The Meaningful Grind

Living as lay people can sometimes feel like we are trapped or hampered by the constraints of the conventional world – the need to work, to follow rules and customs that have no bearing outside of that situation, and the need to do things that appear to have no relationship to our practice. The menial and mundane aspects of life can feel like a burden that draws precious time and energy away from our spiritual development, how does going to the supermarket support my practice? How does filling in a time sheet at work relate to my meditation? How will attending a 3-hour meeting about the company’s new HR procedure lead to my enlightenment?

Last week I raised the point that while we can use various tactics to break down our sense of reality, we can’t avoid the fact that there can be a grain of truth in what we are thinking about. The example I used was the thought coming up that we might miss the plane that we were booked to fly on. The main problem with  those kinds of thoughts  is that they  come up out of habitual negative thought patterns, always automatically thinking the worst or catastrophising when there is no valid reason to do so, and those are the kinds of thought patterns and misattributions  that last week’s techniques are aiming to free us from the grip of.

But while we can unlearn our irrational thought patterns, we can’t deny that there are boundaries that the conventional world puts on us, and we can’t ever fully escape from the limitations that living in human bodies and in human societies puts on us. For instance we always need to eat, and we always need to sleep. Likewise our bodies only operate within a fairly small temperature range, so we always need to make sure we are neither too hot nor too cold.

These kinds of unavoidable limitations are reflected in the four requisites, the only four things that the Buddha said a monastic needs to live – food, shelter, clothing, and medicine. Everything else, as far as he was concerned, was superfluous.

As lay people we sometimes dream about the simplicity of the monastic life and assume that part of the problem is that we need more material goods than a monastic does and that therefore we can’t restrict our activities to just the four requisites, but I might argue that if we regard earning money as being just for the purpose of gaining the four requisites then many of our possessions could also be grouped under that heading.

If we live in a modern, capitalist society then we generally need to have money, either earned or given to us, to allow us access to the basic requisites of  food, shelter, clothing and medical treatments, so earning money is a necessity to get the four requisites.

But we often also need other things to give us access to earning money. For instance lay people often own cars, and have all the insurance, taxes, legal obligations, and maintenance to deal with around them. This obviously creates a lot more requirements than a  monastic has to deal with, but if we include owning a car as a necessity to earn money – which it is for many who live in areas without decent public transport – then owning a car would be a tool to allow one to acquire the four requisites, much like an alms bowl allows a monastic to collect food.

While we often make a distinction between what we have to do ‘in the real world’ and what we do in our practice,  at the same time we train ourselves to see that ‘the real world’ is nothing of the sort, it is all just social conventions and cultural requirements. This can sometimes lead us to a confusing impasse between trying to figure out what to do about the pressing demands the world puts on us and the knowledge we have that none of it is ‘real’ in an absolute sense.

The tension between the demands of the world and the conditions we need for practice is a constant one, but I would argue that even being a monastic doesn’t get you as far out of it as it may appear. Reading DN 1 we find a long list of behaviours that the Buddha says lay people will praise him for, but  at the same time he states that they are largely trivial and insignificant. The list includes some of the more obvious ones like not killing, stealing, or behaving immorally, but also includes some curiosities like not damaging plants and seeds, not playing games, and not running errands for people.

What is clear from much of this list is that most of them are not about morality – there is nothing immoral about playing chess, for example. Most of these minor rules are actually about renunciation, about giving up on behaviours that don’t support meditation practice, such as playing games and going to shows and performances.

But what is also clear from the list is that many of the behaviours are ones that would raise criticism from the lay people who the monastics rely on for support. We find a clear example of how rules that have very little to do with practice were established when we look at the rules around sandals:

“Soon afterwards the monks from the group of six wore entirely blue sandals, entirely yellow sandals, entirely red sandals, entirely magenta sandals, entirely black sandals, entirely orange sandals, and entirely beige sandals. People complained and criticized them, “They are just like householders who indulge in worldly pleasures!” They told the Buddha and he said,

“You should not wear sandals that are entirely blue, entirely yellow, entirely red, entirely magenta, entirely black, entirely orange, or entirely beige. If you do, you commit an offense of wrong conduct.”” [1]

This section about sandals goes on in great detail about the different kinds of sandals that monks wore; coloured, plain with coloured straps, decorated with animal skins, stuffed, decorated with feathers, made of wood, made of palm leaves or bamboo shoots, and just about every other material you can think of. In each case the lay people complained that the monks wearing them were no better than householders, and in each case the Buddha declared that wearing them was now an offence.

So just as we, when we go to work, need to follow certain conventions that allow us to maintain our employment, monastics too need to follow conventions that will allow the lay people to not have doubts in the worthiness of giving them support, so if you think that being a monastic will get you away from trivial rules and petty conventions then that isn’t the case, even they have to deal with the same kinds of small beer that the average working person has to face too.

Clearly in an absolute sense the type of sandals you wear has no bearing on your meditative abilities, but in a conventional sense wearing fancy sandals when lay people are making donations to you in good faith that you are of good character and live simply could cause them to doubt your sincerity. Receiving support is more important than wearing fancy sandals, so the Buddha’s rules are entirely pragmatic – you don’t need fancy sandals so don’t wear them.

We rightfully uphold the Buddha as the prime example of a person who could live freed from the constraints of conventionality but at the same time, we find that he had to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with minor and trivial matters like the colour of monks’ sandals.

I think it is useful for us to note that rather than wave away such issues as what colour sandals to wear as being unimportant because they didn’t relate to an absolute truth, the Buddha engaged with these issues and responded to them. In fact when you read the suttas and the texts around the creation of the Vinaya rules, you find that the Buddha often had to engage with the same issue more than once, often changing his stance on it each time he was faced with a question about it.

For instance rules around monastics using vehicles had to be changed. To begin with the Buddha declared that monastics shouldn’t use vehicles:

“At that time the monks from the group of six travelled in vehicles, sometimes pulled by women with men inside, at other times pulled by men with women inside. People complained and criticized them, “It’s as if they’re at the Ganges festival.” They told the Buddha and he said,

“You should not travel in a vehicle. If you do, you commit an offense of wrong conduct.”” [1]

Again the rationale for not travelling in vehicles is because it draws criticism from the lay people, raising questions about how seriously the monastics are taking their practice and causing them to doubt whether they are using their support for wholesome purposes.

But an instance occurs where a monk who was ill was offered a lift in a vehicle, and he declined it because it was against the rules. When the monk told the Buddha this, he decided that being ill made an exception to the rule, and he stated that a sick monastic could travel in a vehicle. He responded pragmatically to each situation; he wasn’t fixed on the rules unless they were ones that corresponded to morality.

An example of this pragmatism can be found where he responds to the different cultures and conventions of ‘outlying countries’ by making specific exceptions to some of the Vinaya rules in those areas, such as allowing multi-layered soled sandals because the ground is rough and hard in those places or allowing monastics to sit on animal skins because that is what is commonly used as floor coverings in those areas.

You might be wondering how these rules on riding in vehicles apply in the modern era, given that monastics now frequently travel by car, plane, bus, and even on the London underground. It still applies that monastics are not allowed to own or drive a car, as would have been the case in the Buddha’s time, but it is now considered to be fairly normal to travel these ways too – much of the reason that the Buddha ruled against traveling in a vehicle is because it was considered to be an extravagance. Seeing monastics traveling in a vehicle like an ox drawn cart or a rickshaw in those days would be something equivalent of us now seeing a monastic driving a Ferrari or sitting in the back of a stretched limo. [2]

Perhaps updating these rules to what their equivalent would be nowadays can help us to have a greater appreciation of why these rules were implemented. If you’ve been dutifully making donations to your local sangha and then see them driving around in Ferraris you can understand how the sight would raise a lot of questions in your mind about how seriously the monastics were taking their practice, and about how they were spending your hard-earned money. Likewise if you saw them walking around with £1000 sandals on.

Now this does raise an interesting point,if most of these rules were just based on social conventions of the Buddha’s time, does that mean we could, in theory, just change them all to suit the local conditions? Or even do away with them altogether?

Ajahn Chah gives us a modern example of this, when Ajahn Sumedho came over to England in 1977 to start the first monastery in the West. Chah allowed Sumedho to make some pragmatic changes to the rules, such as the chanting, the robes, and the creation of the role of anagarikas to provide the kind of hands on practical support that would be given by lay people in Thailand, such as driving, cooking, and handling money. But despite allowing these differences, he was very clear that the monastics must still go on almsrounds.

If all Chah was doing was making allowances for the cultural differences then he would have said ‘well no one is going to give you enough food to eat if you go on an almsround so don’t  bother doing it’, but he didn’t do that. He said that they should go on almsround knowing full well that it would be a very difficult thing for them to do in England in the 1970s, and to be fair it remains a very difficult thing to do now. The monastics often have to endure abuse and angry tirades about them not having jobs and sponging off the hard work of others, even in genteel places like the affluent towns and villages of the Home Counties. Chah considered the almsround as a fundamental element of living as a monastic, so he insisted it had to stay, regardless of how difficult it was to do it in a country where it wasn’t socially supported.

So Ajahn Chah, and the Buddha, both show us that while these rules are often driven by the conventional expectations of a particular society, there are some other factors at play. What allowed the Buddha and Chah to know the difference between when a rule should be upheld and when it shouldn’t? I would argue that what makes the difference is intention – why do you want to not apply the rule?

If your motivation for wanting to not have to follow a rule is because it is inconvenient in some way, then that doesn’t point to it coming from a wholesome mind state or a wholesome motivation. In this case not going on an almsround because people might be mean to you isn’t a good enough reason, to not want to do it comes from a place of aversion.

But if the reason for not wanting to have to follow a rule is pragmatic, such as being able to wear more clothes than the rules on robes normally allow because you live in a country where the standard regulations might lead you to die of hypothermia, then the motivation for that is a pragmatic one, and unsurprisingly allowance is made for warm clothes and jackets in colder countries.

The thing that is so impressive about the way the Buddha handled these endless conventional matters is how fluid he was with the situation, and how unruffled he was by having to make changes. If someone done something that raised criticism the Buddha would just say, ‘ok from now on this is an offence’. If something then happened that needed the rule to be amended, he would just say, ‘ok from now on this rule is like this now’. He didn’t cling to the previous rule, nor did he berate himself for ‘not getting it right first time’, he just dealt with the reality that was in front of him in that moment and changed the rules accordingly.

The Buddha was a master at living within the bounds of the conventional world, yet at the same time doing so in a way that didn’t hamper his enlightened mind. Ajahn Amaro draws a wonderfully poetic understanding of how the Buddha reconciled the conventional and the absolute through the gesture he made on the night of his enlightenment, when he touched the ground with one hand and called on the earth to be his witness:

“The Buddha’s gentle gesture of touching the earth is a magnificent metaphor. It is saying that even though we might have this enlightened, free space internally, it needs to be interfaced with the phenomenal world. Otherwise, there is no completion… We cultivate a vast internal space, but it is necessarily connected to the phenomenal world. If there is only an internal, subjective experience of enlightenment, we’re still caught.

Mara’s army won’t retreat. The hassles are everywhere—the tax returns, the permits, the jealousies. We can see that they are empty, but they are still coming at us from all directions.

But in reaching out to touch the earth, the Buddha recognized, yes, there is that which is transcendent and unconditioned. But humility demands not simply holding to the unconditioned and the transcendent. The Buddha recognized and acknowledged that: “There is the conditioned. There is the sense world. There is the earth that makes up my body and my breath and the food that I eat.”” [3]

For Amaro, the Buddha’s enlightenment wasn’t fully complete until he could hold both absolute reality and conventional reality together, until he could function skilfully in both realms. This is an important idea for us as lay people, to understand that our enlightenment will come not by escaping from the bounds of the conventional world but by finding a way to act skilfully in both domains.

Amaro continues:

“That gesture of reaching out from the transcendent is saying:

“How could fully engaging with the sense world possibly corrupt the innate freedom of the heart? This freedom is uninterruptible, incorruptible, unconfutable by any sense experience. Therefore why not allow it all in?” By openly, freely acknowledging the limited… the unlimited manifests its full potential. If there is hesitancy and the caution to keep the conditioned at bay, that betrays a basic lack of faith in the natural inviolability of the unconditioned.” [3]

If as lay people we spend all of our time trying to find reasons why we shouldn’t have to follow the rules of convention, then we are doubting the ability of the heart and mind to rise above the tension that conventional constraints can cause,  and to do this is, in some ways, to doubt the possibility of enlightenment at all.

When we want things to be a certain way it is almost as if we are saying that there are exceptions to enlightenment, that in general it is possible to become enlightened but only if certain conditions aren’t around. If we think that it is only possible to become enlightened without having to deal with any trivial conventional matters, then the Buddha is there to remind us that this is not the case. The many rules he gave his monastics to follow were mostly based on societal conventions, but they acted as no restraint on their ability to reach enlightenment, in fact the discipline created by following these rules is a support for the development of the mind.

It’s a tough ask, but can we as lay people find ways to apply the same principle to our own conventional duties? Can we make following the rules a practice? I think it is possible to make any action part of our practice, and I think it is possible to do this by looking for our mind states and motivations to be wholesome.

Paying our car tax is not a moral issue, it is merely a societal requirement, but if we don’t want to pay it then we have to ask what our motivation for not paying it is. Is it out of greed, out of ill will towards the state, out of hatred of rules or politicians, or other road users even? None of these reasons come from wholesome mind states, so despite the rule having no absolute reality, not following the rule driven by unwholesome and negative motivations will have a very definite impact on our practice – it will allow negative habits to persist in our minds.

Likewise spending all day ruminating about how much you hate your job, or how your boss is an idiot, or thinking up ways that you could change things to suit you better, are all negative mind states. You don’t have to love your job, but you do need to rein your negative tendencies in because it is those negative tendencies that are impacting on your practice, not your job.

I’ve certainly heard Ajahn Sumedho talking about how many of the Western men who went to Thailand to ordain in the 1960s really struggled to understand why there were so many apparently trivial rules that the Vinaya specified that they had to follow. These young men were of the hippy generation and felt that emotional freedom couldn’t come from being bound by rules, hierarchies, and conventions, so the rules of the Vinaya were really hard for them to come to terms with. And yet Ajahn Amaro, before he ordained, saw that despite living with all of these rules, the monks he met in Thailand were happy -and it was their happiness that convinced him to try a life as a  monastic.

Rules and conventions don’t make us unhappy, it is our mind that does that, so even when we are faced with the trivialities of living a lay life, we can remember that it isn’t having to do these things that makes us unhappy, it is the part of us that wishes we didn’t have to that is doing that.

Following the rules isn’t a moral act either though, it is only a support to us if we are doing it with a wholesome mind state. Nothing we have to do as lay people can’t be a part of our practice if we approach every task with the question of whether we are doing it with a wholesome mind state or not. Even taking out the bins or filling in a tax return can be an element of practice if we work to make sure that we have no negativity in our minds while we are doing it.

So the conventional world is always going to be there and there is no way for us to fully escape from the trivial requirements that having to get food, shelter, clothing, and medicines often imposes on us. But these things don’t have to be treated as not related to our practice; if we focus our attention on doing everything – trivial, meaningful, conventional, or absolute – with a skilful, wholesome mind state, then everything we do can be a part of our practice.

Image by Pashminu Mansukhani from Pixabay


1.       Bhikkhu Brahmali (2021) Cammakkhandhaka. Accessed 17 Sep 2021

2.      Bhikkhu Ariyesako (1999) The Bhikkhus’ Rules: A Guide for Laypeople. Accessed 17 Sep 2021

3.      Amaro Bhikkhu (2003) Small Boat Great Mountain. Abhayagiri Monastic Foundation.

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