G is for Greed

Greed is one of the three poisons in Buddhist teaching; greed, anger and ignorance.

It’s also something I remember daily when I recite the five contemplations before breakfast: ‘May we recognize and transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed, and learn to eat in moderation.’


I am always brought up short when reading the five mindfulness trainings by this sentence in the second training: ‘I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.’


Then from the Quaker perspective, Advices and Queries 39: ‘Resist the desire to acquire possessions or income through unethical investment, speculation or games of chance.’, and 41: ‘Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford. Do you keep yourself informed about the effects your style of living is having on the global economy and environment?’


From the bible, the so well known: ‘Love of money is the root of all evil.’ (1 Timothy 6:10) and ‘Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? … Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.’ (Matthew 6:31,34).


Greed is in part about eating too much, but that is far from the whole story. It is about wanting too much. It is about wanting to have things to make ourselves feel secure, because we all, at some level feel insecure. Insecurity springs from fear, fear of the future, the unknown future, and ,for some, fear (a logical, reasonable fear) that events of the past will repeat themselves. Buddhist teaching is that everything changes, change is inevitable, but that if we can accept that and realise that happiness is only possible in the present moment, and that it is possible in the present moment, we have ‘more than enough conditions to be happy.’


Greed, it seems clear to me, is also at the root of much that is wrong in society. It is easy to see that bankers’ bonuses and MPs expenses claims are rooted in greed, but there is also the lack of people being willing to share their ‘ time, energy, and material resources’ and arguments about who constitutes ‘those who are in need.’, instead of just getting on and sharing. It also seems to me that greed is part of the human condition, it did not need money or many material resources to show itself. I imagine even in early societies with simple bartering that someone would be trying to get the better part of a bartering deal when exchanging perhaps a sharpened flint for a portion of the recent kill, or a bunch of herbs for a basket of berries.


I go away now to work on ‘ not to possess anything that should belong to others’ – just what ‘should belong to others’, if I have clean water to spare to flush my toilet with, and yet other people do not have clean water to drink? And ‘ keep yourself informed about the effects your style of living is having on the global economy and environment’, such a complex topic to grasp that I must take it small step by small step.

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