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 Everything we own will one day be lost, stolen, broken, donated, outdated, sold or thrown away.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!

Related Posts

  • Pingback: Minimalism « Simple Wings()

  • Adam

    Excellent; well said.

  • Pingback: The Beauty of Emptiness | Minimal Student()

  • David

    I agree with the post in regards to attachment to material items, but attachment itself is not something that should be looked down upon. Some of our greatest experiences come from attachment, specifically attachments and relationships with other people.

    I will also not confess to know too much about Buddhism but I have and always will laugh at the man who sits in solitude living the extreme minimalist life. This is because that man does not take risks, creates no value, and never masters a piece of the world.

    The man who does not only masters himself, but shapes the world.

    • Guest

      And yet anything that man who ‘takes risks, creates value and masters the world’ does will be temporary and passing anyway. So ultimately, what’s the point? Better to detach from such materialism and focus on your spiritual place in this world.

  • Great article! When I read it, I read my own thoughts about the subject 😉 I have been ‘into’ Zen (Buddhism) since 2007 and ‘into’ minimalism since I discovered Zen Habits (.net) somewhere in 2008. There sure is a minimalism hype/wave going on right now.

  • Sam

    I don’t believe in extreme minimalism, but I think what you mentioned David is looking at some extremists life in narrow way. Afterall, there’s no ultimate need to shape the world or master anything.

    It’s sometimes good to value things by asking “Is it harmful or not?” I believe that monks are not harmful to others and we can’t really claim they are harmful to themselves can we?

  • Great article! I don’t know much about Zen Buddhism, but I’ve recently become a minimalist (sort of), and I had been thinking quite a bit about attachment and how it influences our relationships with our possessions. It’s good to learn a little bit about the Zen philosophy as it relates to this, and you’ve inspired me to do some more reading on that!


    Bob H

  • Re: “have fewer but more valuable things”:

    …or perhaps it should be “have fewer and less valuable things”..? Less valuable to avoid the attachment issue.

    • Maybe wil be better to say: “have fewer but more good quality things”: becouse good quality can be used more longer and on this way is greener and against consumerisme. Good quality things are mostly expensief but not always! Think second hands or good hand made objects.

  • Pingback: Why Minimalism is the Most Important Design Style to Master | Van SEO Design()

  • Pingback: 10 Art Minimalism Sites :: Gaia Gallery()

  • Pingback: Minimalism Art Movement()

  • Timpflane

    Yes, there is 🙂

  • Cory

    Actually… Zen comes from Taoism….. it was called Chan Buddhism and it was a way of packaging Buddhism so the Chinese would embrace it since they had been Taoists for hundreds of years before “Zen” was invented.
    Read Tao Te Ching

    • Jhana

      No, Zen comes from Buddhism. It is true that it is the transliteration of the Chinese Chan, but the origin is the Indian Jhana, or meditation.

  • Oh, know it’s knot! Oam, yes, it IS. Oh, what the yak. Just don;t stub your tao and fall all over your non-existence.

  • I am on my little trip to minimalist lifestyle for some time now and I have read some about buddhism… and my thoughts are almost the same as yours. minimalism and buddhism has a lot in common. minimalists can learn from buddhists and those who are not into buddhism because of ‘regligion issues’ can deffinitely gain a lot by just starting a more minimal lifestyle. btw even Dalailama is talking about the practical side of buddhism, which seems more and more like minimalism to me.

  • Athan X

    I’m keen on Zen & Tai Chi & want to apply “no mind” & minimalism to lead guitar playing.

  • Athan X

    Ps. With so many satanist groups out there & admittedly some of the lead guitarists are brilliant, eg. Jimmy Page. Its not just skill & musical ear, they channel a power. So, I want to channel Zen the same way that the martial arts adepts do!

  • Gruzia

    I agree enthusiastically with much of what you say, but it’s really clear that you’re coming at this from a perspective that (obviously) you can’t help, ie: your youth. As you get older, what you want from life changes even though you assume, as a student, that it won’t. You certainly CAN get happiness from things: from a lovely home you’ve chosen & have worked for, and from the objects that you choose to decorate your home with. Even travel can lose its lustre when you’ve already done a lot of it (oh, here’s yet another city I’ve not yet visited). The key is to be ‘appropriately attached’ to the relatively few specific things/people/pets etc that ease or enhance your life, rather than indiscriminately to anything that just happens to fall into your life.

    • Hi Gruzia, thanks for your comment. I completely understand where you are coming from. Even now, I know that happiness CAN be derived from having a home, I feel it now too. It’s about the feeling of security and belonging that come with it, just like the positive feelings that come from being surrounded by family, or having a loving partner.

      In the same way, directly deriving happiness from those things isn’t the same as being happy because you (are lucky enough to) have them.

      In other words, if you were to, for example, break up with your partner, you are still your own person who should be able to find happiness independent of those things.

      Your comment made me think more carefully about this matter, thanks again for writing and giving me a chance to clarify! 🙂

  • sounds like ‘story of my life’.Being a Christian, very tempted to judge and dismiss Buddhism, but the truth is, I have borrowed a lot from it, and practicing. I’d be lying if I didn’t say its made me a better person.

    • Jason Evans

      Actually, Buddhism and Christianity are very, philosophically similar. Especially where loving objects is concerned. (Many in Christianity call this idolatry.)

  • Kris Wise

    Hmm… I’m interested on what you mean by “spend less time cleaning” What changes did you make to do this?

  • Pingback: Why Minimalism? What's Wrong With More? » Ahh The Simple Life()

  • Pingback: Pursuing Minimalism: A Ten Week Project | Pursuing Minimalism()

  • Val

    Hi, I practice buddhism since a few years and as a graphic designer as well I like minimalist concepts a lot. “less is more” in communication, best bottom line :). but regarding to transfer this concept into our life…Every day, I learn that my life is part of the earthly desires as a human being nowadays. I cannot eradicate these desires as a human being but what i can do is to learn how those affect in my life. Basically, through this material things i can understand what absolute happiness means in my life vs relative happiness. 🙂

  • Pingback: How To Lose Weight Zen Habits Minimalist Art | Secret Weight Loss Blog()

  • Pingback: How To Lose Weight Zen Habits Minimalist Running | Secret Weight Loss Blog()

  • Pingback: How To Lose Weight Zen Habits Minimalist Shoes | Secret Weight Loss Blog()

  • Lionel Quinny

    I just read your blog & thoroughly enjoyed it. It is interesting how minimalism & simplicity has so much to it than that meets the eye. Will definately follow to move on to your second post.

  • Pingback: Zen and the Art of Mobility: A Minimalist Approach to Stretching and Mobility [Fitness Bonus] | Dude Knows Best()

  • Yessica Alcantara

    About a year ago, I just started going through my stuff and throwing a bunch of things out. I did it because I felt so overwhelmed by all of the things I owned; I used to get anxiety trying to pick out my clothes just because there were so many. I didn’t know that it was minimalism at the time, but now I realize that it was. I feel like it has made me live a more meaningful and mindful life. I worry less now, too; and I have more time to do more interesting activities like read or teach myself things.

  • Ulrich Ganz

    I fully agreed with this, things are not important
    part of life. Happiness and enjoyment are also most important part of life and this is easily achieved by the minimalism. We can enjoy a easy and happy life with the help of minimalism but some peoples don’t live a minimalism life because they have habits of buy the unnecessary things. If you buy the different-different things, you can only buy things for happiness and enjoyment so don’t think about the things or goods and enjoy each and every movement of life.


  • connerbaldwin


  • Nice 🙂