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.