How Should We Live? (Renunciation?)

A question from a student (edited for length):

How are non-monastics encouraged to live their lives? What first comes to mind might be some of the precepts related to lifestyle like intoxicants/nonconsensual sexual behaviour, taking that which is not given etc, but beyond those? For example, wanting to make enough money to be able to afford secure housing long term…, desiring close romantic and/or sexual relationship(s)…, certain life experiences [and] things that might be considered luxuries (nicer food, garden that isn’t a public park, books, art materials or classes, having nice art and furniture). These things are very sensory based and bring up a lot of grasping and dissatisfaction, but unless we live a monastic life how do we grapple with them?

Many of us who love the teachings of the Buddha, and take them seriously, find ourselves in a bind at some point. They clearly speak to the power of decreasing our attachment to material things, relationships, and sensory experiences, recognizing as you are that they tend to inspire grasping and dissatisfaction. And so the foundation of the path consists of various kinds of letting go:

  • The ethical precepts help us let go of acting on impulses arising from grasping, hatred, and delusion, recognizing that these actions often harm ourselves and others
  • The practice of giving (dāna) helps us let go of feelings of scarcity and possessiveness about material things, and to feel the joy of being in service to others
  • Renunciation helps us interrupt habits of restless consumption, disordered eating/shopping/socializing/media, and inability to tolerate discomfort
  • Lovingkindness and compassion interrupt self-centeredness and judgment, supporting us to let go of conceit and othering
  • Stabilizing the mind in meditation teaches us to let go of constantly needing stimulation to be content, and to find joy in the calm, focused states possible when we set down our obsessions for a while

Nothing in here is saying that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves—materially, relationally, medically, or culturally—but there is a clear message that the main thing that causes suffering is grasping and attachment. 

There is a “middle way” to walk here, whether you are a monastic or a layperson. In many respects, monastics may have it easier in these regards. They are given everything they need to live a basic, secure life: food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare. True, they don’t know if these will always be available, and they are vulnerable to the fluctuations in abundance that affect their lay supporters, but that’s true for laypeople as well. Nothing is guaranteed. Everything is fragile and temporary. The “middle way” means thinking about our life in terms of happiness: enough stability and comfort to not be anxious and consumed by the demands of poverty and ill health, but not so much indulgent stimulation that we lose clarity of mind and the ability to be at peace amid the uncomfortable life situations that are inevitable.

A middle way for laypeople traditionally is meant to include being the ones who have enough material resources to support the monastics. Going further, it’s very helpful if some laypeople who love the Dharma become quite wealthy (through wise livelihood, of course), and support the monasteries, meditation centers, social service nonprofits, temples, arts organizations, and everything else good in the world that doesn’t pay its own way within late capitalism. Somebody has to. 

We know that this was a different situation in the time of the Buddha—hyperlocal, agrarian, non-chemical, non-global, no worries about climate yet—but the underlying psychology is not that different. Some people then were greedy and narrowminded, some people now still are. Some people then didn’t think about the results of their actions on future generations—the cedar forests of Lebanon were decimated by the time the Romans encountered them—many still don’t. The diseases of craving and delusion seem pretty timeless—even ancient Indigenous stories are full of teachings about not taking too much. But our impact is greater now, so we all feel it. Everything I touch has the potential to inspire guilt in me.

It’s important not to erase the distinction between monastics and laypeople. Laypeople have to earn our own food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare, and for those of us fortunate enough to know a monastic community we could practice in, are consciously choosing to remain in the lay community. This means the responsibility to craft a decent life for ourselves and those who depend on us. We have to make money, have to engage in commerce, and without the communal friendship community of the monastic saṅgha as our family, must care for ourselves relationally through friendship, partnership, lovership, family, etc as best sustains us. We can live as simply or richly as feels good to us—there’s no precept against enjoying good food, shelter, clothing, sex, entertainment, or self-care—but the truth of craving is still true. Addictive relationships to anything will be painful. 

Maybe a simple guideline is to get connected to your deepest intention to live a good life, and left that really take over everything you do. It informs your relational life because you love being happy, connected to others in a healthy way, and caring for others as you love to be cared for. It informs your cultural life because you value caring for communities in the way you want your communities to be cared for. It informs your life as a consumer because you can see how deeply we are all interconnected, and how there are no easy escapes within an oppressive culture. 

If you fall in love with being happy, and become more and more sensitive to the impact of your choices on your own happiness and the happiness of those around you, I think the natural result, with some experimentation, ends up being a pretty fine life. Ethics comes naturally if you’re looking for happiness and avoiding pain, even if you make mistakes. Concentration comes naturally if you’re looking for happiness and avoiding pain, because obsessive thinking is painful. And discernment about how to find your own middle way in a culture that desperately wants you to lose your way comes naturally if you stay close to your own intuition about what happiness feels like, and don’t believe the messages being fed you by a machine that only wants you to buy things and not protest. 

Blessings to everyone trying to find the middle way in a tilted world. 

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