mind of poverty

In her retreat at Upaya, Joanna Macy spoke of being satisfied with just what we have.  A retreatant asked how that could possibly be useful to the people in Haiti (the earthquake was very prominent in our thoughts on that day) who now had less than what had been already a horrendously impoverished life.  Roshi Joan Halifax, adding to Joanna Macy’s response, pointed out that the dharma was aimed at our perceptions and she closed with this statement:

“Do not foster a  mind of poverty in yourself and others.”

There’s something about these words, isn’t there?  Kindling, not an image, but a felt sensation of lack.  Or is it destitution?  Deprivation?  The edges of my grasping melt and diffuse outwards and the boundaries become softer like a gentle net that will catch me.

I’m particularly attracted to practicing with this as an aspiration in the light of ongoing debates about awards and recognitions of worth.  In my wandering, I came across this blog, Layers, which has on its home page, the statement “no awards PLEASE – but I LOVE to receive comments.”  Fantastic statement – and pretty amazing art too.

Unfortunately (or may be very fortunately), it makes me feel my greed deeply.  I like awards – a bit for myself but more for others because it can honour those who really put themselves out on the line.  Besides, how else to practice boundless joy?! And how else can we practice not fostering the mind of poverty in ourselves and others? Because the winning is not in the acquisition of the prize and the losing is not in standing aside.  It is in the mind of desire which learns ever so  slowly about what it already has and what is just cluttering up the view.

What do you have that you would not if you cultivated a mind poverty?

Thank you for practicing,


Vegetable garden just perfectly organized!

12 thoughts on “mind of poverty

  1. This topic (not your post) troubles me greatly, likely as a consequence of my own confusion.

    I fear that good teachings (such as “Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself and others”) direct us toward complacency and self-absorption, and away from the very real suffering of others.

    It’s not uncommon to hear a teacher say something like, “Everything is perfect just as it is” or “nothing is wrong with any situation.”

    Of course this is true for the spacious, unobstructed mind. And how is that useful to the people in Haiti, or the partner in the other room?

    Perhaps this is the deepest kong-an of our training. The Buddha himself seems to have struggled with it, immediately after his awakening.

    To me, at least, it doesn’t seem sufficient to sit in our cozy Zen centers and talk about mind.

    (Maybe I’m just grouchy today, having lost a family member far too early.)

    • I’m so sorry for your loss, Barry. She seems to have been a truly generous person. It’s also a mark of your capacity to love that you were able to nourish the relationship.

      I too have trouble with the platitudes of “just breathe” or “just sit” or “open your heart” – having learned the hard way that an open heart can be an invitation to a trashing party!

      What stuck with me in this statement is the opportunity to encourage others to reach for what is possible – and even for what may only seem “impossible” because of the “mind of poverty” – the mind that says, “Oh, this is all I’m good for/deserve.” I think back to your encouragements when I first came on scene and how you fostered the mind of boundlessness in my efforts. That’s where I place my mind in this moment to value your teachings.

      That being said, I like that the topic is troublesome. No other way to develop except by creating trouble to go through, eh? 😉 Your point of taking on the words of the teacher brings us to the ko-an of Gutei’s finger. How do we truly embody the teachings so that all beings might benefit?

  2. I wonder if “Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself and others.” is saying: look for, and act on, the possibilities, rather than getting depressed,debilitated and immobilized by the disaster/devastation?

  3. I am tangled up in these words. If you say to me “be happy with what you have” I understand that. And while I may be happy with what I have, that does not necessarily stand against me working for (aspiring to) something else in some cases.

    I think like Bruce, it is an attitude to life, like looking up, instead of down. And some days, like Barry, we just can’t. And that’s okay too. But generally I think the encouragement is to use our awareness to remember to look up.

    Awesome garden. No poverty mind there! A feast for the eyes and then for the palette. And yes I love “Layers” blog too! That is a site filled with abundant treasures.

  4. In many of my travels, I’ve encountered near extreme levels of poverty, but sometimes, in the same places, I’ve felt something I feel like the rest of us have thrown out along time ago, something that we might have been better to hold onto.

    • Perhaps we learn to treasure what we have and, as Bruce and ZDS say, look up instead of down. I can’t say the craving mind is only in the land of plenty because we have much evidence that deprivation and the mental states it evokes exist universally.

      • Yes, I agree, craving still exists, and can make travel an outright hassle! Maybe it’s my own craving mind that envies exotic culture… ^^
        thank you

  5. How does one arrive at the notion that there is something going “wrong” in Haiti or in any other situation in the world we live in? Either everything is in the realm of Buddha Nature, or there are two realms, or more. We can’t have it both ways. That is what makes training so very difficult

  6. Bruce, that feels comfortable for me. I thought of it as a state of grace too.

    ZDS, I’m glad you like the garden. Everything is in full bloom here! I am deliciously tangled in your word “tangled” and read something beautiful from Wendy Johnson’s Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate which hopefully I can post later this week or next.

    I can also work with the idea of “being happy with with you have” and feel it is not a closed system. May be because I’ve worked hard to challenge my feelings of unworthiness or I’ve been fortunate or it’s blind luck that I can. That’s very different from others who may feel impoverished through abuse and neglect where the mind of poverty is so deeply furrowed with negative self-judgements.

    I guess I’m thinking in terms of bodhisattva arms for them to fall into…

    Helmut, you raise a tough point – especially for me in my limited nature. I do see something “wrong” with the situation in Haiti and elsewhere. But I don’t see it as outside the realm of Buddha Nature. Maybe I just don’t get it… 😦

  7. Pingback: how the light gets in « 108zenbooks

  8. I am only trying here …
    with no claim of my view having any solid ground of experience and knowing of my own –

    ‘ not cultivating a mind of poverty in self and others ‘ need not be incompatible with cultivating a mind of sharing with those in need; need not lead to complacency about the state of the world –
    is not cultivating a mind of non-judging actually very coherent with the above teaching – if we strive to decide without making a decision, and when we note the difference between ‘ a mind of poverty ‘ being about *having* or not, and a ‘buddha mind ‘ being about *being* in the present moment (forgive my simplistic perception), we can be in the moment as it is, even contently so, yet still think, speak, and do what is appropriate – and when recognizing need, suffering, poverty, in self and others, we maintain buddha-mind and think, speak, and do accordingly, rather than allowing poverty-mind to arise

    hmmmm ….
    I guess it sounds good ….
    now how do we do this again … ?!


    • Hi Peter! All we can ever do is try, I guess. You make a good point that it is not so dualistic and pehaps we must be careful not to get caught. And,of course, the real question is very much “so… how do we do this again?” Thanks for visiting and it reminds me to add your new blog to my blog roll!

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