This is a topic I approach with trepidation, especially over the web. I want to talk about living simply in this modern world. I have been reading literature about voluntary simplicity ever since the term first became common, somewhere back in the 90’s. I became a convert. I was already attempting to live green or to live by the precepts of whatever we called it in the 70’s … the era when the Nearings became really popular and everyone was trying to get “back to the land.” The simplicity idea was not new to me. I just got re-invigorated or re-inspired by the new way of calling whatever it was I was already trying to do.
I really like the term “voluntary simplicity (VS)” and so that is my preferred term for the lifestyle to which I aspire. I do not think there is such a thing as having arrived at VS as a terminus. I think of it as a journey without end. And for me it’s a journey without imposed, inflexible rules. For me there is no right and wrong here. I think there are just good ideas and less good ideas under the circumstances. Always under the circumstances. There are good ideas for me now in this place and under the conditions that I live; this is what I try to find. More good ideas that work for me here and now.
I have found quite a number of people now who blog about what they and others call the minimalist life. First off, I admire all these people tremendously. Second, I do not aspire to be like most of them. I look at modern minimalists as exemplars, people whose lives are inspiring and whose lives hold many ideas that I might or might not want to take up myself. I find that reading about how others live so minimally helps me to stay on my path.
I suppose the path I am taking could be called The Middle Way. Like Goldilocks, not too big, not to small, just right. The word that captures it for me is the Swedish word “lagrum” which doesn’t translate to English exactly, but which generally means something like “just enough” or “just the right amount.” I aspire to a life characterized as lagrum.
People may say why aren’t I trying to be minimal especially if I am talking about possibly becoming a Zen monk? To start with I am talking about becoming a community dwelling monk, not a monastery dwelling one. If I were thinking seriously about moving into a monastery for the rest of my life, of course I would be giving stuff away left and right.
I have a friend in our community who recently did that. She moved into our Zen center intending to stay for the rest of her life. She took with her some clothes, some books, her computer, some art pieces and perhaps a few other thises-and thats (she didn’t give me a list and I didn’t help her move so I don’t know exactly what she did). She said she wrecked her car just before she moved in, so that was a good excuse to get rid of it, and she just let go of all her other furniture and stuff that she would not be needing in her new residence. She’s doing fine. But she is also in her 70’s and considers this to be the last move of her lifetime.
Our sangha does not operate a monastery. They used it, but it was gone long before my time. We have instead a residence. You don’t have to be a monk to be a resident, and many young people start out with the community as residents, eventually becoming monks … or not.
Residents pay rent and can move out at any time. Each has to provide and prepare his/her own food. There is no tenzo who plans and cooks meals in common. Each has to be self-supporting. Except during shesshins, there is no typical monastery schedule. Once a day in the morning, there is formal zazen. Sometimes that happens once a week in the evenings too. But that’s about it. Monks spend most of their time dressed in regular street clothes. Right now, none of the teachers live in residence. Many of the most devoted and devout monks live in their own houses with their families and earn their livings doing any number of things. That’s the way our Roshi wants it to be.
So at the moment, I am not aiming to end up living the traditional monastic life. I could find that kind of life in another place if I wanted it, but right now, that’s not where I see myself heading.
I’ll be taking up the general topic of the simple life many more times, so this is where I will stop for now. I will say that you will not get much in the way of advice from me. All I want to do is to describe some aspects of my life. I do not want to advise anyone else on how that person should live. I can’t do that. And I know I am highly imperfect at this whole thing. But I keep trying. I keep walking down the road, and I intend to share some parts of it with anyone who cares to read about it.