The Art of Lay Life 9: Simplifying

Uposatha Day Teaching (Index to Series)
Layman Pang is the very model of the enlightened layman from Eighth Century Chinese Zen (or Chan) lore. He had been a wealthy merchant with a wife and daughter who studied the Sutras and aspired to progress along the Buddhist path. His wife and daughter shared the same aspirations. In fact his daughter is the very model of the enlightened woman, since she all along had a deeper understanding than her father. Layman Pang is the one however who is most often referred to in patriarchal China.

The first substantial step the three of them took was to gather all of their wealth together in a boat, row out to the middle of the lake and drop it all overboard so that it would not be a burden. They then supported themselves by making and selling utensils of bamboo and traveling from place to place, often visiting monasteries.

Select. The Pang family whole-heartedly embraced Buddhist teachings and practice. However they also valued each other and their life as a family. They selected little, but clearly family was something they valued independently of the concerns of Buddhist practice. In this sense they were not candidates for monastic ordination.

Reject. Whether or not their merchant life was always honest is not said. But they took up a livelihood that easily lent itself to virtue and integrity. They are not reported to have spent time drinking or partying, going to shows, gossiping.

Balance.  Family and their small bamboo manufacturing and selling activities are their primary activities outside of Buddhist practice. We can imagine that they readily brought these within the fold of Buddhist practice by engaging in these activities skillfully, mindfully and with devotion. It is often said that Buddhism does not distinguish the sacred from the secular. Balance is the reason; our practice is, insofar as we are able, to treat the secular as sacred. This is the practice of Balance.

Simplify. The primary symbolic act of this is the dumping of their wealth in the lake. Practically speaking it would have made more sense to give their wealth to a charitable cause, but this step lends drama to the imperative of ridding themselves of all complications and distractions.

Now, simplifying was implicit in my discussion of Selecting, when I suggest that you prioritize your values and be sparse in your Selecting. I repeat it as the final step because it cannot be emphasized enough. Even if you have Selected a small set of things you intend to sustain aside from Buddhist practice, Reject everything that is karmically unwholesome and therefore does not sit comfortably in a Buddhist life, Balance what you have Selected by integrating it into sound Buddhist practice, you will probably, if you are at all like most people, still manage to accumulate new complications, hardly knowing it.

An apt analogy is the way people accumulate home furnishings. If you go into a museum there is a lot of space between artifacts. The artifacts might be paintings or sculpture, but actually might be home furnishings, such as Paul Revere metalware and King Louis’ furniture. If you go into an antique shop everything is packed tightly together and it is hard to walk around. Which is your home like? Most people move into a home with something like the museum in mind, but quickly their homes become more like the junk shop. Often they do not notice the change until they move their place of residence and wonder why they need such a big Ryder truck. It is not a factor of the nature of the artifacts, rather how many they accumulate. More is generally not better. It is the same with the activities they take on, and with the activities of our mind. Clutter keeps them endlessly confused, makes mindfulness difficult, leaves little space for practice or for what is really important, and tends to be a manifestation of a certain level of craving and desire for distraction. Let me repeat my advice of a few weeks ago: If you are serious about simplifying your life, study Voluntary Simplicity, either on line, or the few books on the topic.

The aim of a Buddhist lifestyle is renunciation. Renunciation is not deprivation, but rather the removal of those aspects of the ordinary life that are self-serving, that seek personal advantage, gratification and enhancement, that serve as the Self’s playground. Selection makes room for aspects of our lives that may not fit this requirement, yet are either valuable to us or a matter of obligation. The other three steps aim to strip away the Self. Rejecting removes the most obvious of the Self’s excesses, or those conditions that lead to the Self’s excesses. Balancing shifts our relationship to the elements in our lives so that our attitude is not that of a master to a servant. Simplifying removes the distracting clutter.

Now, all this does not entail that a Buddhist life cannot be busy. If you spend your time shopping and channel-surfing this is clutter. If you spend it teaching kids to read or volunteering to plant trees in a park or protesting against a war, this is wholesome, generous, not self-serving and is to be encouraged as a manifestation of kindness and compassion, as well as renunciation. (Caveat: Just as we can shift or relationship  toward selflessness, we can shift our relationship the other way. It is easy to make charity self-serving, using it as a means to garner reputation, for instance).  We simplify in order to make space for the calm abiding which blends into contemplative Buddhist practice, and for all the good we can be doing in the world with the time and energy we save.

All this does not entail that a Buddhist life is somehow an escape from the world. A common misconception is that laypeople practice in the world, while monastics practice apart from the world. This is at root a license to change nothing in the outward circumstances of your life, to continue living your life exactly as you have been doing, but maybe do it more mindfully. You can presumably slaughter animals mindfully, get drunk mindfully, blow up at your office mate mindfully, sell unneeded insurance mindfully. Nobody escapes from the world. The essence of the Buddhist life is to live in the world responsibly, to finally grow up, to reform those parts of life that lead us astray, that are karmically unwholesome so that the overall trajectory of your life is toward Nirvana.

The advice I have given in this series is to incline your lifestyle toward the monastic lifestyle. The extent to which you do this is up to you, but it will be a primary determinant of your progress along the Path. This is exactly the same as meditation practice: You can learn to meditate, but then how much you meditate is up to you, but it will be a primary determinant (secondary to lifestyle!) of your progress along the Path. The early scriptures attest to the ability of laypeople to progress along the path, to even reach the Big E. But this arises not casually. The great thing about the Art of Lay Life is that in general it does not preclude what you really have already taken to heart in your life, for instance, family. It just builds around it.

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