Have few duties

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  • YuimaSLC
    • Aug 2012
    • 93

    Have few duties

    Here's an interesting excerpt from a Tricycle interview with Bhante Gunaratana...

    "The monastic path is better, not in a political sense or as a power structure, but better for spiritual growth. Monasticism nourishes, supports a frame of mind for practice. You cannot have a cake and eat it at the same time. If you want to live in a non-monastic community, it cannot be called monastic, and you cannot expect to do the practice in the best way. Life today has so many commitments, and people get into very difficult situations, emotionally and otherwise. Everyone has so many things to do. You have to have a space to grow, to improve your spiritual practice. That is why the Buddha said, "Have few duties." When you have few duties, you have time to practice, you are not all the time tense, uptight, rigid and nervous, worrying and destroying your health."

    I guess my interest in promoting this thread is not so much about monasticism vs. laity, but about Buddha's comment about "Have few duties."

    Was it Henry David Thoreau who said, "Simplify, simplify, simplify" ?

    Not so much that a Buddhist discipline makes us less "fit" for the complexities of life. But in practice, meaning practice-realization of all "ordinary" things in life, have you found that some things are best left alone/behind, as they are rather superfluous. I don't know that anything is "less" necessary than anything else, but sometimes there are tools we just don't need in that heavy sack we carry. It's like hauling around a canoe anticipating we need it for some future lake or river we'll encounter.

    If you are trying to convince yourself, "I am just sooo busy, I don't have time to sit zazen. I would really like to, but it just isnt working out." Well, maybe it's time to check into the contents of the big sack you're hauling around. And maybe you don't throw out the tool as much as develop a practice that modifies "how" you work with the tool....how you are part of the tool....the doing....the being.

    I read something in a recent Treeleaf thread about practicing kinhin while shopping in the department store. How true!

    I was taking care of my 3-month-old granddaughter this morning and at a point, found myself in kinhin while I held her, working through her fussy, pre-slumber activities and then her deep sleep. How full-of-wonder all aspects of it can be.


  • aref_naa

    As someone who has started and stopped zazen practice... quite a few times (^^, I have to agree with this. I used to try and sit just after waking up, or just before going to bed. I always had so much to do even apart from work that I never felt I had "time". I've been trying to simplify long before I restarted (and have been -keeping- to) regular practice, and now it kind of feels weird if there really -is- a day I don't have time to sit. I get home from work, relax for a while, then I'm on the cushion because it feels like what should be happening at that time. I was always trying to do a multitude of other things before I sat (many of which I still do- I have entirely too many hobbies), and was finding it was 2 or 3 AM often before I felt I had time to sit, and it was just one more of those "things to do", which often pushed it into the category of "things to do tomorrow". Regularizing practice, for the beginner-beginner, benefits -tremendously- from the idea of "have few duties". I strongly suspect it'll do the same thing when I've been sitting for years, too

    Thanks for the quote- it kind of helped crystallize some of the ideas I've been having recently.




    • Myosha
      • Mar 2013
      • 2974

      Definitely sloughing off incidentals which seemed worthwhile at the time. Trivia (as a master) is now. . .trivial. (I will challenge anyone to "You Don't Know Jack - Dharma Version".^^

      Zazen is a really good thing.


      "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha when asked, "Uhm . . .what?"


      • Rich
        • Apr 2009
        • 2603

        In 'Zen questions' Leighton interprets dogen as saying 'buddhas are willing to be entangled in their lives, and they notice sometimes when some of their dreams might untangle.'

        also the awesome presence of buddhas is not restricted to monasteries and in fact is happening all around and thru us.

        finding a practice rhythm was very important. Sometimes there are too many duties and sometimes they just untangle.
        無 (MU, Emptiness) and 氷 (HYO, Ice) ... Emptiness Ice ...



        • RichardH
          • Nov 2011
          • 2800

          Originally posted by YuimaSLC

          Was it Henry David Thoreau who said, "Simplify, simplify, simplify" ?
          I know folks who maintain a "simple" "Buddhist lifestyle" that is "unburdened by duties" . Yet these are the people who seem to carry the biggest burden of their own suffering, and their own Buddhist project. There may be too much "me" time.

          I understand not indulging distractions, but how is having fewer responsibilities better than more, when it is mind that makes it simple or complicated?. A moment is a moment.

          Gassho Richard


          • Jundo
            Treeleaf Founder and Priest
            • Apr 2006
            • 39472


            Well, the Buddha never said that enlightenment was impossible out in the world, only that it was a harder road. He would sometimes say of householder life ...

            "Household life is crowded and dusty (with the dusts of the Passions); life gone forth is wide open. It is not easy, while living in a home, to lead the holy life utterly perfect and pure as a polished shell." (MN 36, "The Greater Discourse to Saccaka,")

            However, "not as easy" is far from impossible, and I feel that sometimes the harder road is the most fruitful.

            For some, monasteries have become places of escape from those who can't make it in the world. Far from offering liberation, the monasteries are a place to hide.

            But what is more, in the Mahayana, our duties and responsibilities were often seen as liberation itself (when viewed with a Buddha's Eye). Truly, in China, Korea and Japan, leaving home for the monastery was merely trading one set of human relationships (the fellow monks became one's new family) and daily duties for another. If one thinks that monastery life is just "sitting around" all day, one has never been to a typical Japanese monastery, where the day starts before the sunrise and includes a tight schedule of work, tasks and obligations to people. At most monasteries I know, the monks run around like busy beavers with never enough time, and the atmosphere looks like any Japanese office or factory.

            Awhile back, I wrote a series of short essays on the "down side" of monastic life, merely in an attempt to show that the idealized image of monasteries is rather starry eyed, and that there are pros and cons to any road. There are several short essay in the series, all in this thread.

            . I often feel that monastic practice is so "yesterday" ... so "13th Century".It's true, and in some very important ways, it may be time to knock down the monasteries, throwing their cloistered inhabitants into the streets! ** For most of its history, lay practice has taken a back seat to the "real

            By the way, a monastery promised a life of frugality, simplicity, lack of personal property ...

            But I think it would be a mistake to think that the wandering monks of India 2500 years ago, or the monks of China, Tibet and Japan in centuries past, lived necessarily uncomfortable lives ... by the standards of the times anyway. Being a monk was not necessarily "giving it all away" to live in total hunger and poverty ... by the standards to the times anyway.

            Think about it: In a world without cars, color television, ipods ... it was not like people "gave up all that" to enter the monastery, for nobody had them to start with!

            A monastery promised room and board, good companionship, stable food, health care and dentistry (as it existed at the time, anyway), some social position, basic education, not to mention a stimulating intellectual and spiritual environment. Monks personally owned little perhaps ... but there were ways for monks to keep some personal property "off the books", and vast land holdings and other property was owned by the community, much like a Kibbutz or commune. Sure, there may have been folks like Gautama Buddha who walked away from the harem and palace to enter the monastery ... but for most folks, the alternative was working as a peasant or serf, hand to mouth in a trade, dying in bloody military service. A high percentage of the monks seem to have been the second or third sons of wealthy families who were "on their own" after the first son inherited dad's fiefdom. Even being a "rich person" in those days meant insecurity, and a life of struggle and "doing without the conveniences" by modern standards. The Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese government actually had to make rules for keeping people out of the monasteries ... cause so many wanted to get in and escape their life of toil and troubles.

            In old India and South Asia, where folks were willing to fill a bowl whenever you knocked at their door, where the weather was temperate, one could simply sleep under a tree in the forest (except in the rainy season when monks would gather together under roofs). Yes, the monks would not eat a bite after noon ... but they got up with the cock crow, so that was already late in their day.

            Sure, there were times at Eiheiji and other places where the donations were running low, when the pantry was empty and the monks went to bed hungry ... but that was usually at times when all the surrounding economy was in trouble, so the donations dried up. In other words, there may have been hunger in the monastery ... but you should have seen what was probably going on outside the monastery doors, with real hunger and plague among the general population!

            Thus Buddha wrote many places in the Suttas ... "Household life is crowded and dusty; life gone forth is wide open."

            Sure, some monasteries may be places to sit around and while away the time. A very interesting read is this critique of monk culture in South Asia by Ven. Shravasti Dhammika, a westerner who is himself now a Theravada monk. This is from his book ...

            ‘Boredom, no doubt, accounts for the inordinate amount
            of sleeping one sees in monasteries - monks are forever taking naps - as well as for the dullness and
            apathy frequently encountered in them. I suspect too, that those...who practice alchemy, medicine,
            exorcism and...politics, do so not only for the intrinsic interest of the subject, but as an escape from
            the tedium of monastic living. Similarly, boredom probably accounts for the great interest monks
            show in visitors.’ Others take a different escape route. In a survey of monks in Thailand
            anthropologist J. C. Ingersoll found that boredom was the main reason why young men left the
            Sangha. When Somerset Maugham was traveling through Burma he had an interpreter who had
            spent time in a monastery during his youth. Maugham asked him what he thought of the monk’s
            life. ‘He shrugged his shoulders. “There was nothing to do”, he said. “Two hours work in the
            morning and there were prayers at night, but all the rest of the day nothing. I was glad when the
            time came for me to go home again.”’ And of those who stay behind their natural youthful
            exuberance is gradually crushed under the weight of tradition and of having lay people doing
            everything for them, and before long they begin doing what he sees the older monks doing - they
            You could hardly believe it possible for human beings to sleep so much until you’ve spent time in a
            Theravada monastery. The most enduring images I have of my years in monasteries is of Burmese
            monks dozing in chairs while their devotees massage their feet, of Thai monks lying flat on their
            backs snoring at ten in the morning and of somnolent old nayaka hamdarus in Sri Lanka getting out
            of bed for lunch and going straight back again after it is over. The English monk Phra Peter relates
            an amusing incident he witnessed when a junior monk was paying respects to his senior with the
            traditional three bows. The first bow went okay, the second was somewhat slower and during the
            third bow the monk drifted off and remained fast asleep on the floor. This pervasive slothfulness is
            a logical consequence of the Vinaya notion that monks must have everything done for them To
            quote Spiro again. ‘Almost all his needs are satisfied by others, without his doing - or being
            permitted to do - anything on his own behalf. As we have seen, he does no work; he does not earn
            his own bread; even if he wants to, he cannot so much as pour his tea or lift his serving bowl, let
            alone tend his garden or repair his monastery. Everything he needs must be given to him by others;
            everything that he desires must be provided him by others. Moreover, others not only must provide
            for the monk, but in fact they do provide for him, and - as we have seen - with lavish hand’ (italics
            in the original).
            The almost complete absence of physical exercise coupled with the rich diet is probably the reason
            for the abnormally high incidence of diabetes amongst older Sri Lankan monks. A study released in
            2002 showed that the leading cause of death amongst Thai monks was smoking related illnesses.
            Having little else to do they while away their time sleeping, chatting and puffing on Klongtips [cigarettes].

            His blog:

            Because of changes in the economic system for monasteries in China, Korea and Japan, the Northern Asian monasteries emphasized work and physical labor more then the South Asian traditions. If the monks did not grow some vegetables, they did not eat. The saying was "A day without work, is a day with eating". At a few wonderful monasteries in Japan today, such as Antaiji, the practitioners are expected to spend as much time in mud picking vegetables as on the Zafu. However, even then, most of the economic support for the monks in most Chinese, Korean and Japanese monasteries seems to have come from donations or from the labor of poor serfs who worked on temple owned lands ... not from the monks themselves.

            Yes, value frugality, simplicity, the intangible treasures in life. However, do so whether in the monastery or in your own living room!

            Gassho, J
            Last edited by Jundo; 07-24-2013, 03:44 AM.


            • MyoHo
              • Feb 2013
              • 632

              Hi guys,

              Interesting topic again! Thanks Richard!

              Shocking to see how sloth creeps into monastic lives with some traditions. This probably is why through the ages protest and even violence appeared at some point, when people are tired of serving and paying their dues to useless people who just hang around and do nothing all the time. Thank you Jundo for that interesting and sobering post. after thinking about this, there is some doubt if this is what Buddha meant by "have few duties" though.

              To keep life simple and transparent is a huge and demanding task. It's hard! You have to say NO a lot, to many temptations. It's about keeping precepts. Especially when we try to kick out ego related activities that we hope will bring us things we want for the future, like status or fortune. Like going to your bosses party while really disliking the lifestyle or the people that go there. Taking on extra responsibilities, not because it is useful and will serves others, but only because it looks good. Things like that. Just running away from everything in daily life is NOT what Buddha meant. Shakamuni dropped everything but at the same time, also dived right into the middle of it too. I think Buddha is showing us something else entirely! He means us to NOT hustle and bustle through a suffering dukkha filled life, filling every moment with the chase for fame and fortune. Roaming in samsara at "level animals" and thinking that is what life is all about. "Carpe diem", "The survival of the fittest" or " Greed is good" and then living behind high walls with barbed wire on top. Driving the kids to school in armored cars with a gun in your pocket. Buddha wants us to look for the important things in life and find there are only very few of those. Have few duties and make space to do them right, so you will grow. This includes time to practice and study.

              Few duties also differs from person to person it seems. One will say he has a simple life while doing huge amounts of good, useful work full of self sacrifice. The other feels he has a complicated and full but demanding life, chasing, consuming and cheating themselves and others out of happiness or destroying the environment. So, the definition of "few duties" varies from person to person. It is not as simple as joining a monastery or becoming a mountain hermit. The difference is made by how we decide we want to look at our lives. The measure we use to weigh it. The one is enlightenment the other samsara, your choice. People who feel right about themselves do so precisely because they try to live a pure and righteous life. Bodhisattva's never feel they have too complicated lives. Because their lives are practice in itself. Yes, this is more difficult and yes, it is more fruitful.

              Want to have simplicity in life and have few duties?

              refrain from destroying living creatures
              refrain from taking that which is not given
              refrain from sexual misconduct
              refrain from faulty speech
              refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which impairs the function of my body and mind ( and makes you do stupid things)
              refrain from eating at the inappropriate time ( and makes you feel guilty and sad about yourself).

              Be warned it is hard work, very complicated and sometimes painful!

              Well that's what I get from the quote anyway.




              • Heion
                • Apr 2013
                • 232

                I really liked it! I've been so busy up here at BMC, my shikanataza was getting brushed to the side. This was just the thing I needed, even if I only do 10 minutes a day.

                Look upon the world as a bubble,
                regard it as a mirage;
                who thus perceives the world,
                him Mara, the king of death, does not see.


                Sat Today


                • Jundo
                  Treeleaf Founder and Priest
                  • Apr 2006
                  • 39472

                  Originally posted by Enkyo
                  I think Buddha is showing us something else entirely! He means us to NOT hustle and bustle through a suffering dukkha filled life, filling every moment with the chase for fame and fortune. Roaming in samsara at "level animals" and thinking that is what life is all about. "Carpe diem", "The survival of the fittest" or " Greed is good" and then living behind high walls with barbed wire on top. Driving the kids to school in armored cars with a gun in your pocket. Buddha wants us to look for the important things in life and find there are only very few of those. Have few duties and make space to do them right, so you will grow. This includes time to practice and study.
                  Sorry, I feel as if my first post above was a bit off the intended topic. So, let me try again ...

                  Yes, our Zen way instructs us on the simple life, living with few possessions, appreciating the natural and simple aspects of life. One should live with moderation, balance, forsaking excess, greed, clutching and such. This Way also instructs us that, like Thoreau or Zen Ancestor Sekito, we should sometimes cut all worldly connections and live like hermits in grass huts in the distant hills. Sekito wrote this ...

                  I have built a straw-roof hut where nothing is of value.

                  After eating, I relax and take a nap.

                  When the hut was finished, shoots appeared.

                  Now weeds cover everything.

                  The man in the hut lives peacefully, without ties inside or outside.

                  He doesn't want to live where the ordinary live.

                  He doesn't like what the ordinary like.

                  Though this hut is small, it contains the universe.

                  In ten square feet, an old man enlightens forms and their essence.
                  However, the real heart of this Way, I feel, is to teach us to feel free amid all our duties, still even as we must keep moving forward, "no place to go, nothing in need of doing" even amid our daily "places to go and people to see". As I said, most Zen monks I know are actually busy people with tons of things to do and people to see.

                  But even so ... yes ... appreciate a life of simplicity. Treasure the breeze on one's cheek or a child's smile, not a new BMW. Live with few possessions, knowing the difference between a "need" to live and a "want" ... and keep the "wants" small, knowing satisfaction with "what is". Appreciating the simple aspects of life, one should live with moderation, balance, forsaking excess, greed, clutching and such.

                  Gassho, J
                  Last edited by Jundo; 07-24-2013, 06:52 PM.
                  ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE


                  • MyoHo
                    • Feb 2013
                    • 632

                    Thank you Jundo . That straw hut does sound tempting sometimes! We all should get the opportunity or find time and space to live like that for a while. I sure would, lol.




                    • Yugen

                      "you can't always get what you want,
                      but if you try sometimes you just might find,
                      you get what you need..."

                      - Rolling Stones (of course)



                      • Risho
                        • May 2010
                        • 3179

                        Wanting to have what you dont is just more of the same grasping mind. Im w Jundo. This practice is about living with what we have now. Dont go to excess in simplicity or grandiosity. But I live in the 21 st century. Im not a monk from some Zen story. This is reality here and now.

                        Sometimes I fantasize about monastic life but it's a grass is always greener moment. We are where we need to be. Thats what I feel anyway. No matter where you go you are there baggage and all. We have to address our stuff; we cant run from it no matter how tempting the contemporary Holy Grail of simplicity is.
                        Email: risho.treeleaf@gmail.com


                        • YuimaSLC
                          • Aug 2012
                          • 93

                          Thank you all for your input. And, please continue to add to it if you wish.

                          I fully retired 4 months ago from a 39-year career as a business owner and manager and in some respects I am as busy now as I ever was before. But the things I do now are so wonderfully
                          ordinary that no one is impressed. It took my wife a little while to realize that I didn't need a second "impressive" career and I seem to be quite busy as it is....thank you.
                          There is always something right in front of you, and only the present moment to interact with it. It's like a plate of food....though it may be full or moderate, you'd best realize and appreciate your life for the 'one spoonful at a time.'

                          Perhaps, though, I am more aware of certain aspects and conditions of daily life than before. It's true that I've been able to eliminate my blood pressure and cholesterol medicines. Now is that a comment more about the "imbalance" of my previous lifestyle, or an indication as to the more recent "unwarranteed, side benefits" of daily zazen? No matter.....never mind.




                          • Saij
                            • Jul 2013
                            • 8

                            Good morning Everyone! I like what Risho said about no matter where you go you are always there. I dream about being isolated from the world sometimes in a monastery where the outside world just doesn't exist, but that is just not my reality. Besides "I" would be there in that monastery. I am enjoying working on the here and now and sitting zazen realizing that I am my own monastery if I choose it. I also like the image from a scene in the movie, Fearless, with Jet Li when he is planting rice after having realized the importance of the moment. The breeze comes and everyone stops what they are doing to stand up and appreciate and be one with the breeze. It's amazing really, and it works just the same on my deck in East Tennessee. I hope you all have a wonderful day. Gassho, Saij


                            • Ishin
                              • Jul 2013
                              • 1359

                              This is an interesting thread and a subject I myself have contemplated often. I believe there is a Zen proverb that goes:

                              "Sit in Zazen 20 minutes every day, if you are too busy, then sit an hour"

                              I also recall a story I believe told by Thich Nhat Hanh, in which he describes a student who built a hut and meditated in it all the time. Eventually the student's teacher found out and burned down the students hut.!"

                              Here is my own personal quote for what it is worth. "If you really want to know how you are doing spiritually, get in a relationship!"
                              Gassho C

                              PS Jundo that was really great insight into monastic life and history, thanks.
                              Grateful for your practice