When Jesus encouraged his followers to stop treasuring material things and instead “store up treasures in heaven,” some believe that he was teaching them to delay gratification; to live an ascetic life now in anticipation of the reward of later glory and comfort.  As a result, many have needlessly deprived themselves and taken pride in their impoverished life, feeling their misery could buy them eternal happiness. When we take a closer look at Jesus’ words, we can see that he had something else in mind:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

There are three keys found within the paragraph, which we italicized. When Jesus talked about material treasures, he implied ownership by saying, “where thieves break in and steal.” We don’t secure things unless we feel that they belong to us, hence locks, fences, security systems and the self-storage lockers ubiquitous in every city. George Carlin was correct when he pointed out that a large part of the reason for building houses (and why they have gotten bigger and bigger) was simply so we would have places to store our stuff and make sure no one else could have it.

Jesus went on to tie the concept of ownership to the word treasure, and then connected what we treasure to our heart.  Having things was not the issue. Jesus was pointing out the fact that instead of us having things, the things usually have us. We give our heart to things, and we’ve become their slave. Instead of attaching our heart to the collection, ownership and protection of things, Jesus asks us to give our heart to our oneness with the Divine.  In Oneness, ALL the treasures of the universe are ours. There is no sense of individual ownership, yet we need have no fear of losing anything. But Jesus also wanted us to recognize that there is a vast difference in the quality of earthly and spiritual treasures.  This point was also made in a powerful parable told by the Taoist master, Chuang Tzu:

Chuang Tzu was called to visit the ruler Liang. Because Chuang Tzu was known for his wisdom, the current Prime Minister, Hui Tzu, felt certain Liang was going to replace him and make Chuang Tzu prime minister. Hui Tzu decided this was something Chuang Tzu desired, so to intervene, he sent his henchmen to hunt Chuang Tzu down. Three days had passed, and Hui Tzu’s men were unable to find the elusive Chuang Tzu. The longer they searched the surer Hui Tzu felt that Chuang Tzu was up to no good.  But then Chuang Tzu presented himself to Hui Tzu, leaving the prime minister is a state of shock.

Hui Tzu had no legitimate reason to suspect Chuang Tzu, but his heart was so attached to the power, prestige and riches connected with his title, he expected everyone else coveted his treasure. And generally speaking, he may well have been correct. But, like Jesus, Chuang Tzu’s treasure was not in this world. To explain, Chuang Tzu told Hui Tzu about the phoenix, a mythical bird that never grows old.

This undying phoenix would rise out of the south sea and fly to the seas of the north, never alighting except on certain sacred trees. He would touch no food but the most exquisite rare fruit, and he drank only from the clearest springs. One day an owl, who was chewing on a half-decayed dead rat, saw the phoenix flying overhead and felt certain that glorious bird would try to take his meal. The owl clutched the rat, screeched at the phoenix and prepared to attack. Oddly, the phoenix flew past as if he had not even noticed the treasure griped tightly in the owl’s talons.

At the end of the story, Chuang Tzu looked Hui Tzu in the eye and asked, “Prime minister, why are you so frantic, clinging to your ministry and screeching at me in dismay?” We have no way of knowing whether Hui Tzu got the point of the story or remained as confused as he was when Chuang Tzu showed up at his door. But there are several things we know for certain about Chuang Tzu:

 His treasure and his heart were not tied to anything in this world.

He understood that like the mythical phoenix, his life was eternal and not tied to this world.

He knew that those who continue to believe this world is real also believe in the value of its material treasures, but he saw past this illusion to Reality.

Whatever material possessions Chuang Tzu had did not have a hold on him. In his eyes, it was not as if he had given up anything of value.  Rather, the things in this world had become valueless in his sight. Like the phoenix, he considered the treasures of this world about as valuable as a dead rat.

Jesus and Chuang Tzu both felt this way because they were not just hoping for something; they had seen for themselves what both the material and spiritual realms have to offer. Although they both lived simply, they were not sacrificing now for something better in the future. They had already traded the world’s trinkets for the treasure beyond price because they had seen and compared for themselves what was valuable and valueless.   Sages like Jesus and Chuang Tzu are revered and their words are repeated for centuries. You may learn something from those words, but what they really want you to do is experience what they experienced, see what they saw. When you do, you too will be the phoenix, you will store your treasures where there is no need of ownership and no thieves to break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream—Chuang Tzu

Heaven and earth were born at the same time as I was, and the ten thousand things are one with me—Chuang Tzu

Lee and Steven Hager are the authors of several books featuring the synergy of science, spirituality and gnosis.

Visit The Beginning of Fearlessness Website and blog: http://www.thebeginningoffearlessness.com