The Art of Lay Life 7: Balancing Elements

Uposatha Day Essay for Last Quarter Moon (Index to Series)

I hope in the last few weeks the advice I have conveyed has been useful in examining the elements of your life, what is or is not appropriate in the context of Buddhist practice, but at the same time what is or is not important to you. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who might have been inspired already to make some significant changes. However, in general this examination will be ongoing; what changes you make should be considered carefully and you will certainly come up with different answers at different times. And the answers should be satisfying to you before they are embraced. In the Dighajanu Sutta (AN 8.54) a group of laypeople approach the Buddha, and this is what they say:

“We, Lord, are laymen who enjoy worldly pleasure. We lead a life encumbered by wife and children. We use sandalwood of Kasi. We deck ourselves with garlands, perfume and unguents. We use gold and silver. To those like us, O Lord, let the Exalted One preach the Dhamma, teach those things that lead to weal and happiness in this life and to weal and happiness in future life.”

In response the Buddha does not dismiss them as unworthy, nor does he try to talk them out of what to them is important. Rather he respects that they are free to make their own choices, and uses what they have communicated as the parameters within which a Buddhist life can be built. This week I take up the third step in the Art of Lay Life, which I have called Balancing Elements. I will assume there is a set of elements that are important to you that have a potentially questionable relationship to Buddhist practice, then discuss how these are best integrated into a Buddhist life.

Let’s suppose, just by way of example, that the following are fixed elements for you:

  • Watching Dr. Who (or some other weekly T.V. show)
  • Drinking wine with friends
  • Playing chess, or a competitive sport
  • Oh, and Raising a family and hanging on to a Spouse

You can substitute your own list. These are important to you for reasons other than Buddhist practice. If you were a monastic you would be asked to give up these and things like them, at least substantially, sometimes at great sacrifice. But you are not, because as a lay Buddhist you choose to juggle these or things like them in your life along with Buddhist practice. It would seem that in making this choice you have bifurcated your life into life of practice + rest of life, thereby becoming a half-time or quarter-time Buddhist. However this need not be the case: You can turn almost any wayward elements into a Buddhist-like practice! The guiding principle is to empty each of these elements of the self, at least insofar as it is possible. Emptying of the self requires a shift in our relationship to things. Our human tendency is to use things with an eye to personal advantage, even our friendships and family relationships, to have a personal stake. We can even do this with Buddhist practice. But this is generally not necessary except for those elements which we have already tagged for rejection in the last two weeks. I’d like to consider three ways to help empty and element of the self: Devotion, Ritualization and Mindfulness, and Constancy.

Devotion. Devotion shifts your relationship to an element from that of it serving you to you serving it. It turns that element into a hobby.

Family and especially spouse provides a good example. If you have a husband or wife, there are two quite distinct aspects to your marriage and one or the other might predominate. One is rather self-centered and calculating. Your spouse serves as a sink for sexual drives, is a hedge against loneliness, takes on some of the burden of maintaining a household and raising kids, is possibly a show-piece to enhance your own reputation, and so on. If this aspect predominates then the marriage becomes very dispensable: If you run across a more attractive, younger, healthier, less burdensome, harder-working or better-cooking man or woman, you might well abandon the old marriage in favor of enhancing personal advantage. This is because the marriage serves you. The other is selfless and faithful. The marriage is a refuge, a treasure, something you have chosen to bring into your life, preserve and enhance. It becomes meaningful in itself and personal advantage becomes beside the point. The marriage becomes an end in itself rather than a means to some other end. Of course selfish motives may threaten this attitude, very commonly sexual attraction to someone new, but a selfless and faithful marriage will withstand even this, maybe with a bit of fudging.

Form the perspective of Buddhist practice, devotion is great. It is a primary means of letting go of the drive for personal advantage, which contrary to the justification for that drive, never results in happiness anyway. Devotion is what we bring to the table when we begin Buddhist practice, devotion to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. I think of devotion as the mind of the hobbyist: the fly fisherman, the knitter, the bird watcher, the string collector. Have you noticed how useless most hobbies are, how hard they are to explain to the uninitiated, and when they have some use, how much incidental it is? A marriage is based on devotion when it becomes thoroughly a hobby. I think what attracts people to hobbies is that they provide quite palpable release from the tension of dealing with the relentless drive for personal advantage with which most of us are endowed.

Now, most things can be approached with devotion, even if that is not the original motivation, even drinking alcohol! How do you make wine drinking into a hobby rather than a greedy guzzling indulgence? Well, a lot of people do just that: They become connoisseurs. The learn all they can about the variety of wines, about the manufacturing process, they visit wineries and sample the bouquet and taste of each kind, they buy special bottles of wine which they place on special altars called wine racks. They take very seriously the ritual of pulling the cork out of the bottle, and often have very specialized equipment for doing so, then carefully aerate a red wine, chill a white wine, drink red wine with red meat, white with fish or chicken and so on. (I understand that the cork serves no practical function in preserving the taste of wine, the modern screw top actually works better. But the screw top lacks the ritual and therefore the cork endures as the seal of choice for the connoisseur.) One of the interesting things about all of this is that it holds the impulse to guzzle in check, that greedy impulse is actually frowned upon by the cultured wine connoisseur, even while a moderate buzz is appreciated.

Another interesting thing is that within our culture, particularly in “high society,” there are many practices similar to this and they are seldom considered religious practices, yet I think their motivations are identical. They are religious practices. As a generalization of this, I should point out that there is a big difference, which can be characterized as devotion, between the way a musician listens to music, the way a film maker or aficionado watches a movie, and so on. For most music and movies are matters of personal consumption, for the devotee they lose much of that quality.

So, how do you develop an attitude of devotion toward some element that you would like to include in your life? Religion, not just Buddhism, makes common use of these elements: Vows, Duties, Expressions of Reverence and Reminders. There may be others, but these occur to me just now.

Vow is an explicit statement of intention. The word has the same root as devotion. Commonly a marriage begins officially with the recitation of a set of vows:

I Bifford B. Bup take you Myrtle Quaddlebottom to be my wedded wife. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish ’till death do us part. And hereto I pledge you my faithfulness.

Interestingly Buddhism does not provide much structure for these kinds of lay vows. I don’t know why. Practically your whole life can be fixed in terms of vow.

Duties enumerate ways to realize devotion or a vow. For instance, in the Sigalovada Sutta (DN31) the Buddha gives a short list of the duties of a husband to a wife:

“In five ways, young householder, should a wife … be ministered to by a husband: by being courteous to her, by not despising her, by being faithful to her, by handing over authority to her, by providing her with adornments.

Notice the last one. The Buddha also gives a short list of the duties of an employer:

“In five ways should a master minister to his servants and employees : by assigning them work according to their ability, by supplying them with food and with wages, by tending them in sickness, by sharing with them any delicacies, by granting them leave at times.

Even your relationship to employees can be substantially one of devotion rather than personal advantage.

Expressions of Reverence play an important role in Buddhism particularly in the form of bows and the gesture of anjali/gassho, and to standards of care to representative objects of devotion. These are not so developed in Western culture. The Sigalovada Sutta begins when the Buddha runs across someone doing prostrations and inquires:

“Wherefore do you, young householder, rising early in the morning, departing from Rajagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship, with joined hands these various quarters — the East, the South, the West, the North, the Nadir, and the Zenith?”

“My father, Lord, while dying, said to me: The six quarters, dear son, you shall worship. And I, Lord, respecting, revering, reverencing and honoring my father’s word, rise early in the morning, and leaving Rajagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship with joined hands, these six quarters.”

Rather than admonishing the young householder for practicing empty ritural, the Buddha gives him a useful interpretation:

“It is not thus, young householder, the six quarters should be worshipped in the discipline of the noble. . . The parents should be looked upon as the East, teachers as the South, wife and children as the West, friends and associates as the North, servants and employees as the Nadir, ascetics and brahmans as the Zenith.

Other expressions of reverence are taking care of and cleaning people or objects of devotion, or giving gifts. It is interesting that in Western culture such reverence is largely reserved for objects of material attachment, especially cars. When properly interpreted expressions of reverence are powerful means for maintaining a devotional attitude, one that empties the self.

Ritual reminders are things like wedding rings and golf keychains.

Continued next week.

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