The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg
I like to jog. My daily jog takes me through a five mile stretch of the local neighborhood. Near the end of my route is a small area of beautiful homes that are well beyond my financial reach. Invariably, as I jog past these expensive houses, I find myself wishing I could afford to buy one of them. Yet, the home I currently live in is more than my family and I will ever need. I remember saying to my wife when we moved in that I had never imagined that thereíd come a day when we would be able to afford to own such a beautiful home. Our house is spacious and beautiful and located in one of the nicer areas of the city. Yet, here I am two years after moving in wondering when Iíll be able to afford to "buy up." Itís then that I think of Aesopís goose.
My golden goose is the home and family I already have. It doesnít take much imagination to see how my greedy desire could kill that goose. Iíve known enough guys who have financially overextended themselves, who couldnít resist trying to "have all her treasures at once," and then killed the goose in the attempt to get them..
I remember a good friend I had back when I lived in Tucson, Arizona. We were both in the Air Force and we were both the same rank. We both made exactly the same amount of money, which wasnít much, yet while I and my family lived in a modest section of town, he and his family lived in the expensive part.. I always wondered how he could afford to pay for such a beautiful home; but one day I happened to stop by his house at dinner time and I saw the price he and his wife and two children were paying for the privilege of living in the expensive part of town. They were sitting down to a dinner of carrots and bread. My friend admitted to me that there were times that he and his family had to settle for such meals because they were short on funds after they made the house payment. He often remarked that he "had champagne tastes, but had to live on a beer budget." My friend eventually took on an additional part time job so that he could keep up with the bills. He worked 65 hours a week so that he could afford to live in an expensive home. But he was killing his golden goose. He was out working when he should have been home; and when he did come home he was too dog-tired to do much more than sleep.
The Buddha would have appreciated the wisdom in Aesopís fable. The farmer became so greedy that he let his emotions overcome his common sense. Surely, if the farmer had been thinking clearly, he would have realized that cutting open the goose would kill it, putting a quick end to his source of golden eggs. And even if the farmer hadnít possessed an advanced degree in gooseology, itís safe to assume that if he had been thinking rationally, he would have realized that a goose is not a walking warehouse of eggs. So, Aesopís ancient farmer allowed greed to cloud his judgment. But surely we modern guys are much more sophisticated than rustic goose farmers. We scoff at such foolish behavior. Weíre too sophisticated to allow ourselves to become so irrationally greedy. Yet there I was jogging past those expensive homes, picking out what I particularly liked about each one, trying to decide which one I preferred. The question then was why?
What is it that continuously tempts us to be so greedy for material things? I know itís true that our egos are inherently greedy by nature. To that extent weíre no different from Aesopís farmer. But today, thereís something more insidious at work. Today we are tempted by professional tempters; people who get degrees in business with specialties in advertising and marketing. They make careers out of determining which is the most effective brainwashing method to use on us in order to take advantage of our natural greed. Their goal is to manipulate our emotions, to make us feel that we need to buy their products regardless of the cost. And we readily allow them to persuade us that our happiness depends on having what they offer. We allow them to convince us that there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea that the more we own, and the more complex our lives, the "better" human beings we will be. They comfort us with this message.
Many of us pretend that we find it annoying to be continually bombarded by advertisements; but secretly we love to hear the salesmanís pitch. We love to be told that we deserve the best of everything. When I lived in England, many of my American friends said they didnít enjoy watching television on the government-owned British Broadcasting Company. They said that the shows were good, but that they missed the commercials. So, the shows merely entertain us. The commercials appeal to and raise our self-image. The commercials show us an easy way to achieve happiness.
Todayís advertisers tell us that living a simple life goes against the grain of everything modern society should be. In The Perennial Philosophy Aldous Huxley charged that our popular philosophy of life was molded by the writers of advertising copy whose one idea was to persuade everybody to be as extroverted and uninhibitedly greedy as possible, since of course it was only the possessive, the restless, and the distracted who spend money on the things that advertisers want to sell. He punctuated this charge by noting that the writers of advertising copy are the only authors in all the history of literature whose works are read every day by every member of the population. This is an extremely scary thought.
But even in other ways, the various media - which advertisers ultimately finance - prod our hunger to possess things and information. We are told so often that it is so important that we be up to date about current events - news of the world and the entertainment industry - that weíve come to believe itís an unforgivable sin to be uninformed. But at the core of this need to be informed is our egoís need to possess. After all, to have at our disposal the dayís latest gossip - the latest scandal about a sportsí hero or a Hollywood star - is to possess the most informed and therefore valuable opinion at the water cooler. And as we become familiar with that news, we learn the signs and symbols of desired wealth and power...the fashions, the limousines, the palaces, the playgrounds. These are the identifying trappings of the people who count.
Because of our egoís need to possess everything from pearls to opinions, we are all too easily distracted from lifeís spiritual treasures. Like the Buddha before him, Jesus warned against such distractions. "Enter through the narrow gate, " he said. "For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." When our main focus in life has become the quest for material riches - for the wide gates and spacious driveways that lead up to those expensive houses I jog past - we wonít know where to look for the narrow gate to the kingdom. Funny... there arenít many advertisements that spread that message.
Rarely, if ever, do we stop to examine where our life is going. Solitude and simplicity have come to be seen as the greatest of evils in modern society. Against all that greedy advertising, we can barely hear the voice of someone like Joseph Campbell who begged us not to forget the importance of solitude, not to get so engaged in achieving things of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture of being alive, is what life is all about.
When the concerns of the day have all been attended to we no longer know how to turn to the inner life. But the instructions are still there. Jesus spoke of the importance of solitude in our efforts to find the spiritual treasures of life. "... whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." Or as Seccho put it in a more Zen way, "What life can compare with this? Sitting quietly by the window, I watch the leaves fall and the flowers bloom, as the seasons come and go."
I jog and try to remember that solitude and reflection are the doors to spiritual knowledge and that Godís gifts can only be found while leading a simple, moral life. The golden eggs that only God can provide are far more valuable than a new car or the latest pair of two-hundred dollar Nikes.
After I jog, and I come to my houseís narrow gate, I sit in solitude and meditate. And then everything changes. I donít want that goose that lays the golden eggs or any of the things that gold can buy. No, I donít want the goose and I donít want the eggs; just the magnificent emptiness that envelops me when all the wanting dies.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts