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With the stock market dropping and unemployment rising, many signs point to tough times ahead--not just financially, but spiritually as well.

The current economic downturn is being compared to the Great Depression of 1929, when banks closed, companies failed and millions of people lost their jobs and sometimes their homes. The suicide rate rose amid a growing sense of anger, frustration, depression and helplessness.

Today, similar events seem to be unfolding. According to a recent news account, a man shot his wife, mother-in-law and two children, before turning the gun on himself. In a suicide note, he blamed financial problems.

In our world today, who we are—our identity and sense of worth—is tied tightly to our jobs, possessions, status and money. If these things disappear—if we lose our job, lose our home, lose our savings—suddenly we may lose our identity and sense of who I am. Facing such darkness, we may become confused, lost and paralyzed. Relationships with loved ones may suffer and we may lose them too. No wonder people sink into desperation and loneliness.

Fortunately, there is a light that guides us out of darkness. This light was given to us by the Buddha. It is called wisdom. Buddhism is more accurately called “Buddha dharma.” The word “Buddha” means “enlightened person” and “dharma” means “teachings.” Therefore, Buddhism is the “way to become enlightened.” Or simply: the way to live in light or wisdom. The Buddha’s life story teaches us about our own life.

Born as prince Siddhartha, he enjoyed the comforts of the palace and satisfied all his worldly desires. Yet he was unhappy. So he left the palace and became an ascetic living in the forest, denying himself many things, including food, sleep and even love. But this life of self-denial almost killed him. Siddhartha realized he needed food, clothing and shelter in order to live. He gave up both pleasure-seeking and ascetism, understanding the “middle path” was the best route to seeking truth.

Thereafter, he took what food, clothing and shelter was necessary to live, but no more, living simply and humbly, knowing the key to happiness did not lay in over-indulgence or self-denial. In our materialistic world, it’s easy to feel we somehow failed if we don’t make a certain amount of money, rise to a certain status, live in a certain size house, and acquire certain possessions. Experience shows us even if we reach those goals, we don’t achieve lasting happiness. Instead, we are dissatisfied and continue to crave more.

The Buddha acknowledged we need certain things in life in order to live. Beyond these necessities, he observed that acquiring more won’t make us any happier. Rather, the key to happiness lay in understanding the true nature of life. The great truth is that we are not created by our own efforts to satisfy selfish desires and inflate our egos. Rather, this life is given to us by innumerable causes and conditions that have come together in this very moment in time.

This moment was created by our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents, and so forth endlessly. It was created by our friends, our family and the community in which we live. It was created by the earth and her rivers, oceans, mountains, valleys, fields, and all her inhabitants that serve as the food we need. This moment is created by our thoughts, experiences and by our loved ones of the past. It also is created by our future hopes and dreams.

Contained within the present is the past and future. Contained within this moment is eternity. To understand this deep, deep truth is to be filled with joy and gratitude. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, young or old, male or female, healthy or sick. This wisdom is for everyone.

In the Tathagata-garbha sutra (Sutra on Buddha-nature), the Buddha explained how everyone, no matter who you are, carries the seed of this wisdom: Imagine a rotting flower with wilted petals. You may think it is merely garbage to be thrown away. But I see inside it lays a shining image of the Buddha. Imagine a swarm of bees clumped on a tree. You may think to avoid this tree, to run away from it. But I see underneath this swarm lay golden honey with the sweetest taste. Imagine a poor family in a broken-down house. They think their lives are miserable and they have nothing. But I see buried beneath the floor of this house, a chest filled with gold.

These passages explain “Buddha nature.” All of us have Buddha nature. I heard it described as a little Buddha sleeping inside us, waiting to wake up. In other words, each of us has the potential to become a Buddha. Each of us has the potential to lead fulfilling lives of joy and gratitude. We live in uncertain times facing great challenges. Whatever path our lives may traverse, remember the greatest treasure in life is already inside us, waiting to be discovered.