“Frugality is the ultimate freedom,” Ajahn declared this morning during alms round. “When you don’t need much, you don’t depend so much on others or on circumstances. If you are content with a roof over your head and a little food, you have more freedom than the wealthy man who can buy anything he wants, because you have far fewer worries. If you need little, then you are free.”
Pretty bold statement, I thought. My mind went to the things I’ve been depriving myself of here at the monastery these past two months. I miss many small comforts which I don’t necessarily need, but I certainly want them, and I look forward to having access to them again. “But what about the freedom to have a hot shower, to eat when I’m hungry, to go out dancing, to go on holiday, or to have a girlfriend? These things don’t seem so extravagant, so how are they obstacles to freedom?” I asked. “They’re not necessarily obstacles to freedom, he replied softly, but basically, it seems to me that the more stuff you have, the more you want, and the more worries you have. The wealthy man has to worry about so many things, but the frugal person is free of worries. Yes, it can look like laypeople have more freedom than I do, but I’m not so sure.”
We kept walking in silence. I knew he’d elaborate a little. “If you always want something, then you’re never content, and you’re never free of the objects of your desire. This is basic craving. If you want to entertain yourself and buy expensive things, then you have to work hard to earn enough money. You may have the freedom to buy more stuff, but you have to sacrifice your freedom of being, your freedom of mind. You have to go to work and fit in a system you might not believe in. And then, once you buy the stuff, once you have your so-called freedom, you worry about losing it, and you think about what else you might need. And before you know it, you have credit card debt, a mortgage, and children, so you have to work long hours for the next forty years. And then when you retire, you don’t know what to do with yourself because you don’t know who you are without work.”
He paused for a moment, and continued: “Where is the freedom in this? It seems to me that the things you own end up owning you. People burn out from stress or commit suicide because they feel trapped and they long for release. But if you reduce your needs, then you don’t go down that road from the start. Basically, since I have so few needs, since I am content with very little, I don’t have to do any of the things that most people have to do to get what they think they need. I am very lucky, because I am free of all this.”
I could see his point, but I still thought I had more freedom than he did. As if he read my mind, he continued: “It might look as though you have more freedom than me because I have a strict monastic code to follow. I can’t touch money and I depend on others for so many things. You can leave when you want, you have a bank account, you can get married, and you can have pizza for dinner and a hot shower before bed. But think of everything you had to do to have these things. Think of the freedom you had to give up in order to get there. You have to worry about making money, about finding a partner, about finding meaning in life, about choosing what you want and don’t want, about where to go, where to live and with whom, etcetera. It never ends.”
He paused, but he wasn’t finished: “It seems you have to sell yourself in order to get this freedom. I am free to say no to anything or anyone, because I am not trying to get anything. I do very little business with life. The Vinaya [monastic code] frees me from the suffering of having so many options in life and not knowing what to choose or which way to go. Renunciation protects you against two kinds of stress: first, having too much to choose from and second, choosing things that increase suffering despite your best intentions. Without a guide, you may think you’re choosing in your best interest but in reality, most choices bring about more pain because they’re based on greed. The freedom to do anything you want often turns against us because we make unwise choices. The Vinaya protects me against this. So yes, it may look constraining, but it actually gives me more freedom than I had as a lay person,” he said with a kind smile.
Alms round was finished, and so was the conversation. Freedom is something I value enormously, so if I was convinced that monastic life really does increase freedom, then surely I would jump in. But I guess I am still unconvinced. Perhaps I am too attached to my external freedom, the freedom to do pretty much anything I want. It seems to me that Ajahn has more freedom from, whereas I have more freedom to. And I am not ready to give up my freedom to. Maybe I think I can be frugal while living in the world, to have my cake and eat it too. But who knows, as with all things, you can’t really know how it really is until you experience it for yourself.