food is good because it prompts us to feed and nourish ourselves, which is necessary for our survival. Thirst, our desire for water, is good because it arouses us to fill our thirst which is also necessary for us to live.  Our desire for love enables us to seek relationships with God and one another that will make our life deeply meaningful, and without connection with others, we will not thrive. We are creatures of desire and without desire, we will not survive.

The difficulty, of course, is that sometimes our desires can also be excessive so that the very things or objects to which our desires attach themselves could become detrimental to us. Why? Because through excessive desire, we become enslaved to objects or persons to which the desires attach themselves. Through our excessive desiring we can become addicted to things, and however good these things are to us, they become our masters and we become their slaves. And, our excessive desires can blind us so that we see the objects of our desires- whether a thing or person- as something we need to exploit for our own use.  Such excessive attachment, clinging or craving can cause great sorrow for us, and great suffering and evil for others.          

There is a term for this excessive desire, and we usually call it lust or, and perhaps less, libido. Nowadays, lust or libido is usually connected with sex. However, libido is more than just about sex. Overall, it refers to our excessive, unhealthy and harmful desires. The great North African Church Father, Augustine, spoke of many types of libido or lusts: libido habendi pecuniam (the lust or excessive desire for money), libido ulscendi (the lust for revenge, to get even with someone), libido gloriandi (the lust for fame, craving for attention, being in the spotlight all the time), libido dominandi (the lust for power and domination), to name a few.

The Gospel today speaks of “greed” which is a type of lust that motivates one to hoard and accumulate money or possessions more than what is necessary. Money and possessions in and of themselves are not evil, but it is our greed that is problematical for greed. Greed can trick us into believing that we need more than what is just necessary or needed for survival. Greed can fool us into thinking that we don’t have enough of anything and so we hoard, and in the process, we lose our freedom, we often end up cheating others, we exploit others and the environment, we start wars just to get the things we want.              

But, the Gospel today is really more than just about greed and the danger of accumulation. The Gospel warns us to pay attention to our desires. We do not disown them. We do not renounce our desires as evil. But, we observe them, we watch them rather than blindly follow them without proper discernment. The Buddhists primarily do this by sitting meditation. In meditation, they observe every feeling and desire or state of the mind and body, but they train themselves not to be attached to their feelings or desires. Simply they watch them but don’t get caught up in them.  In our Christian tradition, we also have various spiritual practices by which we train ourselves not to be enslaved by every desire yearning to be fulfilled. One is through prayer.  Prayer is not primarily about asking God to give us whatever we want and when we want it. Rather, we open ourselves honestly before God, and we expose the yearnings of our hearts, and we ask God to enlighten us as we ask the moral question about our desire: Will fulfilling a particular desire make me loving towards God, others or myself or would it make me sinful, less loving, less compassionate, less merciful, less just? In establishing  a space between us and our desires, then we can establish a right view about them. If we establish some distance between ourselves and our desires, then we can feel that we don’t have to give act out on our desires without some thought, that we do not necessarily have to give in to every appetite we feel, that we have some choice whether to give expression to them or not, that we are not slaves to our desires and greed. Once we discern in prayer that giving expression to a particular desire is not good for us, then we make use of another spiritual practice we call “self-denial” that is, consciously denying ourselves the opportunity to give expression to desires that are not healthy, desires that can be destructive. If we want peace in our lives, if we want peace in the world, we begin with prayer and self-denial.

When I was young, our family had eight dogs. One of the things I watch dogs do is  they chase after their tails. And when they do, they go in this dizzying circular motion almost endlessly, and if they are successful, they catch their tail and bite them and chew them, they hurt themselves and they suffer. We can be like that. Our desires can be our tails. We can end up chasing at every wants and whims and this causes us (and others) suffering and exhaustion. Now, somehow this endless chasing at our tails must be broken in order to break the cycle of suffering. We must somehow transcend our selves above this dizzying round of chasing forever at every object every desires by actively renouncing, that is refusing to give in at every desire, something  our Buddhist brothers and sisters we called, transcendent renunciation. Renunciation is something we view negatively because it connotes giving up some of our freedoms, but that is paradoxical, isn’t it? We give up some of our freedoms so that we can be deeply and authentically free.

1 Story found in Anthony de Mello's  Song of the Bird (1982), Doubleday