two old stories of renunciation

There is a famous true story about a champion wrestler whose life was changed forever by one chance meeting. This champion was unbeaten in all his country and territory, and thus he was rich, renowned and worshipped everywhere he went.

It so happened that he came to be matched against another wrestler, who was the champion only of his small village, but who earned his bread and his living through his fighting; feeding himself, his small family and his ageing mother with the proceeds of his combat. When the young wrestler realised that he was to be matched against the champion wrestler of the whole country, he understood that all his livelihood was in peril, for if he was to lose even one fight, he would lose all the income he had from wrestling, barely enough as it was to sustain himself and his family.

The young wrestler resigned himself to his fate, but his mother was distraught and tried to dissuade him from participating. Still, the young man wanted to accept what life brought to him, and he was determined to continue with the fight, even if it should mean he would lose his title.

They had to travel to the capital city of the country for the fight, and they stayed there for three days before the event.

One day, during those three days, the mother of the young wrestler went out to look at the market in the big city, and while she was there she noticed a young man who reminded her somehow of her son. He was standing nearby a stall, and she felt a sudden severe loneliness and the need to confide in somebody. So she approached him and began to speak to him of her troubles, and how her son was soon to lose all his title and income because he was forced to fight against the champion of the country, and there was no chance whatsoever he could win.

“He was the bread-winner in the family, but now I don’t know what he will do, maybe he will have to go far away to find work and I will lose him. I do not know what to do; I have tried to persuade him not to fight with this man, but he is determined to go and nothing I can say will change his mind!”

The man listened to her very intently, and great sorrow and compassion for her arose in his heart. He waited until she had finished, and then spoke:

“Madam, do not be disturbed, do not worry. Your son will win the fight against the champion of the land. I have a way of knowing these things, and I can tell you, there is no doubt whatsoever. So please, put away your tears and go and be happy.”

The old woman was mystified. And yet there was such conviction in the voice of the young man that she could not possibly doubt him; and so she went on her way and looked forward eagerly to see what the next day would bring, when her son was due to fight.

The morning of the fight arrived and the whole city, or so it seemed, gathered to watch. The arena and the square surrounding it were thronged. The young wrestler from the small town had never fought in front of such a big crowd, and he was horribly nervous. His mother, however, having been so distraught before, was now strangely calm. He did not understand it, but he was too distracted by the enormity of the event to pay much attention to it.

The two wrestlers shook hands, and the fight began. At first to lookers-on it seemed as though the two were quite well-matched, but after some minutes it became clear that the younger wrestler from the small town was tiring and would soon fall under one of the powerful blows of the champion. The crowd began to make noise and prepare themselves to cheer once again for their favourite fighter, and the mother of the young wrestler began once again to fear for the sake of everything she held dear.

Then at one moment the champion inexplicably fell to the ground – felled by a little hit of almost no weight from the other, which should have glanced off him with no effect. The crowd made some noises of perplexity and people craned their necks, waiting for their champion to get up again. They waited, and waited – and he never got up. The young wrestler who fought against him was equally bemused at first, but then as he began to understand that he had won, felt only overwhelmed with relief and raised his arms in a gesture of triumph.

But the crowd was unhappy. They began to call “traitor, traitor” to their former champion, who now lay vanquished on the ground. “Get up, get up – traitor, traitor!”

But he didn’t get up.

You can probably guess that the champion fighter of the land was the very same young man that the aged mother of his opponent met by chance at the city market, who out of compassion for her, decided to give up his title, his fame, and all of his former glory in this fight.

In the moment that he fell to the ground, he did indeed lose all – the people who had formerly worshipped him now despised him, believing that he had most probably accepted a bribe such that he would give up his fight so blatantly. Not only his title, but his wealth disappeared in one instant; and one who had been held in such great esteem by all now came to be a figure of disgust for his former fans.

This story sounds like a fairy tale, but it is actually a true story that happened long ago in the Middle East. The champion wrestler in question wrote afterwards about what happened to him in the moment he fell during his fight. He told how everything changed for him; he felt a great sense of freedom and as the world of fame and material pleasure he had built for himself broke down around him, a kind of new world opened up, or at least for him a new way of looking at the world.

It is reminiscent of a certain famous Sufi story, (not literally true) which concerns two men who have a bet with each other: one of them bets that he can always recognise the other no matter how the other disguises himself; his younger friend bets that he can not only disguise himself such that his friend will not recognise him, but that he will take money off his friend without the friend realising it. The older man happens to be both very wealthy and very generous, and every day he passes by a street where there are many beggars holding out their hands, and to each of them he gives some coins every day. The first day after the two men shake hands for their bet, the young man disguises himself as an old beggar woman and holds out his hands alongside the others. But as soon as his older friend reaches him, he stops, shakes his head and smiles, and moves on.

The next day the young man spends all night working on his disguise for the following attempt at cheating his friend, and he disguises himself perfectly as a little boy wearing crutches and sporting a great bruise on his face. And again he goes to the street with all the beggars and holds out his hands.

Yet again the same thing happens: his friend reaches him and shakes his head and smiles. It is as though he can see straight through all disguise that the other tries, no matter what it may be. In frustration, the young man decides on a last resort – he will make himself appear to be dead.

And so he stages his death, and all his friends and family are stricken with grief and arrange for his funeral to take place. The funeral passes in the street where the older man is handing out alms to the beggars, and he inquires as to who is in the coffin.

“O how is it that you have not heard? It is your young friend, you must weep for him!” they all reply. And the man nods, and solemnly reaches out his hand with a customary offering of money for the dead, and places it on the coffin.

At which point the young man leaps out of the coffin and cries “Ha-ha! I got you, I won the bet!”

But his friend just smiles, as though he had known all along: “Yes… but you won only through death. Unless you die you cannot win.”


“Unless you die” is a Sufi expression used to refer to the belief that unless you “die to yourself” you will never receive anything, never gain any spiritual insight or knowledge, never receive blessings.

To “die to yourself” means actually to renounce and let go of all of those things to which we are all of us so deeply attached – our body, our beauty, our personal wealth; our idea of ourselves as a figure of importance – the figure of importance in our world.

Indeed we must die one day, just as we must one day lose everything that we try to hold onto when we are young. We get old and get sick and watch our family and friends passing away; beauty fades, health declines, material objects break, fall apart and get lost; everything is lost in the end. Even I myself, my body, my memories, all my idea of myself will pass into nothingness.

But we don’t accept that. We hang onto all those things for dear life. I write this now but deep inside I don’t fully accept it, I do not know it. It can’t be for me. For others, perhaps, but not me.

The Sufi story, and the story of the wrestler, are both dealing with the idea of renunciation – the deepest form of renunciation; “death to oneself.”

The young man in the Sufi story must give up his idea of being Somebody and accept to lie down, a passive, silent nobody, to appear as nothing but a dead corpse that will soon be disposed of. He does this in order to receive the money, symbol of material gain, for which he has now paradoxically no more use as a supposedly dead man.

He is like the champion wrestler who decides for the sake of his compassion for somebody else, to give up a lot more than just one fight. He is aware that in losing this fight he will lose everything out of which his identity is built. His life has been nothing but wrestling, fame, glory and wealth – he is simply the Champion Wrestler of the Land, worshipped by all – and if he is not that he is Nobody at all.

In deciding to lose the fight and give up all of this, it is as if he chooses to “die to himself,” renouncing totally his ego and his self-image.

The act of doing so is powerful: the giver ultimately always benefits more from the gift compared to the receiver; and the greater the gift, the greater the renunciation; the greater the benefit.

The wrestler gains a lot in terms of freedom and lasting happiness, because his gift and his renunciation are very great. His young opponent gains only the comparatively meagre benefit of being allowed to keep (for the time being, for a little while longer) that which he already has.

Everybody is attached to their body, their life, their self-image and ego, their material goods, or at least just their life and the idea of being alive. Yet we all know that one day we will lose everything, and in being so attached to it all, we create for ourselves the pain of loss.

One old teacher used to say all the time “GIVE IT UP – OR IT WILL BE TAKEN BY FORCE.” You will lose it, one way or the other. If you try to hang on to it, you will suffer. But if you give it, if you deeply accept that it will be lost and let go of your need of it – you might then get to see something beyond it, and you might be more free than before.

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