One of my sisters hasn’t spoken to me for some 20 years now. I am guessing it’s because I sat next to her ex at a family wedding. He is fun and funny. I laughed a lot. Unskillful in the extreme on my part, I admit. If I saw one of my sisters laughing it up with my ex at a family event, I would probably excuse myself to stick pins in a doll with a photograph of her face on it. Still, 20 years of nonspeaking seems a bit much. When my mother called last week to tell me that the same sister has also stopped talking to her, I just had to know why. “Because I have a painting she thinks is hers,” she told me. Thinking he was on his deathbed several years ago, my uncle had given my mother a bunch of his paintings to divvy up among the family. The painting she kept for herself is the one my sister believes she was promised. My response? “Mom, give her the painting. It’s just stuff.”
She was so angry at this response that she hung up on me. So now two of the women in my family aren’t talking to me.
It’s just stuff. The Flower Ornament Scripture, one of the major texts of Mahayana Buddhism, is also known as the Scripture of Inconceivable Liberation. As someone who studies its teachings on a daily basis, I have to say they aren’t kidding about the liberation part. The scripture covers everything we need to do to attain genuine enlightenment, listing and describing stages, clarifying practices, and describing the various portals that enlightening beings (these characters are sort of like patron saints) have tested as methods for entering the enlightenment realm. The point of the descriptions is to suggest all the ways that we mere mortals can also attain awakening. The Flower Ornament Scripture doesn’t suffer fools gladly or mince words. In one of the earliest passages, a great character named Celestial King Light of Silent Sound discovers that one of the doors of liberation is called, “relinquishing all clinging to objects.”
In other words, we have to let go of our stuff.
But we don’t, or at least we don’t want to. This is a serious spiritual issue, this clinging. We may be able to give up lovers, Facebook friends . . . even our waistlines, but do not, do not, ask us to give up the three photographs taken of us in 1996 when we looked like Kate Moss on a good day. The trouble is, these things we surround ourselves with can start to drive everything else in our lives. Our technology requires updates. Our works of art demand insurance policies. We need new shelves to hold our growing collection of vegan cookbooks—who knew there were so many good ones out there?
Added up, objects become clutter. Clutter becomes noise. And noise—in all of its forms—blocks spiritual growth, starting with an inability to simply feel happy. Happiness needs quiet. If we watch, we’ll feel its presence when we are meditating, watching the sun set, or maybe rocking the almost sleeping baby. The more noise, the harder it is for happiness to show her face. This is why meditation halls can look so sparse at first, until we settle down. They are keeping the noise down. Society of Friends meeting houses have a similar feeling when we tap into the quiet they offer. Their sparseness makes quiet possible, allowing sweet contentment to surface, giving us a much-needed respite from the busy-ness of our lives.
It’s just stuff. The happiest person I have ever known was an elderly monk living up in the mountains of Korea. Everything he owned was in his room: robes, a tea set, a futon, a hat, tea, his sandals. Not only was he deliriously happy, giving off waves of giddy energy, but his room was incredibly beautiful in its simplicity. He allowed sunlight, and moonlight, to act as artists’ brushes, emphasizing one corner now, the tea set later, the sandals another time.
We can do this letting go. We can start small, giving up one thing at a time. Maybe we can take a cup of coffee to the homeless man on the corner, leaving the coffee cup behind as a gift. Or we can put something in a grocery bag to drop off at a charity on our way to buy this week’s food. The trick is to simply start. Celestial King Light of Silent Sound will pass along whatever energy we need to keep going.
The author of books including Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Geri Larkin is spending the summer replacing many bushes lost to last year’s winter with two hardy evergreens that need as little water as possible.