After Patriarchy

Sacredness in Everyday LifeRita Gross

While historically Buddhism has stressed the differences between monastics and householders, perhaps the two are not so different. Monastics by no means spend all their time in study and meditation. They clean their quarters, wash dishes, mend their robes, and keep records. In some monastic contexts, they also cook, and work on the grounds and in the garden. In short, they engage in all sorts of mundane activities. In the case of the monastic, these activities affirm mindfulness and awareness; in the case of the householder, they are invitations to mindlessness and distraction. But in a reassessment that regards both domestic life and monastic life as potentially the realm of spiritual discipline and sacred outlook, these assumptions do not hold. As Fran Tribe (a Zen practitioner) has written: "We think that a monk working in the temple garden is practicing, but it is harder to see that a lay person taking care of his or her own garden may be practicing, too." The issue is not whether one is in a monastery or a meditation hall, doing formal meditation practice, or in an office or a nursery, doing "applied" meditation practice. The feminist reconceptualization calls for seeing "ordinary" activities as sacred—and spiritually significant.

Although this feminist view certainly has compelling merit, some care and caution are required in its endorsement. Buddhism traditionally has been suspicious of worldly life for good reason. Often and easily, it becomes petty, trivial, and indulgent. Even people who take care to live contemplative lives in the midst of activity often feel that they have become distracted and caught up in trivial or indulgent reactions and pursuits. The point is not that ordinary activities are necessarily sacred, but that that they can be sacred when done with the proper mental and spiritual attitude. The corresponding, equally significant, point is that one can easily lose that mind of clarity, awareness, and mindfulness.

To see the sacred in ordinary activities is often considered to be the acme of spiritual attainment, of true freedom. It is not attained overnight or without significant spiritual practice, simply by declaring its desirability. On the one hand, it is appealing to see spiritual concerns and worldly concerns, as interpenetrating and indistinguishable. On the other is easy, while attempting to unify one's life, to fall into the snares of samsara.

TWO QUESTIONS MIGHT OCCUR to an outsider. First, why is it important to maintain clarity? Without clarity and insight, one will fall into attachment and ignorance, which inevitably bring suffering in their wake. Second, is it any easier to maintain awareness and detachment in a monastic setting than in a household environment? The answer is an unqualified "Yes," based on the experience of many during periods of retreat into quasi-monastic environments for intensive study and meditation. All-pervasive discipline, a strict schedule, lack of interruptions, and focused attention to meditation practice, all conspire to enhance clarity, insight, and awareness.

We have no models, however, for a balanced way of life, in which all parts are valued as important to overall spiritual well-being. To create these models is one of the tasks of post-patriarchal Buddhism. I suggest "balancing on the razor's edge"—that familiar Buddhist metaphor for the life of spiritual discipline is particularly apt. While affirming the potential of householder concerns, one must also hold firmly to the Buddhist dissatisfaction with conventional attitudes and approaches. To maintain this balance, to maintain both the feminist sense of the potential sacredness of everyday work and the Buddhist call for detachment and equanimity, ongoing meditative discipline is necessary. That ongoing attitude of awareness will itself be the protection we need to keep us in balance on the razor's edge.

This excerpt, adapted for Tricycle, is from Rita Gross' Buddhism After Patriarchy, published this month by SUNY Press. Rita Gross, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, is a professor of comparative religion at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire.

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