A man is climbing slowly and with some difficulty up a mountain.
Finally he reaches a small plateau, with a cave and an old man sitting in front of it. The climber approaches the old man and says, “Oh great wise man, how can I reach enlightenment?”
The wise man says, “Follow the path of renunciation.”
The climber pauses, looks around for a few seconds and then says, “Is there anyone else up here I can talk to?”
Renunciation has a bad reputation. It is associated both with the many scandals that supposed ‘renunciates’ have been involved in lately and also with not being very much fun. Our culture glorifies getting everything you want and not doing anything that isn’t pleasurable—the opposite of renunciation.
Renunciation (nekkhama) is the third of the 10 paramis, the perfections that Theravaden Buddhism encourages you to cultivate. The first two paramis, generosity (dana) and virtue (sila), in a sense, prepare you for this.
To lead a generous and virtuous life in our culture is difficult. It goes against the stream of how many people lead their lives. It requires that you renounce some of what is commonly believed to be the source of happiness, accumulating things and seeking pleasure. Not that owning things and experiencing pleasure is bad or wrong. They simply don’t work. They are unsatisfactory as a way to find happiness.
As soon as you decide to take up meditation practice, you are faced with decisions. If you are going to sit for half an hour or more every day then something else in your busy life has to be given up. If you are going to wake with a clear mind so you can practice every morning, you have to start going to bed a little earlier, perhaps foregoing that party all your friends are going to. If you are going to start sitting longer in retreats, then that vacation time that you used to spend lying on the beach will instead be spent at a retreat center, in silence.
Renunciation arises simply out of the understanding that practice is what is more important than most other things in your life.
This might sound unpleasant, even difficult, but actually it isn’t. The Buddha often talked about the joy of renunciation. It is a letting go, a release of things that you have come to see as unimportant or useful. It is the result of right understanding, of seeing that some of the things you do in your daily life don’t lead you towards enlightenment but instead weigh you down or hold you back. The weight of having to do things like everyone else, the desire to be normal is undone by renunciation. You renounce that artificial need to conform, that feeling that you just don’t measure up to the impossible standard of perfection that pervades our culture. You renounce the idea that I can’t do that, the sense that I can’t work towards enlightenment, that I’m not good enough.
It is important to understand that renunciation can’t be forced. It can easily just become another desire, a desire to conform to some standard set by your particular choice of religion or spiritual practice. If you take on too much too soon, if you have the idea that you’ll just renounce everything and then your life will magically be okay, then you will have a rude shock when the mind rebels and you swing to an extreme of self-indulgence. Renunciation has to be a gradual process, reinforced by your practice.
On retreat, renunciation takes on a deeper level, even if that retreat is only for a day. We renounce everything that we usually use to distract ourselves, the things we do so we don’t have to deal with all that mental and emotional baggage we push away and deny. You practice noble silence, not even reading or writing, so that the mind’s habit of glossing things over with words is exposed. No TV, no computers, no music, nothing to distract yourself, so that you are left with nothing but what arises in your mind at the moment. No cooking, shopping, deciding what you are going to eat. You just accept whatever is offered by the retreat cooks, or what you packed for your lunch earlier in the day on a daylong retreat. The only decision you have to make is whether or not to stay awake and practice some more, or to go to sleep.
Having so little control of your life might seem frightening, but actually this total letting go is incredibly liberating. You just go with the flow of what is arising and with skillful practice you start to see how the mind works. You start to see the reactive patterns that drive almost all of your actions. You notice your desire to hold on to what’s pleasant when it arises and your aversion, to look at or experience what is unpleasant, creates the bulk of your activities and thoughts. Seeing this you gain a deeper understanding of the necessity of practice in your daily life. This naturally leads you to letting go of even more of what is unnecessary.
Simply put, renunciation is the gateway to right understanding, the first step on the Noble Eight Fold Path. It is where the paramis start to shift emphasis from your life in the world to your life on the cushion.
This is the third of a series of 10 articles on the Paramis, the “perfections” of character that Theravaden Buddhism encourages us to develop.
Barry H. Gillespie was introduced to formal meditation practice in 1978, through the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram. In 2003, he began exploring Theravaden Buddhist practice, sitting many long retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. His principle teacher is Guy Armstrong. His teaching arises out of his desire to share what he has learned with others. Barry currently leads the Full Moon Sit at the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, CO. This article is based on a dharma talk he gave there. For more information on his teaching go to his web site www.barryhgillespie.com.
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Ed: Karla Rodas & Brianna Bemel