Borrowed Goods

Ownership is a subject that gets a lot of coverage in the teachings of the Buddha, largely from the angle of recognising all the things that are not ours – although we often take them to be. Thinking things belong to us when they actually don’t is one of the big problems that the Buddha identifies as being at the heart of why we experience suffering, yet ironically it is by realising that so much of what we think is ours is only borrowed that we can access a happiness that is ours to keep.

This week I have been extremely busy doing work on my new house which will be the first owned property I have lived in for over a decade, and it has given me the first-hand opportunity to notice the subtle shifts in perspective that happen between the sense of something being borrowed and something being owned by us, by being ours.

This reminded me of a talked I watched by Bhikkhu Bramali a few weeks ago where he was talking about a section from a sutta about borrowed goods. The sutta itself is talking about learning the dangers of chasing after sensual pleasures and consists of several famous similes where the Buddha likens sensual pleasures to, among other things, a blazing torch, a skeleton, a dream, and a lump of meat .

The  particular passage Bhikkhu Bramali was talking about was a simile comparing sensual pleasures to borrowed goods:

“Suppose a man had borrowed some goods—a gentleman’s carriage and fine jewelled earrings—and preceded and surrounded by these he proceeded through the middle of Āpaṇa. When people saw him they’d say: ‘This must be a wealthy man! For that’s how the wealthy enjoy their wealth.’ But when the owners saw him, they’d take back what was theirs. What do you think? Would that be enough for that man to get upset?”

“Yes, sir. Why is that? Because the owners took back what was theirs.”” [1]

This is a wonderful simile because it is rich in layers of meaning. The most obvious point it is making about sensual pleasures is that they are only temporary, we can never keep them. This is the key teaching on anicca – impermanence or instability. Everything in the world is reliant on ever changing conditions, so nothing can ever stay the same forever.

This includes the things that make us happy, the fleeting moments of pleasant feeling that sensory stimuli can provide us. But even though we know that pleasant feeling is something that comes and goes, we still put all of our efforts into trying to get some when we don’t have it and trying to keep it when we do have it. This, the Buddha says, is the reason why we suffer – we want to keep things that we can only ever borrow.

Bhikkhu Bramali presented the idea of ‘borrowed goods’ in an interesting way, asking us to consider all the things in our lives that we are effectively just ‘borrowing’ yet we hold on to them as fundamental to who we are. He suggested that we can view  all of our relationships as ‘borrowed’ because none of them can last forever, they are all more or less temporary. Friends, family, partners, and colleagues, all of them will come and go and we can’t take any of them with us when we die.

Consider your job, it too won’t be yours forever, one day your work will end for one reason or another. He also said consider your education as ‘borrowed’, you may feel confident that the knowledge you have learned and the qualifications you have are yours, but some day you will not have that knowledge anymore perhaps because you will be old, or perhaps simply because you will have forgotten it. Yet still we often make reference to our education as something significant about us, as something that defines us in some way, and we do the same with our jobs and relationships too – we use them to create and support senses of self.

Another thing the simile also points to is pretence and deceptive appearances. The man in the simile is dressing up as someone other than who he is, he is passing himself off as a rich and important man and he seems to be gaining some kind of pleasure in doing so too. In the same way we can consider the self-identity that we dress ourselves up in is equally deceptive, because it is not who we really are. Quite who we really are though is something that the Buddha never gave a definitive answer for, but what he did make very clear is that who or what we usually think we are is definitely not correct.

As I wrote in last week’s post, our sense of self cannot sustain itself, it always relies on something outside of itself for its existence. We mistakenly prop it up with things that can never sustain it because they are things that will change, and we attach self to things that can never belong to us, much like the borrowed goods that the man dresses himself up in. We routinely attach a sense of self, of identity, to the things that Bhikkhu Brahmali highlighted – our relationships, our job, our education – but these things can only ever be temporary.

The temporary nature of the things we use to form a sense of self is at the heart of the teaching of anatta, or not-self. It isn’t possible to say that we have a stable and consistent self because our sense of self is always leaning on changing things to hold itself up. But one of the main problems with relying on external forces to uphold our sense of self is that it runs the risk of changing or ending at any moment. And what happens when the source of our self-identity ends? We suffer.

As I wrote about last week, if you use self as a strategy to gain happiness you will always be vulnerable to the ever changing and unpredictable nature of the world, so if you seek happiness through your sense of identity, and the things that bolster that for you, then your coat is always hanging on a shaky hook. At any moment something could come along that changes everything, and along with it goes your sense of self and the happiness that it brought you.

But the senses of self that we gain pleasure from aren’t just the obvious ones that we form a lasting sense of identity around, we also gain pleasure from self through very fleeting moments where we take delight in our apparent good judgement, good luck, or whatever it is that we think makes us better than everyone else. It can be a bit ‘blink and you’ll miss it’, but if you really pay attention in these moments you will notice that the pleasure in those moments is coming from a self that has gained the upper hand on everyone else.

I’ve had the opportunity to spot these fleeting selves a few times in recent days, both in myself and in others, thanks to this week’s national crisis in the UK. This time it is a shortage of petrol and diesel available for sale, caused not by an actual shortage of fuel but by everyone deciding to fill up their tanks in case there was a shortage of fuel.

Over the last week or so many of us here have had the opportunity to gain a sense of delight by attaching our sense of self to the totally coincidental fact that we already had a full tank of fuel before all the chaos erupted, that we didn’t need to drive anywhere this week so we didn’t need to go out looking for fuel, that we had an electric car, or that we had managed to find a petrol station with fuel when others were going without.

But what we generally fail to recognise in our moment of glory is that all of those feelings are only temporary and can quickly swing the other way – full tanks will eventually become empty, you will need to drive somewhere at some point, and an electric car won’t be much use to you if there is a power cut. If you use your temporary good fortune as a reason to gloat then you will undoubtedly end up with egg on your face because the tables will always turn at some point. We might have the temptation to feel smug when the conditions have by chance landed in our favour, but it is better for us to recognise that we just got lucky, and the next time it might not go so well.

Likewise if you are trying to navigate your way through life without ever experiencing any problems or think that you can somehow be ready for any eventuality, then you are labouring under a delusion. Your good fortune is only ever borrowed, at some point it will be in someone else’s hands. There are so many current or pending problems going on in the UK right now that it is easy to get into a disaster prepping mind set, but when you look at it from a Buddhist perspective you quickly realise that it is impossible to cover every eventuality because there are simply too many factors that are uncertain and liable to change. But to want to do so is also just another machination of using self – wanting things to be a certain way for you, wanting suffering to not happen to you, wanting to not experience inconvenience. It is clinging to borrowed goods, wanting comfort and convenience to be with you all the time when in fact that is impossible.

There is a line in the five subjects for frequent recollection that fits quite well with the idea of much of what we take to be us and to be ours as borrowed:

“All that is mine, beloved and pleasing,

will become otherwise, will become separated from me.” [2]

This particular recollection serves the purpose of reminding us that whatever we have in this life we will ultimately have to give up. It is a reminder too that it doesn’t matter how strongly our attachment to something is, this will not stop it from becoming separated from us because it is simply the nature of the conditioned world that everything that begins must also end. In that process of arising and ceasing an object, a person, or a status will become available to us, but the conditions will change, and that thing or person will become no longer available to us.

I knew someone who found this line about everything that is mine will become separated from me to be a terrifying prospect, and I can sympathise with their experience. It is a real challenge to our way of understanding the world to ponder the grim reality that no matter what we do all of our hard work will eventually come undone and all that we have gained in this life will be lost, either at some point during our life or at the end of it when we die. Even though it is plain to see that much of what we want to hold onto is merely borrowed goods, that doesn’t make it easy to understand or accept.

For some this can cause a rejection of the Buddha’s teachings as being negative and nihilistic because they read into this the suggestion that life is meaningless because no matter what you do you will end up suffering because you will lose everything anyway.

This put me in mind me of a post on Twitter this week, how true it is I don’t know but it made a very interesting point. A small child asked its parent ‘what is the point of life if in the end we just die?’, to which the parent replied, ‘would life have more of  a point if we didn’t die?’ If it was somehow possible to never suffer or  lose everything that we gained, then if you think about it, that in itself still wouldn’t make life more meaningful.

The Buddha never talked about what, if any, meaning there was to life, but that doesn’t mean his message was pessimistic in anyway. He didn’t say that it was impossible to be happy under the circumstances where we will lose everything that we hold to be dear, he merely said that the ways that we usually look for happiness create more problems for us than they fix and that we can be happy if we understand how the world really works.

To me what is key in understanding how our usual way of doing things leads to problems is something that the passage in the sutta highlights well. What this passage points to specifically is the feeling  of disappointment at the moment we realise we have to give our borrowed sources of pleasures back. The temporary nature of our experiences isn’t problematic in and of itself, the reason it causes us so much suffering is that we mistakenly expect that these pleasures can persist – if only we could find the way.

We spend our lives on a wild goose chase, trying to find the solution that will allow our happiness to remain, to be ours forever, but try as we might we can never find that solution. To make things worse we then make even more unhappiness for ourselves when we create stories about why it is that we can’t ever get our  happiness to remain, often involving blaming ourselves for not being good enough in some way.

The reason we can’t ever hold onto our happiness though is that we are trying to do something impossible, we are trying to make permanent something that can only ever be impermanent. This is the clinging that the Buddha says is the cause of suffering, the attempt to make something that has to end last beyond its natural lifespan.

But what is interesting about looking at the issue in the way this passage presents it is that the emphasis isn’t on anicca, or the impermanent and unpredictable nature of the conditioned world, the emphasis is on that experience of disappointment.

One of the key steps on the path to enlightenment is the development of dispassion for sensory pleasure. In Pāli this is referred to as nibbida, and it can be thought of as a kind of losing the taste for something or losing interest in it. The development of this dispassion isn’t something we have to force though, because in the Buddha’s reckoning it is something that is the natural outcome of seeing the true nature of reality.

The passage in the sutta points to something that might lead us to develop this dispassion – the moment we realise that our sources of pleasure are only borrowed – and that if the only way we can be happy is through borrowed pleasures then we are always inevitably going to have to experience the unhappiness of the moment we have to give them back.

This realisation sparks us to reconsider whether the temporary happiness we gain from these events is worth it, or whether it is even happiness at all if it always comes with a moment of suffering when it ends. Without this realisation any attempts at renunciation will always be difficult and effortful because we are denying ourselves things that we still see as sources of pleasure.

This is an important point that highlights the difference between what the Buddha called the middle way and other practices that involve austerity. Renunciation in other practices can come with a lot of suffering because it requires denying yourself the things that you still want, whereas renunciation that comes from realising the short comings of chasing after sensual, worldly pleasures creates no suffering – you simply have no interest in those kinds of things anymore. This was what the Buddha meant by his path being the middle way between ascetic practices and worldly pleasures, once you have seen the reality of sense pleasures you need neither need to have them nor do you need to deny yourself them, you simply don’t want them anymore and they create no suffering for you.

But that doesn’t mean that you never experience pleasant feelings anymore, you do but what is different is how you relate to them. When you know something is only borrowed, is something you will only have temporarily, then the wise thing to do – to spare yourself from making the loss of it worse – is to not be overly attached to it and not to have any ideas about being able to keep it. Certainly you can enjoy it while it is there, but when it is over there is no fuss about it ending.

But just because something is borrowed that doesn’t nullify its usefulness, and we can draw a parallel to this when we consider that nowadays we are moving more and more to not owning things outright but just paying subscription charges for access, such as for music, movies, and software, and leasing a car long term instead of buying one is fairly common now too. As in the material world, we can’t get through life without having borrowed goods as a part of it.

Bhikkhu Brahmali also made a good point about how considering things as borrowed goods doesn’t mean that we can therefore just treat them with distain. He compared it to renting a house, just because the house doesn’t belong to us it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to take care of it. Our relationships with other people will all eventually end, but it would be a foolish understanding of the fleeting nature of these relationships to mean that we didn’t need to take them seriously or that it didn’t matter how we treated other people.

When we first encounter the teachings on impermanence and not-self we can mistakenly take it to mean that nothing matters, or that nothing is real. This is a wrong way to think about it, just because something is fleeting that doesn’t make it not real, nor does it mean that it has no importance. To think that way is to still uphold the mistaken approach that brings us so much unhappiness – that the only things worth having are the ones we can keep forever.

For example our human life is fleeting but clearly it is precious at the same time. If we hope to live forever in perfect health then we will only end up disappointed, but likewise if we take no care of the physical body then we will suffer in another way too – from illness and injury caused by neglecting our health. So while it is important to recognise that much of what we have isn’t ours to keep but is merely borrowed, we still need to strike the right balance between not clinging onto things that will inevitably change but still taking care of those things while we have them.

This can feel like something of a contradiction when we first start to practice, and it can lead to a lot of confusion about when we should hold onto something and when we should let it go. But the more we practice, the more we start to understand the shortcomings of chasing after sensory pleasures and gradually we turn more and more towards states of equanimity instead.

Recognising that so much of what brings us happiness is just ‘borrowed’ can come with a sense of disappointment in the beginning, but it is an important step in helping us to see things as they really are, and it will eventually contribute to us to finding a real and lasting source of happiness that is ours to keep.

Image by Brusse from Pixabay

References

1.       Bhikkhu Sujato (2021) Potaliyasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato. https://suttacentral.net/mn54/en/sujato. Accessed 01 Oct 2021

2.      Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Gavesako (2015) Chanting Book: Volume One Chanting-Book-Vol-1-Web.pdf (amaravati.org)

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