The Third and Seventh Realizations: Part II – Voluntary Simplicity

Respected Teacher,

Dear brothers and sisters,

This evening, we’ll continue the dialogue on the Third and Seventh Realizations of the Great Beings with focus on Voluntary Simplicity. Let’s review these Realizations prior to the dialogue.

THE THIRD REALIZATION is that the human mind is always searching for possessions and never feels fulfilled. This causes impure actions to increase constantly. Bodhisattvas, however, always remember the principle of having few desires. They live a simple life in peace in order to practice the Way, and consider the realization of perfect understanding as their only career.”(1)

“THE SEVENTH REALIZATION is that the five categories of desire lead to difficulties. Although we are in the world, we should try not to be caught up in worldly matters. A monk, for example, has in his possessions only three robes and a bowl. He lives simply in order to practice the Way. His precepts keep him free of attachment to worldly things, and he treats everyone equally with compassion.”(1)



Warren Buffet is a good example of how to live in the world without getting caught up in worldly matters. He was recently named the world’s third richest man with his fortune valued at $72 billion. He owns the largest private jet company, but doesn’t fly in a private jet. He and his wife still live in the house that he bought almost 60 years ago for less than $50,000.00. His marriage to his second wife was a 15-minute private affair at his daughter’s house. He plays bridge online, and doesn’t compare his standard of living to that of other wealthy people. He enjoys doing what he does, and makes money in the process, but he donates most of it to charity. He wants the government to revise the tax codes so that the wealthy will pay more tax to make it more equitable in the society. His frugality, generosity, and concern for humanity exemplify the VS lifestyle.

The (contemporary) Voluntary Simplicity Movement can be broadly understood as a diverse social movement made of people who are resisting high consumption life styles, and who are seeking in various ways, a lower consumption but higher quality of life alternative. Mary Grisby (2). Up until now, it remains a social movement without a formal organizational structure, central leadership, and political influence. Its lack of formality allows flexibility. This characteristic, coupled with its philosophy of life, continue to attract people. However, it will not be influential until it becomes political and radicalized.

In 2011, the Simplicity Institute launched an on-line, multinational survey with 50 questions (this survey is still open on its website). Its purpose was to obtain empirical data about the life of the people who choose to live “simpler life,” which is defined as a life style of “reduced or restrained income, consumption, and/or working hours”. The survey results were analyzed by Samuel Alexander and Simon Trainer (3). A total of 2,268 people responded (4). Highlights of the results in a couple of areas are listed below.

Diverse Interests/Concerns

The interests/concerns of the survey participants are tabulated in descending order, based on the percentages extracted from Figure 1 in the survey report, and the categories provided in the questionnaire.

     Percentage of participants                   Category

           80                  Environmental concerns

           70                  To be healthier, De-cluttering life/Minimalism,                                                                                    


           60                  To be more spiritual, or mindful; To save money

         50                  More time for self, More time for family

         40                  Humanitarian or social justice concerns,

                               More time for community


87% of the participants reported being happier with living more simply (46% much happier, 41% somewhat, 13% same, 0.3% less happy).


Let’s focus the rest of the dialogue on three major areas: Earth Sustainability, Decluttering, and Happiness.

Earth Sustainability The current rate of consumption of natural resources by seven billion people in the world is 50% higher than the earth can sustain in the long term. It can sustain only 1.5 billion people at the American consumption standard. High consumption lifestyles are also on the rise in China and Brazil. Even the 1.3 billion people of the poorest nations are exceeding their sustainable rates by 10%. The problem is compounded by the forecast that the world population will reach 9 billion people by mid century.

In September 2014, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, issued the following statement on the United Nations Climate Summit: “The New Climate Economy report has shown it is possible to have better growth and a better climate. It is possible to create jobs, reduce poverty, and reduce the carbon emissions that threaten our future. Yes, it is possible, but we need to make some fundamental changes and smart choices.”

The fundamental changes, and smart choices include growth through the low carbon paths – carbon tax, clean transport, efficient buildings and factories, and elimination of oil subsidies – engaging the private sector more in moving the plan forward, and targeting investments that lift more people out of poverty. It’s projected that if the $90- trillion global spending in infrastructure in the next 15 years is in the low carbon paths, the climate change will be stabilized. China leads a list of 74 countries, over 1,000 companies, and 360 institutional investors having $28 trillion in assets, which have voiced support for carbon tax. These countries account for 54% of the global green house gas emissions, and 52% of the global GDP. This kind of signal is intended to encourage politicians to make bold commitments. Governments can’t do it without active business participation. Developing nations can’t shoulder it without assistance from rich nations. It’s crucial that the countries in the world reach agreements on these issues in Paris this December. Otherwise, it may be a catastrophic failure.

This universal undertaking is a vivid illustration of the importance of interconnectedness – the basis for cooperation – which was discussed under the First Realization. It’s the essence of giving which was discussed under the Sixth Realization. It requires team work, and compassion – a lot of each – in every society, among nations, and with international institutions, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. It’s a moral responsibility that our political leaders cannot fail to discharge wisely – for our sake, and for the sake of future generations. Equally important, as members of a community of mindfulness, we are called upon to do our share in this historical responsibility.

Declutteering. Pam brought to my attention Marie Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”. It’s very popular. More than two million copies have been sold worldwide. Do you remember the quote by William Morris in the previous dialogue “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”? This Japanese tidying up guru says “Don’t keep it if it doesn’t spark joy”. One woman did just that. She got rid of her husband. The author introduces a unique technique of folding in a triangular shape. She also injects compassion into folding by advising clients not to roll socks because they have already suffered from being worn during the day – perhaps, a subtle way of saying not to stretch them unnecessarily. Are there any members of the sangha who are practicing Kondo-ing? If you’re, please share with us your experience.

We mentioned mindfulness earlier. How does it relate to cluttering?

Mindfulness is the antidote to cluttering. It guards our mind against self-referential thoughts which cause, anxiety, worry, stress, and depression. It keeps our mind spacious, increases productivity, and enhances our presence while we’re with others. It recognizes physical overabundance which keeps us from cluttering our environment.

There are three books that are considered to be foundational to the VS movement in America. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to cover them; if anybody is interested in learning about them, please see me after the session.

Happiness. In 2005, Kirk Warren Brown, and Tim Kasser (5) concluded from their survey analyses of 400 Americans (200 who identified themselves as Voluntary Simplifiers and 200 mainstream Americans) that:

  • “There was some evidence that Voluntary Simplifiers were happier than mainstream Americans and were living more sustainable lives.” This data supports the Simplicity Institute 2011 survey.
  • Identifying as a Voluntary Simplifier per se, or making a voluntary reduction in income and spending, “it was still the case that happy, sustainable lives were best explained by being mindful and pursuing intrinsic rather than materialistic values.” Intrinsic values include personal development, contentment, close relationships with family and friends, and contribution to community and the world.
  • “In sum, then, if readers of this book (5) seek to promote happy, sustainable lifestyles, our study findings suggest that, rather than focusing on VS per se, a more productive approach may be to cultivate a way of life that encourages mindfulness and intrinsic values. Indeed our experience from talking with many mainstream Americans suggests that many people find the idea of “simplifying” their lives to be a confusing and difficult concept.”

The recommendation is logical, as simplicity is inherent in mindfulness – an integral part of the Eight Folds Noble Path. This path provides a systematic approach for a wholesome life which isn’t magnetized by wealth, power, fame, and sensual pleasures. As simplicity is a personal choice, mindfulness, wisdom, right view, and right livelihood will guide us in the selection of the optimal degree of simplification for our personal situation. Simplicity not anchored in mindfulness is similar to entering a house without going through the gate. Happiness without mindfulness is similar to living in a house having foundation settlement problems.

One venue for living in mindfulness is to live in accordance with the Five Precepts, or the Five Mindfulness Trainings as updated by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. By a show of hands, how many of us are familiar with or have taken the Five Precepts? the Five Mindfulness Trainings?

This evening dialogue reminds us that living simply with few desires brings about multiple benefits – not only to ourselves, but also to many others. I’d like to bring the session to a close with these good wishes:

May your life be beautifully simple.

May your life be content, and fulfilled

May your mind be patient as the earth

May your life be a gift to all forms of life.


  1. Thich Nhat Hanh “The Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, A Buddhist Scripture on Simplicity, Generosity, and Compassion”, Parallax Press.
  2. Mary Grisby “Buying Time and Getting By: The Voluntary Simplicity Movement”, State University of New York Press, Albany.
  3. Samuel Alexander, Simon Trainer “The Simplicity Movement: A Multi-National Survey Analysis in Theoretical Context”, Simplicity Institute.
  4. North America: 970, Australia: 871, UK: 147, Western Europe: 108 (excluding those from the UK), New Zealand: 77, Japan: 4, Other parts of the world: 91.
  5. Kirk Warren Brown, Tim Kasser “A Scientific Approach to Voluntary Simplicity”, a chapter in the book “Less Is More”, by Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska, New Society Publisher.