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Verse 22: The hungry ghost mind

Verse 22: The hungry ghost mind

Part of a series of talks on Gems of Wisdom, a poem by the Seventh Dalai Lama.

  • Poverty is more a state of mind than a physical state
  • Generosity isn’t about how much we give, but is mind that delights in giving

Gems of Wisdom: Verse 22 (download)

We talked about “the person who works and toils under the corrupt executive or boss” last time. Now Verse 22:

“What hungry ghosts suffer from deprivation….” Not having what they need “…while they have food, wealth, and possessions? Wealthy people who are so bound by miserliness that they cannot enjoy their own wealth.”

What hungry ghosts suffer from deprivation while they have food, wealth, and possessions?
Wealthy people who are so bound by miserliness that they cannot enjoy their own wealth.

It’s true, isn’t it? It’s like physically they might have wealth and possessions and all sorts of things, but the mind is in this state of poverty, of, “I don’t have, I don’t have enough, I don’t have financial security. I can’t be generous because if I give it away I won’t have it. So I’ve got to make as much as I can and hold it all for myself and for my family because it’s the only way to be secure.”

I know that mind-state very well. And I really saw in my own life—from before I was a Buddhist, through becoming a Buddhist, and afterwards—how that mind-state actually, I think, ripened in a lot of external poverty at one point, too. There was the internal feeling of poverty while I had a lot, like this. And then it ripened into an external poverty when I was living in India with hardly anything. And in Europe, too. And then it only changed when I started to dealing with my miserliness. And when I had to deal with my miserliness, it was interesting, then after some time the external situation also changed. Quite interesting.

Here it’s really talking about the internal state of being like a hungry ghost. Because the hungry ghosts, then mind-state is one of deprivation: “I don’t have, I need. I want.” And so they’re always running around looking for food, looking for water. And people are born into that state because of miserliness and because of great attachment. So they’re always looking for things, and yet whatever they get…. They may have food, but it looks like filth, so they can’t eat it. They may have water, they see water and they run towards it, and it evaporates. And so this is always their karmic vision because the mind is a mind-state of poverty, of, “I don’t have.” And so it manifests for them as an external environment, too. And then even when they get what they want they can’t ingest it because their throats are too narrow.

That’s like human beings running around looking for everything, you finally get what you want but then you can’t enjoy it. Or the hungry ghost, even they get it into their stomach, it turns into flames. So it’s like many people, finally they get what they want, they hold onto it, and then it turns into one problem after another problem for them. It all stems from the mental state of miserliness: “I can’t share, I can’t give. I’ve got to keep for myself.” And it’s a mental state of fear. “If I give, I won’t have.”

Of course the antidote to that is to cultivate generosity which is a mind that takes delight in giving.

The important thing about being generous is not the amount we give. It is the mind-state that wants to share. The mind-state that likes to give. That’s the generous mind. So even if you don’t have very much to give, you can still practice generosity.

As we saw over this last weekend when we had the consecration for Chenrezig Hall. One woman stood up and said, “I’m a low income person, but I felt so good giving my ten dollars for Chenrezig Hall to be built.” You can see right there. I mean, her motivation was incredible, wasn’t it? I was so moved by what she said. Because her generosity was really coming from the heart.

We can practice generosity no matter how much we have. The idea is to cultivate that state of mind.

Practicing generosity, it also means being wise in how we give. It isn’t any time somebody comes and asks us for something that we give it. Because if the person is going to misuse it, if it’s going to cause them harm in some way, then it’s not generous to give them what they want. The example I always use is if somebody has a substance abuse problem, and they come to you asking for money and you know they’re going to use it to get alcohol or drugs, it is not generosity giving it to them. You’re more generous saying, “No, and I will help you go to a treatment center.”

We have to be wise. Similarly, if somebody wants weapons, you’re not generous by giving them a weapon. Or if somebody wants poison. You don’t give them poison. We have to use our wisdom. It’s not just kind of giving to whoever for whatever reason. But really giving in a wise way and with a very happy heart. That not only creates the karma to have wealth in future lives—maybe also in this life, but definitely in future lives—but it also frees us from the pain of miserliness. And that miserly mind is so painful.

You’ve all heard my maroon sweater story, and how painful that was. And my difficulty in giving 25 paisa in India so beggars could have a cup of tea. How much my own mind was tormented by miserliness. I mean, my own feeling was unhappy, but of course the karma I created until I kind of got myself going, because I could hear my teacher, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, in the back of my mind always talking about this.

Then when you cultivate the mind to give then you’re really much happier now, as well as in the future.

[In response to audience] Like I said, it doesn’t mean you give to everybody. In India sometimes if you give to one person pretty soon you can’t walk down the street. So even for your own safety, and ability to move, sometimes you can’t do it. But you can find other ways to give.

[In response to audience] Sometimes, yes, you really have to discipline that mind.
Sometimes you see people who are quite wealthy living with that state of mind, that is really very, very painful. And then people who don’t have very much who really share and have a very happy mind.

I really see that when I compare some of my experiences living in India to experiences here in the west. How wealth and poverty is a state of mind, not what you actually have. And how it’s impossible to ever have financial security. Impossible. No matter how much you have, if your mind doesn’t change you never have financial security. Never. So that, too, is really a state of mind.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.