Secular Asceticism

He who follows learning increases day by day; he who follows the Way decreases day by day. He becomes less and less until he arrives at non-action; with non-action there is nothing he cannot attain.  —Tao Te Ching, chapter 48

     When I made my public announcement several months ago that I intended to leave the ordained monkhood, some people told me, or at least strongly implied, that I would be diving headfirst into Samsara. This was a rather naive position to adopt considering that the monk’s life is also Samsara; in fact even the highest contemplative states, corresponding to the highest heaven realms, the highest planes of existence, are still Samsara. Only Nirvana is not Samsara (setting aside some paradoxical statements made by some Mahayana Buddhists), and the overwhelming majority of Buddhist contemplatives, along with the overwhelming majority of everyone else, do not attain Nirvana.

     Nevertheless, it does appear to be true that the life of a layperson with a family, a job, and a TV set is more intensely Samsaric in certain ways, or at least more intensely distracting from the fact that life, existence, is Samsara.

     Even though I am no longer an ordained monk, I was a monk for so long—more than half my life, and much more than half of my adult life—that I continue to hold pretty much the same attitudes that I held when I wore a brown toga and went barefoot. The danger of losing my head, so to speak, of taking the blue pill and forgetting that I am in the Matrix, and blindly wallowing in it, hasn’t happened yet.

     In fact my life is still more or less full time Dharma practice, including a fair amount of ascetic practice. For that matter, in some ways my existence is more austere than it was as a monk living in a temple in California, and in a few ways even more austere than it was living in a cave in tropical Asia.

     For example: I have never been a morning person, and getting up early to go to work is really one hell of an ascetic practice for me. Working in the summer heat of South Carolina, fully clothed, is also very austere. I remember when I was drenched in sweat in Burma I would often NOT be patient and equanimous about it. I would be stressing over the fact that my only upper robe was getting soaked, and that I’d have to wash it (with no washing machine of course, but rather beating it with a paddle next to the well), and I would get really bothered by it. I tried to avoid sweating with clothes on. But when I have the job of doing some rather strenuous exertion and am quite drenched in sweat, I simply take it because I obviously have little choice, and stressing over it would be pointless and counterproductive. (I have to admit, though, that I have extra changes of clothes now and a washing machine in my apartment.)

     The way my life has worked out, even working for a living, accepting the curse of Adam and earning my bread by the sweat of my brow, is quite the ascetic practice, and involves real Dhamma practice. For starters it involves strenuous exertion in ways that I haven’t had to do since I was in my twenties, and now I’m in my late fifties; and so I often walk home exhausted, stiff, and sore as my muscles and tendons adjust to their new exertions and strains. Also it is my nature always to push myself, so as I get stronger I start lifting and carrying heavier loads, and always doing as much as I can. Furthermore I work in a metal shop around potentially dangerous machines and equally dangerous heavy materials with sharp edges and pointy corners. I remember when I first moved to a rocky desert in central Burma and I was not yet used to it, I always had at least one bloodied stubbed toe; and now as I adjust to the metal shop I pretty much always have bruises, scratches, and the occasional hard knock. Gradually I adjust to the flow of the new environment and learn, for example, to lean away from the pointy corners when I reach around a certain rack of material to lock the gate before closing. It involves mindfulness, as does operating machinery in which one spaced-off moment can cost a finger. And mindfulness is always good. I am reminded of venerable Ajahn Mun’s admonishment to monks always to live in a dangerous environment because it naturally improves the quality of one’s mindfulness.

     Before moving on to other daily and relatively mundane forms of lay asceticism, I will observe that my job involves a fair amount of repetitive movements which easily transmute blind drudgery into some really nice mindfulness practice, and I live much of my work day in the present moment, attending to my work and endeavoring to do a good job. No earbuds playing music, not much wandering mind or idle chatter, though I do often think loving thoughts of my sweetheart....

     Which leads me to a kind of “ascetic practice,” or austerity, or at least patient acceptance of difficulty, that monks do not experience, or at least are not supposed to experience. It is a primordial and eternal fact that the female half of our species, bless their hearts, are more identified with their feelings than we males are. Rationality for them often appears to be a luxury reserved for moments of serenity. And so a man can join his life to a warm, soft, truly lovely “better half” that may, for example, seem occasionally very unreasonable, or may become upset for reasons that at first are utterly mystifying to a guy, and even when explained seem very odd and unjustified. Don’t get me wrong here: I am not complaining at all, and my relationship with my sweetheart is a miraculous blessing, an ocean of love, and totally worth any such trouble; but it is simply, as I say, a primordial and eternal fact that men are from Mars, and women are from Venus, despite the fact that we are designed by Nature to form a symbiosis and to fit together, in some cases even perfectly. It is just the way it is, and it takes some strength and some wisdom to accept this as just the natural way of life. So there is that sort of heart-oriented austerity too, if you can accept that.

     And then of course there is the ascetic practice of patiently accepting the general fuckery of the modern system. For example it took me four months just to obtain a credit card (though I finally got one a few days ago), and I won’t be able to take the driving test for a driver’s license until February at the earliest, because laws. America, the “land of the free,” is in many ways less free than a military dictatorship I lived in for two decades. Being put on hold indefinitely, exorbitant expenses for simple things, a hundred passwords to remember, needing to apply for this in order to get that in order to get the other thing, being lied to (for the sake of control) by the corporate establishment on a daily basis, watching one’s civilization going to hell with indoctrinated obedient sheeple cheering it on, being hated and cursed by those same sheeple, holding one’s tongue for the sake of not telling forbidden truths, dealing with bad drivers on the road, paying bills, being propositioned by swindlers and scammers, being surrounded by spiritually bankrupt materialism in general, and on and on—accepting it with patience is austerity, and Dhamma practice.

     On the other hand, I must admit, I enjoy the miracle of walking to a refrigerator and taking out anything I want, any time I want (so long as I’m not at work). I enjoy the love of a glorious woman. (With regard to that one, cynics and Buddhist fundamentalists can say that romantic love is not pure; and it is true that usually romantic love tends not to be the most stable and unconditional form of love; but there is clearly real love in a spiritual sense there, and love is good. The essence of love is acceptance, and open-hearted love no matter what is a powerful spiritual path. And one of the greatest blessings in this world is for someone to know all about you, your weaknesses and shortcomings as well as your strengths, and to love you with all their heart anyway. Romantic love involves animal instincts. The love of a hen for her chicks is animal instinct too of course, but there is true love in there, at least a spark, and that spark is divine. And the romantic love between a man and a woman endowed with wisdom is much greater than just a spark. Sometimes it is a sun-like blaze.)

     I have some really nice house plants now too, including a coleus that I have bonded with to the point that it’s almost equivalent to a cat. I may get some goldfish or a turtle someday soon also. All in all I enjoy physical freedom of a sort that monks certainly do not enjoy, not strictly practicing ones anyhow.

     So my spiritual practice includes mindfulness of everyday activities; human interaction with honesty, metta, and blessings; doing conscientious hard work to earn my bread (I still would like to do that with Dhamma teaching, but supply and demand issues have always been a limiting factor); and a lot of patient acceptance of the Way Things Are. Plus I still reflect on Dhamma continually and help people who reach out to me, including an increasing number of Q&A videos. I do honestly feel that if I had stayed a monk there are things I would never work out karmically, unless I could somehow hit some deep crisis point and miraculously transcend it all without having actually to wade through it.

     I am still going with the old idea that opposites, including pleasure and pain, tend to balance out in the long run, in accordance with universal law. So the life of someone who is not a karmic minimalist, like a layperson in the west for example, involves more pleasure AND pain, more pluses AND minuses. And as I have been emphasizing quite a lot lately, the path of a layperson must, or at least should, involve a kind of stoic austerity, or willingness to accept the inevitable tails side of the karmic coin when it comes up, which is around half the time.           

     In conclusion I think it is better to be a monk when young and enjoy life later than to enjoy life when young and then become a monk when one is old. The latter is the traditional Hindu method, but ancient Buddhism observes that monks ordained in their later years are often too set in their ways to make much progress. On the other hand, disrobed elder monks are able to take what they have learned into a higher difficulty setting, which may even, in some cases, result in greater progress. Being a monastic does have its limitations, even spiritual limitations, largely because we are not in ancient India, and largely because the challenges and austerities of living in a cushy temple are not necessarily very great.

     So to conclude the conclusion I would say that not being a professional renunciant is not a handicap or even much of an obstacle so long as a person is not blue-pilled and lost in the illusion. It’s just a higher difficulty setting, which pretty much precludes karmic minimalism and intensive jhana practice. Nevertheless, opportunities for practice abound. Good luck with your practice, whether it be in a meditation hall or a grocery store.


  1. Nice read.

    Female nature being ....well, female nature, has led me to the meditative practice of "they do it just to confuse you" - every time I just repeat "they do it to confuse you" - It's worked well so far, for many years.

    As for being a Western Economic System ascetic or karmic minimalist one must always be aware that The Middle Way remains The Middle Way and doesn't become The Middle Class Way - that one is definitely going nowhere (except Bali for the next yoga retreat!).

    It might be worth considering online teaching and online retreats (eventbrite for example) - just put yourself out there and see what happens - but hey, you seem to be enjoying your work life which is good.

  2. Virtue can be practice in all manner of circumstances. Are you familiar with the works of Josemaría Escrivá, who taught that sanctification can be found in the everyday of ordinary work. Author of the Way, and a member of the Opus Dei and Franco sympathizer back in the day.

  3. Friendly correction, Escriva founded Opus Dei. Tried reading one of his books years ago, felt like my brain was turning to solid concrete.

    1. I guess the founder would also be member, but a significant note no less. Escrivá's work was worth mentioning in the context of integrating ascetic practices in the ritual of daily practices to achieve some semblance of saintly conduct. However if you found "The Way" a tough read, then you've perhaps turned to a statue at this point getting through the Pāli Canons.

    2. Oddly enough, I find the suttas challenging, despite my intellectual shortcomings. The repetition can be bothersome, but I understand that they had to be crafted that way to facilitate memorization when they were being transmitted orally. Different strokes, I suppose.


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