197 – Ni Evitación ni Identificación: Estar con la Realidad de las Situaciones Dolorosas
198 – La Renuncia como Acto de Amor

Buddhism is a path of renunciation. Many people assume this means we aim to separate ourselves from the things and beings of the world and work ourselves into a state where we no longer care about them – at least not to the point where it might hurt or upset us. Fortunately, this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. Renunciation leaves us much more capable of sincere and open-handed love.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Emphasis on Renunciation in Buddhism
Resistance to Renunciation
The Buddha on Our Heart “Leaping Up” at Renunciation
The Drawbacks of Sensual Pleasure
The Rewards of Renunciation
The Challenge of Renunciation
How Do We Know What to Renounce?
Renunciation as a Dignified and Sincere Choice, and an Act of Love


The Emphasis on Renunciation in Buddhism

Many people, particular non-Buddhists, have a pretty negative impression of Buddhist renunciation. This impression is not unfounded.

Buddhism arose in ancient India where a particular worldview was pervasive. Entirely apart from Buddhism itself, Indians of the time from many different religions – and even those of no religion – believed in an endless cycle of rebirth. I’ve discussed the cosmology of transmigration through six realms of existence in detail a number of times on the podcast (see Episodes 29, 30, and 31 on the Six Realms), so in summary: After death, our consciousness enters a human embryo at the moment of conception. This future human takes birth in one of six realms of existence, with some of the realms being fairly pleasant, and some being miserable. In complete ignorance of our past lives, we take rebirth and live passionately, experiencing all the human joys and woes of birth and death, gain and loss, youth and old age, etc. You might be fortunate in one life and then tortured in the next.

The Indians at the time Buddhism arose generally did not see the cycle of rebirth as a cause for celebration. Rather than anticipating a permanent, blissful, peaceful afterlife, as is the case for many religions, they saw rebirth as a roll of the dice that involved loss, heartache, and death even in the best-case scenarios. Ordinary Indians focused on what they could do in this life to ensure a fortunate rebirth. Spiritual seekers – including Jains and adherents to Vedic traditions – sought release from the whole cycle of rebirth. In Jainism and Buddhism, among other paths, release involved serious renunciation in this lifetime so you could focus on spiritual practice and break free from the world.

In short, the original Buddhist view was that the world was an unpredictable and tumultuous mixed bag. Sure, it had many pleasures, but those pleasures were impermanent. If you relied on them, you’d end up suffering. Eventually, all of us will experience the pains of old age, illness, loss, and death. Best to seek refuge in what is not conditioned or impermanent: The liberation achieved by practicing the Buddhadharma. The Buddha himself renounced the life of a wealthy householder, ruler, husband, and father in order to pursue liberation. As a renunciate, he had one set of robes, a begging bowl, was celibate, and wandered without a home. His story is regarded as an archetype for all Buddhists to admire, if not emulate.

Resistance to Renunciation

I’m sure there are fascinating reasons most modern societies tend to have much more life-affirming worldviews than those of ancient Indians seeking release from the cycle of rebirth. Unfortunately, I don’t know those reasons, but here we are. Maybe it’s just that, over the millennia, life has gotten easier for the vast majority of us. Most of us think life is worth living even if it’s painful. We think love and engagement with the things of the world are not only okay, they’re opportunities for practice. I suspect most people wouldn’t mind believing they were going to be reborn after death, as long as they felt reasonably confident they would have a fortunate rebirth. If modern folks believe in rebirth, I picture them being sad to leave their current life but also approaching the moment of death as the beginning of the next grand adventure. Better, in any case, than facing the end of existence. Because of our relatively positive view of life, it can be difficult for us to relate to the theme of renunciation in Buddhism.

Notably, the encouragement toward hard-core renunciation has softened over the millennia in many forms of Buddhism, particularly in Mahayana. The Mahayana bodhisattva chooses to be reborn out of compassion for all living beings. Buddhism doesn’t usually use the word “love” to describe this motivation, largely in order to avoid evoking the idea of romantic or passionate love, but it seems appropriate to say a bodhisattva loves living beings. Other kinds of life-affirming themes occur in Vajrayana Buddhism, where even apparently negative energies are viewed as manifestations of enlightened mind that can be harnessed and transformed. Chan and Zen don’t exactly encourage the enjoyment of worldly pleasures, but they often celebrate the luminous quality of this life when experienced directly – the taste of a bowl of tea, or the brilliance of the cherry blossoms. Finally, most practitioners of Zen in the modern world are lay people, so the necessity of literal renunciation has been further deemphasized.

Nonetheless, renunciation remains central to Buddhist practice. Renunciation means “relinquishing, abandoning, repudiating, or sacrificing something.” [i] As you can tell from the definition, it tends of have a negative connotation. Repudiate means “to cast off or disown,” or “to reject with disapproval or condemnation, or “to reject with denial.”[ii] I suspect much of our awe at hard-core renunciates is based not in a belief that what they’ve renounced is bad, but in a sense of wonderment that they manage to do without the joys of life. Fortunately, Buddhist renunciation is not about rejecting or disapproving of life’s pleasures, and it’s not some kind of pointless spiritual athleticism to prove the strength of your self-discipline. In Buddhism, we emphasize that there’s a surprisingly large and worthwhile pay-off for renunciation.

The Buddha on Our Heart “Leaping Up” at Renunciation

The idea that renunciation is actually a rewarding thing is presented in a fascinating Pali Canon text, the Tapussa Sutta (translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu). (The sutta also shows how we modern folks are not the only ones skeptical of renunciation!) Tapussa, a lay student of the Buddha, goes to the monk Ananda and suggests that the requirement for renunciation presents too huge a barrier to practice for most people. Ananda passes Tapussa’s concern on to the Buddha, saying to him:

“Tapussa the householder, here, has said to me, ‘Venerable Ananda, sir, we are householders who indulge in sensuality, delight in sensuality, enjoy sensuality, rejoice in sensuality. For us… renunciation seems like a sheer drop-off. Yet I’ve heard that in this doctrine & discipline the hearts of the very young monks leap up at renunciation, grow confident, steadfast, & firm, seeing it as peace. So right here is where this doctrine & discipline is contrary to the great mass of people: i.e., [this issue of] renunciation.'”

[The Buddha responds] “So it is, Ananda. So it is. Even I myself, before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened Bodhisatta, thought: ‘Renunciation is good. Seclusion is good.’ But my heart didn’t leap up at renunciation, didn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace. The thought occurred to me: ‘What is the cause, what is the reason, why my heart doesn’t leap up at renunciation, doesn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace?’ Then the thought occurred to me: ‘I haven’t seen the drawback of sensual pleasures; I haven’t pursued [that theme]. I haven’t understood the reward of renunciation; I haven’t familiarized myself with it. That’s why my heart doesn’t leap up at renunciation, doesn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace.’[iii]

The Buddha relates how he decided to carefully contemplate the drawback of sensual pleasure, and to study, work toward, and taste the rewards of renunciation. He describes how he did this, and how eventually he developed a positive response to renunciation and then was able to settle his mind enough for awakening.

The Drawbacks of Sensual Pleasure

Let’s investigate, then, the “drawback of sensual pleasure.” Sensual pleasure is a category including any kind of pleasure or satisfaction we get through one or more of our senses. In the Buddhist view we have six sense organs: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. As a sense organ, the mind perceives thoughts and emotions. Therefore, sensual pleasure isn’t just the obvious enjoyment of things like body-oriented things like food, sex, music, dancing, or beauty. So-called “sensual pleasure” includes the satisfaction we get from family relationships, success in the world, status, security, the mastery of tasks and skills, poetry, knowledge, etc. At an even subtler level, sensual pleasure can include the satisfaction the small self derives from partly selfless acts of service, generosity, standing up for justice, etc. You can ask: Is this satisfaction dependent on the continued existence or proximity of certain people, things, or opportunities? If yes, then it’s sensual pleasure!

We don’t want to hear that sensual pleasure is bad. Even if we believe there is a greater/sweeter/ more transcendent kind of spiritual satisfaction, we’d like to have access to that and also retain our sensual pleasures. No one likes the idea of renouncing almost everything they love and enjoy in the world.

What is, exactly, the “drawback” of sensual pleasure? The answer to this is the Second Noble Truth of dukkha – stress, dissatisfactoriness, or suffering. Our senses respond to things, dharmas-with-a-little-“d,” and all dharmas are conditioned. A set of circumstances cause them to arise, change, and eventually pass away. Conditioned things are impermanent and have no enduring, inherent, graspable self-nature. When we depend on them for happiness, we will inevitably experience pain and distress as they change or as we lose them, and even in the meantime we feel anxiety about keeping them.

The Rewards of Renunciation

Most of us are at a loss for what would give our lives meaning, what would make it worth it to be alive, if it weren’t for sensual pleasure in this broad sense of the term. Buddhism suggests, though, that we’re not dependent on sensual pleasure for meaning, peace, and happiness. Buddhism suggests there’s a much more rewarding way to live. This teaching is conveyed in the Pali Canon’s Kāḷigodha Sutta (translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)”

A large number of monks heard Ven. Bhaddiya, Kāḷigodhā’s son, on going to the wilderness, to the root of a tree, or to an empty dwelling, repeatedly exclaim, “What bliss! What bliss!” and on hearing him, the thought occurred to them, “There’s no doubt but that Ven. Bhaddiya, Kāḷigodhā’s son, doesn’t enjoy leading the holy life, for when he was a householder he knew the bliss of kingship, so that now, on recollecting that when going to the wilderness, to the root of a tree, or to an empty dwelling, he is repeatedly exclaiming, ‘What bliss! What bliss!'”

The monks then go tell the Buddha about this, and the Buddha asks Ven. Bhaddiya why he goes around saying “What bliss! What bliss!” Bhaddiya replies:

“Before, when I has a householder, maintaining the bliss of kingship, lord, I had guards posted within and without the royal apartments, within and without the city, within and without the countryside. But even though I was thus guarded, thus protected, I dwelled in fear — agitated, distrustful, & afraid. But now, on going alone to the wilderness, to the root of a tree, or to an empty dwelling, I dwell without fear, unagitated, confident, & unafraid — unconcerned, unruffled, my wants satisfied, with my mind like a wild deer. This is the compelling reason I have in mind that — when going to the wilderness, to the root of a tree, or to an empty dwelling — I repeatedly exclaim, ‘What bliss! What bliss!'”[iv]

It is a common theme in Buddhist texts and teachings that the rewards of renunciation are so surprisingly blissful and worthwhile, they make sensual pleasure seem meager in comparison. In the Dhammapada (verse 290), one of the oldest Buddhist texts, the Buddha states:

If, by forsaking

a limited ease,

he would see

an abundance of ease,

the enlightened man

would forsake

the limited ease

for the sake

of the abundant.[v]

The “abundance of ease” is the reward of renunciation, while “limited ease” is what we’re used to deriving from worldly pursuits and pleasures.

In the Lotus Sutra parable of the burning house (see Episode 144 – Lotus Sutra 2: Wake Up! The Parable of the Burning House), those of us attached to sensual pleasure are likened to children playing in a burning house. The children are too caught up in playing with their toys to notice the danger and their imminent demise. When their father finally convinces them to leave the house (by telling them there are better toys outside), they find the wonderful reward of a magnificent carriage, which stands for the Buddha Way. Of course, they also get the reward of safety and survival. What’s striking about this parable is how it points out that, before we renounce something, all we know is our limited pleasure. Renunciation seems like an entirely negative thing. It’s only once we make the choice of renunciation that we realize, “Oh wow, this is much better!” We cling to small pleasures only out of ignorance. Thanissaro Bhikkhu compares this to refusing to trade our candy for gold.[vi]

The Challenge of Renunciation

Buddhist teachings, then, challenge us: Look for the greater ease. Be willing to enact renunciation in order to explore what is possible. Be willing to recognize the drawbacks of your dependence on sensual pleasure.

But what, exactly, are we asked to renounce? Whatever causes dukkha, or constrains our wisdom, compassion, skillful means.

It’s important to realize we’re not renouncing things because of a moral rejection of “sensual” things, or because of a dualistic belief that the “spiritual” is superior to the impure physical world. We’re not renouncing the rewarding, positive things in life like family relationships or appreciation for our worldly blessings because we want to protect ourselves from feeling sad when we lose them. That’s a coward’s way out and is really just about protecting the self.

We’re challenged to consider renunciation of anything we notice in our life that we suspect is a matter of us “clinging to candy” instead of emptying our hands and accepting gold. We’re asked to be honest with ourselves about when we’re playing obsessively with our toys in a burning house instead of finding our way to a larger, safer, more rewarding reality. When we’re forsaking abundant ease for limited ease.

What we’re actually renouncing are our own problematic actions of body, speech, and mind. (Note that “actions” of mind are thoughts and intentions.) The essential part of this is mental/emotional renunciation, not necessarily literal renunciation. Of course, sometimes literal or physical renunciation is helpful – for example, depending on your issue, abstaining from alcohol or drugs, staying away from gambling, or setting limits on food consumption or shopping. Most of the time, however, what we need to renounce is not so much the thing itself but our attitude toward it.

This is why, in Zen, we say monastic practitioners are “monks of body,” while lay practitioners are “monks of mind.” Both practice renunciation, but while the renunciate monastic enacts this literally (by giving up home, family, money, privacy, sex, entertainment, and other pleasures during training), monks of mind are challenged to practice renunciation while remaining engaged in the things of the world. What does it mean to renounce something even while you’re engaging with it? Again, what we need to renounce is not so much the thing itself but our attitude toward it – particularly our attachment to it, or our dependence on it.

Ideally, we learn to recognize when we’re grasping after something, when the thing (or the relationship, or opportunity) becomes something we must have, or else. Or else… we’ll be miserable, lost, terrified, destroyed, etc. Then we work on letting go of attachment – or, alternatively, on renunciation of that which is causing suffering. This isn’t easy or straightforward. We have to, as the Buddha said, pursue the theme of the drawback of attachment to sensual pleasures. We need to examine our own minds and hearts, to understand and familiarize ourselves with how our attachment brings suffering to self and other. Then we continue to examine our own direct experience to understand and familiarize ourselves with how letting go of attachment is rewarding – how renunciation of attachment allows us to “grow confident, steadfast, [firm],” and see renunciation as peace. It may take a while to find our way to that first letting go, but as long as we hold that intention and continue our practice, a way will open up to us.

How Do We Know What to Renounce?

How do we know what it would be good to renounce? One way to approach this question is to ask: What are your addictions? I mean “addiction” in a very broad sense: Something we engage in or consume that gives us some kind of immediate, temporary pay-off – some kind of pleasure, satisfaction, or relief – but which is not ultimately conducive to our health and well-being. An addiction that involves something toxic may have serious and obvious consequences to our life and health, but an addiction to something that’s not in itself toxic (food, shopping, taking care of family, consumption of news, watching TV) still hurts us and others. This is because of the way our small sense of self gets wrapped up in it, and the way that indulging the addiction distracts us from seeking the more abundant ease accessible through healthier choices.

I’ll use something from my life as an example. Lately, my zazen has been very full of thinking. As I’ve discussed many times (for example, in Episode 150 – Zazen as the Dharma Gate of Joyful Ease), shikantaza isn’t about disciplining our mind so we don’t think, it’s about trying to be as wholehearted as we can be in letting thoughts go. If we don’t engage them, they naturally pass. When my zazen is full of thinking, it’s because my addiction to productive activity is kicking in and I don’t want to just let the thoughts pass. I want to actively engage them, and problem solve, plan, and create. Reflecting on this situation is what got me thinking about renunciation.

Of course, I don’t want to – or need to – renounce productive activity itself, although short-term renunciation of it in a literal way is a valuable practice, such as happens during a silent retreat. Primarily I need to renounce my addiction to productive activity. This insight then prompted me to examine my mind more closely, as the Buddha instructed. What happens when I indulge my addiction? What is the temporary payoff of doing so that is ultimately not conducive to my health and well-being? I looked within and realized I get a sense of effectiveness, accomplishment, meaning, and control.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with these experiences. These are sensual pleasures. But if planning/starting/engaging in/finishing projects gives me a rush of these feelings, and I go from project to project to project, keeping these feelings going through nonstop activity like chain smoker leaving no break between cigarettes, what is the drawback? Reflecting again, I had to admit I end up with a sense of compulsion, of living ahead of this moment (where am I going to get my next fix?), and a lack of appreciation for what’s already been accomplished, for just this. I also sometimes end up using the beings and things around me to serve my own ends and get impatient when something gets in the way of my productive activity. More subtly, indulging this addiction over and over strengthens the habit, and distracts me from opening up to the abundance of ease that is available at all times.

So, what’s the payoff of renunciation in the case of my addiction to productive activity? Remembering and touching the spaciousness of reality, where everything is complete just as it is. Greater perspective when going about activities. Less compulsion and impatience. More appreciation for the process and for the beings and things involved. Once I remember to let go of my attachment to productive activity, it’s like I wake up from trance and look around me. Ah, how much nicer this is!

Renunciation as a Dignified and Sincere Choice, and an Act of Love

Renunciation must be sincere and come from within. It’s a choice, and it really doesn’t work to dwell on a sense you should renounce something. Like the Buddha said, you need to examine your own body-mind: Are there drawbacks to this behavior of body, speech, or mind? Maybe there are, maybe there aren’t. Only you know. But hopefully you will be willing to see clearly and, if appropriate, conclude that renunciation is the path forward.

At this point it’s important to remember that renunciation in Buddhism is not negative. It’s a dignified choice we make based on faith in the practice, and on the promise that the rewards of renunciation will far outweigh the temporary fix we get from that we are renouncing. You might view renunciation as an act of love.

For example, one of the first concerns that arise for most practitioners of Buddhism is what renunciation means with respect to one’s loved ones. No one wants to renounce love for family or friends or community. Fortunately, love for people is good thing, definitely not something to renounce. However, dependence on relationships with particular people for happiness – is there a drawback to this? To explore this question, try contemplating love that isn’t dependent: Think about the Christian bible verse, Corinthians 13, which says:

“Love is patient [and] kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”[vii]

Now ask yourself: Are you able to manifest this kind of love when you feel dependent on your relationship with someone being a particular way? When your sense of self is all wrapped up in their behavior, or in their response to you? When we’re addicted to or dependent on our relationships in a self-referential way, we’re often grasping, controlling, anxious about betrayal, rejection, or loss, and resistant to other people changing. We fear that if we lost our loved one, we would not only feel grief but end up desperate and lost in a deep, existential way. What’s valuable to renounce is not open-handed love for people, but self-referential love for them – dependence on particular relationships being a certain way in order to make us feel happy and fulfilled.

When we manage to let go of this dependence, we end up much better able to love in a sincere and open-handed way. Our love becomes a gift to the other person instead of transaction with an elaborate set of expectations. We become more appreciative of our relationships just as they are precisely because we’ve faced and accepted their impermanence. In renouncing our self-referential dependence on relationships, we’re challenged to find our own, unconditional, inner sense of groundedness and strength. This strength allows us to connect with others but refrain from trying to live through them.

In conclusion, when we notice something in our lives is causing suffering or stress, or is constraining our wisdom and compassion, it’s worth investigating whether the practice of renunciation can open us up to a better way of being. We identify an action of body, speech, or mind that tends to be problematic, and ask ourselves, “What temporary payoff do I get from doing this? What motivates me to grasp or be overly attached to person, thing, or behavior? What am I hoping for, or afraid of? What are the drawbacks to my addiction to or dependence on this particular sensual pleasure? In contemplating renunciation, what assumptions am I making that might be wrong? What other possible actions of body, speech, and mind are possible? Is there a deeper desire under my addictive behavior? What would ultimately satisfy me?

Then we experiment – letting go when and where we can and being alert for the positive results. Our zazen helps in this process, because it’s nothing other than a daily enactment of renunciation: Letting go, at least temporarily, of limited ease in the interest of accessing abundant ease.

We may need to take a few steps down the path of renunciation based on faith, but then we confirm our direction is good through our own direct experience. At a certain point, even if we started down the path of renunciation with skepticism, as the Buddha said, our heart “leap[s] up at renunciation… grow[s] confident, steadfast, [and] firm, seeing it as peace.”[viii]



[i] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/renunciation

[ii] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/repudiate

[iii] “Tapussa Sutta: To Tapussa” (AN 9.41), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an09/an09.041.than.html .

[iv] “Kāḷigodha Sutta: Bhaddiya Kāḷigodha” (Ud 2.10), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 August 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.2.10.than.html .

[v] “Pakinnakavagga: Miscellany” (Dhp XXI), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.21.than.html .

[vi] “Trading Candy for Gold: Renunciation as a Skill”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 8 March 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/candy.html .

[vii] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+13%3A4-8%2C1+Corinthians+13%3A13&version=NIV;KJV

[viii] “Tapussa Sutta: To Tapussa” (AN 9.41), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an09/an09.041.than.html .


Photo Credit

Photo of Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon” by Dominic Robinson from Bristol, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


197 – Ni Evitación ni Identificación: Estar con la Realidad de las Situaciones Dolorosas
198 – La Renuncia como Acto de Amor