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Letting Go of Minimalism


As a younger man, I prided myself on being a minimalist. I never owned more possessions that what I could fit into a duffel bag. 

 I did my best to avoid clothing purchases; choosing to make due with the free t-shirts that were passed out at college fairs and job recruitment events. 

When I finally moved into my own place, I scoffed at the idea of buying furniture; choosing to eat and sleep on the floor.

When people asked about my behavior, I told them that I was a minimalist and a Buddhist.  I gave long lectures on Buddha's teaching of nonattachment; explaining that every possession is a fetter that holds us back from enlightenment.

This is true; however, I don't think it explained the full reason for my minimalism.  At its core, my lack of possessions had less to do with religion and more to do with trauma.

My parents divorced when I was a kid.  They'd been fighting non-stop for a while, but it was still a surprise when my mom loaded me and my siblings up in the van; taking us to my aunt's house to live.

Overnight, I went from having my own room in a nice house in the suburbs to sharing an attic bedroom with my younger brothers.  Things happened so fast that we didn't have time to get our clothes.

Eventually, we were able to go back to the house.  Two police officers stood beside the front door while I and one of my brothers brought clothes and other items from the house.  You don't realize how much stuff you have until a police officer tells you it all has to fit into the back of a minivan.

Much of the space in the back was taken up by my mom's dresses and purses.  Wanting to be a good big brother, I focused on packing things for my siblings.  I assumed that I'd be able to come back later to get my stuff.

I was wrong.

My dad got to keep the house, and he decided to make some changes, getting rid of all the old furniture.  That included all of the posters, clothes, and treasured heirlooms that I'd left in my room.

"Getting rid of memories" is what he called it.

I felt like I'd been erased.  Like everything that had marked me as special or unique had been wiped away in one fell swoop.

My clothes were gone.

My bed was gone.

My saxophone, my computer, my baseball card collection... all gone.

If my dad didn't want my stuff in his house.  He must not want me in his house.  I don't know if that was true, or not.  But that's how it felt.

It hurt, and somewhere along the way my teenage brain decided that having things I cared about just wasn't worth the risk.  They could be taken from me, or circumstances might force me to leave them behind in an emergency.

If I wanted to be safe, I needed to travel light.  My entire world needed to fit into a bookbag.

I lived that way for a lot of years, and it worked.  When I had roommates, they usually had furniture that I could use, TVs, couches, kitchen tables, etc.  And when I lived by myself, I didn't mind eating and sleeping on the floor.

Then I got houseplants.  I got the plants because I missed living on farms and being surrounded by nature every day.  My apartment was in the city, so plant life was scarce.  I had to walk 15 minutes to a park if I wanted to touch grass.  

The plants helped me enjoy a bit of nature each day when I came home from work, but this led to a different problem.

My small windows didn't provide adequate light for them while they were sitting on the floor.  So, I had to buy tables, so they'd be at window height.  And there's nothing better than writing with a giant plant sitting inches from your head.  So, I bought chairs, and I sat at the tables that the plants were on while I worked.

Then I got Buddhist books.  It's a major faux pas in Buddhist temples to place Buddhist scriptures on the floor.  The rule is enforced so strictly that during chanting the temple monks hand out handkerchiefs for the chant books to be placed upon when the recitations are done.

The handkerchiefs act as barrier between the scriptures and the floor.  This ensures that they remain undamaged, and other students can use them.

I didn't want to pile my Dharma books on the floor like I did with all of my other books, so I kept them on the kitchen counter.  This worked well until one day I came dangerously close to spilling protein shake on my copy of The Vimalakirti Sutra.

I bought bookshelves... lots of bookshelves.  And life continued in this way until I had a fully furnished apartment.

This led to a different problem.  

At its heart, Buddhism is a practice of renunciation.  We move towards the Buddha by moving away from the entanglements of daily life.  But I couldn't manage my daily life without the items I purchased.

This trend has continued now that I've moved to the country.  As I've worked to transform my old house into a working homestead; planting garden beds, building chicken coops, and constructing a greenhouse, I've learned something about myself.

I like having stuff.

I like beauty, and comfort, and the safety that comes from knowing that something is new and well-made.

I know that things can’t make us happy. An item that’s purchased for the sole purpose of gaining status or recognition is a waste. But I’m wondering if there is something to be said for utility. 

And is the beauty of a thing always separate from its utility. I think not.

I know from my woodworking projects that the utility of an object directly correlates with the level of craftsmanship that it entails. A well-built table won’t wobble when we brush against it. And we won't hesitate to use it because we know it’s solid. 

But the process of building a solid table requires the woodworker to cut the lumber to uniform lengths, add appropriate supports, and place screws in such a way that the table is genuinely nice to look at.

Yes, one could go out of their way to build an ugly table that functioned well. But even in that case the continued use of the thing would lend it a certain charm. 

Over time, the utility of the thing would outweigh the lack of aesthetic value; like a car with rust spots and a cracked bumper that we keep driving because its good on gas.

I say all of this to say that I no longer see the purchase of items as bad or problematic in and of itself. 

So long as there is measurable utility in their purchase, and I can demonstrate how they serve to end suffering for myself and others, there is no conflict between the act of buying things and the practice of Buddhism.    

That said, there is still a fly in the ointment.  Initially, I walked down the path of minimalism because it made me feel safe.  If I had nothing, nothing could be taken from me.

There is an anxious, vulnerability that comes with the possession of things.  They can be lost, damaged, or destroyed.  It requires time and effort to keep them clean and in good working order.

That said, Buddhism offers a remedy for people like me; people who struggle with the act of letting go.

Each morning, after I chant and light incense for the Buddha, I think about my possessions and the good things they can do.  I think of the fond memories I have tied to each of them.

Then I imagine someone throwing them into a bonfire.

The "his and hers" chairs I built for the back porch. Gone.

The coffee table I built for the living room. Gone.

The precious Dharma books that have shaped and directed my life... all gone.

Everything I own will be taken from me one day.  Even if I own nothing, there will come a day when my human body crumbles into dust.  Loss is inescapable.

So, I must make peace with this inescapable truth.  That's what the bonfire meditation is for.  But until that day comes, and my possessions disappear, I'll strive to use them skillfully, carefully, to save all beings from suffering.

Namu Amida Butsu

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