The Art of Lay Life 3: Selecting Elements

Last Quarter Moon, July 23 (Index to Series)

As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Discipline, this is the Teacher’s instruction. – the Buddha to Mahapajapati, AN 8.53

If you are like most people your life is a bit busier than you would like: You are passionate, fettered; you have a lot of Stuff, try to be important, are restless, entangled, a bit lazy and possibly a bit of a pain. And since you are reading this essay, you are probably also trying, or intend to try, to fit in a Buddhist practice to top it off.

It should be clear that some pruning is called for if adequate time and energy for Buddhist practice is to be available, both to give space for Buddhist practice and in itself for the very piece of mind that Buddhist practice also encourages. Unfortunately many Buddhist practitioners fail to do much pruning if any, but just add a meditation practice or morning chanting to the top of everything else they do in their frantic lives. This is a mistake: First, it leads to more stress as your life becomes even more cluttered, and, second, it is likely to make your life more fragmented since much of the clutter of your lives is most likely inimical to Buddhist practice. The key word is “Simplify.”

Now monastics are people who go off the deep end over this issue and simply dump the whole mass of entanglement. Lay people are those who need to be more selective, and this is the topic of today’s and next week’s essay. I strongly urge all lay people take this step very seriously. I think someone wise once said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Selecting elements to include in our lives is the first step of this examination. What elements of your life are really essential to you? What obligations do you need to keep? What options are there for clearing up the grosser vexations that seem to impinge on your life? In short, how do you want to live your life with Buddhist practice as a prominent element? These choices are up to you and every person will make them differently, even monastics who invariably manage to cling to something. (In my case it is coffee. Oh, and I like to keep in touch with my aging parents and three grown children occasionally.) This is not a one-time task but one that should be visited again and again throughout your practice career. As your practice develops you will find a desire to shed more and more.

Your life is a combination of things you have included because they are important to you, of obligations that you have inherited or that carry over from past decisions and of many many things that though not necessarily desirable to you in themselves are there to support or simply are entailed by the other things you have included in your life. Studying Samsara is a major part of developing Buddhist wisdom. However, most people can begin by making quick progress right away because with bare consideration a lot of things will simply defy rational justification for inclusion in any life. Let’s begin with what should be easy to justify.

Buddhist Elements. Let’s start with the Buddhist values which might be included in the Lay Life.

“Four conditions, Vyagghapajja, conduce to a householder’s weal and happiness in his future life [that is, spiritual rather than material progress]. Which four?

“The accomplishment of faith (saddha-sampada), the accomplishment of virtue (sila-sampada), the accomplishment of charity (caga-sampada) and the accomplishment of wisdom (pañña-sampada).

“What is the accomplishment of faith?

“Herein a householder is possessed of faith, he believes in the Enlightenment of the Perfect One (Tathagata): Thus, indeed, is that Blessed One: he is the pure one, fully enlightened, endowed with knowledge and conduct, well-gone, the knower of worlds, the incomparable leader of men to be tamed, the teacher of gods and men, all-knowing and blessed. This is called the accomplishment of faith.

“What is the accomplishment of virtue?

“Herein a householder abstains from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and from intoxicants that cause infatuation and heedlessness. This is called the accomplishment of virtue.

“What is the accomplishment of charity?

“Herein a householder dwells at home with heart free from the stain of avarice, devoted to charity, open-handed, delighting in generosity, attending to the needy, delighting in the distribution of alms. This is called the accomplishment of charity.

“What is the accomplishment of wisdom?

“Herein a householder is wise: he is endowed with wisdom that understands the arising and cessation (of the five aggregates of existence); he is possessed of the noble penetrating insight that leads to the destruction of suffering. This is called the accomplishment of wisdom.

AN 8.54

Often meditation is absent from traditional descriptions of Lay Life, but never excluded. I think the reason is that it is quite time-consuming and produces the best results with sustained uninterrupted effort. The suttas are full of references to monks and nuns who plop themselves down day after day after their noon meal “for the day’s abiding,” a luxury few lay folks could afford. It is surprising that in the busy modern West meditation has become the end-all and be-all of Buddhist practice. I certainly don’t want to discourage it one bit, but would like to underscore the four elements here, which, you will notice, require no particular time commitment, but are to be brought to mind over and over again in the midst of other activities.

Faith is more generally expanded to include the Triple Gem, Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. We have just completed a series of postings here on faith and its role in Buddhism. Taking the Refuges, spending time with the wise and various devotional practices support the development of faith. Suffice it to say that it will supercharge your practice, for instance, making the other three factors listed here easy to sustain, and make you very pleasant for others to be around.

Just as a large banyan tree, on level ground where four roads meet, is a haven for the birds all around, even so a lay person of faith is a haven for many people: monks, nuns, male lay followers, & female lay followers.– AN 5.38 (Saddha Sutta)

Virtue is most generally defined in terms of precepts for ethical conduct. Accompanying these are the development of kindness and compassion, motivations for benefiting others. These are qualities too rare in our modern age.

Charity, or dana, is probably the most fundamental Buddhist practice. If you want a short-cut to happiness, this is it, just go out and start doing things for other people. It quickly becomes addictive because it feels so good. Most people think they feel they have to take care of their own happiness before they can worry about others, but this is exactly backward.

Generosity is traditionally the life-blood of the Buddhist community and makes temples and monasteries uplifting places to visit. In Buddhism generosity has an institutional form, expressed above in the reference to “alms,” in the uncoersed lay support of monastics. This is what allows monastics to practice full-time, and also supports lay people as well in periodic intensive practice retreats. It expresses the sentiment, “I believe in what you are doing and I want to support it.” Monastics do provide a return in offering teachings and inspiration to lay people — Buddhism would not long survive without that concentrated flame of practice that keeps others heated up — but most lay Buddhists find their offerings are best repaid simply by practicing sincerely, intensely and deeply. The reciprocal is true of monastics. As a monk and a teacher my greatest reward is not in receiving alms but in witnessing that someone has listened to the teachings I offer and then put them to use in their practice.

Wisdom can represent the highest accomplishment of Buddhist practice, in which it is best developed in conjunction with a strong meditation practice. But it is also something that can be developed in everyday life through constant reflection on impermanence and out response to it. Life is full of peril, eventually we lose everything we hold dear, yet the world is renewing itself all the while. We need to learn not to hold on so tightly.

All of these four Buddhist values are supported in a one-stop shopping experience by visiting traditional Buddhist temples, which traditionally also supports the qualities of family outings. This is one of the primary functions of the Uposatha day, to bring the kids, enjoy a potluck, renew the Refuges and Precepts, listen to a Dharma talk, bask in the flow of generosity, and even meditate with the monastics and strong lay practitioners. This piggybacking of Buddhist practice with community life and fun makes for easy integration into the busy lay life. Unfortunately the traditional Buddhist community, which is as far as I can see universal in Buddhist Asia, has been largely neglected in pay-as-you-go Western Buddhism. Part of the reason may be the scarcity of monastics like me, who are generally the spark that sets the community engine into motion. I think Gils Fronsdal, a lay Buddhist teacher in Redwood City, California, seems to have an understanding of the proper role of dana in the Buddhist community and reports delightful results from implementing it. So it may be that developing healthy Buddhist communities is a matter of education. My suggestion for the reader is to encourage your own center to become dana-based, and to become friends with Asian-oriented monasteries near you, in spite of possible linguistic and cultural challenges.

Obligations. These are things you at least feel you do not have a choice about. Nonetheless they can be strong determinants of the way you live your life, and even lock the aspiring monastic into Lay Life against her will. Examples are marriage commitments, support of children or elderly or infirm parents and other relatives, military service and debt. Many people are shocked when they first learn the life of the Buddha that he abandoned a wife and infant son to pursue the holy life. The exact circumstances as opposed to legend may never be clear, but I think this story persists because it functions to open up the possibility of turning your back on obligations in order to pursue a greater value. It is rare for a Buddhist to completely abandon family especially when the family depends on him, but Buddhism opens such things for consideration. Of course the long arm of the law could well put a stop to that. It is notable that in order to ordain as a monastic you have to be free of all debt and also have your parents’ permission.

Fundamental Values. Aside from Buddhist practice, what is really important to you? No, really? This, of course, is a deep question, and also a very personal question. Probably on most people’s short list is:

  • Family
  • Wealth
  • Reputation
  • Friendship, romance
  • Entertainment
  • Luxury

At least common on many people’s list are certainly:

  • Football
  • Power tools and/or hi-tech gadgetry
  • Charitable and compassionate actions and projects
  • Intellectual and artistic pursuits
  • Celebrity
  • Eating
  • Sexual conquest
  • Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, etc.
  • Sleep
  • Communing with Nature
  • Hard work, Hard play
  • Personal responsibility
  • Loyalty to nation or ethnic group
  • Honor, courage and being all that you can be, to those drawn to armed service

It might be a helpful exercise to draw up your personal list of values. Keep in mind, these are values, not habits, things that you feel have a critical role in giving your life meaning and zest.

Many of these things will be quite wholesome from a Buddhist perspective, others will be considered unskillful, prone to harm and unhappiness. We’ll try to weed some out and adjust others when we consider Rejecting and Balancing Elements in the Art of Lay Life. As a rule of thumb you can identify the ones that are most problematic in terms of how self-absorbed they are. I can imagine that some of you might have the urge to write down what a first seems like a fundamental value, like gossiping about other people’s hair, only to discover your own embarrassment that you even engage in such a thing. Be aware that you will probably find ways of justifying what is pretty petty in terms of a higher value, such as Truth with specialization in people’s hair. It is probably not one that belongs on your short list.

The point of knowing what your values are is that you can then begin to consider them, then reconsider them, with regard to their advantages, their disadvantages, how they make you feel when you live up to them, what implications they have for other parts of your life, and what motivates your interest in them in the first place. This investigation can, and should, go on for many years in conjunction with the peace of mind and discernment that develops in the course of Buddhist practice. This is the beginning of the study of samsara. Over time you will certainly discover fewer and fewer of these elements that are worth sustaining, as they drop away like old toys from an emerging adolescent. Buddhist wisdom is that there is little worth sustaining, the disadvantages of most things, the pain of attachment, the way they enmesh you further in samsaric existence, in obligation, is just too great a price to pay. All is Aflame, painful to the touch.

If you are like most people there will be some values that stand firm under close scrutiny. Sustaining them is your choice, and that can be a confident choice if you have examined those values closely and find they still speak to you. However there is another dimension of samsara to explore, the dependencies among elements in your life. Everything we bring into our lives comes at a cost, sometimes at an enormous cost, financially, socially, in terms of mental health and so on. Like a well-run corporation we tend to externalize costs in our own minds, that is we see only the attractive side of things but living with the costs. Much of the additional clutter of our lives is the cost we pay for what we value. Renunciation will probably sound like a welcome relief for things like long commutes, debt, chauffeuring of adolescents, the constant ringing of the phone, bills, nagging neighbors, threat of law suits, divorce, keeping up with never-ending housework, but they might not be so easy to remove from your life one by one. Next week we will look at these incidental elements.

In the meantime consider, “What are my most fundamental values in life?” But combine the question with this mantra: “Simplicity.”

6 Responses to “The Art of Lay Life 3: Selecting Elements”

  1. Randy Says:

    It would seem that survival is prime in most people’s lives, and that implies a need for some form of security, which of course from a Buddhist point of view can only be had by accepting, at the very deepest level, the ultimate insecurity at the base of all things and the constant ebb and flow that is the very nature of being. Recognizing that anything beyond basic survival is optional certainly frees a person from a lot of what seems mandatory, along with the cost in terms time and energy and frequently emotional angst associated with maintenance of these things. The thing that continues to cause discomfort in my mind as things disappear off the game board and I find my self, yes I know there is nobody there but as long as my eyes see and my ears hear there will be a ‘point’ regardless of its characteristics or lack of same that I must refer to using some term… where was I? Ahh yes. I am still having trouble avoiding the conclusion that relentless renunciation, a constant scraping away of everything until nothing is left is essentially seeking non existence or to put it less tactfully, death. In a sense perhaps it is, the death of the illusion of a constant self and the awakening of the limitless but unfortunately in some sense non-existent…

    This is very confusing.

    Why exist at all?


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Come out to visit sometime! You are still in Austin, right?

      You are not the only one who is confused, Recall that right before the Buddha’s Enlightenment he accepted an offering of rice and milk and his ascetic friends abandoned him in disgust. The reason was they were practicing, and the Buddha had been til he went bad, a life-denying asceticism. Recall also that the first thing he taught those same friends after his Enlightenment was the Middle Way between life-denying asceticism and indulgence. The point is that renunciation when it threatens life and well-being actually is detrimental to practice.

      However, for the most part what is renounced promotes well-being. This must be investigated carefully because we almost universally think just the opposite is the case.We live in a looking-glass world. If everyone saw this they would all be renunciates, but they are not. One must proceed step by step.

      In this first exercise I am not so much asking readers to renounce anything, I am instead asking what is really important, what is so important to you that you could not renounce it. I state that the more you investigate the costs of retaining things the more you will tend to renounce. This should be taken as a challenge to seriously defend your choices about what you want to retain, that is, really understand them. Most readers, I anticipate, do think of their lives as too cluttered, so they may have some incentive to renounce what they think is of minor importance. However, some people may actually feel that having a cluttered life is important to them in itself. That’s OK too.


  2. Randy Says:

    Your response is pretty much along the lines of what I would have responded, and in actuality how I did respond to my own question even as the words formed themselves on the page. I have had considerable experience in terms of realizing the very real benefit of renunciation, in terms of realizing just how liberating it can be whe one realizes, I mean really, really realizes just how much of the ‘things’ which includes circmstances one believes at the very deepest levels are mandatory to have in order to be… what is it we want to be? Happy?

    I think my current, actually ongoing issue springs from my own tendency away from the ‘middle path’ and to seek what for lack of a better term I would call an ‘absolute.’

    Yes, I do still live in Austin.

    Not going to the Zen Center any more after it’s expansion, although the new format does seem to be a better path for them in terms of spreading the word and expanding.

    I miss the Vedantisist Monastary in Trabucco canyon…



  3. Randy Says:

    P.S. How would I arrange to visit?

    Note: I did not finish the thought, or even the sentence in the first paragraph that started with “I have had considerable experience…” It should have ended with the words – “are not.”


    It was kind of amusing actually beause the screen was dancing around and being overlayed with invitations to log in to or register for facebook or twitter… and, as it is now, those invitaions oerlayed the text I was typing.

    There, I have vindcated myself and feel less the idiot.

    (smile number two).

    Again, I think for me my main issue is that I still cling. It is not a matter of feeling guilty or thinking I “should” do or be better, it is more a nagging feeling that somehow I (excuse the reference to the non-existant self – sigh) am addicted… and being the compulsive perfectionist I am… 99.9% don’t get it.

    So there I am, symbolic bowl of rice in hand, on the one hand feeling relatively (there is that word) self satisfied and thinking as the song goes… “you know I’ve done all one man can…” but on the other, at a deeper level, wondering what the heck I am doing here, doing this, and refusing to even take the pleasure offered in having the biggest box of marbles on the playground…

    Either get in the game or get out?


  4. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Randy, Sorry for the delay. I had your note in mind but couldn’t remember where you had posted it. But just now looked it up.
    Sitting on the fence is always uncomfortable.
    Just let me know when you would like to come out, just to make sure I am not doing something else, and come on out. My schedule is very fluid, except lunch at 11:30, which you can also come for. Go to for directions. We are off 290 SW of Austin.


  5. Randy Says:

    Thank you. I have been busy keeping busy (smile) and yes, sitting on the fence can be uncomfortable. It is a comfortable sort of uncomfortableness however as complacency can often be.

    My schedule is non-existent so there should be no problem arranging a time. I probably need to try and focus my mind on what to say… ask… talk about. Actually it would be nice just to see you again. (smile).

    I have rather drifted away from practice –


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