If I Were a Rich Buddhist

High on the list of my favorite literary characters is Tevye, the world-weary spiritual optimist from a series of short stories by Sholem Aleichem called “Tevye and His Daughters” who became more popularly known as the central figure in Fiddler on the Roof.  Carefully balancing surly come-backs and a soft heart, Tevye shows us such a human portrayal of a people beset by every unfairness who continue to keep going with confidence in who they are, and who, generations later, they will still be.  In a village caught between brutal changes and rich tradition, Tevye discovers the unstoppable evolution of love.

True confession: I would pay my entire fortune to see a version of Fiddler on the Roofwritten through the eyes of Tevye’s wife, Golde, and then have Idina Menzel star in the role. Since my entire fortune consists of $15.37 and free pastry on my Panera Club card, I’ll just have to stick with what I have, and like Tevye, make the most of it.

Dreaming about better prospects, Tevye sings about how different his life would be if he had more of a fortune than some milk cows and five daughters can create. He dreams of the things we all wish for – nicer clothes, comfortable house, lots of food, happy wife. Then he pauses to reflect on the change in his social status money would bring because people would start listening to him. He chuckles,

“And it won’t make one bit of difference

If I answer right or wrong

When you’re rich they think you really know.”

He gets serious about what his heart most desires, time to pray and be engaged with the wisdom and community of his faith.  “That,” he sings, “would be the sweetest thing of all.”  I’ve seen the show and film countless times and each time that line comes up I find myself nodding. Yes. Yes it would. Then a timer rings, the dog barks, an email reminding me about the electric bill appears and I must rise from imagination and go on about the business of life.

Tevye’s right. There is a tendency to see people who have financial wealth as somehow intellectually or spiritually endowed. Money equates to something valuable in our way of thinking. It plays a role in everything from the brand of coffee we buy to who we vote for or against in an election. We think people who are wealthy must be successful, even if they were born into, married into, or lucked into that money. We think people who are struggling must not be disciplined, blessed, or have good karma. Something is wrong with them, or they would have more assets.

The truth is, money is a tool. No more. No less. Most people work hard, long hours away from family and memory making to build financial security for their household. Others are immensely talented and working in a profession or situation that doesn’t reward with money. Money doesn’t exalt or demonize you and it certainly says nothing about your IQ or the state of your compassionate heart. It’s neutral. How we see money, or any other “richness,” is what makes the difference. It inspires us, challenges us, or destroys us. You can use a hammer to build a bridge or tear holes in the wall. The hammer doesn’t care. It’s the intention that matters.

While money may or may not play a role in how we view richness in mindfulness, there’s always some ruler we are holding up to others and then ourselves. There are many ways to be “rich” in mindfulness:

Rich in time:There are people who don’t have a punch-the-clock job or kids at home or demands that keep them busy all day. These chronological tycoons can listen to four dharma talks a day, meditate for hours, journal about their spiritual insights, and brew a cup of tea by painstakingly choosing each leaf in the infuser and reciting the heart sutra while slowly pouring the water. They will then curl up in their bay window reading nook with their third book this week and sip their tea while absorbing the meaning of every word. Surely they are wiser than the rest of us.

Rich in travel: Folks who get around the world so much you can’t tell if you’re looking at their Facebook page or the website of National Geographic always pique my interest. They unpack from a trip to Italy while preparing to go to a week-long meditation retreat in France. When that’s over, there’s a mandala demonstration in Spain they simply must see. Just when they think they would never see something more beautiful a friend invites them on a trip of a lifetime to Dharamsala. When I was a young woman I used to wonder if they ever burn out. Does having one amazing journey after another eventually fade the experiences into sepia photographs neatly labeled in the envelopes of your mind? Now, I’m more curious about how they manage to have jobs, hobbies, and relationships because it can take me three hours just go to the grocery store. Add extra time and a nap if I need to check the mail or gas up the car. With all they’ve seen – the rich in travel must have insight we don’t.

Rich in personality:  Everyone knows that person who just pops when he or she enters a room. You don’t even have to watch the door (which is sad, because door watching is one of my favorite things to do at a party, along with snack bowl hovering and playing with the host’s cat).  Their energy arrives about two minutes before they do. The lights get brighter, the conversation bubbles, and all eyes point in their direction. People like that never seem at a loss for words or challenged by the simple task of greeting. They smile. You weren’t planning on smiling, but there you are grinning wildly and hanging on every word they say, even though they are just asking where to put their coats. People who radiate energy are in tune with all the secrets of the universe.

Where am I in the sea of amazing people?  Singing to the milk cows. I meditate daily with time borrowed from the snooze button and listen to dharma talks in my car (“Today we are talking about the 4 Immeasurables….” “Get out of the way, you jerk! I’m changing lanes here!”). Almost every vacation I’ve taken is within eight hours of my home, except for a friend’s wedding in Hawaii (I had jet lag for a week and can’t get the taste of those Hawaiian kettle chips out of my mind). I’m an introvert who isn’t the life of the party because I am lucky enough to have friends who invite me places and then cancel the plans. How am I going to obtain enlightenment?  The same way as those other folks – one moment of awareness at a time.

Like money – the blessings of others – time, travel, and all the rest – are simply a tools. Nothing more. Nothing less. Awakening isn’t a test of how far you’ve gone or how much you know. Heck, you don’t even have to be able to spell “Bodhisattva” correctly. Awakening is about being who you are, where you are, and seeing both the reality and illusion of it all.

Those people who travel are the best. I’ve been to Walt Disney World a few times in my life but the only trip I’ve ever enjoyed was via the Facebook feed of a friend who spent a week there. I didn’t have to stand in lines, pay a fortune, or get puked on by a kid in mouse ears full of cotton candy and adrenaline. I saw all the sights, and when I wanted that dizzy, wind-blown feeling of a ride, I turned on the overhead fan and watched a POV clip on YouTube. When she posted the pics of her last day there, I cried. This was the best vacation I ever had.

“But that’s illusion!” You say, and you’d be right.  It’s all illusion. The rides, the food, the mousy merchandise, even the waiting in line and getting snubbed by a Cinderella who didn’t wave in the right direction. None of it is real, not even for the woman who actually did it. What’s real is the joy, amazement, and love she experienced. What’s real is how she showed patience in line and compassion to a stranger who needed someone trustworthy to stay with the rest of the kids while mom took a barfy boy to the bathroom. What’s real is the experiencing of being. It’s real for her. It’s real for me.

Buddhists call the celebration of the richness of others “sympathetic joy.” You are connected to them, elated and excited by what is happening in their world and in yours. It is the act of opening your heart to experience all the wonders of the moment without a barrier telling you it is “their moment.” One of the Four Sublime States, sympathetic joy is surely a way to combat jealousy, multiply experiences, and end suffering.  It’s like a generator that uses natural energy to create more energy. Joy begets joy.

Start training your eyes to see the doors of good tidings in the lives of those you meet. Let yourself go through those doors with them. Encourage, cheer, laugh, and love life there. Filled with undeniable power of connection you will discover you, too, are rich in joy. That will be the sweetest thing of all.

—–  The Bottom Line  —-

  1. We are all connected to one another. Don’t let what someone else has or does separate you from them. The only gap is in your mind.
  2. When you notice yourself looking around, first look within.
  3. While you celebrate the joy of others, don’t forget to invite them to share in yours.
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