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.