The Art of Lay Life 2

New Moon Uposatha, July 15 (Index to Series)

Whether it be a householder or one gone forth, it is the one of right practice that I praise, not the one of wrong practice – SN 45.24

In summary of last week, Buddhism is practiced be different people at many different levels. It is most coherently defined for an endpoint on the scale of practice intensity. That endpoint is represented best by the Buddha. Those who fall short of the Buddha’s practice are not bad Buddhists or lousy practitioners, and should not feel guilty if they have failed to leave their family in order to “go forth” into monastic life, have not given up their livelihood, go to show or even drink a beer.

This is important to understand. In Buddhism our lives should incline toward the endpoint, few will actually get anywhere near the endpoint, at least in this life. This is different from more common religious practice. Islam, for instance, can require good Muslims to bow toward Mecca each day, because although inconvenient virtually everybody can do it and it is wholesome, so it asks people to do more than incline in that direction. Buddhism cannot require that good Buddhists dwell in emptiness for hours every day, because virtually nobody can do it, so it demands of people less than an immediate obligation to do it.

Now there are a variety of Best Buddhist Practices probably all readers have already brought into your lives, such as meditating, chanting, practicing generosity, following precepts, studying and listening to Dharma talks, reading essays like this. However, these compete with everything else in your busy lives that are not inspired by Buddhism, like having fun or working for a living. This raises an important issue in light of the most basic principle of Buddhist practice:

I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir… – AN 5.57

This means that your development toward the perfection of character is a product of your actions, all of your actions, of body, speech and mind. Now, practice is actions, including actions of mind during meditation, but everything else you do is also actions and you are heir to that as well. Your path of development does not differentiate one bit what you are doing at work from what we are doing at the local Buddhist center. It is enormously important to be aware of this because our lives easily overwhelm our practice. This can not be overemphasized, so I will belabor this point for the second week in a row with another analogy.

Suppose you are knitting a sweater. You have maybe an hour every evening to work on it, so it takes a number of weeks to complete. You put it aside when you have other things to do and you pick it up again when you return to resume where you left off, and so you make steady progress and never backslide. Practice does not work like this.

Suppose instead that you are knitting a sweater, but you are never allowed to put it aside, you have to wear it, or that part of it that exists, while you are not knitting it. So, if you are washing dishes. making a presentation to the board, changing a flat tire, it is on your body. That is how practice is. This means that practice is easily soiled or unraveled by what you do with the rest of your day.

As Buddhists you can make a very radical choice, and that is to simply empty your lives of everything else in order to devote ourselves purely full-time to Best Buddhist Practices. This is the basis of the monastic life, the renunciate’s life. The reason many make this radical choice is that the Buddhist path is sophisticated, difficult to master, penetrates deeply, really does ask intense and consistent effort, and brings enormous reward. However, this radical choice appeals to relatively few people. Although lay life is a less radical choice it can support a comparably intense and consistent effort, …, if it is implemented properly.

Notice I refer to “monastic life,” rather than “being a nun or monk.” Living a monastic life is different than formal ordination. Formal ordination provides a social context which makes it easy to live a monastic life and plays other critical roles in Buddhism, but life-style is the key consideration in the Art of Lay Life. In fact, there are many formally lay people who live strictly monastic lives and many ordained monastics who manage to avoid a strictly monastic lives, and the fruits of their practice correspond observably to these circumstances. So “monastic life” is relative; some people live more monastically than others; chances are you already live more monastically than your next-door neighbor.

The Art of Lay Life is in essence that of living as monastically as possible with the understanding that your lives will include some elements that are not Best Buddhist Practices. With skill and careful planning the lay life can nonetheless make rapid progress along the Path.

Last week I stated the Art of Juggling. Here is the Art of Lay Life in brief:

The Art of Lay Life.

Select. Choose carefully what elements you want to juggle in your life. Remember that a lay life is a compromise between best Buddhist practices and whatever else you value, feel obligated, or just think of as cool. If you are like most people you already feel your life is too crowded and busy, and now you are trying to find room for Buddhist practice as well. Prune this down and select what is really important.

For instance, “family” is a core value and obligation for perhaps most people. “Success in business,” “personal appearance,” “romance,” “opera,” “football,” might be others. Upholding core values might entail bringing other elements into your life: To support a family you need your job, which maybe happens to be manufacturing landmines for foreign export. When you think about it, you really don’t need to play video games endlessly.

Reject. Now toss everything to the side that you think is important but has no place being juggled in a Buddhist life. Some things do not belong there for ethical reasons; they are significantly harmful. Other things do not belong because they make the mind dangerously vulnerable, either destroying serenity and leading to confusion and ignorance.

For instance, your job manufacturing landmines is clearly Wrong Livelihood, and will weigh on you karmically. Obsessive concern with personal appearance serves an unwholesome sense of self. Start by considering what elements of your life result in violations of precepts, for instance, killing, stealing, lying. Then consider what peace of mind requires. In our modern culture we typically juggle elements that are quite toxic to practice that were totally unknown at the time of the Buddha, such as the unskillful use of electronic media. Some clear choices are critical at this level.

Balance. The remaining elements are reasonably compatible with development along the path if they are skillfully juggled. Now, they can generally actually be shaped into objects of Buddhist practices themselves by tuning your relationship to them.

For instance, we can learn to treat some of the remaining elements in a less self-serving way. Aside from valuing family for its own sake, you may think of family as a means of personal advantage. For instance, having a beautiful wife or husband and children, and a children that has been admitted to Harvard enhances your prestige. A beautiful husband or wife might also improve the level of your sexual pleasure. Often, if your family, especially spouse, fails to meet your needs, divorce ensues. However, you can take all this self-centeredness out of your relation to your family — and similarly out of each of the elements of your life — by developing a sense of complete devotion to your family, which is to treat it as valuable in itself, unquestioned, to rival refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Also you can learn to do daily tasks with mindfulness, as a meditation practices and with full awareness of ethical consequences. In short, the things you have chosen to include in your life for other than practice reasons can be turned into practices.

Simplify. In every other way, live like a monastic. Get rid of the clutter, the chatter, the habits and impulses that you would otherwise be juggling with your toes that don’t directly support what you have, through the above process wise reflection, decided to include in your life.

For instance, try to be more of a recluse and don’t spend so much time gossiping, don’t shop impulsively, reduce your expenses and allocation of time for errands, organize your life with these things in mind. You might want to move to a small house in the city to avoid the commute from the suburbs and the heating/air conditioning costs. Give attention to avoiding everything that has the small of “me” in it. Free up time and money by living on less.

In the next weeks we will look at each of these steps — Select, Reject, Balance and Simplify — in turn and in detail.

The key ingredient of any Buddhist life-style, and to the Art of Lay Life is Renunciation. “Renunciation” is not a popular word in Western Buddhism, and most American Buddhist teachers will avoid it. I believe this is because almost everything else in our culture inclines us the other way, to such a degree that the word suggests something subversive. Everyone knows monastics are renunciates, but lay people?

There are two forms of renunciation, mental and physical. We know about letting go of attachments; that is mental renunciation, which can also be described as releasing any personal stake you have in things. What I have been describing above is physical renunciation, giving up actual things and activities. Physical renunciation is what many find most disagreeable. Some teachers will tell you that you don’t need to worry about physical renunciation, it will follow once you master mental renunciation. This has the order reversed.

First, if you read through the monastic precepts, which define what it is to be a monastic, you will find something interesting: They are only about physical renunciation; there is no precept that is about letting go of some thought. This does not mean that beginning monastics have mastered mental renunciation, only that they better do so, or they will be unhappy in their new life.

Second, renunciation in life-critical non-Buddhist contexts do not postpone physical renunciation. Consider giving up a drinking or a smoking habit. It is hardly possible to begin the long process of recovery without first giving up actual physical drinking or smoking at the outset. You don’t begin by working with the mind to first remove all desire to drink or smoke first, all the while continuing to drink or smoke, then expect drinking or smoking to fall away by itself. I think of Buddhist practice as a kind of recovery from generalized substance abuse, as Samsara Anonymous.

Third, physical renunciation is far easier than mental renunciation, and aids the latter. This is actually why monastics and alcoholics first give things up physically, then focus on getting their minds to follow the body’s example. Mental renunciation can be very very hard, and it requires physical help. The same thing is found in meditation practice, in which we mentally renounce the monkey mind, the endless business of thoughts. Notice that it does not work, at least for beginners, to just stop thinking so much, one begins by stilling the body, by finding a comfortable, stable posture, by sitting, for instance, rather than walking or running around. The mind quickly follows the body’s example.

If this is disconcerting, keep in mind that Buddhist practice is as gentle and forgiving as you want it to be. It is not necessary to master the entire Art of Lay Life all at once. The four steps of the process should be gradually iterated into. At first there may be resistance to renouncing wild parties or the enormous prestige you know you are getting from your BMW, as well as a lack of understanding that you might benefit from renouncing these. Well, then at least give up your job working as a hit-man for the mob and become a cobbler. You will notice your meditation improve with time and a sense of well-being settle in. Later on you can revisit the wild parties and the image-enhancing car with a more stable, clearer, more developed mind. My own experience is roughly that I iterated over many years so much that nothing was left, so I became a monk. You don’t have to go that far, but beware that it could happen.

3 Responses to “The Art of Lay Life 2”

  1. rossdavidh Says:

    Nicely put. At some point, I would be curious to hear your thoughts on how to balance Right Livelihood vs. care for others (e.g. family), and also how to skillfully deal with different members of a family who are at different points in “inclining” towards Best Buddhist Practices. Also, when/whether one should nudge another towards inclining more.

    Not that I would expect any simple answers, of course, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it.


  2. Don Medford Says:

    Some teachers will tell you that you don’t need to worry about physical renunciation; it will follow once you master mental renunciation. This has the order reversed.

    I have been of the thought that the mental renunciation is first on most things, (putting heroin, alcohol addiction etc aside and focusing on more mundane habits and wants).
    Perhaps it is not so much renunciation as it is a re-arrangement of the psyche.

    First is faith in actions, then a perceptional change occurs as we continue to take actions along the path. We begin to see the cost of indulgence. For example we may see anger takes time and happiness and energy away from us. We begin to practice letting anger go because we see how consuming it is.

    This to me seems more of a mental process rather than a physical process. Of course the big glaring things are the first to go, alcohol, smoking and so on but it is the more insidious defects that would require some enlightenment of the mental process.

    I love your sweater analogy. Do I understand correctly that any task that is not some form of renunciation unravels our sweater of Buddhism?

    I was thinking back to when I was a child. One of my mother’s girlfriends would drop by with another kid. I may have never met the kid before but we would just be friends. There was no agreement that we would be friends or that we would discuss being friends or his needs or my needs in order to be friends. We would just be friends because that is the way a kid’s world worked.

    Would it help if we approached everything like that? If we were to do everything from work to family and play for fun and for free? In other words how do we stop the unraveling of the sweater after we have decided what to give up and what to keep?


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Don, The initial work is always mental, but this is pre-renunciation. This is true for instance of the alcoholic; he has to recognize his problem before he can do anything about it. This is often a lot of work, or simply impossible for him. After fixing on renunciation, the next step is to actually stop drinking, not to develop the mind of a non-drinker. The third is to develop the mind of a non-drinker. I think you will find all renunciation is like this. Take anger. A lot of people are angry, act out their anger, and think that their anger is caused by the way the world treats them. They need to correctly understand the problem first, that they themselves provide at least some of the conditions for the arising of anger and that they can control those conditions. The next step is to stop acting out anger, stop yelling at people, stop violent behaviors. Angry thoughts will continue for a long time, they are much more difficult to control. They will begin to subside later.
      Keep in mind I am not advocating that all readers become renunciates, rather that you are clear about what you do not want to renounce. Not renouncing football or family is fine. However I offered as a challenge the Buddhist wisdom that the more you study your motives and the hidden costs of what you think is important, the more you tend to become a renunciate. Many things we do, of course, are also wholesome. Kids do have an innocence adults often use, a wide-eyed wonder without personal manipulation. But they begin to pick up the latter at a very young age.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: