The gardenia bush near the front door is filled with fragrant blossoms of an immaculate white. The passerby is invited to linger and enjoy the wonderful scent they exude. The Japanese poet Basho used to spend hours in morning-glory watching. There is always the temptation to cut some blossoms and bring them indoors. Another Japanese poet, Buson, wrote of the knife hesitating before cutting a flower. Like the morning-glory, gardenias last but a little while before browning and fading. The impermanence of the chrysanthemums prompted Basho to reflect sadly that the flower, too, was not his friend.
Two pregnant squirrels chuck at one another across the trees from their perpendicular perches a hundred yards from one another. Their chief rivalry, however, is over the sunflower seeds in the bird feeders. They need not be concerned: there is enough for two and their upcoming families. One squirrel, impatient with the absence of seeds one morning, comes up to the window and perches at the sill, as if demanding attention. Another instance of impatience dooms a tall sunflower growing in the front of the house. One of the squirrels jumped at it, bringing it down with a snap, then gnawed off the fresh unpetalled bud and fled to his perch with a fresh meal. But who can begrudge the squirrel? The sunflower had grown from random seeds scattered by birds. It was never a human handiwork anyway.
The dead pine tree fell ignominiously the other day, though I did not see it fall. Other dead trees I have seen and heard tumble down — no particular reason why at that given moment. Woodpeckers regularly visited this tree for years and it probably hosted many births and nurturings. The bark had been picked clean long ago by birds and weathering, leaving a pale skeleton, holes riddling the sides. When the tree fell into several pices, everything was soft and spongy punk, swarming with termites. Woodpeckers prefer their meals gotten the hard way, drilling and banging at a standing tree, and will ignore the dead tree now. The tree, teeming with life, enters a new stage, not much different than before it was born some sixty years ago.
Many people balk at asceticism because the term suggests a kind of lofty or artificial morality or prudishness. The idea of simplicity, it might be argued, does not reduce or suppress the quality of life that asceticism implies. While the Greek root of asceticism, asketikos, suggests a labor and discipline that is the opposite of advocacy of pleasure (hedonism) it is not exactly synonymous with simplicity. Pleasure itself has been identified too often with sexual pleasure and indulgence but not with the power to abuse, whether institutional or individual. Similarly, simplicity seems to more readily identify with the aesthetics of nature, creativity, or what Ivan Ilich calls “conviviality.”
A clear vision of simplicity attempts to ease the heavy psychological implications for those who distrust the history of asceticism, while at the same time using the labors and disciplines of past sages to help stop the spread of hedonism’s modern and global guises.
Simplicity ought to be our mode of daily life but what is simplicity? So many books and articles tell us that simplicity is frugality or time management, or “back to the land” or streamlined furnishings. The literal opposite of simplicity being complexity, then perhaps simplicity is merely reductionism in the affairs of one’s life, like Thoreau’s advice to cut our entanglements from a hundred to two or three. But the most challenging way of looking at simplicity is as a “secular” asceticism. Asceticism carries within itself the criteria for leveling and reducing, for prioritizing and sifting. Asceticism is both quantitative (how many) and qualitative (how well done). Asceticism is the basis of the simplicity that ranges from Zen wabi-sabi to Quaker “plainness” to Gandhi’s ahimsa to E. F. Schumacher’s “Buddhist economics.” Asceticism resolves forms of labor, consumption, inter-personal relations, use of natural resources, aesthetics and creativity, and a psychology of well-being. It is far more encompassing and more compelling than simplicity, but modern audiences prefer the word simplicity because of its very ambiguity.