No Renunciation in the West

You will spend many years in comfort and material wealth.

            – fortune offered me recently inside a cookie from our local “Young Can Wok”

If I harbored any lingering illusions of being a renunciate monk, this curse-blessing-fortune was the nail in the coffin. I’m mostly pretty ok with my comforts, and on a good day am 100% delighted by them (see my Priests Aren’t Parents posts for an example of a good day). Overall, I’d claim a reasonably consistent confidence that, whether or not I’m actually doing the practice in any given moment, I know that the Way is fundamentally now or never, here or nowhere. I’m not really confused about the fact that the Dharma is and will only ever be available in the exact conditions of the life I have right now.

It has been a welcome cause for reflection, then, to understand the lines I recently heard at a priest ordination ceremony:

Good disciples of Buddha, the source of mind is still, the ocean of Dharma is profound. Those who realize this are liberated on the spot. Traveling the path of Buddha, one must be in the state of renunciation. This is not for renunciation itself, but for the sake of realizing the Way. This form is common to all Buddhist Orders; a criterion for attaining freedom. To make body and mind one with the Way, nothing is better than renunciation.

For all of my Mahayana-ness and my “the Dharma adapts to the country it encounters,” hearing these lines encouraged me to seriously revisit this principle of renunciation. If renunciation is truly the criterion for attaining freedom, for unifying body and mind in the Way, it should in fact be my ultimate concern.

The young monk me in Two Shores saw renunciation in the clearest and most simplistic way possible: it means renunciation! There is of course something vital and vibrant in that. I recently read Arundhati Roy’s admonition to “never complicate what is simple,” and that sentiment speaks to this baseline level of renunciation. It speaks to what may be the #1 gripe more traditional Buddhists have about so-called “Zen in the West.” It speaks to just the way the American Dharma boat needs to get rocked. The baseline renunciation is so clearly a condition for freedom:  daring to live the simple life, we find clarity and ease naturally abounding.  Averting from the puss, bile, wealth, intrigues, and snares of mundane concerns, we shed the attachments that weigh us down. We enter the monastery, or like Layman Pang we row our possessions to the middle of a lake and sink the boat. Light and free, we can walk the Way.

My experience of material renunciation is that there is indeed some clarity and ease that comes with it. There is less to lose, which means less to fear, which means more energy for the Way. There is less to do, which just means less to do, which means less to distract us from practice. But this kind of renunciation smells a lot like turning away, and very often has a foundation on aversion and avoidance. These aspects, this shadow, is a criterion not for freedom but for pain.

Roy, like we shameless Mahayanists and even less ashamed California Zennies, naturally also exorts her own inverse, saying too, “never simplify what is complicated.” Renunciation is not simply physical, not simply material. It has a subtler and more vital aspect. To say so already is dangerous ground, the place where the “Upper Middle Way” with all its excesses blooms. Complacency, too, blooms here.

But so too the Great Way blooms here, and real practice in real life blooms here. The Zen that’s not an ideology but a way of life in the life that we have blooms here. I think we need to be skeptical, but we need also to acknowledge that bones are easier to break than old habits. Relationships are easier to destroy than to kindly, generously tend. Our life is easier to run from than to fully meet. What then is renunciation?

Inward renunciation, more than the conditioned details of one lifestyle or another, must be the true and universal “criterion for liberation.” That is a renunciation of ideas about how things should be. A renunciation of holding, space for things to change, to transform, to die. A renunciation that lets all ideas and all ideologies slip away. A renunciation of our designs on one another. A renunciation of everything but this present moment. A renunciation of conceptions of “presence.”

I’d say that for Buddhist priests – ostensible icons of renunciation – manifesting this inner dropping is much more vital than shows of manifesting hunger or poverty. I confess to some suspicion, some glimmer of experience even, that the deliberately hungrier and poorer of our ranks seem to achieve these sacrifices of the body at the expense of this inner release. It is hard to practice breaking the bones and crushing the marrow, it is hard to turn away from the world and see all longing as ash, and to do so seems to require no small dose of attachment. No small dose of ideological grasping, of stubborn inner violence and pride. Of course we can (and do) grasp our well-fed wealth just as strongly. But the point remains – if we must use that kind of grasping to achieve what we’d call renouncing, how deep a renunciation could it be?

This of course amounts mostly to just a Mahayana cruise ship tongue sticking out at a smaller boat, and basically I refuse to buy either bias completely. I renounce it! In fact, the more I consider and practice renunciation, the less I see it having to do with details, inner or outer, gross or subtle. Renunciation seems less about the conditions of practice – though of course it has use in that way – and more as a basic teaching about the nature of things. I’d risk saying that this is the ultimate meaning of the ordination verse above.

Fundamentally, nothing can be grasped. Fundamentally, nothing has been mine, or yours, or anybody’s, ever. We aren’t like that, and things aren’t like that. Since nothing has a sticky essence that can stick to some other sticky essence somewhere, nothing can hold anything. It is all slipping away, has all already slipped.

This is the renunciation I can get behind. This is the renunciation that will be there when all my views and practices of renunciation fade away. It’s a funny thing to call refuge, but it’s finally all I trust.


9 thoughts on “No Renunciation in the West

  1. Hey Jiryu,

    Sitting here in my cozy room, at my laptop, the internet at my fingertips, music playing, a full bookshelf behind me, a closet full of clothes (priest garb, suit, two pairs of stylish jeans, bunch of shirts, running clothes), my jewel of a cellphone within reach, tea in my favorite coffee mug, childhood teddy bear in his place, my Anchor Brewing Company bottle opener on my keyring, the Buddha figure from my teacher and another from a friend, wallet with credit cards and $30 cash and a $25 cinema gift card (which I will use with my girlfriend)… It’s clear to me that I’m not a renunciate in the manner of Shakyamuni, or Dogen.

    As for the inner renunciation of relying on perfect wisdom, letting go of all views, returning to the One and not being attached even to this One, staying close to true nature, seeing the transparency and interpenetration of self and other, I see this as the essence of the practice and I do the best I can.

    Still, I feel funny calling myself a renunciate. I prefer “Zen practitioner.”

    Digging your blog. Keep it up.

    All the best,

  2. Leaving the straw men of hunger and poverty, can we still not say that an ordained follower of the Buddhadharma lives, to all onlookers, an ostensibly different kind life? If not, then why pretend one’s not a householder?

  3. Shodhin, your comment gets right at the matter. I appreciate it. There are those who feel that ordination must be about marking a radically different lifestyle, because if it’s not, then what is it? If ordination doesn’t mark a lifestyle, is it about spiritual attainment, or mediation between people and Buddha? That wouldn’t make any sense in the Universal Vehicle where each one’s practice is completely empowered and enabled. So if it’s not about marking a different lifestyle, isn’t it just about creating “priestly class” so people can feel good about themselves and get clergy perks?

    While I appreciate the sentiment, I do feel there is room for a Buddhist clergy that is not strictly monastic. Not clergy who “pretend not to be householders,” but avowed householders whose life and livelihood is dedicated to supporting the forms of the Buddhadharma, and who live immersed in those forms. Jodo Shinshu has had such clergy for several centuries, and most other Japanese Buddhist sects have done the same for the last couple of hundred years. In the West we have the strong Protestant and Jewish traditions of clergy-in-the-world. They live in some ways like anyone else, but they have a particular function, a particular kind of “job”. They are ministers and rabbis and pastors and do the work of upholding spiritual and religious forms in the world. They are resources and reminders of the Way, and can even be quite humble about their work – they do not need to see themselves as “closer to God” than anyone else, just simply that Church work is the work that they do. It seems evident to me that this model of clergy, as it has developed (or devolved) in Japan and as it’s existed for millenia in the West, is the one with a future in our culture. I love having “real monks” around and I bow to anyone who chooses that path (a deeper bow if they happen to have some real humility to go with it – but that’s my own baggage). Still, I think being a “professional religious person” is an important social function and one that is much more broad than celibate monastics. If the Buddhadharma was just in the hands of the relative handful of Vinaya monks in the West, I don’t think it would have much of a future at all. I think that the Catholic Church is being forced into a similar insight.

    I concede that is a balancing act, though, and that “neither monk nor lay” can be a grey area that people or communities get lost in. In my own community, it can be hard to tell the difference between priest and lay, and it’s always in danger of thus simply becoming a “status” thing or a “better practice” thing, which it absolutely can’t be about.

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. Several years ago an interesting realization took place… After a somewhat traumatic childhood, scattered dead-end jobs, loneliness and frustration and deep tear jerking hunger, I landed a job that paid relatively well, a beautiful apartment blocks from the beach and an abundance of true friends.

    I found myself arguing with my comforts, craving the feeling of my skin getting closer to my ribs, those nights of madness with Shostakovich and King Cobra as my only friends, a banana and a handful of peanuts my only meal…

    “This is wusie shit,” I’d think as I scarfed down a gigantic plate of stir-fry and hooked my fingers around the neck of a New Belgium brew…

    Then I remembered that during the “bad” times I hadn’t complained as such… I was settled with what was. Why argue against my karma now that things are going “well”?

    Either way, it’s just my karma and has nothing to do with my truly boundless nature.

    Abundance is an interesting phenomenon, especially in the west. I don’t think a superficial display of abundance is indicative of one who is caught by materiality… The man of tao does not argue either with his location in the palace or his location on skid row…

    To reject the boons life offers for the sake of idealism seems a childish venture, an obvious display of ego attachment to a view of one’s self as a renunciate, or “more spiritual”, as Eckhart Tolle discusses this reverse ego display in “The New Earth”.

    Seeking for riches or for poverty is grasping either way…

    “beware of those who either detest poverty
    Or are proud of it”

    –Charles Bukowski, The Genius of the Crowd

    As one who firmly believes that “your karma is your dharma”, I have made it an interesting practice to be intrigued by what plentitude can teach me about life, my own as well as the collective one…


  5. Thank you, Jiryu, for this important post.

    I feel that there is room for all manner of Buddhist clergy, from ascetics naked in a cave to monastics to parish priests to something (now developing in the west) more resembling Christian protestant “ministers” … with family and outside (right) work … who step into the pulpit/pull out the Zafus on Sunday. Doing solve will fit the transition from traditional agricultural societies (where mendicancy and lay donations and rich sponsors and, quite often, peasant/slave labor on monastery owned lands supported the ‘pure clergy’ in their practice) to modern capitalist economies where we need to be more self supporting. Yes, as happened during the Protestant Reformation, the hard borders between priest and lay are softening or falling away, with the role of clergy being defined as primarily the trained and experienced voice that leads the flock.

    The Buddha’s old time advice to wealthy householders in the Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta and elsewhere may now apply to such clergy as well. In a nutshell, the problem is not have “wealth”, but in one’s attachment to it coupled with the uses (hopefully constructive and positive) to which it is put. Dogen would not have built Eiheiji … and, thus, there would likely have been no Soto Buddhism … were it not for the blood money of wealthy samurai Hatano. Someone has to pay the incense bill. Fascinating reading is this short letter by Dogen, said to be the oldest fundraising letter on record …

    Trevor’s definition of “renunciation” strikes me as about right. As well, if priests must handle money to pay for their work (instead of having others do the dirty work for them), then use the money for good.

    Some of us wish to return to the marketplace, teach ways to avoid the excesses of consumer society and capitalist consumption and waste, teach freedom found right in the home, office and city streets.

    The times … and Buddhism … are a’Changin.

    Gassho, Jundo Cohen

  6. I hope I didn’t give the impression that what I meant to say only applied to monastics! I want to take nothing — nothing — away from robust lay practice: men and women who, in the course of their everyday lives of work, family, relationship and the rest, live as best they can in accordance with the (5 or 10) precepts and along the lines of the 8-fold path, give themselves over to a practice, etc. That kind of thing is the work of a lifetime.

    But when someone who is ordained makes the case that they are “just a practitioner,” then I have to wonder where the difference is that makes a difference. WHY does one ordain? Is it to earn one’s keep talking Buddhism the way others talk stocks or medicine or machinery or agriculture? Then we are in Protestant minister territory, and given the way Protestantism has unfolded over the last 500ish years (don’t mean to be rude, but where’s the spiritual work in gathering, singing a hymn or two, listening to a sermon or watching a multimedia show as in the megachurches, singing again then breaking for coffee?), yes, I do hope Buddhism doesn’t follow that path exclusively or even predominantly, though I do understand that that kind of thing may be most appropriate for a certain ilk of practitioner. I won’t presume to know what ordained practice will best look like, and I agree it doesn’t have to be in a monastery, but I really, really tire of our Dharma brothers and sisters who make as if it’s really nothing at all. Surely it must be more than “I’m just another practitioner” or “in our sangha we don’t distinguish between lay and ordained practice.”

    We have a great treasure in the model of homeleaving. It is part of the Great Jewel of the Sangha. Let’s not blithely let it slip away.

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