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11. What is Renunciation

Just like birds that leave no tracks in the air,
there are those whose minds do not cling to temptations that are offered to them.
Their focus is the signless state of liberation, which to others is indiscernible.

Dhammapada, verse 92

I’ve been asked to comment on the place of renunciation in our practice.

Renunciation – nekkhamma in Pali – is one of what are known as the ten paramitas, ‘perfections’ or ‘forces of goodness’. Personally, I feel convinced that renunciation is one of the most important, and at the same time least appreciated, aspects of spiritual life. I am not saying this to justify my life as a monk. You might expect me to say that renunciation is good, given that I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years! Rather, I, along with many others, choose to live this life because of the understanding that there is tremendous benefit in being able to give up that which is extra – to be able to let go of that which is not necessary and to live a simple life.

Now, I am not merely talking about giving up outer physical things like, for instance, eating in the evening. There is nothing moral or immoral about not eating in the evening – you go without a glass of milk in the evening, big deal! I don’t even mean the more difficult areas like music and sex. These things that monks and nuns may give up are not in themselves the real point of renunciation. These outer gestures of renunciation are forms for encouraging an inner letting go. The gestures in themselves are functional, aiding the cultivation of a strength of heart that sustains us on an inner journey. And surely all of us, not just monks and nuns, need this ability. It is true that the monastic community chooses to emphasise this aspect of the Buddha’s teaching, even make a lifestyle out of it, but the training is relevant for everyone who is interested in inner freedom.

Up until a few decades ago, the Roman Catholic Church used to require that her followers refrain from eating meat on Fridays. When the Pope lifted the prohibition I thought it was rather a pity. Although the relevance of that particular form of abstinence was perhaps questionable, at least it encouraged to some degree a formal practice of giving up. I’m even old-fashioned enough to think that Lent is still a good idea. It is a time of year that provides the opportunity to say, ‘Okay, for this period of time I’m going to put some energy into seeing how able I am to give things up.’

The reality is that if we don’t know how to say ‘no’ to our conditioned desires we are easily conned – by the outer world and by our inner drives. If you can’t say ‘no’ to yourself when you go into one of these supermarkets that have everything, you are likely to purchase more than you intend. Leafing through exciting catalogues or shopping on the web, you can be turning over your credit card details, acting out according to the drama of the market place, and only afterwards start thinking, ‘What did I do that for?’ We’re all familiar with something like this – the inability to say ‘no’ to things that are extra.

We can recognise this on the external level: we buy new clothes that we don’t need, food we don’t need or CDs that we might never listen to. But what is more difficult to see is how this pattern pertains to our inner world, to see the mental compulsion of perpetually adding onto experience: good, bad; right, wrong; should, shouldn’t. This tendency to react, judge and add on to our experience prevents us from being able to receive reality in a pure, undiluted form. The point of living a life where one renounces certain options is that by cultivating a conscious willingness to say ‘no’ to things that we might otherwise want to have or do – things that are not really necessary to our well-being – we use outer conventions to learn how to let go at a deeper level. We learn the art of letting go. We call this process of learning a ‘training’ because it takes some skill in applying effort. Unskilled effort in this area readily leads to blind and potentially damaging repression.

Picking up the training

If we want to understand renunciation then we have to try it out. No amount of talking about this practice takes us there. We only see what it really achieves when we make an effort and observe the result. Sometimes we are surprised at how good it feels to know we can say ‘no’ to ourselves; it can even be intoxicatingly good. I recall translating for a newly-ordained young monk who was full of the inspiration that can come from having been recently been received into the renunciate Sangha. He was asking Ajahn Chah for advice on how to apply the various methods for cultivating renunciation and determination. This bright-eyed and energetic fellow was telling Ajahn Chah how he wanted to make a determination to spend the following three months of the rains retreat observing the practices of not lying down to sleep, not accepting food other than that gathered on almsround, eating only one meal a day, wearing only the bare minimum of clothes, and so on. He listed lots of the dhutanga (ascetic) practices that the Buddha encouraged. Ajahn Chah listened and then commented that the best thing would be if he simply determined to keep practising for the three months, whatever happened, and take on nothing particularly special. Ajahn Chah was well aware of how inspiring the renunciation practice can be when we first get a feel for the power it generates.

Sometimes we might even become a little evangelical about it – preaching to everyone and anyone who will listen to us about the virtues of renunciation, even enforcing it on others. This tends to be the aspect that gives the whole subject a bad reputation. Some years ago Ajahn Sumedho had to intervene to tone down the enthusiasm of a newly appointed senior incumbent at a small branch monastery. This particular monk had set up a system whereby all the food that had been prepared and offered at the midday meal was poured into a big plastic bucket – rice, curry, cakes, the lot. He would give it a stir, then take a few ladles for himself before passing the bucket down the line. No doubt this gesture of renunciation served to challenge preferences around food in a worthy manner, but there was evidence that not everyone in the community found it equally helpful. Ajahn Sumedho in his wisdom sent up a large box of beautifully wrapped, delicious-looking biscuits with a note saying, ‘Not for the bucket.’

Even without making any specific outer gesture of renunciation we can learn from seeing how difficult it can be to let go of all that is extra in our minds. An example is when we sit down to meditate for a period of time. We know how the practice of concentration can steady the mind, open the heart, and bring greater clarity and understanding – we know how suitable and agreeable that state of mind is; and yet when we decide, ‘Okay, I’ll put thirty minutes aside and sit in meditation,’ and try to focus, the mind starts off every which way. We think, ‘Why is that? Why is the mind going off? It’s not necessary, I have finished with that stuff, I want to be quiet.’ This is what I mean by extra. So can we let go of the extra? Do we have that ability, that strength that enables simply saying ‘no’ to the force of compulsion?

Different from morality

It has to be understood that we’re not talking about moral issues here. Sometimes these two aspects of practice – morality and renunciation – become mixed up, and that is not helpful. We’re not talking about the five precepts that we all know about: no killing, no stealing, no irresponsible sexuality, no false speech, and no intoxicants. These are moral matters that, if we neglect them, cause harm to ourselves and harm to others. When we take up eight precepts, the three more that are adopted are precepts of renunciation. The sixth precept is refraining from eating in the evening and the seventh and eighth precepts are about giving up entertainment, distraction, music, jewellery, and sleeping heedlessly. In addition, the third precept becomes a renunciant one, changing abstention from irresponsible sexuality into celibacy (no intentional sexual activity whatsoever). These are not issues of morality. Traditionally lay Buddhists are encouraged to take up the eight precepts for certain periods in order to cultivate this faculty of renunciation, to release out of habits of holding to that which does not pertain to the goal. This is addressing matters of skilfulness, not morality.

If you’re inspired by this possibility and want to try it out I would encourage it but would suggest that you don’t tell anybody else that you are doing it. Let it be a force for lessening the load rather than for boosting a false sense of ego. You could decide for example that once a week or once a month you’re going to exercise saying ‘no’ to something. You might say ‘no’ to your wish to watch a particular program on television – not for any moral reason but simply for the cultivation of the ability to renounce without falling into inner argument or blind repression. As a result of your experiment in renunciation you will discover something interesting - you will get your energy back. You will, guaranteed. If it doesn’t come the first time, say ‘no’ a few more times. Initially this energy may manifest as anger or restlessness. When you experience this agitation, you may decide that such practice is not suitable for you. Or you may feel that you are beyond it, in which case you won’t have any doubts whatsoever around energy and equanimity – you will already be perfectly balanced. But if you are not quite there yet, I would recommend persisting with it, sensitively and consistently, learning from these initial reactions.

Sometimes this practice can lead us to discover resources we didn’t think we had. We might be surprised to find that we are able to hold true to something, when in the past we might have caved in under pressure. To take an example: I have a general mistrust of the mass media and yet at the same time I can find their journalists and programme producers extremely persuasive. The editors for television and newspapers clearly send out their most charming interviewers in order to secure the material, but what they eventually broadcast can be something completely different to what was anticipated at the time the material was gathered.

Some years ago when I had been left in charge of the monastery at Chithurst, some television people from Brighton were pressing for permission to film a group of school children who were coming on a Religious Education visit to the monastery. It wasn’t difficult to come up with a justification for saying ‘yes’ to the programme producer, yet my gut feeling was to mistrust their motivation, and to doubt whether they would be sensitive enough to avoid distracting the children from the purpose of their visit. So I said ‘no’. They called back many times in an attempt to get me to change my mind but to my surprise I found it quite easy to remain with my original answer. I confess I was somewhat worried that the school might have been disappointed but still it felt true to say ‘no’. As things turned out the head teacher got in touch to say how delighted the school staff were because they hadn’t wanted the television crew along on the trip either but nobody had ever said ‘no’ to them before.

Strategic frustration

If we feel unable in this area we can easily be distracted, inwardly and outwardly. It is my observation that this not only makes us excessively vulnerable but leads to dullness. If we let ourselves get what we want all the time, we go flat, we lose the edge. In our present day culture of affluence and comfort we are often disinclined to consider this dynamic. The reality is that I like to get what I want and yet there is a part of me that knows that complying with this arrangement fails to give me the deeper contentment for which I long.

I refer to this area of our practice as ‘strategic frustration’ – we set out to engage frustration in a constructive way. The Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism has formalised frustration into a meditation technique called koan practice. The meditator is instructed to ponder on an ultimately frustrating predicament or is given an apparently impossible question that is specifically designed to ‘undo’ the thinking mind. In this process tremendous energy is built up prior to the release that comes with the ‘resolution’ of the koan. It is totally frustrating, and is supposed to be that way. We can observe this process for ourselves. Without attending a Zen retreat or becoming a celibate renunciate, simply observe your energy level as you choose to either follow or restrain your desires. Compulsively following desire dissipates so much of our energy.

What is the condition of the mind before wanting arises? It is actually quite okay, isn’t it? The mind that is not disturbed by wanting anything at all is peaceful. It is when wanting arises that we feel the itch, but if we scratch the itch straightaway – gratifying the desire immediately without stopping to investigate – we won’t notice how irritating desire can be. When we are ruled by desire, we fail to see what it really is. Desire is, in reality, simply a movement in consciousness – a wave upon an ocean. However, that is not generally our experience; when desire arises we are usually unsettled by it.

After wanting has arisen three options are available to us. We can gratify the wanting, which momentarily gets rid of it, such that the relief from the irritation of desire may be perceived as pleasure. The more often we follow this option, however, the more we increase the momentum of wanting and gratifying. In the long run we tend to become less peaceful. The next option available is to repress the desire and pretend we do not want anything – which is to impose a blind judgement on it. The third option is that we choose to hold this wanting in our awareness. We can hold it. As a result of doing this, something wonderful happens. The energy that is experienced as desire returns to being raw energy. That energy can truly motivate practice and lead us to a much greater happiness than that associated with the gratification of sensual desires. So frustrating desire is not something for a few weirdos or perverts who live in monasteries because they don’t know how to enjoy life. Renunciation is a way of actually learning how to tap into our deep inner well of energy.

When people ask me about renunciation, I encourage them to investigate for themselves and not merely accept unexamined opinions from others – including me and my opinions. Try it out and see. If you’re struggling inwardly with something that is difficult – like sadness, for example – and you find it hard to let go, notice the characteristic of the struggle. You feel that you want to let go but you can’t. You ask yourself, ‘What is this holding on that I am doing? What is all this extra baggage that I am carrying?’ A lot of it is just habit, just habit that comes through not really taking the time to get to know desire as it really is, as a movement in our minds. We too readily assume that we must take sides for or against our desires without first inquiring into their reality. Desire is not the way it appears to be. We can ask ourselves, ‘Do I want to live according to the patterns of desire with which I have become conditioned and limited? Or do I want to live in a state of freedom by maintaining here-and-now judgment-free awareness?’ I never cease to find this an inspiring contemplation. Renunciation, like desire, is not what it might first seem. Skilfully going against our desires is not going to make us less happy!

Please don’t think that this practice is especially difficult or only for a few individuals. We all need to know how to live consciously with the authority to follow that which our heart tells us is true. We are all potentially able to direct our attention towards what we personally feel really matters. We do not, as it might appear, have to be intimidated by other people’s persuasion. If in our own experience we recognise something as worthy then let’s give ourselves to it wholeheartedly and single-mindedly. Renunciation, developed with right understanding, becomes the guiding principle that sustains us on our own true path when we might otherwise have fallen into distraction.

So thank you for your question this evening.



© 2005 Aruna Publications