Today’s morsel comes from the upcoming book, The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, edited by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon. The Hidden Lamp is a collection of Buddhist stories, from all backgrounds, from the past 2,500 years. All concern women and are reflected upon by a modern-day female Buddhist teacher. In this chapter, Sylvia Boorstein reflects on the story of “Sona’s Mother and the Thieves” and what is truly important.
Sona’s Mother and the Thieves
India, sixth century BCE
There was a wealthy lady at the time of the Buddha whose son Sona became a Buddhist monk known for his ability to expound the Dharma. Sona came to visit his hometown and so his mother built a pavilion where he could speak to the townspeople. She took her whole household with her to the gathering, leaving only a maid to look after the house.
During the talk, some thieves broke into the house; their leader went to the pavilion and sat near Sona’s mother to keep an eye on her. The maid saw the thieves and ran to her mistress, but the lady only said, “Let the thieves take all my money, I don’t care; don’t disturb me while I’m listening to the Dharma.”
When the maid went home she saw the thieves breaking into the room where the gold was kept. She ran back to her mistress. This time Sona’s mother shouted, “Let the thieves take whatever they want! Don’t you dare worry me again while I’m listening to the Dharma! “
The leader heard everything the lady said. He thought, “If we rob this noble person, we will surely pay a heavy price in some way.” So he hurried to the lady’s house and made his followers return everything. Then they went back to the pavilion. When Sona finished speaking, the leader told the noble lady what had happened, and they all asked for her forgiveness. Then Sona ordained them into the Buddhist order.
Sylvia Boorstein’s Reflection
I have a framed cartoon by Nicole Hollander on my kitchen wall in which a frazzled middle-aged woman named Sylvia is typing a list called “Remarks You Most Hope to Be Able to Make Sometime.” Two of the remarks on the list are “Yes, it is unusual to win the Nobel Prize and compete in the Olympics in the same year” and “I’ll take the leather pants in a size 2, please.” The final remark on the list, perhaps the one the cartoonist is suggesting ought to top the list, is “No, thanks. I have everything I need.”
“I have everything I need” is, I think, the condition of a contented mind expressed in words. As Johnny Cash sang:
The wealthiest person
is a pauper at times
compared to the man
with a satisfied mind.
“Needing” is full of craving, which is a different state from simple “wanting.” I do want. On a regular basis, I want to eat, and move around, and live among and communicate with others. I also want to work, to create, and even to play. These natural instincts seem to arise by themselves, and when they arise in nonproblematic circumstances in which they can be easily satisfied, then there can be comfort and a sense of ease.
And, because I know how problematic life circumstances are for many people in the world, I want there to be more equitable sharing of resources. I want wars to stop. I want people to care of each other so that the planet and life on it is sustained. This kind of want, although it inspires my passion for social activism, feels to me like a strong and motivating wish. It is a wish filled with determination, but not with craving. It is a nonsuffering wish. It is full of clarity, and free of suffering.
Sona, recognizing the truth that the highest happiness was a mind freed of craving, chose to live a renunciant life as a means of training his mind to be free.
Sona’s mother, too, realizing that the Buddha’s teachings provided the key to developing a mind free of suffering, refused to be distracted from those teachings even though it meant losing all of her material wealth. She understands that there is nothing, material or immaterial, more precious than a mind untroubled by neediness or craving.
The leader of the thieves, seeing that Sona’s mother valued the Dharma much more than her worldly possessions, understood that all the riches in the world would not outweigh the “heavy price that he would pay” by not dedicating himself to enlightenment and the enduring happiness that was its fruit.
I trust that I—along with all human beings—have the capacity to train my mind to be free of craving. I trust that we can do it as lay people, too. I am committed to changing the habits of my mind from “This must be different now” to “I’ll work as hard as I can for change because I wish things were different, because I wish for the whole world the end of pain and suffering.” I think of this commitment as my invisible ordination.
What possession do you most value?
What could persuade you to give it away?