Simplicity (ajjavatā or asaṭha) is the quality of being uncomplicated, direct and easy to do or understand. It is the opposite of complexity, convolution, calculation and pretence. The English word comes from the Latin simplex meaning ‘just one.’ Simplicity imparts to the person who has it a certain grace, beauty and naturalness and the Buddha (D.III,213; Sn.250) often associated it with gentleness (maddava) and modesty (lajjava). The French philosopher Comte-Sponville said: ‘Intelligence is the art of making complex things simpler, not the other way around,’ and the Buddha would have agreed with this. Although he taught his Dhamma at length and in great detail, the Buddha was always able to summarize it in the most basic, simple and understandable terms. ‘One thing and one thing only do I teach – suffering and how to end suffering.’ (M.I,140).
We can be simple in many ways but the most important of these are in how we live, how we use our mind and how we relate to those around us. To have simplicity of lifestyle we need to remind ourselves of the original purpose of things. The original purpose of clothes, for example, was for modesty and to protect the body from the elements. To use clothes as a status symbol, as an indication of wealth, to keep ahead of the fashion, to highlight our sexuality or to disguise our age, is, from the Buddhist perspective, to misuse them. It also complicates and clutters our life. The person who cherishes simplicity dresses neatly, cleanly and stylishly without concern about ‘creating an impression.’ They never forget the true purpose of the things they own. In the Mettā Sutta the Buddha praised the qualities of being easily supportable (subharo) and not constantly busy (appakicco), two of the many blessings we enjoy when we simplify our life (Sn.144).
Psychological simplicity is achieved through the practice of meditation,particularly mindfulness meditation. Usually we see things, not as they actually are, but through a mass of prejudices, memories, desires and constantly chattering thoughts which distort them. Meditation clears all this away so we are able to establish a direct relationship with things. Knowing things directly allows them to reveal their truth to us.
Moral simplicity, or what the Buddha called straightforwardness (uju or ujuka), is to honestly and sincerely practise the Precepts without trying to wheedle our way around them or twist them so that they mean something they do not. The person who is adorned with a simple morality is upright, kind, generous and helpful because it is the right thing to do, not because he or she wants to impress, to gain an advantage, ‘to make merit’ or because of fear of ‘bad kamma.’
Being a simpleton is not the same as being simple. The former lacks intelligence while the latter cherishes simplicity because it eases the way through life and gives so much joy.