The Refuge of Simplicity
People often ask me why I decided to ordain as a Buddhist nun. “Why did you choose to give up so much?” they ask. “Isn’t it hard? Why do you have to give up pleasure in order to be a nun?” The answer is simplicity.
From March 2000 to July 2006, I lived mostly in silent, solitary retreat. I went into my first three-year retreat as a layperson, and decided to ordain as a nun at the end of that retreat.
In the course of my first long retreat, what I discovered through trial and error to be the most conducive to deep meditation and serious contemplation was in most respects exactly in accordance with the monastic vows. For example, I found that having a few changes of simple, comfortable clothing and a simple hairstyle (at this point I still had hair!) and dispensing with adornment and even a mirror eliminated the distraction of focusing on one’s appearance. Three heavy meals a day didn’t work — two light meals were best, eaten early in the day, as eating a substantial meal in the evening led to a groggy, unclear evening meditation, as well as sluggish sleep and reluctant rising the next day.
Listening to music didn’t work-the songs would repeat endlessly in one’s head during meditation; and one plaintive love song by a female vocalist could easily lead to endless obsessive ruminations about old relationships. Even though I didn’t have access to TV, movies, or the internet in retreat, I could only imagine the effects would be similar, if not worse. Of course, strict celibacy was imperative, and sexual fantasies and daydreams were just frustrating and pointless.
When I met with the others in the hermitage, we took great care to make our interactions harmonious, as any harsh interactions or misunderstandings led to feelings of either irritation or remorse (or often both) that would linger and disturb one’s meditation for days, even weeks. We also found that too much “conversation” and note-writing about mundane, non-spiritual subjects led to restlessness, a marked dissipation of energy, and even a physical feeling of bloatedness, similar to the aftermath of overindulging in junk food or sweets! Idle chatter was also out.
Simplicity of lifestyle, elimination of distractions, harmony of relationship. It seemed to me, in reflecting on what we’d discovered to be conducive for contemplative practice, that these actions of body, speech, and mind met the Vinaya-the monastic discipline-and meshed perfectly. Through trial and error and our attempt to analyze the most effective conditions for retreat and realization, we had discovered the system designed by the Buddha more than 2,600 years ago to accomplish exactly the same thing. During that retreat, I had decided to get ordained, and this discovery just strengthened my resolve, as I gained a fresh appreciation for the perfect container that living in ordination creates for awakening.
So what can lay practitioners do? Is it necessary to become ordained in order to practice deeply?
Obviously, very few Buddhist practitioners will decide or ordain or engage in long retreat. But I think the same principle of simplicity applies to lay life as well. Many students find that, as their practice progresses, they feel drawn to simplify their lives: get rid of excess clutter, reduce their exposure to entertainment and media, take an email “Sabbath” every weekend, choose different activities for their time off work. All of these things can support one’s deepening contemplative practice, and tend to happen gradually and naturally. So it’s not about what one “should” do to be spiritual, but about what naturally unfolds as a result of the practice. If we follow this natural unfolding, we will discover for ourselves the deep refuge of simplicity.
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
These words were first published back in August 1973 by E.F. Schumacher, a British economist with a deep interest in Buddhism. They surely ring as true today as they did back then. Sadly, the world has not grown noticeably less violent nor less complex in the interim period, yet we can at least celebrate the fact that peaceful oases exist in our world where the spiritual values of simplicity and working to develop a good heart are put first. The deep healing that such places can facilitate and nurture has possibly never been more needed than now.
Simple living, with all of its trials and tribulations, was an experience that the founding members of Vajrapani Institute, were destined to get to know intimately. Elaine Jackson, 70, one of the founding community members, recalls the circumstances that gave birth to the Institute back in the late Seventies. When Lama Yeshe, and his heart disciple, Lama Zopa Rinpoche led a Buddhist course at Yucca Valley out in the desert East of Los Angeles in March 1977, there was already a lot of buzz in the air about the idea. “There was a great momentum at that course to do something for the benefit of this country,” says Elaine. “We wanted to build a meditation center where people could actualize their highest human potential.” Carried by this wave of inspiration, two of the participants, Janet and Ross Brooke, asked their partners whether they would be willing to donate 30 acres of land they owned together out in the woods near Boulder Creek, California to the cause. The partners’ response came back as a yes. Vajrapani Institute was to become a reality.
At the time all this happened, Elaine was married with two kids. She remembers her husband, John, saying, “Why don’t we just sell everything, buy a teepee and live in the woods for a year and build a retreat center?” She laughs at the memory. “I didn’t see any reason why not!”
High spiritual ideals and an appreciation of the wisdom of letting go were a core part of the motivation that fueled the efforts of those that labored to build Vajrapani Institute. However other powerful cultural currents were also at play. In particular, the horrors of the war in Vietnam were a stark reminder that all was not well with ‘business as usual’ out in the world. “We were all disillusioned with the tenor of the country, with war, with lies. There was a ‘back to nature’ move and a move to a kinder, more peaceful life. At that time, there was real reporting on war. You were in the war, you could see what was happening. On television you saw people getting blown up… We were totally disgusted,” Elaine recalls.
So it was that off-grid life in a teepee began for Elaine and family and those working alongside them to do the hard labor of constructing Vajrapani Institute. Soul-destroying television news bulletins were no longer a problem: there was no television. And although the living conditions were very primitive, Elaine recalls that there was a tremendous camaraderie and generosity of spirit among the community members. Their deep mutual interest in the spiritual path proved a powerful lifeline, even when external conditions stretched them to the limit. Elaine’s new lifestyle, with its routine carrying of water and carting of groceries uphill with a baby strapped to her front also brought about a seismic shift in terms of her understanding about ecology and resource management. “What happened to me was that I began to see where things come from and where they go… So when buying food, do you buy something in a glass bottle? Because if you do, you need to bring it back down the hill. And water doesn’t come from a tap and electricity doesn’t come when you flip a switch!”
What had started as one-year plan to live out in the wilds ended up as a five-year odyssey for Elaine and family. Floods and mudslides forced them back into town in 1982, but the simple-living, spiritually oriented trajectory they had embarked upon continues to this day.
“I knew that I wanted to be around like-minded people and I thought a community like this would help me grow my practice.”
One of the more recent additions to the Vajrapani Institute family, work study volunteer, Sean Brunelle, 32, started his ‘simple living’ intensive in June 2016, almost four decades after the founding community members took the plunge. Sean is quick to say that his story pales in comparison to theirs. Nevertheless, his current activities still represent a huge change from the life he was previously living as a civilian contractor working on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and then as a firefighter in Southern California.
For Sean, the big transition came two years ago when he first started meditating. At the time he was working for the Fire Department in the San Bernardino area, but just a few months into his exploration of meditation he realized that the group he worked and socialized with was not a good match for his new perspective. “When I started noticing that my way of thinking was changing I wanted to veer off the Fire Department,” he says. “In that community they don’t really talk about things like religion, consciousness, flotation tanks … spiritual things like that. I knew that I wanted to be around like-minded people and I thought a community like this would help me grow my practice.”
Like the first wave of Vajrapani community members back in the Seventies, Sean’s motivation to move more deeply into simple living and spiritual exploration was also partly fueled by a growing disillusionment with aspects of the established order. Prior to his five-year stint in Afghanistan and Iraq he was a firefighter in the military for four years. “While I was in the military my view was that we were doing positive things around the world,” he says. “But after getting out and being overseas, I realized that we’re not there for the right reasons … I was there in Afghanistan and Iraq for five years and I remember only one time, maybe twice, training with the local people. So I got the sense that we weren’t there to help anybody. What we’re always trying to project is that we’re helping people, but we’re just there for their natural resources and to make profit for big companies. That was my conclusion.”
For now, what Sean calls home is a simple tent just down the hillside from Vajrapani Institute’s ridge cabin retreat area. He’s made an effort to make it a pleasant living space and is reveling in the sweetness that living so close to nature is bringing him. “Yesterday when I was brushing my teeth in the morning, instead of going to the bathroom I brushed my teeth in front of my tent and looked at the landscape and thought that everyone should at least one time in their lives brush their teeth in the mountains, outdoors, instead of in front of a mirror!”
An element of Vajrapani Institute that Sean says he particularly values is that it provides a space where people can heal. “People learn about themselves here and are healed…” he says.
“It seems that you can fix yourself here and you can fix yourself forever, if you stay consistent. So I think that this place brings that consistency and it brings you the resources to help make you a better person… It’s the land, the people and the atmosphere: the fact that you are away from television and cell phones and the city… There is something that nature does to heal you naturally.”