Natural Life Magazine

Quarantine Simplicity and Zen Simplicity

Quarantine Simplicity and Zen Simplicity
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 voice.

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.


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