The Art of Lay Life 8: Balancing Elements (cont)

Uposatha Day Essay for the New Moon (Index to Series)

We started last week to look at ways to start to empty what we normally think of our secular or lay-life values and activities of the self. Since the sense of self is the root of all suffering, this brings these elements more in accord with Buddhist practice. One way of doing this is to learn to treat these elements with Devotion, that is to learn to serve these elements rather than using them to serve us. We already have Devotion as a primary component of any religious practice, including Buddhist. This makes the most of it. I want to take up two categories of techniques for emptying out the self, first Ritual and Mindfulness, and second, Welfare.

Ritualization and Mindfulness. Mindfulness is something we here a lot about in Buddhism. It is one whole factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, it is the driving force in meditation and a part of almost all other practices. It has two closely associated meanings: One is to remember moment by moment what your task is and to return to it if you’ve deviated. The other is simply moment by moment awareness. Now in meditation it is common for your task to be to keep the mind on the breath. If it deviates, for instance, if you start thinking about bills or work or a funny joke, mindfulness is want remembers to return to the breath. Mindfulness has the property of awareness, but also encourages acute awareness, as most people experience in meditation.

Now, the same principle can apply easily to many daily activities. For instance, if you are brushing your teeth, keep the mind at the area of contact between tooth and brush. If you are chopping carrots, keep the mind on the chopping, on knife meeting carrot. In either case if something arises that is not tooth-brushing or carrot-chopping, bring it back to the task at hand. This works best with physical tasks, even driving. Now Mindfulness empties the self quite markedly, because the self is sustained in what has passed and what is yet to come, in our patterns of behavior that define our individual personalities and in our aspirations for the future. Mindfulness keeps us in the present moment in which only our moment by moment decision to do this or that is present. This is not where the human mind dwells when left on its own.

Mindfulness is hard enough when all you have to do something simple like sitting and following the breath. It gets more difficult with more complex tasks, for instance when two people are talking to you at the same time while you are chopping carrots, or even while you are measuring amounts in your mind and checking the recipe while chopping. The reason is that it is harder in the complex cases to pinpoint what your task is moment by moment. What this tells us is to cultivate situations in which your task is clearly defined, and then practice Mindfulness in those situations. In particular you should try to find strategies for doing this for every activity that is a chosen element of your life. Here are some suggestions:

  • Avoid multitasking. This includes listening to music while cutting carrots, or driving, drinking coffee, smoking, talking on the cell phone and listening to music at the same time. When you chop wood just chop wood.
  • Divide tasks or interests into well-defined subtasks and do them.
  • Impose routine. That is, have conventional ways of doing things, do a set of tasks always in the same order, always do a certain task in a certain context. Basically this is a matter of avoiding decisions, which are just more tasks to compete with the physical task at hand.

Like Devotion, and like Faith, a lot of people misunderstand the role of Ritual in Buddhism. The Buddha, for instance, considers clinging to rites and rituals a “fetter,” but on the other hand the Suttas a full of ritual observances. What gives? The Buddha was criticizing teachings of the Brahmas that endowed rites and ritual with some kind of special efficacy, as a means to work magic and control the future. We actually have many rituals in our everyday life that for the most part we accord them no such powers, for instance, shaking hands, hugging, performing a high-five, ringing a door bell or knocking before entering, saying “thank you” and “please.” Rituals are simply, conventionalized behaviors in certain contexts that are or can become  highly habituated. They are the logical extreme of routine. Rather than say, “Impose routine,” we can say, “Ritualize your tasks.”

If you practice at a Zen Center, such as the San Francisco Zen Center or one of its offshoots, or the Zen Mountain Monastery, you have probably learned a complex set of rituals just to get you from the front door onto your cushion in the zendo. You may have learned oryoki, ritualized eating. Of course the Tea Ceremony is highly ritualized. You may have even discovered the selflessness of ritual, if you have gotten past the insecurity of not knowing the ritual well, or the tendency to show off once you do know it well. This is the point at which in Zen parlance, the bows do themselves, the appropriate foot knows when to take a step. There is nothing for the self to do, so it vanishes, quite noticeably and quite remarkably. In fact Zen meditation, zazen, is often described as simply the ritual of sitting like a buddha. But of course these practices are all in the Buddhist context. Dogen said that ritual conduct is the entirety of Zen practice! Even following the Precepts can be thought of as ritual, conventionalized behaviors.

There is no reason you cannot ritualize life’s other tasks, from getting up in the morning, through bathing to changing diapers and checking email. Develop conventions for ordering tasks, such as when done with one task, clean up completely before starting the next task. In Zen “Leave no Trace” is a common maxim. In fact cleaning and putting things into order are opportunities for ritualization. All of these things set up a context in which the mind can learn not to wander off and scatter, that is to practice mindfulness in your everyday activities. Life becomes  routine matter of doing what is to be done, rather than constantly grappling with desires and decisions and seeking some bit of personal advantage. Sound boring? This is what people also think about meditation, yet meditation is the only chance many people have for experiencing joy in their lives.

A good source on ritualizing your tasks is Dogen, both the Eihei Shingi (Pure Standards of the Zen Community) and the Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions for the Cook). Although these are manuals for monks, they are about housework and adminstration and how to make these into Buddhist practice. These are actually rewritings of traditional Chinese manuals, and I was surprised to find a long chapter in the Vinaya, from the Buddha, on how a junior monk cares for his teacher’s living space, that has much of the same flavor as the Zen manuals. This is worthy of study by all Buddhists.

Welfare. With all his talk of renunciation, the Buddha’s principle discovery that led directly to his Awakening was that you cannot lean to far in the direction of deprivation. This is the Middle Way. For the monastic this is the expectation of the basic requisites necessary for maintaining health. For the Lay Life this means you should take care not to live on the edge, not to move from one crisis to anothers. You should be reasonably successful in what you undertake, in your marriage, in your business and so on. If you aim too high you will become entangled in self-enhancement and be miserable. If you don’t aim high enough, you will be caught in a self-protective mode and be miserable. Either puts the self in focus. If your life is relatively comfortable and secure you are in the best position for development on the Path. Plan your affairs to avoid crises, to establish a constant modicum of welfare. Here is some detailed advice of the Buddha from the Vyagghapajja Sutts (AN 8.54):

“Four conditions, Vyagghapajja conduce to a householder’s weal and happiness in this very life. Which four? The accomplishment of persistent effort, the accomplishment of watchfulness , good friendship  and balanced livelihood.
“What is the accomplishment of persistent effort? Herein, Vyagghapajja, by whatsoever activity a householder earns his living, whether by farming, by trading, by rearing cattle, by archery, by service under the king, or by any other kind of craft — at that he becomes skillful and is not lazy. He is endowed with the power of discernment as to the proper ways and means; he is able to carry out and allocate (duties). This is called the accomplishment of persistent effort.
“What is the accomplishment of watchfulness? Herein, Vyagghapajja, whatsoever wealth a householder is in possession of, obtained by dint of effort, collected by strength of arm, by the sweat of his brow, justly acquired by right means — such he husbands well by guarding and watching so that kings would not seize it, thieves would not steal it, fire would not burn it, water would not carry it away, nor ill-disposed heirs remove it. This is the accomplishment of watchfulness.
What is good friendship? Herein, Vyagghapajja, in whatsoever village or market town a householder dwells, he associates, converses, engages in discussions with householders or householders’ sons, whether young and highly cultured or old and highly cultured, full of faith, full of virtue, full of charity , full of wisdom. He acts in accordance with the faith of the faithful, with the virtue of the virtuous, with the charity of the charitable, with the wisdom of the wise. This is called good friendship.
“What is balanced livelihood? Herein, Vyagghapajja, a householder knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income. Just as the goldsmith,[5] or an apprentice of his, knows, on holding up a balance, that by so much it has dipped down, by so much it has tilted up; even so a householder, knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income….
“The wealth thus amassed, Vyagghapajja, has four sources of destruction: (i) Debauchery, (ii) drunkenness, (iii) gambling, (iv) friendship, companionship and intimacy with evil-doers. Just as in the case of a great tank with four inlets and outlets, if a man should close the inlets and open the outlets and there should be no adequate rainfall, decrease of water is to be expected in that tank, and not an increase; even so there are four sources for the destruction of amassed wealth — debauchery, drunkenness, gambling, and friendship, companionship and intimacy with evil-doers.

Modern society in many regions tends to create lives that in many ways are more secure than in centuries past, for instance in which sudden illness and death from infectious diseases, or starvation from drought is not a constant threat. On the other hand it creates conditions in which economic welfare can be very precarious. For instance, loss of availability of a functioning car, through accident, age or inability to make payments can result in immediate loss of livelihood. Illness when it does arise can result not only in loss of livelihood but in indebtedness or bankruptcy.

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