Is renunciation a good thing?

Posted by on Nov 28, 2012 in Buddhism | No Comments

We had a little discussion on Facebook the other day about how an enlightened being might behave. One person said that they’d eat only as much as necessary to live and have¬†only as much material wealth as required to keep the the body going until death.

This is a common view. It’s the reason monks (in the Theravadin tradition at least) supposedly own nothing but a couple of robes, a bowl, a needle for repairing cloth and a couple of other things I can’t remember. Needless to say those things aren’t ‘flat screen TV’ and ‘the latest pair of trainers’.

This got me thinking (again) about renunciation. Is it a good thing?

Character types

In the Visuddhimagga (an old Theravadin meditation manual), Buddhagosa talks about different character types, and the different meditations suitable for them.

To me, what Buddhagosa is saying is that what’s appropriate practice for one person isn’t necessarily right for someone else.

I can’t remember whether he cites two or three character types. He talks about greed/craving types and hatred/aversion types. He may also talk about delusion types as well, but if he does, I’m not going to talk about that.

Based on past karma, we have a tendency to either respond to external stimuli (i.e. the world) in a general way. Either we are pleased by it or not.

If we enjoy life, we’ll move towards it, seeking more and more. Sure there’ll be plenty of things we don’t like and pull away from as well, but in general we enjoy worldly life.

If we tend not to be pleased by the world, we don’t enjoy it. We tend to pull away from it, dislike it, and even hate it. Again, there’ll be things we like, but our general position is one of aversion.

If we’re a craving type, renunciation will be an interesting practice. Consciously limiting acquisition, and limiting indulgence in sense pleasures in other ways, can help us along the path.

If we’re an aversion type, we’ll naturally be drawn towards the renunciate life. Since we don’t enjoy things, not having them around makes sense to us. But in this case, I don’t think renunciation is a good path. At least not initially.

The middle way for aversion types

The Buddha tried extreme asceticism as a way to awakening. In the end he gave it up (because it doesn’t work). He’d already enjoyed the life of hedonism while he was growing up in the palace. So he knew that doesn’t work either. In the end he taught a ‘middle way’ between the two.

But to get to the middle way, you have to know in which way you’re currently off centre.

If you’re an aversion type (and my guess is most people who get interested in Buddhism are – hence the desire to leave the worldly life) it may be that you need to learn to love the world before you can let it go.

Since it doesn’t come naturally to us, we have to consciously develop it. One way to do this is to seek out things that you enjoy, then enjoy them. Yes, spiritual practice doesn’t have to be dreary! It can involve dance, music, massage, and even yoga, chanting and meditation!

As long as it doesn’t harm others, go nuts. Enjoy things for a while. Get that heart chakra opening a little.

Then take that energy into your practice.

I don’t know if this approach is traditional. However, it’s certainly true that music and dance are key parts of Buddhist cultures. Temples are generally beautiful and awe-inspiring places. And as the mind becomes absorbed in meditation, ‘rapture’ and ‘bliss’ are characteristic experiences.

When you’re not scared of life, or scared of enjoying it, there’s a quality of fearlessness about your practice that is vital to success. Once you have a feeling for both hedonism and asceticism (like the Buddha did pre-enlightenment) you can start to make some headway. You’ll no doubt veer off into one or the other again and again during your life, but once you have a feel for the middle way, you’ll intuitively find your way back to it.

Consumer culture

It’s worth mentioning here that we live in a consumer culture and are probably already well used to consuming stuff. We already have plenty more than we need. We’re good at that.

It may be that it’s important for us to simply our life and reduce our belongings before we can even really start to get a feel for the middle way, and even for ‘enjoyment’.

I’m not suggesting rampant consumerism here. Enjoyment and ‘stuff’ aren’t usually the same thing. So we need to be discerning, and honest with ourselves.

When we do this, we may well find that a genuine renunciation starts to take place. As we honestly investigate what makes us happy, we may naturally move towards a simple contemplative life. This is true renunciation because we aren’t just getting rid of stuff, we’re letting go of craving.



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