After Patriarchy

Sacredness in Everyday LifeRita Gross

BUDDHISM AFTER PATRIARCHY calls for a radical reassessment of the relationship between spirituality and so-called "everyday life." Like many other male-dominated religions, Buddhism has often demonstrated little interest in "ordinary" life, at least the ordinary life of the householder. Now maintaining one's livelihood and taking care of one's environment and family need to be accepted as an alternative that is not inferior to monasticism. The tasks of the householder must come to be seen as arenas in which mindfulness and detachment can be practiced. Furthermore, householder and monastic paths need to be seen not as choices in stark opposition, but as alternating modes of life that can enrich and inform one another.

Some religions, particularly those with no monastic tradition, have explored in depth how to infuse everyday life with spiritual significance. In these contexts, renunciation is not the recommended method; instead, sacred living is attained by contemplation of the world. Classical Judaism, with its minute and intimate code for domestic living, provides an example. From getting up and dressing, to cooking food and eating, to retiring again at night, there is a continual effort to infuse daily experience with sacred awareness. Every seven days, this intensifies in the celebration of the Sabbath. There are no centers or monasteries—either for temporary or permanent retreat—but the tradition purports no need to alter the daily routine for the sake of spiritual awareness. Each precisely delineated ritual behavior is accompanied by an intention (kavvanah) reminds the person keeping the commandment each act is to be done now. If the intention is remembered or understood, the act becomes hollow.

Native American groups cultivate a similar encompassing awareness of the spiritual dimension of ordinary activities. For example, Lame Deer, a member of the Oglala Lakota People, explains the message of a pot of boiling soup to the white outsider:

But I'm an Indian. I think about ordinary, common things like this pot. The bubbling water comes from raincloud. It represents the sky. The fire comes from the sun which warms us all—men, animals, trees. The meat stands for the four-legged creatures, our animal brothers, who gave of themselves so that we should live. The steam is living breath. It was water; now it goes to the sky, becomes a cloud again. These things are sacred.... We Sioux spend a lot of time thinking about everyday things, which in our mind are mixed up with the spiritual. We see in the world around us many symbols that teach us the meaning of life.

Buddhist texts are more likely to declare that ordinary household life is spiritually counterproductive. According to one early text: "The household is a confined and dusty path; wandering forth is open air. It is not easy for a householder to practice the religious life, completely pure and fulfilled in entirety and polished like mother-of-pearl. Then let me cut my hair and beard, put on the yellow robes and wander forth from home to homelessness." And Buddhism's historical dichotomy between monastics and lay people has afforded it certain strengths. Traditions have been maintained with great vigor and authenticity by a core of dedicated practitioners. And, unburdened by household responsibilities, monks were free to carry Buddhism across cultural frontiers.

IN CONTEMPORARY BUDDHISM, both in North America and in Asia, the monastic model is being challenged by serious lay practice and study. The usual pattern involves short but disciplined regular periods of study and practice interspersed with periods of full-time "retreat" during which normal patterns of household life are set aside.

The development of serious lay practice, however, does not necessarily mean that activities traditionally held in low esteem are now accorded value. For the time being, it means only that lay people now attempt to make time for practices usually engaged in only by monastics, and that their efforts are encouraged. However, if this shift continues, a transformation of values is inevitable, and everyday life, career, and family will come to be regarded as Buddhist practice. Such restructuring would challenge the traditional hierarchy between the spiritual and the ordinary: housework vs. meditation, business vs. study, childcare vs. retreat, marriage vs. celibacy—all the dichotomies and hierarchies that once seemed so clear thus vanish. Yet while this change in perspective may enlarge the canon of Buddhist concerns, it introduces new tensions as well.

From a Buddhist view, a person practicing the kind of rituals recommended by Judaism, for example might still be attached to the very objects and ties that are the basis for sacred awareness midst of daily life. And as long as there is attachment there is no true freedom. Furthermore, one can easily mistake the feelings that may accompany ritual or religious experience for detachment, insight, and release. Ordinary life is too seductive, the Buddhist might say, it is safer, surer, and more productive of true freedom to replace ordinary life with a monastic simplicity that reduces the opportunities for attachments to form.

Yet one can become attached to anything, including the routines of monastic life or the status it affords. Clearly, the attachment is what must be overcome; attachment itself then, rather than any object in particular, is the problem.

BUDDHISM does possess the conceptual resources to embrace the view that the ordinary world, ordinary things, and everyday experiences can be apprehended with mindfulness, awareness, and detachment.

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