8 mins read + a video
Non-attachment, or renunciation, is a really light and happy mind. Sure, we have to contemplate unpopular subjects like death and misery to arrive at it, but this is bringing us into touch with reality and we are always more peaceful when we are less deluded.
We have to want to develop renunciation and, given that it does involve contemplations that may initially seem scary, it may not be obvious to us why. Surely this is just going to be ruining our fun?!
But it’s the opposite. Buddha is not saying don’t enjoy yourself – he is suggesting that we can enjoy ourselves a great deal more. I hope in this article to help persuade at least some of you that renunciation is not only kind of essential, but also a very inspiring mind to have. You’re gonna love it.
There are two parts to developing renunciation, it seems to me. One is contemplating the sufferings of samsara, including those of our countless past and future lives, so that we understand our true predicament and want out. Then to seal the deal we contemplate that samsara’s pleasures are really not worth sticking around for (as explained already here), so what do you think is keeping us here?!
What is renunciation, again?!
Like Buddha and all the other teachers before him, Geshe Kelsang is always saying that renunciation is not wanting to get away from family or our job, etc. That is more likely to be aversion! Nor are we going for the sackcloth and ashes.
Renunciation is not a wish to abandon our family, friends, home, job and so forth, and become like a beggar; rather, it is a mind that functions to stop attachment to worldly pleasures and that seeks liberation from contaminated rebirth. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Within this quote seems to be the 2-part contemplation I mention above – (1) seeking liberation from contaminated rebirth (the endless cycle of sufferings that come from misidentifying ourselves with a meaty body and deluded mind) and (2) stopping attachment to worldly pleasures.
So, first we need to understand our existential situation — how, if we are a samsaric being, we have no choice but to experience sickness, ageing, death, birth again, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, and general dissatisfaction.
Overpowered by attachment to a body?! Try this.
There is even one meditation, not for the faint-hearted, where we imagine the 32 impure substances that constitute our own and/or someone else’s body are separated out into piles (or buckets if that makes less mess 😁) — one for the intestines, one for the skin, one for the pus, one for the fingernails. Etc. etc. Then we can ask ourselves the question, as Bodhisattva Shantideva does:
What exactly is it that I am so attached to?
The purpose of this strong meditation (or medication!) is not to develop aversion for meaty bodies, as you may think, because aversion is a delusion. It is to balance out the exaggerated attachment we have for them so that we develop non-attachment or renunciation. For example, if we can’t stop fantasizing about someone’s incredible eyes:
Us: I love your eyes!
Them: Here, have one.
If we don’t have inappropriate attention obsessing on how gorgeous and desirable our own or others’ bodies are, and in fact are aware that they are true sufferings, we don’t need a corrective; but if you’re suffering from unmitigated attachment why not give it a go!
It also helps our love and compassion to know that people are having to wander around in these, and that they are thinking, “This is me”, when it actually isn’t; and is it any wonder that we all get sick and decay? The video in this article is a humorous look at that.
Our body is useful but unreliable
We need a human body to make spiritual progress, to house our human mind; but in itself it is a true suffering. We can use any minor shocks we may experience to bring home how treacherous our body is, how eventually it will let us down despite the decades of lavish care, feeding, and cleaning.
I’ll go first … talking of eyes, I was at the optician yesterday, and she took a routine photograph.
“Hmmm,”, she said, pointing out a couple of marks on the back of my eye on the photo. “Looks like you have a freckle here. Or it could be a melanoma.”
“A melaWHAT?” I silently screamed.
“You can come in again later for another test, or I can just do it now?”
So I had the test. What happens, I asked her, if I have a melanoma? Radiation straight into my eyeball, apparently.
She sent me off to choose some frames for the next twenty minutes while we waited for my eyes to dilate. I spent a ton of money because, hey, I was going to be dead soon. Excellent marketing.
Then she examined me, and said the sweetest words I have heard in a long time, “This all looks fine! It is just a freckle.”
But I have been thinking about this since, because that unpleasant feeling of anxiety or fear is common to all of us and I have had a chance to empathize. Even today some dear friends heard horrible news from their doctor. It is only a matter of time before something does go seriously wrong with these lumps of meat. We are all in this together and need to help each other get out.
It’s not just our body – our mind itches or hurts from the delusions as well.
Buddha explained other sufferings as well, such as uncertainty, no companionship, loss of status, and so on. Check out Joyful Path of Good Fortune. Whichever way we cut it, suffering pervades our samsara. That’s ok, providing we know it and are not futilely trying to make it work.
That’s not all folks …
These manifest sufferings are all bad enough in this life, but the truth is they have been going on for countless lives. We need to get our heads around that. Check out this teaching by Gen Losang to help you do just that:
As Geshe Kelsang says:
In every single life, I have experienced the sufferings of sickness, ageing, death, being separated from those I love and being unable to fulfil my wishes. If I do not attain permanent liberation from suffering now, I will have to experience these sufferings again and again in countless future lives. ~ How to Transform Your Life
We sort of have non-attachment already for manifest pain, at least that of this life. We may already think, like this author does, that in our current world craziness it is “time to unplug and escape this nightmare that we are living in” – only for him this means just unplugging Facebook and Twitter and moving to the countryside with a dog.
Tempting to join him, maybe, but we don’t know the extent of it, the beginninglessness and endlessness of it, so we assume we can muddle through or ignore it. We have forgotten all our countless dissatisfactory and painful previous lives, however important they felt at the time. We will be dead within a few hundred months or sooner, when this life will be no more than a forgotten dream as well.
So, Buddha first shakes us out of this complacency with all the talk on the suffering of all our lives until we agree, “Yes, I want out. I really want out.” We need that power in the mind, or else samsara will exert a constant gravitational pull — we’ll never get out. As Geshe Kelsang says:
Just as a bird cannot fly if it has stones tied to its legs, so we cannot make progress on the spiritual path if we are tightly tied down by the chains of attachment. ~ How to Transform Your Life
The very bearable lightness of being
The fact is that with relatively minimal effort compared with all the effort we have been putting into samsara since beginningless time, we can attain liberation.
It may seem counterintuitive, but we do ourselves a big favor and lead a lighter life if we can remember our precious human life and death every day. It also really helps us to lighten up by remembering that the past has gone … and to put a boundary around today.
I sometimes find it helps to think that my past is being rubbed out by the second with a giant eraser that is following me around. All appearances or hallucinations are being erased pretty much the moment they arise. All that continues day to day, and life to life, is our very subtle mind and karmic potentials (which are also, however, changing moment by moment).
And, as mentioned, we don’t need to worry that renunciation will be a scary or a sad mind. Quite the opposite is true. The peace and contentment of non-attachment or renunciation is not just a “non” mind, but a positive mind that opposes the stickiness of our attachment (attachment is translated from the Tibetan “do chag”, which literally means “sticky desire”). Non-attachment is light and happy, and enjoys everything, and even desires good things; but without all that heavy grasping. Being peaceful and non-graspy feels so great. The expectation, insecurity, anxiety, selfishness, small-mindedness, self-doubt, and disappointment have gone.
Renunciation or non-attachment also sets us up for the happiness of love and compassion. If we are bogged down in the swamp of samsara ourselves, like an elephant stuck in mud, how are we going to pull others out? But when we start to see through the illusion of samsara, we develop a strong desire to help others do the same.
It also sets us up for the joy of wisdom as we are no longer attached to hallucinations, to inherently existent things, to things mistakenly perceived to be outside of our mind.
And it sets us up for the bliss of Tantra, including the ability to transform our enjoyments into open-ended bliss. We still have non-sticky desire and we still have passion, but these are now delivering the goods.
Also, it is far more scary not to move our mind in this direction, for then we are trapped forever. And forever is a very long time.
What do I do with this renunciation once I’ve got it?
One thing it is worth knowing is that every action we do with renunciation, however seemingly insignificant, even if it is just brushing our teeth, is an actual path out of samsara. On the other hand, without renunciation, even our most hard-working virtuous actions just lead us to the contaminated pleasures of samsara.
Then we can do lots of things such as practicing moral discipline, concentration, and especially wisdom. Plus, we have now a stable foundation for our compassion – in fact we’re aiming for the mind that is a combination of renunciation and compassion.
Meanwhile, as mentioned, we will feel peaceful and contented, and thus enjoy everything, whatever it is we are doing!
So, in developing renunciation we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Second half of this twofold meditation on renunciation here.