In “The Eight Awakenings of Great Beings,” Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, wrote that the second is “knowing how much is enough.” He quotes the Buddha: “If you know how much is enough, you are content even when you sleep on the ground. If you don’t know it, you are discontented even when you are in heaven. You can feel poor even if you have much wealth.”
Like all the awakenings, this is wisdom in the form of common sense. On some level, we know it to be true, whether we’re great beings or not. One look at the extreme examples—for example, the billionaires of the world—provides all the evidence we need that one’s assessment of “enough” need not be in any way tethered to reality. What we have doesn’t necessarily inform our understanding of what we think we lack. It turns out that Scrooge McDuck, saving every penny and then rolling around in his vaults of gold coins, presents a fairly accurate image of wealth.
Do you have enough? It’s a hard question. It’s so big. Do I have enough for what? It’s an especially funny question in the Zen tradition, where there’s such emphasis on not measuring things. Don’t measure practice, don’t measure realization, don’t measure experience—get away from the very idea that a metric can be applied to your life, that you can stand separate from it to determine how much or how little it is. That’s the message.
But—do you? Do you have enough? This question goes to the heart of what it is to be present. If I ask you if you have enough money for your retirement, there’s a good chance you’ll say no (even if you do have enough). Do you have enough food in the fridge to get you to next week? Do you have enough confidence, enough faith, enough stability? Probably the answer is no—because the question invites the measurement. It asks us to consider how things could be better, how they could be more. And as soon as we see that, whatever is in front of us feels like something is missing.
And I should say clearly: it’s okay to recognize what could be better. It’s smart to notice what isn’t safe. So knowing you need to save money for retirement is pretty useful. Noticing that your partner doesn’t give you the respect you deserve, or seeing that your coat is not warm enough for you step outside—if we don’t pay attention to those things, we can’t make the decisions we need to for the future. And the future matters.
The depth of this teaching, though, is in noticing that the future isn’t here yet. Right now, in this moment, do you have enough? This moment is full, complete. It cannot be measured. Why? Because to measure something, you have to step outside of it, and we cannot do that. Ever. That’s why I can say my childhood was lacking, why I can know that something on the horizon seems inadequate—I’m not in those moments. I’m in this one, and by definition, it is the totality of what is. It is 100%. I am 100%. You are 100%. Not 100% of whatever I or you think we should be, or what the world should be—that’s a conversation for a different moment. In this one, there’s nothing missing, nothing to be added, nothing to be measured.
We forget this; most of us forget it most of the time. But there are those moments when we’re brought back to right here, right now. In Zen stories, it’s a slap in the face or the sound of a rock hitting bamboo. For you, maybe it’s when you hear an unexpected bird, or when you suddenly have to slam on the brakes, or when a joke takes you so totally by surprise that for just a moment, all your measurements fall away and you just laugh.
If we notice these moments, we can become more prone to these moments. We won’t gain anything from that, of course, but we may, for a breath or two, notice that nothing is missing.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.