On Renunciation

On Renunciation

A reflection on practice by Greg Scharf

The word renunciation doesn’t have a particularly positive connotation in our culture. It might be interesting to sit with this word and see what your response to it is; how does it sit in your heart? Often we see renunciation as a kind of self-inflicted punishment. We mistakenly think renunciation means that we will no longer enjoy anything, that our lives will become a gray, bland, dullness. At best we might regard it as something that might be good for us – like bad-tasting medicine. If we really look at our practice, we’ll see that as we bring mindfulness to our unfolding experience, we are exploring the landscape of renunciation, learning, moment by moment to let go. As Ajahn Sumedho says: “The way of spiritual life is a movement away from the distraction of attaining or acquiring. It is a relinquishing, a letting go. It simplifies our lives, freeing us from that which is unnecessary. There’s no judgment or rejection, it is pure mindfulness developing in the present moment – the only place truth can be found.”

In our lives, within the terrain of our own hearts & minds, and in our relationships to others, we see over & over how suffering arises. If we strip away our stories and explanations we see that clinging to anything at all leads to suffering, to struggle. Renunciation is really the response of wisdom & compassion in the face of that. There is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying the things of the world. The Buddha does not judge happiness born of the enjoyment of worldly pleasures but he does point to its limitations, uncovering a fundamental misunderstanding: It is the energy of grasping and craving  that is the root cause of suffering, not anything inherent in the objects of worldly pleasure and happiness.

The Buddha offers us the chance to make a trade. From the Dhammapada: “If by giving up a lesser happiness, one could experience a greater happiness, a wise person would renounce the lesser to behold the greater.” Moving from the endless pursuit of desire to a meaningful relationship with renunciation is not to move from happiness to grief, from a state of abundance to one of lack. Instead as Bhikkhu Bodhi says: ” It is to pass from gross, entangling pleasures to an exalted happiness and peace, from a condition of servitude to one of self-mastery. Desire ultimately breeds fear and sorrow, but renunciation gives fearlessness and joy.” This is quite a powerful statement – that renunciation might actually lead us to fearlessness and joy! Who wouldn’t want to make that kind of trade? Renunciation is seen as so important in this tradition because it is held as the very practice of freedom. Rather than being presented as something dismal or bleak, renunciation is seen & described as a practice of joy and happiness and its ultimate fruition is the greatest happiness, that of peace.

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