The Dusty Life

The life of a householder is dusty; this is a common phrase in the suttas which at the moment this has been quite literal for me – our house is being renovated and there is a fine layer of brick dust over every single surface, even the toilet. This householder’s life is indeed very dusty right now. But the dustiness of the householder’s life obviously doesn’t come from dirt and debris, this phrase is pointing to something else, to the difficultly of keeping our intentions and actions pristine while dealing with the demands of living an ordinary life as a lay person.

This term comes from a stock phrase that occurs in many places in the suttas:

“A householder or householder’s son, hearing the Dhamma, gains conviction in the Tathagata and reflects: ‘Household life is confining, a dusty path. The life gone forth is like the open air. It is not easy living at home to practice the holy life totally perfect, totally pure, like a polished shell. What if I were to shave off my hair and beard, put on the ochre robes, and go forth from the household life into homelessness?”’ [1]

There is a clear comparison here between the restrictions imposed by a household life and the freedom of the holy life, but what ways are there for us to understand the imagery in this phrase? There is a very literal one to start with, bhikkhus following the Buddha would often sleep out in the forest or in charnel grounds so they were literally living in the open air, compared to being confined indoors living as a lay person but I don’t think that this phrase was meant to be taken quite so literally.

What makes the most sense of the statement for me is the part about trying to be totally pure, like a polished shell. When you are in a dusty environment anything you polish can only stay clean for a short period of time, it will soon be dusty again. Living a lay life is like living in a dusty environment, you are trying to polish your mind to make your actions and intentions consistently wholesome but there are endless demands on you that make it hard for you to keep your mindfulness, and there are always temptations around you that you might give in to.

But what is it about lay life that makes it ‘dusty’? There are several ways that we can think about what it is that is making all this ‘dust’. In our daily actions we can’t help but generate dust – we win and others lose, we drive a hard bargain and leave someone out of pocket, we get the job and someone else doesn’t. Everywhere we go and in everything we do we create a little bit of turbulence, we kick up a bit of dust, either for ourselves or for others, and we are always having to deal with the consequences of that on our minds and emotions.

In this sense dustiness can also be taken to mean dryness, to the dullness and tedium of the repetitive aspects of ordinary life, because we are always having to go through the same things over and over again, sorting out one mess only to have another one to clean up soon after both literally and figuratively.

Life is also unavoidably morally complex when you live in the world and perhaps this is why it is hard to stay polished for long. Even when you are trying to live a simple life you still have to deal in things that don’t have clear answers. If follow the five precepts and you have a pet and they become infested with insects, is it right to kill the insects or is alleviating the suffering of your pet more important? It’s complicated and trying to follow a moral practice while still living an ordinary life kicks up these kinds of dilemmas all the time. When you have a lot of this to deal with it can feel like life is very dusty because can be hard to see what the right thing to do is.

Having to work is the most spoken about source of dust in the household life, and generally this is to do with trying to conform to the boundaries of right livelihood. Jootla points out why our work can have such a significant impact on our practice:

“Jobs are particularly important occasions to keep carefully to the Path for a number of reasons: (1) usually we do not have the support of the Sangha while at work and so are completely on our own; (2) work tends to arouse all previous thought associations and our deep-seated conditionings of greed, competition, and aversion; (3) so many of our waking hours are inevitably involved in simply earning a living.” [2]

So where we work is an important element to take into consideration if we want to have conditions that will support our practice. In this sense living as a monastic has the advantage because it is a lifestyle that is designed to be entirely supportive of practice.

But even if we have found a right livelihood, we can still render it a wrong livelihood by the way we conduct ourselves in it, and just living a monastic life isn’t enough on its own to make our minds pristine. If we lie, cheat, swindle, and use underhand tactics in our profession then this is a clear breach of the precepts, and it totally negates any potential benefit we might have gained by having a right livelihood.

Right livelihood is defined in the suttas in a fairly broad way that still leaves us needing to make a lot of interpretation of what it means:

“Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.
“These are the five types of business that a lay follower should not engage in.” [3]

Although on one hand these sound straightforward enough, even the most apparently mundane line of work can raise the issue of whether it is right livelihood or not. Is working for a supermarket wrong livelihood for instance, because they sell alcohol and insecticides? Is working with plants wrong livelihood if you need to use pesticides? Is being a vet wrong livelihood if you sometimes have to put animals to sleep? If you drive a truck for a haulage company is it wrong livelihood for you to transport alcohol or poisons, even though you and the company you work for are not dealing in them directly?

Again these are complicated questions, and I personally don’t know the answer to them. There are many instances, especially for lay Buddhists in developing countries, where the only means of making a living is a wrong livelihood – such as having to work as a fisherman – but it is still understood that while our livelihood can’t always be right, we are not to neglect working on the remaining seven factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, and to continue to work on improving our ethical behaviour in other ways.

But just what is the dust? What is it that household life creates that is an impediment to purifying the mind?
Khantipalo suggests that the dust is desire [4]. We can read this in two possible ways, that lay life leaves you continually exposed to sources of sensual pleasure so it is hard to get away from it, or that it is desire that keeps you attached to the lay life.

For others the dust is the accumulation of things to be concerned with, a bit like the way dust collects little by little we unavoidably accumulate responsibilities, or in the modern world we accumulate things that we need to respond to somehow:

“The main difficulty for householders is the host of incumbent duties and responsibilities, all of which have psychological overheads – things to become attached to, to worry about, etc. –the mind is seldom allowed to settle. If life has always been mentally ‘crowded and dusty’, then life online increases the cognitive burden even more, echoed in daily complaints of ‘information overload’.” [5]

The bane of the modern world is our ‘always on’ mentality, we are at the receiving end of a constant stream of notifications and while the majority of them are entirely mundane, they all still create a demand on us to make a choice – do we respond or not? If we respond, how do we respond? If we don’t respond what are the consequences?
The mind seldom being allowed to settle is a useful way of thinking about why the dustiness of lay life is a problem. The mind is continually stirred up like a muddy river, and we can never get the dust to settle long enough for us to polish it off because something comes along that kicks it all up again. Having constant demands and decisions to make keeps the mind stirred up, and unless we have the space and determination to give the mind a chance to settle then the conditions in lay life will very rarely conspire to give us that opportunity.

Dust does get used as a metaphor in other contexts in the suttas and these might help us to understand what else it can be referring to. Famously the Buddha was persuaded to teach the Dhamma by Brahma Sahampati who said that there were beings with ‘little dust in their eyes’ who would understand his teachings [6]. Another example is a person seeing things as they really are is often referred to as seeing with the ‘dustless, stainless Dhamma eye’. [7] These two scenarios seem to suggest that the dust in these cases is something that distorts your ability to see or understand, which could be desire, hatred, or delusion.

I’ve been using the terms lay life and household life interchangeably so far, and this is a fairly common thing to do, but it is possible that these terms aren’t 100% synonymous with each other. Householder, as I understand it, meant specifically the head of a household. In those days a householder was a position of responsibility because a householder owned property, and possibly land. In the Buddha’s time, and even historically in European countries for many centuries, owning property and land was a privilege that few had.

But a household was more than just being the head of a family or owning a house; a household comprised of an extended family, plus servants, possibly workers if they owned farming land or a business, and perhaps slaves too. The householder was in charge of all of this, so his life – and it was usually a man – was full of responsibilities and demands on his time that most lay people nowadays don’t have.

Owning a house or having a family nowadays covers only part of what was meant by a householder in those days, a householder was a position of respect and authority. Perhaps nowadays it would be something more like owning a business with staff, or being head of a department – these are very busy people with a lot of responsibility and a lot to think about.

It doesn’t seem to me that by householder the Buddha is necessarily just saying ‘layperson’, because a householder was a very specific status that people held in his time. Servants, workers, and slaves were clearly laypeople, but they were not householders. Perhaps there is something more specific about him saying householders because they had particularly demanding roles.

When we look at the suttas many of the characters we find in there are men from good families, these are prosperous men, important people in their towns and villages. For rich and powerful men like these their sense of themselves as important was probably a major stumbling block to spiritual progress, so giving up their lay lives to live as bhikkhus was possibly more crucial to their development than it might have been to others from different strata of society.
I take from this that the kind of household life that creates a lot of dust is one that has a lot of responsibilities and one that is filled with a lot of ‘stuff’. I think that the life of a householder in the Buddha’s time was also one that could feed a lot of egotism, being a man of importance, having a reputation, being in a position of authority, having to keep up appearances with the other householders, and this is also why it is dusty – you are groomed to be convinced of your own self-importance.

While we might think that having a lot on our plate applies to most of us these days, I think there is a lot of variation between individuals. I don’t think having to work creates the same amount of impediment to practice for everyone, working for a company can be a lot less involved than running your own business for example and for some people a mundane, unchallenging job might be just what they need for their practice.

So I’m not sure that it is just the requirement to work for a living that is the main reason lay life is ‘dusty’, but certainly some kinds of jobs are always going to be difficult to square with the requirements of practice.
I wonder if there is a distinction to be made in how dusty and confining certain jobs are depending on where you are in your practice. When you first start to practice you are making the biggest changes in your life, you are turning around the direction of your life and re-evaluating everything in it – what is important, what isn’t, what you want out of life, your job, friends, pastimes, etc.

This is the point in your practice where lay life will create a lot of dust for you, because you are trying your hardest to polish up your act but you haven’t gained much mastery over your mind or reactions so the outside world still stirs up your mind and makes it hard to see what to do for the best.

This is also the point where you are most likely to make the biggest changes because you are trying to clean up your act, so you will naturally start to jettison the things that are impeding your progress. It isn’t that uncommon for that to mean leaving jobs, ending relationships, and moving to other cities or countries.

But as the practice progresses and you have more control of your inner world, what is going on on the outside has less impact on you, the environment may still be dusty but less of it settles on your mind. This brings to mind the famous story from the Zen tradition, of the fifth patriarch’s search for his successor. One learned monk made his gambit to be chosen as the sixth patriarch by writing this verse:

“Our body is the Bodhi-tree
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we clean them hour by hour
And let no dust alight.” [8]

This is a sound statement of the need for continual mindfulness and application to work out our bad habits, but the fifth patriarch wasn’t impressed. Hearing of this verse the man who worked in the kitchen asked someone to write a reply to it for him:

“There is no Bodhi-tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void
Where can the dust alight?” [8]

This second verse can be read as referencing breaking away from conceptual thinking, particularly getting away from the concept of self. Once you see the world less and less in terms of being a self who has things happen to them and who has to do things, then there are less places for the dust to land. If there is no ‘person’ there then who is going to be made dusty by the ways of the world?

The Buddha was a great role model of this, he was fully enlightened but still had all the tedious minutiae of man-managing the Sangha to deal with, including deliberating endlessly on such minor matters as just exactly what kind of sandals were allowable and what materials a monastic was allowed to sit on. Yet none of this impacted on his equilibrium in the slightest, he was in a position with a lot of responsibilities and demands on his time, but there was nowhere for this dust to alight.

But he did need to get himself away from his lay life as the heir to a warrior clan to get to that point. In his case his life of extreme comfort and sensual indulgence brought by great wealth was very dusty and it would have been incredibly difficult to develop his mind while living in that environment.

So I think we need to find a bit of a balance, few of us are living the lives of privilege that the Buddha lived nor do most of us hold as much responsibility as householders did in those days, so the extent to which we need to live a fully monastic life to make progress in our practice is less clear. But still we still have demands on our time and morally complex matters to navigate that do impact on our ability to settle the mind in meditation and to react skilfully to the world, so reducing some of the sources of dust in our lives will likely be beneficial, such as letting go of activities that stir up the mind too much and finding ways to reduce the demands on our time and attention.

But at the same time we also need to not jump the gun and try to be as equanimous as the Buddha in the face of our responsibilities and demands when we just aren’t ready for it. This will only add to the dust. In time we might learn how to let the dust just roll off us, but until that happens we need to recognise the times when life stirs up the dust in our minds and work towards finding time to let the mind settle.

Photo by Sarah Talunay on Unsplash


  1. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2018) Kevatta (Kevaddha) Sutta: To Kevatta. Accessed 13 Oct 2021
  2. Susan Elbaum Jootla (2006) The Buddhist Layman: Right Livelihood: The Noble Eightfold Path in the Working Life. Accessed 13 Oct 2021
  3. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2001) Vanijja Sutta: Business (Wrong Livelihood). Accessed 14 Oct 2021
  4. Bhikkhu Khantipálo (1979) Banner of the Arahants, Kandy, Sri Lanka
  5. Berkowitz MW 9th_Jubilee_Centre_conference_Virtues_in_Digital_World_Trafford_Full
  6. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2018) Ayacana Sutta: The Request. Accessed 13 Oct 2021
  7. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2018) Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha. Accessed 13 Oct 2021
  8. Author Unknown (2018) The Story of Zen: Lesson 9: Huineng. Accessed 14 Oct 2021

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