Quarantine Simplicity and Zen
By Gene Sager
Now that our lives have been reduced
to a simpler lifestyle by the Covid-19 pandemic, I have been listening to the clamor
of voices that include complaints, suggested diversions, protocols, and sage
advice. Amid all of this, I recalled another simple life I lived at Eiheiji
Monastery in Japan some 20 years ago.
I lived for a year with a small group
at Eiheiji. The monastery is nestled in a cedar forest on the northwest
coast of Japan, far from the bustling industrial complexes of Tokyo and
Osaka. It was built eight centuries ago as the mother temple of the Soto
sect of Zen Buddhism. I arrived at sunset and was greeted by two monks and
four lay practitioners. Following Zen tradition, I worked an hour in the
kitchen before eating the veggie soup. “No work, no food,” as the saying
goes. Zen does not require everyone to be a monk. It is not austere but
fosters cooperation and simplicity.
Like the quarantine life today, at
Eiheiji we stayed put. We stayed in the three main buildings and the
surrounding gardens. One of us went out for supplies every ten days. Staying put, life is simpler: we
reduce traffic, fuel consumption, and pollution. Under quarantine, many of
us are doing more for ourselves, like hair cutting, cooking meals, and
baking. Our quarantine hands-on lifestyle is a step in the right direction.
Zen practice carries this further and
deeper. At Eiheiji, we tended the many landscape and vegetable gardens,
composted, prepared our own meals, and cleaned and maintained the buildings.
We washed dishes by hand and used rakes and brooms rather than blowers.
Zennists prefer the hands-on and machine-free lifestyle. Eiheiji had no
television. Our entertainment was storytelling and samisen (Japanese string
instrument) played by the senior monk. On Saturday evenings, we chanted for
two hours to the beat of drums and gongs.
By far the most important difference
between our quarantine simplicity and Zen simplicity is on the psychological
or mental side. The pandemic has forced us to live somewhat more simply
today, but most of us have not accepted or embraced the simple life
gracefully. By contrast, Zennists choose the simple life because of its
benefits -- physical, mental, and environmental benefits. A clear sign of
our ill-ease today is that people are anxious to “open up” or “return to
normal.” “When can we get back to our lives?” We say it with a whine in our
We endure our current simplicity with
a sense of deprivation. We feel a loss or lack. But in Zen practice, you
focus on what you are doing with full attention. If you are cleaning the
toilet or weeding, you do it with full attention and no thought of anything
else. There is a feeling of fullness. You attend to the present action with
no sense of lack.
We are living our quarantine
simplicity with a divided, agitated mind. In contrast, the Zen experience is
full and contented. The hands-on and full attention lifestyle lends itself
to inner calm. Washing bowls at Eiheiji I focused on one bowl at a time,
concentrating on the here and now. A simple task done with full attention
can be a form of meditation, almost as effective as zazen (sitting
meditation in the lotus posture).
So, amid all the talk about how we
are victimized by the pandemic, made to stay at home, and lead simpler lives,
we should realize we are missing an opportunity to embrace and enjoy the
simple life. Whether in a monastery or an ordinary household, simple living
has many benefits. The benefits accrue on all levels, from the calming of
the mind to the exercise we get doing hands-on physical tasks. Simple living
also reduces the strain on the environment and reduces pollution. And a
healthy planet, in turn, benefits us all.
Gene Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at
Palomar College in San Marcos, California. He is a prolific and thoughtful
writer on environmental and philosophical issues, and a frequent contributor
to Natural Life.