Renunciation is a bad word in America. It carries many connotations, subtle meanings like denial, poverty and withdrawal from society. It is thought of as a hardship, even if it is willingly taken on. It is something that many people avoid doing and even avoid thinking about.
This is not a surprise, given that many people in America today hope for a better life. Some might think, “I am not going to give anything up. I came here with nothing, and now it’s my turn to have more.” Others feel, “Life is fine just as it is. Why give up anything?” Some might think, “I grew up here and I deserve at least as much as my parents had.” Others think, “I don’t have enough love in my life, so I can’t renounce any of it.”
However, this is not the kind of renunciation that is most helpful on the path. In Buddhism, the teaching is that there is really only one kind of renunciation that leads to liberation. This one thing that we are truly asked to renounce is our fixed view. That is, if you are willing to entertain some doubt, some skepticism, some inquiry about all the thoughts and feelings that you experience, then you have the opportunity to discover something completely different. You grant yourself the opportunity to experience things as they are, and relinquish things as you think they are, things as you want to force them to be, things as they might one day be if only everyone were to accept your understanding.
This mind of inquiry enables you to transform your fixed views of self and your fixed views of other. It sheds light on the dark shadows of your mind where the fiercest of the fixed views live. It loosens your grip on the things to which you have been clinging, preventing the “rope burn” that comes from holding tightly onto that which cannot remain the same. And if there is anything that is obvious, it’s that things cannot stay the same.
Then, with presence in the moment, having engaged the mind of inquiry, you will begin to experience your oneness with all things. You can begin to see the way in which you are actually interconnected, and not a separate entity governed completely by your own thoughts. Seeing this interconnectedness, you naturally begin to have compassion, for yourself as a changing being and for everything else, because it is also related to you. Just as described in the koan, wherein the monk asks another monk, “What is compassion?” The reply is, “It is like groping for the pillow in the dark while you are sleeping.” That is, it is something so natural you are not even conscious of it. However, this is true only when you are grounded in the truth of interconnectedness. Otherwise, you operate from the sense of scarcity, feeling that more for someone else means less for you, and less for you means you are less than them.
It reminds me of a nun who was the teacher of my dharma brother. She came for a visit to the monastery and, having heard what a wonderful teacher she was to him, I decided to give her a gift. It was tiny present, a glass monk less than 2 cm tall. I wrapped it in tissue paper and presented with a smile and a bow. The nun also smiled and bowed, and thanked me profusely. This is typical Japanese graciousness. The lesson came later. The following week I received a package from the nun, who had sent a beautiful tea cup and some candy. Then another month later, another package with sweets and cards. A few months later, a pretty handkerchief. And the gifts kept coming for many months to come. The lesson was quite clear. Even the smallest bit of generosity was returned many times over in this teacher’s form of renunciation. Truly this was a great teacher! Harada Roshi summed it up saying, “The person who gives a gift is practicing non-attachment.” Her renunciation was so profound that she could practice non-attachment over and over at the slightest prompting.
But how can we practice this in every day modern life, where we are dealing with plenty of people who are not on the same page? Really, it starts with questioning the ways we think and holding them up to the light of the Dharma. When we begin to relinquish the idea that we have to defend our thoughts, or even hang on to them, then a new, more peaceful way of being can begin to unfold. A friend of mine revealed his renunciation the other day, as we were sitting at the dinner table. He told me about his job in the technology industry, where he sits in front of computer most of the day and earns a pretty good living. “But,” he said, “one day I hope to give that up, and have a job where I can help people.” That would have been fine, but my friend had to chuckle at himself. Then with a wry smile he said, “It is a luxury for me even to be able to say that.” You see, he is from a place where most people will only ever have one job, and they have no choice about it. They will tolerate any conditions just to have the job, and they will do that job their whole life. So, for him, it was a luxury even to express the desire to change jobs. What a wide view he had!
So it is with this heart and mind of renunciation that I invite you to take up the path of relinquishing that which you do not need and cannot hold on to anyway. Maybe then you will find your pillow in the dark.