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Ditching materialism for the simple life

by Michael Hoffman

There’s a new notion floating around. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: Danshari. Its three kanji characters signify, respectively, refusal, disposal and separation. Prosaically it means cleaning or tidying up, but there are psychological and religious dimensions, deriving in part from yoga, which suggest the disposal of mental, along with physical, junk.

Books on the subject are best-sellers, and seminars about it are well attended. Evidently there’s a need felt for liberation from the swelling detritus of an overproductive culture — an interesting counterpoint to the frantic calls for yet more production to brace the buckling economy.

Hideko Yamashita, a popular writer and speaker on danshari, boils it down for Spa! magazine to this stark question: What’s more important, my life or my things? “Things” are not necessarily inimical to “life” — or are they, when they’re not life-enhancing? Ask yourself this, she says: “Does my present self need my present possessions?” If not, why can’t I ditch the possessions, all that stuff accumulated over years and still accumulating? What binds me to them? Is it that “things” have the upper hand over “life”?

Pack rats, Spa! finds, are either clinging to the past, escaping the present or frightened of the future. Few of us are none of the above; most of us, therefore, are probably pack rats. It’s a form of madness, as is its blood relative, compulsive shopping.

“Shopping was my escape,” the magazine hears from one Yoko Hanawa. Escape from what? The dreariness that underlies the glitter of modern life. Hanawa was earning ¥7.5 million a year working for a finance company. That’s good on paper but, day to day, it wears you down. Shopping took her mind off that. Her home filled to overflowing with clothes she never wore; her bank balance dwindled to ¥560. Then came the Lehman Shock. Her husband was laid off; so, two months later, was she. That did it. She shredded her credit cards and took up danshari — “the throwing-away lifestyle.” Throw away enough stuff and your vision clears. It’s a kind of satori. Now she’s studying financial planning, preparing to work freelance.

Danshari is a cure — at least a treatment, a purge — for the disease of our times: excess. Not that it began with us. Shakespeare, as so often is the case, defines it best: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, . . . or add another hue unto the rainbow . . . is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” But the extremes to which we’ve taken it are historically unprecedented. Excess is attractive. The developed nations elevated it almost to a human right, and now people in the emerging economies want it, at whatever cost to the environment.

“It has been calculated,” Japan-based environmental scholar and writer Richard Evanoff told this newspaper last November, “that it would take the resources of at least five planet Earths for everyone to live at the same level as most Americans do now.”

We don’t have five planet Earths.

Evanoff didn’t mention danshari by name, but a kind of global danshari is implicit in his program. For a just and sustainable world order that satisfies everyone’s basic needs, he said, “the over-affluent would need to reduce their consumption by about 80 percent.” He can talk like that — he’s not running for office.

Danshari actually should come easily to the Japanese. The word may be new but the concept is not. It thrived for centuries as a traditional virtue whose name almost everyone knows, or once did — wabi. It’s associated with Zen, so we turn to a Zen master, Daisetsu T. Suzuki (1871-1966), for a definition: “Wabi is to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats . . . and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall. . . . It is in truth the worshiping of poverty — probably a most appropriate cult in a poor country like ours.”

Written in 1938, when Japan was indeed a poor country, it seems worth recalling now that a poor future, relative to current standards, seems a likely prospect.

Danshari is what you make of it. Think of it as mere housecleaning, and that’s all it is. Think of it as a religious liberation, and it’s that. Actually, the less you think, the more it is, Spa! hears from religious scholar Akira Masaki. Danshari as a means to an end, he says — whether the end is enlightenment or efficiency — only binds us more tightly to means and ends. It becomes the materialism or excess we seek to shed. Subduing excess can become another form of excess.

“Excessive denial of material possessions,” says Masaki, “causes desire to spring up in new forms” — sex, for instance. High birth rates in poor countries, he says, show where frustrated materialism is most readily channeled.

“The important thing,” he says, “is balance — the Buddhist ‘Middle Way.’ ” Simple enough, but simple doesn’t mean easy. If it did, would it need the buttress of religion?

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (VBW, 2010).