Being Content

What the Buddha Taught About Contentment

Nuns pick flowers
Buddhist nuns picking flowers. © Tim Gerard Barker / Getty Images

The Buddha said that contentment is the greatest wealth (Dhammapada, verse 203). He praised his disciple Mahakasyapa (or Kassapa) for his contentment --

"Monks, Kassapa here is content with any old robe. He praises contentment with any robe, nor does he commit any offense of unseemliness or impropriety on account of a robe. If he has not got a robe, he does not worry; if he has got a robe he enjoys the use of it without clinging or foolish attachment, not committing any offense, aware of the danger and wisely avoiding it." [Samyutta Nikaya 16]

Mahakasyapa was likewise content with whatever alms he received, whatever lodging he found, whatever medicines he was given for sickness. The Buddha urged his disciples to be like Mahakasyapa, enjoying what they had "without clinging or foolish attachment, not committing any offense, aware of the danger and wisely avoiding it."

In other words, perhaps you feel you are making do with very little. But if you are clingy and possessive about what very little you do have, that's still not true contentment. This means you are still relating to things in a self-centered, greedy way.

Read More: Why Do Buddhists Avoid Attachment?

Cultivating Contentment

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama said,

"When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, ‘Oh yes – I already have everything that I really need.’"

The Second Noble Truth tells us that craving is the primary cause of our unhappiness. Teaching ourselves to be content can help us release craving. Practice of the Eightfold Path, particularly Right Mindfulness, is essential. 

In time you will see why you want the things you want, and you will realize how little most of those wants have to do with genuine need.

Most of the time, our wants are about self-gratification or self-enhancement. We might think that having more and nicer things will cause people to like us or just simply give us happiness. But the sort of happiness external things bring us is very short-lived.

Read More: The Buddha's Path to Happiness

Don't Forget Gratitude

When you find yourself fretting about what you don't have, remind yourself to be grateful for what you do have. Psychologists tell us that people with a strong sense of gratitude develop patience. They are more likely to be able to delay gratification, passing on a small reward now in favor of a greater reward later. 

Craving often comes from a sense that we don't have enough, or at least we don't have as much as everyone else. Genuine gratitude for what we do have is a great antidote to craving. Greed and gratitude do not co-exist, it seems.

Read More: Being Grateful: What the Buddha Taught About Gratitude

What If You Really Need Something?

Of course, there are things we genuinely need to maintain our life and health, and to do our work, and take care of our families. No one is saying we must passively accept actual deprivation, whether ours or someone else's.

But particularly in our consumerist culture we are perpetually soaking in greed as a value.

We are supposed to desire things we don't have so that we will purchase them if we can. Acquisition of wealth and possessions is admired; it is the measure of success. But Buddhist teacher David Loy said,

"When human beings gain an intense acquisitive drive for some object, that object becomes a cause of suffering. Such objects are compared to the flame of a torch carried against the wind, or to a burning pit of embers: they involve much anxiety but very little satisfaction --  an obvious truth repressed by turning our attention to another craved object. Proliferation of unnecessary wants is the basic cause of unnecessary ill-being." [The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory (Simon & Schuster,  1997), p. 57]

Loy also says that the sutras present poverty as a major cause of immoral behavior.

"Unlike what we might expect from a supposedly world-denying religion, the Buddhist solution has nothing to do with accepting our (or others') "poverty karma." Relieving suffering, practicing generosity, is important to Buddhism. It's the "proliferation of unnecessary wants" that's the problem. 

Renunciation

The Pali word used in Buddhist sutras usually translated as "renunciation" is nekkhamma. It literally means "to go forth to be freed from lust." In Buddhism, renunciation can be understood as a letting go of whatever binds us to ignorance and suffering. 

Rather than self-punishment or penance, renunciation in the Buddhist sense is an act of liberation. That's because it can only happen when we thoroughly and deeply perceive where our cravings are coming from; when we do that, they drop away of themselves.

Read More: Renunciation

Contentment, then, isn't something we can will for ourselves. It is the fruit of practice.