Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I Can't Find my Cows

I like to begin my day with a smooth cup of Fair Trade coffee with cream, and a bitter dose of the latest financial news and opinion.

The reason I care about the economy is that we saved some money during our working years. Like almost everyone else, we grew to expect a certain useful return from the stock market to supplement our pensions. This was important to us because we were both disabled by chronic illness before we had expected to retire. And we have high medical bills.

Each morning now, I see more and more financial authorities predicting a very long, deep recession. What that may mean for us is that our wealth will grow more slowly than we thought, maybe not even keep pace with inflation. We are cutting back in many ways so we can afford to stay in the house we love.

All this uncertainty got me thinking about an ancient story about the burden of ownership. (Parenthetically, let me remark that it doesn't matter if a story happened, as long as it is true.)

In the story, the Buddha is traveling with some monks. Maybe they are just doing the routine daily begging for food. In the ancient tradition, monks take a vow of poverty, own nothing perhaps but one robe, one bowl. In theory, at least, donating food to those who were dedicated to the spiritual life was considered a privilege and a blessing.

The group is sitting by the roadside - one of those spiritual crossroads, maybe - resting, when a layman comes rushing up in a terrible state of anxiety.

The Buddha asks, "Can I help?"

The man says, "I can't find my cows! This morning I found my fence had broken down, and all my cows escaped. Now I can't find them anywhere! Have you seen them?" This is in an economy where your wealth is your cows.

The Buddha promises to keep his eyes open, and the frantic man rushes on. Everyone sits silent for a while, thinking. Chattering is frowned upon in the monastic tradition.

At last the Buddha smiles and says, "Monks, think how fortunate we are, you and I." He gestures at the fields, mountains, sky that surround them. "You and I, we have nothing to worry about. We don't own any cows!"

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