A fool suffers, thinking,
“I have children! I have wealth!”
One’s self is not even one’s own.
How then are children? How then is wealth?
Dhammapada v. 62, translated by Gil Fronsdal
This verse raises the question of ownership. What does it mean? And what can we truly own? So much of the answer is setting the context. We delude ourselves into believing that we have control of things, of ourselves and circumstances. But how much and for how long?
We are born into a situation not of our choosing, and our decisions along the way are dictated by the available (often limited) options that we see before us. Without our permission, our bodies and minds age, become ill and decay, until we are no more. So, in what sense do we own ourselves?
The Buddha taught that the only things we can own are our actions, words and (to some extent) our thoughts or intentions, and these we have some control over only for the present moment. The rest of it is rolling along due to causes and conditions previously set in motion – too many causes for us to disentangle – and intertwined with all the causes and conditions that others have set in motion. This everlasting tornado of intentions and events is what we were born into and what we will die out of, and almost none of it is under our control.
This is relevant because we can get so excited about what we think we own – money, a car, a house, a job, a stereo system, jewelry, even our friends and family. These things are attractive because we think they are ours. We’re much less interested in other peoples’ money, cars, etc.
Imagine what it might feel like if we really understood that nothing in this world can be owned by anyone. How might we think and behave differently? Jealousy would become irrelevant and self-interest (to the exclusion of others) reduced, compassion might flower, theft would become meaningless, since there’s no ownership to transfer. We would become fully aware of what we can own, our words and actions, and direct our energies toward having them nourish or heal ourselves and the world in whatever small way we can. And, I think, a sense of peace might descend.