Thursday, November 10, 2011

Buddhism and Minimalism?

Okay, so I have decided to embark on this 'minimalist' journey (or at least try to live more simply). Good for me. But for the sake of discussion, what the heck does minimalism have to do with Buddhism? Well, here are my thoughts on these concepts, as I understand them.

According to Buddhist beliefs, attachment is a major cause of suffering. In Pali (the language of the Buddha) the word dukkha loosely translates to 'suffering'. But the true definition of dukkha is much more complex, and generally represents the overall unsatisfactoriness of all things (for a much more thorough description on the subtleties of dukkha, please see this article from Access to Insight). Our attached mental grasping to all things pleasurable and comforting, and our belief that these things will or should last forever, conflicts with the fundamental truth that the universe is constantly changing. This contradiction of reality ultimately leads to suffering.

In terms of our personal belongings, the transitory nature of all things correctly predicts that the objects we own will eventually break down and wear out. Personal property can also be stolen or otherwise taken from us through natural or man-made disasters. If we are mentally tethered to our material possessions, these outcomes and events will make us suffer greatly. 

These basic Buddhist concepts are a logical complement to minimalism, which (in terms of belongings) can be described as owning only what is needed. There are many examples of how minimalism manifests in the Buddhist tradition, but perhaps the most notable example is that Buddhist monks have few or no possessions, and traditionally carry only a set of robes, mala beads, and a bowl for alms.

However, as far as laypeople are concerned, there is nothing intrinsically evil about owning personal items, property, and even accumulating wealth. Buddhism just maintains the cautionary stance that suffering will occur if the mind allows attachment to material things, and that attachment can also beckon its stronger and uglier cousins, vanity, jealousy, and greed.

Honestly, I really don't think that one has to be a minimalist to be a 'good' Buddhist. It is all about our attitude towards material possessions and awareness of our own mental grasping. But given the concepts of attachment, impermanence, and the moral and spiritual dangers posed by ignoring them, minimalism (or at least simplifying) may be a completely natural response for some. As always, though, everyone has to do what is right for themselves.

May all beings be happy!
I hope you have enjoyed this post. Please comment if you think I have missed something, or have other thoughts or experiences you would like to add. Thank you!


  1. I enjoyed this post. I have a set of prayer flags from Tibet that an old boss gave me about 8 years ago. His sister had been to Tibet and brought them back as a gift. He gave them to me, thinking that finally there is a person who will hang them up as they are meant to be hung! But alas....they are so pretty I don't want them to be "ruined" by the elements (which is how you release the blessings)!!! This year FOR SURE, I'm going to hang them up. lol!

  2. Thanks so much for commenting, Eline!

    What a wonderful thing, that your boss's sister was able to travel to Tibet! Not many people can. Also great that your boss gave you those prayer flags.

    As for not hanging them, don't feel guilty, because a lot of people, including myself, feel the same way. They ARE pretty, and to see the rich colors fade and the fabric tear seems a little sad.

    But when we look at the motivation, as you said, that as they fade and decay, blessings will be released, we can rejoice about the impermanence of it all! This is actually pretty amazing, because instead of resisting impermanence like we usually do, the prayer flags can teach us how to embrace- or at least accept- it.

    This shows us the great potential we have to be aware of and perhaps even reduce the grasping and attachments in our minds.

    Great comment, and great story- thanks so much!

    PS: I have been meaning to hang my prayer flags, too, but have been waiting for an 'auspicious' occasion, whatever/whenever that is! :)

  3. I think you are on the right track with your embrace of minimalism. Sometimes, intentionally cutting off our connection to material things is very strong practice. Just remember that attachment to minimalism is also a path to suffering. Sometimes I think that the best way that the lay practitioner can enter a life of having less things to be attached to is simply not replace things as they wear out. Like the blessings being released by allowing the prayer flags to decay. Otherwise, we often fall into the trap of thinking about how great we are because we're throwing so much stuff away. It's a fine line to walk between attaching to things or attaching to not having things. I hope that your practice is strong and that you walk that line, gain enlightenment and save all beings from suffering.

  4. Hello dharmaloss! Thank you so much for your comment- you have some great points. Although I have not yet put all my intentions into practice, even the feeling of wanting less stuff is so freeing. I have a long way to go, but feel I am on the right track- two more carloads of stuff- gone!

    That being said, I do appreciate your caution about attachment to minimalism. I think as people embark on a new practice, the tendency is to be enthusiastic. That is fine, but enthusiasm can give way to fanaticism if we are not careful. I have read about people living the "100 Things" lifestyle, where they make do with a very bare minimum of possessions. That is fine, but I can't help but feel that often there is some kind of ego trip attached to having "less". If that is the case, isn't that just an exchange of material possessions with mental baggage? As you suggested, the best path is the Middle Way.

    Thanks again for your comment! May you be well! _/|\_

  5. Great post. It may be strange to comment so late but I just discovered your blog site when I returned from my trip and I really wanted to comment on this one. The minimalist path is very intriguing as it plainly is seen in the path Jesus proposed and also was suggested by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. Perhaps it could be said to follow the "minimalist path moderately".

  6. That's perfectly fine, Dan- I appreciate your comments anytime! I have honestly changed my initial attitude towards minimalism a little bit, in that I want to approach it with a mindful, 'Middle Way' mindset, as you and Dharmaloss both mention. You're right, there seems to be a very strong minimalist thread between important spiritual leaders from multiple traditions. It seems the key is ridding attachment to possessions while not attaching to the idea of fewer possessions.

    Thanks again for your insight, May you be well!


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