When people turn away from pursuing excitement, comfort, wealth, status, or other such goals, it is common to discover a deeper valuing of simplicity. Simplicity could be seen as one of the wholesome aspirations. It underpins the ability to first align our life with dharma practice, and then to pursue other refined qualities such as ethical conduct, goodwill, meditation, and freedom. It is also one foundation for renunciation practice, and it cuts across the material, verbal, and mental realms. Without some degree of both outer and inner simplicity, we cannot see the more subtle patterns of grasping in our mind.
There does not seem to be a single Pali term for “simplicity.” There is some overlap with the idea of seclusion (viveka), which in the suttas can be both physical and mental. We can also note that the difficult-to-translate word papanca has meanings that include “conceptual proliferation” and “complication,” linking it to the mental complexity created by the unawakened mind. (The awakened mind is nippapanca—without papanca).
Hence, this idea of valuing simplicity is a modern notion that is nonetheless consonant with the early teachings. Choosing just one of many examples, we can find the value of simplicity expressed in the opening lines of the Metta Sutta (Sn 1.8).
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
These verses suggest a link between goodwill (metta), ethical behavior, and simplicity. Engaging in an uproar of activities such that we are busy and stressed is likely to lead to unwholesome behavior. Letting go of the uproar to actively prioritize simplicity in body, speech, and mind conduces to a life of care that supports walking the path.
Once we turn our mind toward the value of simplicity, we will notice ways in which complication has burdened or tangled our relationship with life. Here are a few possibilities for practice that can be extracted from these lines:
Simplicity of body: Moving more slowly (peaceful and calm); maintaining a balanced posture (upright); using fewer material resources (frugal in their ways)
In daily life, we may find ourselves physically tense or making frantic movements coupled with inattention to the task we are doing. Ease returns immediately when the body and mind are in the same place. Simplicity of body does not mean always moving slowly or even smoothly; there is room for physical exertion or enjoying active time with children or pets, but we would stay present while doing so.
We will also notice the complexity of using a lot of resources, whether paper, water, food packaging, or clothing. There is a feeling of wholesome connection and alignment when we orient toward using a minimal amount of physical things and choosing to conserve where possible. It is a warm, easeful, and direct feeling, which differs from carrying an ideology of simplicity.
Simplicity of speech: Speaking straightforwardly with just as many words as needed (straightforward in speech); refraining from complaining or demanding (not proud and demanding); speaking words of harmony (gentle in speech; skillful)
Speech can be rife with complication. The gymnastics of trying to influence or convince people of our views, or of trying to maintain a certain self-image, is exhausting. Simplicity of speech means moving toward straightforwardness and having a general baseline of calm, gentle speech, from which more emotional expressions can come forth cleanly. There is no dampening of emotions, but they come forth appropriately and well. Again, we will feel the ease of verbal simplicity.
Simplicity of mind: Being satisfied with little (contentment; humility); honesty (upright); seeing in wise ways (wise and skillful); choosing non-busyness (unburdened with duties)
Simplifying mental activity is not about losing our ability to think things through. Rather, it concerns clearing away the irrelevant mental activities that obscure clear discernment, flexibility, and finding helpful solutions. Probably we could spend less time speculating about the motives and personalities of others, ruminating about past hurts, planning how to maximize pleasant experiences for ourselves, and reviewing the details of our calendar and upcoming events. Mental simplicity involves contentment, straightforwardness, and some degree of trust in the unfolding of life. This frees up energy to do the relevant thinking that supports our life of practice. It creates space for the dharma to unfold.
Neither does mental simplicity oppose having a nuanced and subtle understanding of the dharma and of human life. The Buddha refined people’s understanding of renunciation when they had taken it too bluntly. Indeed, wise simplification of thought allows more subtle understanding by removing the mental activities that obscure.
The phrase “unburdened with duties” could mean literally not having so many duties, but it could also mean having responsibilities while not being burdened by them. Applying mindfulness and discernment, to be discussed next, helps us find the right balance for our life.
Centering our simplicity practice on these few lines from the Metta Sutta could go very far. This is a good approach for aligning our life more fully with the dharma.
Mindfulness and Discernment
To effectively practice renunciation (nekkhamma), we will also need mindfulness directed in particular ways. One aspect of this is to examine mindfully areas of our life to see if a simplification can be made. Another is to observe how we are during an act of letting go—is it more like releasing or pushing away? And equally important is to notice mindfully the effect of making some simplification. Did it reduce stress, struggle, or suffering? Did it bring a feeling of ease? Did it open opportunities for dharma practice?
For example, impulsively taking half of our belongings out to the dumpster likely involves aversion, agitation, and less than clear comprehension. Based on the association of renunciation with happiness and wisdom, such an action may not be nekkhamma as meant in dharma teachings. That is not to say it is impossible to release half our possessions in a wise way, just that we need to be quite mindful through the whole process in order to discern if it is wholesome or unwholesome.
Such mindfulness trains the mind to discern directly what kind of renunciation or letting-go is actually onward-leading (i.e., connected to wisdom). How does nekkhamma feel in our particular body, heart, and mind?
Mindfulness of the letting-go process brings other benefits too. We may notice that the reason we pursue sense experiences is to gain pleasure from them (or some alternative, such as status), while ignoring the costs of such pleasure. Mindfulness will then also reveal the costs, allowing wise tradeoffs in support of Dharma practice.
Pragmatic wisdom also guides how we view and think about life activities in relation to renunciation practice. Traditionally for monastics, there are four requisites: food, shelter, clothing, and medicine. Consider for a moment if anything more is needed in life. In my own reflections, I have concluded that for laypeople in the modern world, there are two additional requisites: transportation and communication. In fact, these are often supplied to modern monastics also as a matter of course, without calling them requisites.
Acknowledging the cost of the six lay requisites means understanding that material things take up mental space and sensual activities use energy, both of which have the potential to diminish our resources for practice. Possessions must be managed, such as maintaining our car, computer, and phone; cleaning our clothes and living space; handling the purchase, preparation, and clean-up of food for meals; and caring for our body and health in many ways. The necessary task of acquiring money also takes significant energy, and even if we have enough money, it takes time and attention to manage financial resources. All of these activities also carry the risk of bringing in unwholesome mind states. The wisdom accompanying the attitude of renunciation—knowing that the material world alone will not bring satisfaction or security—is a great protection.
Excerpted with permission of the author from Full Simplicity: The Art of Renunciation and Letting Go, by Kim Allen, an exploration of how to fully embrace the dharma life as a layperson.
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