What’s important?

A certain devata (celestial being) spoke these words to the Buddha:

When one’s house is ablaze
The vessel taken out
Is the one that is useful,
Not the one left burnt inside.

So when the world is ablaze
With [the fires of] aging and death,
One should take out [one’s wealth] by giving:
What is given is well salvaged.

What is given yields pleasant fruit,
But not so what is not given.
Thieves take it away, or kings,
It gets burnt by fire or is lost.

Then in the end one leaves the body
Along with one’s possessions.
Having understood this, the wise person
Should enjoy himself but also give.
Having given and enjoyed as fits his means,
Blameless he goes to the heavenly state.

SN 1.4, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

These verses form a direct argument against unbridled materialism. We’re encouraged to enjoy ourselves, but also to give, which I take to mean: behave responsibly with our homes, our income and expenditures, and take care of those to whom we have a duty. At the same time, overcoming our instinctive stinginess, giving freely, is an essential component of taking care of ourselves and our loved ones.

The question “what would I grab and take with me as I exit a burning house?” is meant to focus our attention; even in an emergency, what do we consider most valuable? The emergency referred to in the quote is, of course, our own death. How meaningful will our car be when we are dying or dead? Our shoes and clothes? And how important will our kindnesses to family members and friends be? How lasting is the effect of all of our giving? We don’t know, but we do know that each act of giving has a more lasting effect than any material thing.

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