On Renunciation

For one who lives to understand the Buddha’s teaching, the principal of renunciation is of fundamental importance. In fact, one who genuinely lives to understand the teaching will not require any teaching about renunciation, because this person has already renounced within himself.

On the other hand, many of us think we are practicing Buddhism, when in fact we are practicing the exact opposite of Buddhism. How is it possible to misunderstand this so thoroughly? The reason is that we approach it from the wrong angle: we might consider it first as the study of a philosophy, or the practice of a meditation technique, or the practice of traditions, religious ceremonies, rites and chants; or a way to feel happier and live a better life. In reality, the teaching is a teaching of renunciation, but most of us do not see it like this.

What does renunciation mean? It is the act of giving up, letting go, of desire and attachment. That is, giving up being dependent on things being as we want them to be; giving up having any kind of attachment to any ‘comfort zone’; giving up the attitude of keeping whatever we like and removing whatever we don’t like, of keeping what is easy and removing what is difficult. Giving up the habit of holding on to what is comfortable for dear life, and rejecting what is uncomfortable. In other words, it sums up the entirety of the teaching, which is undertaken for the sake of the end of desire.

What renunciation is not

Often, when we hear about renunciation, we hear mainly about becoming a monk, and celibacy. While these two things are indeed involved in renunciation, they do not constitute renunciation in and of themselves. Two people may behave themselves in the same way at an external level, yet one of them plays with sensual thoughts every day, while the other does not tolerate a sensual thought in his mind. One has renounced, while the other has not.

Instead of seeing the celibate life as renunciation in itself, the right way to see the practice of celibacy is that it is the effect of the renunciation that takes place first of all from within. For one who has renounced truly, there is no tearing oneself apart over the decision, and it should not be a kind of terrible struggle every day to keep to celibacy. There is a mistaken notion that, in order to see the danger in sensuality, it is necessary to first of all physically restrain oneself from it, and only then will it be possible to let go of it inside. In fact, the opposite is true. There are plenty of cases of monks who pass many years celibate, only to return to lay life afterwards; and equally there are hundreds of stories (starting with that of the Buddha himself) of people who were externally surrounded by sensuality, but whose renunciation was born from within, leading them to abandon this world of sensuality and never turn back. With regard to celibacy, as with all everything else, if things are to be done in their proper order, the renunciation of sexuality comes first, and the physical practice of celibacy comes second.

Likewise, the life of a monk is not renunciation in itself, for one can become a monk for many reasons, particularly in modern times. In Buddhist countries, ordaining as a monk is known from childhood as an option of how one might spend one’s life, being one of a number of ‘careers’ that one might choose – ‘will I be an engineer, a plumber, a scientist, or a monk?’ It is also very common for people to become monks and then later leave and return to lay life. Even one who remains his whole life as a monk can very easily have his comfort zone there. Once one gets used to celibacy and not eating in the afternoon, there are many ‘perks’ of such a livelihood – including, but not limited to, being respected by all, having no confrontation, no bills to pay, no harrying from an irritated landlord, no difficult decisions to make, and access to education and other opportunities. Even a very ascetic and solitary life, living alone and away from a community, might suit the temperament of some who might find the pressure of company too stressful, and prefer to be alone where they don’t have anyone’s judgement to fear. Simply put, there is no way to evaluate the degree of a person’s renunciation based only on the physical circumstances in which he lives (though there are, of course, plenty of cases where a person’s behaviour and way of life shows quite clearly that there is no renunciation). Choosing the life of a monk can be a way of keeping whatever one likes and removing whatever one doesn’t like. Or, it can be a real renunciation. The difference is in the intention with which one undertakes such a choice, and the understanding upon which it is based.

The base of renunciation

What is the base of renunciation, and how to develop it in ourselves if it is something we lack? To answer this, first we should see that renunciation has two meanings, related but not quite the same. At one level, it is the decision, which is taken once and for all, to stop following desires, to give up holding onto attachments, and instead practice to find wisdom. At another level, it is a quality that must be constantly developed and is not complete until the whole aim of the Buddha’s teaching is fulfilled.

The decision of renunciation is supposed to be final. If we announce ‘I re-re-renounced sensuality!’ then it means we never really renounced to begin with! Renunciation must therefore be based on a very clear aim and solid understanding. It’s not a case for using the words ‘maybe’ or ‘I suppose I might.’ There must be something understood, seen, clicked, so that it becomes impossible to turn back and continue on living in the same way.

What is this understanding? What has somebody seen, such that they make such a decision to give up everything they hold dear – to give up, in fact, the whole business of holding things dear? It does not fit with ordinary common sense.

We might think that such a thing is only for ‘special people’ or those who have lived certain kinds of experiences. If we look to stories from the time of early Buddhism, we can see some general patterns in the types of people who tended most often to leave their lives and become monks (there are many stories, for example, of people who came from very well-off and well-to-do families, and there are almost equally many stories of people who came from very deep misery). However, it is obviously not one’s physical situation alone that leads to renunciation, because if being rich led to renunciation, then all the millionaires in the world would become monks and nuns, and if deep suffering led to renunciation, we would have not millions, but billions of renunciants! Rather than being based on one’s experiences in life, renunciation is based much more on the degree of one’s wisdom in regard to them. 

Empty, chaotic and without refuge

In the Sutta Nipāta there is a verse that expresses the base of renunciation especially concisely and beautifully (in the author’s personal opinion):

All the world is utterly empty,
chaotic in all directions
Once I longed for a place of safety,
But nowhere could I see a refuge.

Seeing people eternally locked
In conflict and confusion, I became fed up.
Yet then I saw what was hard to see,
the arrow in the heart.

Driven by this arrow
you run in all directions
But when it is pulled out
you neither run, nor sink.

So, you should not run after
whatever binds you to this world
Instead, understanding desires of the senses
Train, practice, for your freedom.

Snp 4.15

Regardless of our physical circumstance, the choice of renunciation is always based on seeing one or more of these facts: that the world is empty, chaotic and without refuge anywhere; that nothing we might love gives lasting satisfaction, and that all around, beings are locked in conflict and confusion; they have been so as far back as living memory stretches and there is no end of their misery in sight.

While many of us might find ourselves catching a glimpse of some of these truths at one point or another in our lives, we usually respond by ignoring them – turning to distract ourselves as quickly as possible, dismissing them as a moment of depression, and going to watch a comedy movie. We can’t bear to take them seriously. This is understandable, because when we do not see any satisfactory solution, it is horribly painful to live with these kinds of dilemmas right before one’s eyes, without being able to do anything about them. That is why for Prince Siddhattha, as a young man, it was not enough to see an old man, a sick man and a dead man; he needed to see the monk. He needed something to give him the faith that there was a solution, a way out – only then could he take the decision to leave his wife, his son, his parents, his kingdom and all that he knew, for the sake of finding that solution.

That is also why it is so important for right renunciation to also understand this point, the most ‘hard to see’; that the source of all this conflict, confusion and chaos is to be found nowhere else but in your own heart. Realising this, there is a clear course of action to take. No need to run after anything in the world, nor hold onto what ties you to this world. No need to pick something outside as your target to fight against – all is to be done here and now inside your self, pulling out this arrow from your own heart. This is the solution, the aim for the sake of which we renounce. It’s not that we aim for some kind of magical Shangri-La, unseen, far away and unknown, and if we think of it like this it’s sure we will get nowhere.

So one who renounces must begin by realising deeply these things within themselves – this comfortless, chaotic and unsatisfactory nature of the world, and the complete worthlessness of any life that is simply lived for the sake of living and ends in old age, sickness and death. It must be seen that it is not just our own passing anxiety, or the mind’s temporary dark night that will be better in the morning; the world is like this. When you see this deeply enough, take this seriously enough, it becomes literally impossible to go on in the same way as before; any material work that we might do is seen as entirely useless; any sticking to attachments and comfort zones is the same as keeping oneself locked in chains and spending one’s days tightening them, and the only dedication that makes sense is the dedication to the task of pulling out the arrow from our heart.

If we have not seen any of this for yourself, then our ‘renunciation’ will be ‘good for your Mama,’ as Ajahn likes to say. If then we say that we practice Buddhism, we  cannot practice it with the right aim and the right intention. We will end up just wanting to improve on all the things we already have, without seeing a reason to give anything up, to let go of anything. We might be able to feel calmer, be a bit more peaceful and live a better life, but these will be only temporary benefits, and in terms of really working for the aim for the sake of which the teaching is given, we will get nowhere.

It should be quite obvious that in order to reach this point, it is not enough to study books, or to practice concentration. It is not found through things we can see through our eyes or hear through our ears. Certainly, developing a basic understanding of the teachings is good, because it helps to give the faith in the solution the Buddha taught. It’s also true that if we do not practice morality and work on ourselves to some extent, our mind will be too cloudy and we will not be able to come to a clear decision about anything. However, all these things can take us only so far; at some point we need to dig into ourselves and make ourselves clear about our aim.

The development of renunciation

So we have seen that renunciation is first and foremost a decision that is based on a kind of shock, which makes it impossible to go on pursuing desires as before. At this level, it is something that is decided once and for all. Once the decision is made, it doesn’t mean that the work is done; actually it means that the work has just begun! But it is the solid base from which we can make progress; otherwise we might work and work, but it will be as if we are filling a bucket that is full of holes at the bottom.

At another level, renunciation is something to be constantly developed and that is not fully complete until the final goal has been reached: the practice of letting go of habits, comfort zones and whatever form of selfishness there might be in us, working to depend on nothing and nobody at all.

As such, renunciation is closely related to generosity, and generosity is the easiest way to begin to practice it, especially for a layman. The purpose of generosity is to learn to remove from oneself, and the best generosity is to give away the very thing that is most dear, that very thing that we would prefer to hold onto. It is not true generosity when we give with the expectation of getting something in return ‘I give this spoonful of rice so that I’ll be rich in a future life.’ This does not deserve the name of ‘giving’ at all. When we give, it should be done with the intention of renunciation and compassion, with thoughtfulness and consideration of what is helpful. The one who gives in this way, who renounces in this way, receives many benefits, the first of which is a heart full of joy – but not because he expects or wishes for anything. Rather, it’s because he makes himself empty that he receives, in the same way that when you go into an orchard, your basket must be empty in order to collect fruit. As soon as we wish for ‘goodies’ in return for our gift, whether that’s just appreciation, or some future result of good kamma, our act of generosity is not pure.

It is the same for the practice of renunciation. Being dedicated to renunciation is the constant practice of letting go of one’s own desires and every aspect of selfishness, not because of being greedy to get something else in exchange, but simply because that very desire, that very attachment to ME and MINE, is seen as an arrow, the arrow that hurts terribly until it is pulled out completely. This is another way to measure our own seriousness and check how genuine we are in our practice. As long as we have not reached the goal, we should never feel comfortable, because we still have this arrow in our heart, not yet removed. Even if there’s only a millimeter left, it still hurts terribly until it is pulled out. So if we feel comfortable, thinking that we know or have achieved, then either it means that finally we don’t mind our arrow so much and we think it’s not a problem, or else we do not see it; either way we are not practicing properly!

In conclusion

There is a story that Ajan tells about when he was about five years old, and was brought to visit the house of his sister. Being of a curious nature, he started to explore the upstairs of the house, and in the bathroom he came across the most beautiful thing: a box of shiny, silvery razor blades with a little crocodile drawing on them. He had to have them! So he started to take them, one by one, out of the box, and held them tight in his hand, delighted with his find. His hand started to bleed, and it hurt badly, but still he saw more of the beautiful razor blades left in the box, and kept picking up more and more of them. The more he picked up and held in his hand, the more his hand bled in more and more places, and he started to cry in pain, but still he had no notion of letting go of those beautiful blades! Finally his parents arrived and, shocked to see blood everywhere, forced him to open his hand – only then could he drop them.

This is a perfect symbol of the pain of attachment. It’s not the fault of the razor in itself that the hand bleeds, but because of because of being in love with its shine, and therefore holding onto it. In the same way, we have to see that by holding onto anything in this world – whether other people, sensual pleasures, ideas, doctrines, views, habits, and especially ourselves, we just multiply more and more suffering. If we do not see this for ourselves, not just in theory but in fact, we cannot really renounce, because it makes no sense to let go of the only source of pleasure and comfort we know, without any guarantee that there is something else beyond it. The way of renunciation is the most beautiful state in the world – there can be nothing higher than to be entirely free, to be without fear of death, not holding onto anything in the world, independent. Yet we cannot be sure of this until we have the courage to actually do it.   

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