Tony, my friend and tenant, recently asked me to summarize Buddha’s key teaching. I said, “All suffering comes from attachments.” If I remember it right, that was Bhikkhu Buddhadasa’s reply when someone asked him to summarize Buddhism in one short sentence.
In order to end suffering, one needs to give up one’s attachments. Attachments differ depending on the individual. Jesus too taught the importance of non-attachment. There is a story about a nice young man who asked Jesus when he had to do in order to be perfect. Jesus reminded him of the commandments. Beyond the commandments, Jesus said that he also had to sell all he had and give to the poor. The young man was greatly saddened. For he had great wealth. Wealth was his greatest attachment. For other people, the attachment may be on different things. Some people’s greatest attachment is another person.
To give up one’s attachments is to renounce. Traditionally, to become a renounciate is to become a monk or a nun. In Buddhist parlance, it is to “leave home.” But does going through the rituals of “leaving home” necessarily represent true renunciation? Does joining the order of monks or nuns really end suffering?
Happiness is a funny thing. The more you pursue it, the more it runs away from you. Thus, if you become a renounciate in order to find happiness or bliss, you may become very disappointed. Being in the Buddhist circle, I hear about horror stories which happen in monasteries. I don’t want to publicize it here.
While everybody’s attachment is different, it would be fair to say that most people have some attachment to their ego. If you are “leaving home” in search for bliss or happiness, you are substituting one ego pursuit with another. It is just an exchange. Not real renunciation.
The topic for our Buddhist magazine for next month is on renunciation. A monk wrote to our chief editor. The monk said he would like to see us clarify the difference between renunciation and aversion. What a great question!
Previously, I have stated that an aversion is also a form of attachment. If, for example, you have been obsessed with sensual pleasure. In your search for inner peace or bliss, you have decided to renounce pleasure. You cultivate an aversion towards pleasure. Would that help?
It is clear to me that this is also a case of substitution — you are attempting to substitute your attachment to sensual pleasure with an attachment to purity and bliss. It is still an ego pursuit.
To me, the first step of true renunciation is to accept impermanence. You have to see and accept that everything in the phenomenal world changes. This is the law of impermanence. There is no permanent pleasure. There is no permanent suffering either. Can you give up the demand and expectation that things will remain the same? Can you accept the fact that a certain pleasure that you have enjoyed cannot be repeated?
Many Christians have the notion that heaven is a place of permanent bliss. If heaven is really this way, it is static and even stagnant.
In my book, The Zen Teachings of Jesus, I wrote that happiness is not something to acquire. It is an ability. Heaven is not a matter of satisfying your anticipation of happiness. True happiness has to do with accepting and living with what IS.
Renunciation has much to do with understanding and the acceptance of change. It also has much to do with faith — you have the faith that whatever that comes along, you have the ability to transform it into a learning opportunity and an experience of beauty.
Renunciation does not have anything to do with aversion or fighting. It does involve giving up one’s grasping and fixation. It has to do with trusting life and believing that, despite the constant changes, there is always new beauty to be found. Renunciation is a kind of joyous surrender.