Zen and the Art of Minimalism – Part 1: Zen Philosophy

Image Credit Drue Kataoka

There are a great many articles, ebooks and blogs about how exactly to be more minimalist – how to step by step, get rid of stuff. But, I thought it would be interesting to break it down and explore the background of minimalism and what, if anything, it has to do with Zen philosophy.

No matter how small it may be, few people can deny that there is a ‘wave’ of minimalism happening right now. It has become such a big part of my life now that I wondered where minimalism came from.  From what I had gathered, for some, it was born out of necessity, they wanted to travel, get out of debt or move house, and therefore found it on their own. For others, they discovered it from admiring the lifestyle of the many great blogs written by some very talented writers or successful people. For me, it was a combination of these, plus some good books which eventually persuaded me to change my lifestyle to a different way of living that brings me happiness.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where minimalism originates. Some would say, as would I, that minimalism has some of it’s roots in Buddhism. Now, I don’t declare to be a Buddhist expert, but I do believe in a great deal of Buddhist principles, such as the importance of:

  • Letting go of attachment
  • Reducing suffering and increasing happiness
  • Mindfulness and focus
  • Kindness and compassion

A traditional Buddhist, such as a monk, lives an extremely minimalist lifestyle because their belief in these principles flow into their everyday life. According to Buddhist beliefs, everything is impermanent – everything is always changing. To (over)simplify it, Buddhists believe that attachment – the clinging onto objects – is what causes suffering because nothing will last forever. Think about your favourite mug. It is special to you because you have made an emotional attachment to it. But what happens if you break or lose the mug? The natural response is to be upset or angry, thereby causing suffering for yourself because of your attachment to it.

So, taking each of the above principles, I like to think minimalism can be connected to:

  • Letting go of attachment – to our possessions, because they don’t define who we are. Everything we own will one day be lost, stolen, broken, donated, outdated, sold or thrown away.
  • Our happiness – because it’s not derived from the things we own and our suffering shouldn’t be defined by the things we do not own.
  • Mindfulness – being aware of the consequences of consumerism and materialism and always wanting more and more. Also, being mindful of our choices, such as the thing we do buy. Focus – on what is important and essential to our lives.
  • Kindness and compassion – spending less time taking care of our things, or working in order to gain more, and instead using that time more wisely to develop our relationship with others or using the money to help those in need.

I don’t claim to be wise or experienced. I’m learning something new every single day. I’m just gathering from my own experiences and what I’ve learnt and am learning from others. In this case, I genuinely believe in the Buddhist way of thinking. So, for me, whenever I speak of minimalism, a little bit of Buddhism is always on the back of my mind.

However, you don’t have to be Buddhist if you want to live a minimalist lifestyle. This is just one way of thinking about it.

Another way to think about it is practically – reasons that one can apply to make their lives better today, so that they can:

  • get out of debt (or not get into it)
  • travel lightly
  • move house easily
  • have more free time
  • have fewer but more valuable things
  • have more space
  • be more productive
  • be greener
  • save up
  • spend less time cleaning
  • lose weight (minimalist eating)
  • accomplish more

All of these things are perfectly valid reasons for minimalism too, and I personally value many of these as I’m a) a poor student, b) not living at home (therefore moving around a lot) and c) about to travel abroad.

For some, it doesn’t matter so much where minimalism comes from, but what we can achieve out of it. You could say that the above reasons are not only the reasons for minimalism, but they are also the achievements themselves.

Or, as I have done, you can take a mixed approach that incorporates all of these reasons to become more minimalist and use them for motivation when you’re tempted to buy or keep something you don’t necessarily need.

Bringing it back to (Zen) Buddhism, I don’t have any hard statistics but from my experience, people who are interested in minimalism are so because they have taken on a selfless and more compassionate attitude when it comes to material things. To make a (potentially inaccurate) sweeping judgement, I think minimalists tend to be more aware, that their resources are better spent on other activities rather than the pursuit of material gain. And, in a spiritual sense, of the need for a higher, more genuine and longer lasting happiness.

This is part one of two of ‘Zen and the Art of Minimalism’. Next post, I’ll talk about what minimalism has to do with art.

I’d love to hear your opinions. Do you think there is a relationship between minimalism and Zen? How do you like to think of minimalism? Please comment below!

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