Common questions

Should people give up their current lifestyle in order to practice Buddhism?

 Not necessarily; it depends on the situation. While one should abandon meaningless enjoyment as a lifestyle, reasonable enjoyment can be maintained. What does this mean? There is a saying: “A Buddha statue needs a layer of gold; a person needs proper attire.” The layer of gold is to inspire sentient beings; attire should be proper according to one’s role. A person’s lifestyle reflects their status, position and perspective. In situations where one needs to conform to the occasion with dignity and etiquette, if one’s means allows, one can show proper bearing and solemnity. Yet one should not indulge in luxury when resources are limited, finances are weak, or the social environment is depressed. Even if a person were wealthy, they could still forsake enjoyment to be in harmony with the public during difficult times. Mahatma Gandhi of India was an example of this.

 On certain occasions, for common courtesy or safety or to meet with dignitaries, one may need to dress formally according to time of day and use private transportation. In Japan and the West, there are dress codes for funerals, weddings, and various formal gatherings, and working or casual attire is obviously not appropriate. Therefore, dressing according to the occasion is not considered enjoyment.

 Karma, the law of cause and effect, is highly emphasized in Buddhism. One’s well-being in life is retribution for the cumulative acts from previous lives. So, partaking in pleasure and enjoyment is like withdrawing money from one’s own bank account – the more one withdraws, the less balance remains. Eventually the account will be depleted. The more pleasure one partakes in, the fewer blessings remain; eventually one could use up all the blessings. Therefore, a person who enjoys good fortune in this life should cherish their blessings, and continue cultivating blessings, to eventually arrive at the full bliss of virtue as well as good fortune. It is not enough to just enjoy good fortune.

 This is why from the beginning the Buddha advocated that monastics should not possess material things. There are three reasons: first of all, it is to eliminate greed; secondly, to cherish one’s blessings; and third, to reduce one’s attachment to the physical body. These principles apply to monastics as well as lay practitioners.

 As soon as one leaves home to become a novice, he or she should comply with the precepts and refrain from wearing ornate articles and perfume, singing, dancing, purposefully going to shows, lying on grand, luxurious beds, wearing jewelry, and accumulating money or valuable goods. Except for money which they must handle, lay practitioners should also follow the above precepts. If one cannot completely observe these precepts at all times, they should do so at least on the six fasting days in a month, when lay people live as monastics, to let go of enjoyment and preserving karmic blessings. What does “enjoyment” entail on these occasions then? It includes things we eat, use, wear, live in, sit and sleep on, and all the recreational avenues.

 Such practice conforms to the principle of conserving over acquiring. To give is to cultivate karmic blessings, while letting go of enjoyment is to conserve blessed karmic retribution. 

 However, according to Buddhism, there were 32 marks of Shakyamuni Buddha’s incarnation body, all noble features indicating good fortune and virtue, dignity and wisdom. According to legend, Buddha was offered golden silk robes as alms. It was also said that an elder patron Anathapindika made an offer to the Buddha the use of an elaborate mansion with a gold-paved floor. Many virtuous lay elders at the time offered fine cuisine as well as the use of magnificent and ornate villas for the Buddha and his sangha. Buddhist history records many instances when the Buddha delivered sermons at legendary gardens and courtyards.

 Amitabha Buddha’s Western Pure Land, as described in the Pure Land sutras, is a glorious and magnificent place. And, in the Avatamsaka (Flower Ornament) Sutra (Chinese Huayan Jing), the young Sudhana visited fiftythree bodhisattvas for spiritual guidance, some of whom had magnificent abodes, including mansions and palaces. Among the abodes he visited was Maitreya Buddha’s great pavilion. That is because good fortune follows the lives of the great virtuous ones and may manifest as material wealth, just as some lowly people have rough complexions and poor physique, while some noble people have dignified physique and smooth skins. This has to do with the retribution karma they were born with; it has nothing to do with abandoning or craving enjoyment.

 When we speak of enjoyment and pleasure, we are not referring to honoring guests or conforming to social decorum. We are talking about satisfying cravings for food and delicacies, showing off wealth, dressing up and preening, seeking envy and attention, visiting night clubs, dance halls, brothels, spending money as if it were dirt, indulging in sensual gratification and excitement. Buddhists should certainly refrain from these kinds of behaviors.