Confessions of an Amish Buddhist

A revised and updated version of this essay can be found in A Minimalist Abroad: Essays on Finding Happiness, now available at Amazon!

As I’ve grown older I’ve increasingly found myself embracing some of my grandmother’s traditional values. She was Pennsylvania Dutch, which is similar to being Amish in many philosophical ways. Her father, my great-grandfather, was actual Amish, although he never talked about it. He allegedly left on rumspringa, the teenage rite of passage, and never went back, instead choosing to marry my German-born non-Amish great-grandmother. I’ve also grown deeper into Buddhism, because its basic tenets and principles make sense to me. There’s a lot of overlap between the two, and that’s increasingly been the path that I walk. These are the confessions of an Amish Buddhist.

Amish-Buddhist Parallels

The values that my grandmother taught me were simple. When you’re working, work hard, and when you’re not working, don’t work at all. You don’t bring work home, any more than you take your personal problems with you to the job. You focus on what’s in front of you, so that you do a good job at work, you do a job being a member of the family, and you do a good job of being a friend. There is joy in work well done, but there is also joy in family time, in solitude, and in quiet and rest.

She taught me to be frugal, to never be wasteful with money, with food, with my time or other peoples’. That there was a place for everything, and everything must be returned to its place when not in use, because that’s part of taking care of things so that they last. The things you own are tools, whether it’s a hammer or a frying pan or a chair, and all tools must be respected and treated well.

Above all else, she taught me to have common sense, which by her definition was simply thinking before you spoke or acted so you could see the possible consequences of what you were about to do. This is similar to the Amish Ordnung regarding use of technology: if we embrace this, what effects will it have? Contrary to popular belief, the Amish aren’t universally or automatically anti-technology. They simply consider the impact things will have on family life and community, which anyone who’s sat at a table with someone more interested in fiddling with their smart phone than conversing with the real live people in front of them should be able to appreciate. They also consider whether technology will lead to temptation, encourage vanity, or create inequality. Given the way we all waste time on the internet, jockey for followers on social media, and brag about being the first to acquire the latest gadget, you have to concede that the Amish philosophy makes some good points.

From Buddhism I’ve embraced the Noble Eightfold Path, which deals with wisdom, ethical conduct, and concentration. The Big 8 are holding the Right View, having the Right Intention, engaging in Right Speech, taking the Right Action, pursuing the Right Livelihood, making the Right Effort, having Right Mindfulness, and practicing Right Concentration. At some point I’ll write about these in detail but for now they can be summed up as follows: Think about what you’re doing before you do it, then do the right thing.

My Disclaimer

Obviously I’m not Amish. I didn’t grow up on a farm. I don’t dress exclusively in black and white. I don’t drive a horse and buggy when I run my errands. I’m also not an official member of any Buddhist sangha or community, or follow any specific Buddhist tradition or sect. I want to be clear about that; I’m not actually claiming to be either. Future fact checkers of the world, you have been advised; this serves as my disclaimer.

My Anti-Disclaimer

Cherry-picking religious doctrine can lead to some dark places, I’m well aware. I have been exposed to these ideas, though, and studied them, have found value in them, and adapted them for use in my own life. The core values of ethics and simplicity resonate with me, and are values that I think are universal ones.

I’ve talked about how I see life as an editing process, where you keep what works, fix what you can when necessary, and cut everything else. I don’t see taking principles from one culture or religion and adapting them to fit in with your current reality as anything different. I’m American, and America is supposed to be a melting pot, right? Taking a tip or a piece of advice or a bit of positive philosophy from one wisdom tradition or another is no different to me than swapping recipes or trading household cleaning tips. If it works, and if it increases happiness without increasing suffering, who cares where it came from? Just because I don’t take on a whole doctrine doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons of value and elements of meaning that can be adapted to fit in with my life.

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