The Joy of Renunciation

Based on a talk given at the Western Buddhist Order biennial men’s convention, Padmaloka August 2007.


Renunciation is not a popular topic these days. Even in the Buddha’s time many of his disciples didn’t follow his exhortation to Go Forth from the home into the homeless life, so perhaps it has never been a particularly popular teaching of the Buddha.

I recently read that in 1983 a Korean Buddhist Organisation, the Chogye Order had 14 million members. Only 20 thousand of those had put behind the worldly life to the extent that they lived a full time religious life, but even the majority of these monks and nuns were not prepared to let everything go. There were only a few hundred of them prepared to devote themselves fully to meditation and the development of insight. All these millions of Buddhists no doubt sincerely see Awakening and insight as their Ideal – but only a few hundred are actually prepared to leave the world behind fully to try to achieve it.

Friends of mine in the US, and in the UK, have often told me that talking about renunciation may well put people off Buddhism. This may be the case but this is not my intention. I talk about it because, whether we like it or not, it is a core teaching of the Buddha. I believe that the value of renunciation is not fully appreciated because it is misunderstood, and I believe that the practice brings the greatest happiness that one can experience. So, my hope is to share this enthusiasm with others.

I have always enjoyed the worldly life. I am a bit of a sensualist, I enjoy my food, my possessions, I enjoy travel and social life, and I’ve enjoyed a fairly rich diet of relationships with women. But, I have also felt a pull towards a life of freedom. I have sought liberation from the ties of the world – even the attractions of the most pleasant experiences. As a child I enjoyed cycling through country lanes, or hiking with a backpack over the moors, or camping in some secluded spot away from the world. As I got older I took up hitch-hiking simply for the feeling of lightness and freedom that it gave. I remember once, after a particularly pleasant ride, standing by the road – on the Newbury by-pass – filled by a feeling of such intense happiness that I jumped onto a low wall and began to dance along it – completely happy because I had nothing to do and nowhere to go.

I have recently come up with a personal myth for this ambivalent love of both the world and the freedom from it’s bondage. It is a geographical myth – based on truths of geography but with a deeper meaning – at least for me.

In Montana there are two rivers, named after two Indian tribes – and in my mythology they manifest in the form of two goddesses – whose names are secret. Both rivers arise from the snowfields of the Missions – high snow covered mountains in the north of the state. The Blackfoot runs through the mountains in steep ravines. It is mostly fast and exciting, with rapids and waterfalls but occasionally there are gentle stretches of open water. This river is the river of the world. It’s energy is exciting and engaging, it is strong and turbulent emotion, it is love, hate, envy, passion, pride, jealousy and so on. It represents the exciting and stimulating emotions of the world. The Flathead runs out of a massive lake fed by numerous mountain streams. It it a broad river which flows slowly, though not sluggishly, meandering across a wide dry basin beneath steep bluffs. It seems to me to be ancient, long established, secret, profound. It’s energy is gentle but quite unstoppable. It seems to belong to another world, a deeper inner world. It represents the emotional energy that can be discovered within the mind. The emotional energy of deep contentment, of love, of compassion, and of the ecstasy of meditation.

Each river has a goddess who manifests in the world in a variety of forms – and I have at times desired one or the other – or confused the one for the other. But as my life has moved on my devotion seems to be more and more directed to goddess of the Flathead. Both goddesses are very attractive – but the goddess of the Flathead is subtly attractive, her beauty seems to grow more profound as I get to know her more intimately – she seems to provide an inexhaustible source of deepening pleasure – there seems to be no limit what she has to offer. The goddess of the Blackfoot can provide great excitement and immediate enjoyment and pleasure but frankly she turns out to be a flirt and she has never really come up with the promise that she offers – although I must confess the seduction process can be great fun. Renunciation of the goddess of the Blackfoot for the sake of the goddess of the Flathead is for me one way of seeing the path of the spiritual life. I am an Idealist. I want to live my life according to ideals, even if I am unable to live up to them fully. It seems to me that this is the value of Ideals – you always strive to realise them even though you continually fail.

Buddhism has traditionally embraced lay and monastic lifestyles, but the FWBO, the new Buddhist movement which I encountered in my early twenties, tended towards creating a loose association of ‘semi-monastic’ institutions – communities, businesses and city and retreat centres – which supported the move from a traditionally lay lifestyle towards a slightly more renunciant lifestyle. This suited both my worldly attachments and my longing for greater freedom in my life. These days the movement involves people living a much wider range of lifestyles with many more living alone or with partners and working in various jobs and careers that are not explicitly Buddhist. Even though I may have quite strong reservations about some of the developments I am generally pleased that this ‘broadening’ is taking place. It means that there is now a movement in which a much wider range of men and women can live a shared vision in various ways and to various depths – depending on their circumstances and aspirations. And, it also means that I personally feel freer to do what I want to do without having to try to live a life that is suitable for everyone – inevitable a compromise that satisfies no one. I no longer feel that I have to try to be all things to all men – and women – I can follow my own aspirations and share my life with those who share them.

The broadening of my understanding of the Buddhist community was initiated by Sangharakshita’s review of Reginald Ray’s Buddhist Saints in India in which Dr. Ray puts forward the idea of a three-fold division of the Sangha. He sees a stable Buddhist society as necessarily divided into three components: Lay Practioners, Monastics and Forest Renunciants. This triple view is also presented in a recent translation of the early Mahayana text the Ugra Pariprrcha by Jan Nattier. The text describes the practices of a lay, a monastic renunciant, and a forest renunciant bodhisattva.

When Bhante first introduced this idea to most of us in his review of Reggie Ray’s book in spring of 1995 I personally experienced a profound relief. Until that time within the FWBO/WBO taking organisational responsibility and spiritual development tended to be seen as synonymous. I had been taking organisational responsibility for over twenty years both in the UK and in the US, but since a long retreat I took at Guhyaloka in 1992 I’d felt an increasingly strong urge to change the way I lived and practised the Dharma. I wanted to move away from a busy life of business meetings, talks, classes, social contacts, conferences and material concerns for the needs of the institutions, to a life more explicitly devoted to Buddhist practice, to something that tasted of Freedom – in short, although I wouldn’t have said it at the time, to a more renunciant lifestyle. Was this possible within the context of Western Buddhist Order? At first I had grave and highly disturbing doubts – but with the publication of Bhante’s review I saw – with intense relief – that it was possible. Eventually I saw more clearly how I wanted to live, and I found a way to do it. First at Padmaloka, and then, more recently and more fully, at Guhyaloka where I can dare to say I have a lifestyle that suits me almost perfectly.

The Three-fold division has received some criticism lately because we have, in our Order, neither real forest renunciantes, nor true monastics, nor even lay practitioners in the Asian sense. However the principle of these three divisions seems to me to be applicable and useful to our Order and movement.

I see it not so much to do with forests, monasteries and home life – but to do with the degree of renunciation of worldly activity that one consciously practices in one’s spiritual life. We have those who, whilst not actually living in a Forest, or in the Mountains, are explicitly renouncing the world, (This is perhaps why artists have been included in this category because in some cases they may be so devoted to their work that they tend to have less interest in the worldly winds – in comfort, the opinions of others, ambition, and so on). We have those who live within the institutions of the movement – somewhat removed from the world, and we have those who practice right in the midst of the conditions of a busy career and family life.

All Buddhists practice the Three-fold Path of ethics, meditation and insight. (In the Ugra there is mention of a fourth training – the training in Freedom!) All practice these to different degrees at different times. Similarly we all practice renunciation to some degree – especially when on retreat. The Buddhist tradition has always distinguished between the renunciant and the lay lifestyles, and those living a lay lifestyle are always encouraged to practice renunciation to whatever extent they are able. Even in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa the ‘layman’ Vimalakirti practices renunciation to a degree that would humble all but the most realised renunciants. Renunciation, in short, has always been praised highly in the Buddhist tradition.

Renunciation in the life of the Buddha.

In the life of the Buddha we can see many examples of radical renunciation. His quest began with a renunciation. In some traditions we are told that the impact of the ‘four sights’ inspired him to ‘Go ‘Forth from Home into the Homeless Life’. Later on he renounced the spiritual practices that he had mastered but which he felt had a limited compass. Later on again, after gaining a reputation and a following for his extreme ascetic practices, he renounced them, his reputation, and his following. At the time of his Awakening, the Buddha renounced the ego-centred consciousness that experiences reality as centred on ‘me’; the consciousness that is traditionally described as being obsessed with I, me and mine was finally transcended. The Buddha let go of that ego centred view of existence and gained his Bodhi, the awakening to infinite spiritual freedom, love and knowledge. We could perhaps even say that The Buddha’s compassion arose as a renunciation of a purely ‘personal’ liberation. But even this is not the end of his practice of renunciation. According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta just a few months before his death, at the Capala shrine, the Buddha told Mara ‘mindfully and in full awareness’ that he would renounced the life principle. The life principle is the last bond to be broken. This was the last element of Mara’s domain that he had to abandon. This is the Great Renunciation – and the final and complete Liberation of the Buddha. The Buddha had been letting go of a whole complex of attachments. With each degree of renunciation he experienced a correspondingly advanced degree of Freedom.

It is revealing to note the differing responses of the various levels of being to his Great Renunciation. Brahma, the creator of the universe; says:

‘All beings in the world, all bodies must break up: Even the Teacher, peerless in the human world, The mighty Lord and perfect Buddha has passed away’.

Brahma, who is supposed to be the eternal creator of the universe, says that ‘All beings must break up’, this obviously includes himself. So this is a very important and completely uncompromising statement of the Buddhist view of an eternal creator God.

Sakka, the ruler of the heavens, says:

‘Impermanent are all compounded things, prone to rise and fall, having arisen, they’re destroyed, their passing truest bliss.’

Sakka is the highest of the gods who are supposed to live in permanent bliss. But, again another strong statement, everything on all levels of existence, even the worlds of the gods have eventually to be given up, but in renunciation is to be found the truest bliss. The gods are reminded of the limits of their happiness, and gods and humans who are looking for perfect happiness are reminded that it is to be found not in things of the world but in spiritual Liberation and therefore in the renunciation of earthly and heavenly happiness.

Anuruddha, who is known for his supernormal powers and intense meditation practice says:

‘No breathing in and out – just with steadfast heart. The Sage who is free from lust has passed away to peace. With mind unshaken he endured all pains: By Nibbana the Illumined’s mind is freed.’

Breath, or air, in the Buddhist tradition stands for the life principle itself. Where there is breath there is life. The Buddha had renounced the life principle. With a steadfast heart the Sage free from craving and grasping – he has let it all go – made the ultimate renunciation. His unshaken mind is free from all suffering, he is completely Liberated.

Ananda, the thoroughly positive human, but unenlightened, Ananda says:

‘Terrible was the quaking, men’s hair stood on end, When the all-accomplished Buddha passed away.’

Ananda, the friendly one has given us the human response the deeply emotional response to the passing away of one who was most important to him. He communicates the profound and terrible loss he felt at the death of the Buddha. His grief is an experience of the loss of what he values without the insight that gives rise to liberation.

Renunciation and Freedom are two sides of the same coin. It is important to remember this relationship, because if we want spiritual freedom we cannot achieve it without letting go of the bonds that restrict that freedom. There are some physical, economic, and social bonds which can often only be broken with special effort and long term planning. But essentially, the bonds that hold us are emotional bonds, our clinging to various things. It is these that really bind us to the wheel. We are bound because we indulge our attachments, and yet at the same time we complain that we are not free. We all do this – it is insane.

Renunciation is a Central Buddhist Teaching.

The Buddha was Liberated – Buddhists should follow his example by practising his teaching. By practising renunciation we too can develop ever more refined levels of Freedom However there is often a tendency to find reasons why it not really possible to practically renounce ‘the world’. But, as Buddhists, we cannot ignore the fact that Freedom and its cause – renunciation – are central to Buddhist Practice. A few examples will amply illustrate this point.

In the Sattipatana sutta and in many other places in the Pali Cannon where he is introducing a discourse on meditation, we find the Buddha saying that,

‘having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building he sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore…..’

This very simple – and therefore easily overlooked – stock phrase makes it clear that to meditate one must go forth from the world, even if only temporarily.

There are of course much stronger suggestions as when in the Dhammapada the Buddha says:

Not by a shower of coins does contentment arise in sensual pleasures. Of little sweetness, but painful, are sensual pleasures. Knowing this the wise man finds no delight even in heavenly pleasures. The disciple of the Fully Enlightened One delights in the destruction of craving.

Or stronger still:

Cut down the whole forest, not just one tree. From the forest arises fear. Cutting down both wood and brushwood, be ‘out of the wood’ almsman. For as long as the brushwood of passions of man for woman (for example) is not cut down, so long is his mind in bondage like a suckling calf to its mother-cow.

In the Inquiry of Ugra, which is apparently one of the earliest Mahayana scriptures, the wealthy and influential layman Ugra asks the Buddha how the householder bodhisattva and the renunciant bodhisattva should live and practice the Dharma. Ugara is told that the householder Bodhisattva takes Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, he practices right livelihood and respects and supports his family, friends, and servants. He never abandons his efforts for the welfare of others, even at severe cost to himself. He practices the eleven ethical precepts (including celibacy and abstention from alcohol and drugs.). He encourages others to live by the Dharma; and then he is to consider (and the text goes on at great length and in shockingly direct terms) the unsatisfactory nature of home, relations, possessions, and reputation. Finally he is encouraged, in no uncertain terms, to leave all this behind and live the renunciant life. The Buddha then goes on to describe the joyful life of the renunciant bodhisattva. This is a very Idealistic text. As the translator Jan Nattier says it is not ‘family friendly’ text but it is very down to earth and practical, .

Milarepa is perhaps the epitome, the Ideal, Buddhist renunciant. Although his life story and teachings do not hide the difficulties he experienced in his practice he is an inspiring example of the joys and delight of renunciation. Many of his songs are encouragements to all types of people – householders as well as yogis – to abandon the lesser pleasures of the ‘world’ for the infinitely greater pleasures of spiritual freedom. He is uncompromising in his advocacy of renunciation. For example the well known story of The Shepherd’s Search for Mind starts with an interaction with a devoted married couple who offer Milarepa a place in their lives. He rejects their offer and explains very directly why he has renounced the pleasures of the world. The story then goes on to outline the Mahamudra teaching to a young shepherd boy who lives free of all worldly ties. Milarepa’s renunciation is always joyful. There is no disgruntlement about the world but only an exultation in the freedom that arises from non-clinging. In one of his famous songs Milarepa sings:

‘Because I have left my kinsmen, I am happy; Because I have abandoned attachment to my country, I am happy; Since I disregard this place, I am happy; Because I do not wear the lofty garb of priesthood, I am happy; Because I cling not to house and family, I am happy; I need not this or that, so I am happy. Because I possess the great wealth of Dharma, I am happy……’

and so on for a couple of pages.

Gampopa was Milarepa’s disciple and the systematiser of his teaching. He says in the chapter on meditation in the Jewel Ornament of Liberation:

‘Give up enjoyment of towns and cities and always turn to retreat in the forests. Be single-minded at all times, like a rhinoceros, and it will not be long before the best profound absorption is attained.’

Several centuries later Tsong-ka-pa famously said:

‘Aim your mind ultimately to practice. Aim your practice ultimately to the beggar. Aim the beggar ultimately to death. Aim death ultimately to some dusty ravine.’

The Japanese particularly described the life of renunciation in very beautiful terms – as for example in the well know poems of Ryokan – or in the less well known but delightful short work by Kamono Chomei who describes with charm and great humility his quiet life in The Ten Foot Square Hut (Hojoki)

In recent years Mr Chen, one of Bhante’s teachers said:

‘The first mistake is not having a foundation of Renunciation as a firm base for the practice of meditation. Quite often I receive correspondence from America, and my lay Buddhist friends there say that to renounce is easy for people in the East but very hard for Westerners. They complain that in the West there are so many things to give up so it is made more difficult. To them (I) reply that the right thing to do is to lay even more stress on Renunciation. If someone finds mathematics difficult to study, the only way in which he can learn and progress in this subject, is to make even greater efforts. So it is with Renunciation. If we find it difficult, we should struggle and put forth great efforts in order to overcome our attachments and enable us to give them up completely.’

There are, of course, many other examples that could be drawn from the Buddhist scriptures of all schools. I have chose just a smattering of possible references. I do this not just to drive the point home, for reasons I will come back to later, but to make it quite clear that Buddhism teaches that to attain spiritual freedom one must to some degree, at some stage or other, renounce ‘the world’.

What do we need to renounce?

The Dharma always encourages us to renounce ‘the world’ – never to immerse ourselves more deeply into it. But what is ‘the world’ that we have to renounce? In fact it is not any ‘thing’ at all, in essence it is the attachment to ‘things’ that has to be renounced, the ‘things’ themselves are not the problem. It is worth reflecting that it is attachment itself that binds us and causes us suffering. We suffer not only because those things to which we are attached will bring us suffering when we loose them, or because they do not give us what we think they will, and so on. We suffer because of the attachment itself. Realising this – or the corollary, that contentment is happiness – can provide a great impetus to abandoning attachments. However, in practice, to achieve this detachment, it is usually necessary to actually separate ourselves from the objects of attachment, at least temporarily. For example the alcoholic would do well to keep out of bars and not keep liquor in the house until he has firmly established his sobriety, and even then he probably enters a bar only with caution.

To be free we have to disentangle ourselves from everything to which we are attached – which is a very wide range of ‘things’. In practice this includes a variety of objects, people, social connections and status, our own cherished views and feelings, even our own body, sense experience itself and ultimately our own ego-identity – although this is outside the scope of this essay. Attachment goes very deep.

The translators of one version of the Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa say that ‘Renouncing the World’ really means letting go of the busy world of social intercourse in all its manifestations. They call it Social Busyness. So, renunciation of the world means to abandon the complex web of social interactions and all its traps and distractions – so that we can see beyond this into a brighter and more pure level of existence.

Gampopa says:

The essential characteristic of the world (social busyness) is to be distracted through the company of one’s children, spouse, acquaintances, or possessions. ……, attachment to material things such as food, clothing, comfort and so on, and attachment to reputation and respect such as other people’s praise. Because of such attachments one cannot get away from the ‘World’.

It is important at this point to stress that the Buddha does not teach us to be emotionally cold towards others. In fact he teaches an intense emotional relationship of loving kindness, appreciation, and compassion with others. However these emotions are free of attachment to other people.

The Chapter of the Snake in the Suttanipata is rich with guidance as to what should be renounced, for example in the verses on The Rhinoceros Horn we find:

Abandoning offspring, spouse, father, mother, riches, grain, relatives, and sensual pleasures altogether, wander alone, a rhinoceros horn.

But just a few pages later on, in the Mettasutta, we also find:

As a mother would risk her life to protect her child, her only child, even so should one cultivate a limitless heart with regard to all beings. With good will for the entire cosmos, cultivate a limitless heart: Above, below, & all around, unobstructed, without hostility or hate. Whether standing, walking, sitting, or lying down, as long as one is alert, one should be resolved on this mindfulness. This is called a sublime abiding here & now.

It is easy to say – Renounce the World – but it is not so easy to do so.

The Practice of Renunciation

The Spirit of Renunciation

An eminent British Buddhist writer once said that renunciation was about hacking off great bleeding lumps of ego! This is perhaps not the most encouraging way to approach the practice. The Buddha’s approach was quite different. He made the point that it is impossible to successfully renounce the ‘home life’ without having experience of the pleasures of meditation and insight. In the Majjhima Nikaya:

Mahanama, there is still a state unabandoned by you internally, owing to which, at times, states of greed, hate, and delusion invade your mind and remain; for were that state already abandoned by you internally, you would not be living the home life, you would not be enjoying sensual pleasures. It is because that state is unabandoned by you internally that you are living the home life and enjoying sensual pleasures.

Even though a noble disciple has seen clearly as it actually is with proper wisdom how sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering, and much despair, and how great is the danger in them, as long as he still does not attain to the rapture and pleasure that are apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, he may still be attracted to sensual pleasures.

But when a noble disciple has seen clearly as it actually is, with proper wisdom, how sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering, and much despair, and how great is the danger in them, and (my emphasis) he attains to the rapture and pleasure that are apart from sensual pleasures, apart from unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, then he is no longer attracted to sensual pleasures.

The Buddha then goes on to say that this was exactly his experience before he became Enlightened. He could only practice renunciation on the basis of his experience of the even more pleasurable states of contentment, insight and so on. Letting go of the world can seem rather unattractive, or even a rather bleak prospect, so the Buddha stresses that we let go of our worldly pleasures only for greater pleasures – the rapture and delight of Dhyana, or of something even more peaceful than that.

There is also the delightful case of the young Nanda who was pining over his beautiful dark-haired lady, the fairest in the land; her last words ‘Come home soon, young master’ resounding in his ears. The Buddha encouraged his flagging spirits by revealing to him the dove footed nymphs that he would have as attendants if he continued to meditate, compared to whom his dark-haired lady was but a mutilated monkey. We need to be reminded of the exquisite and refined pleasures of the spiritual life – especially at those time when the struggle is painful.

The spiritual life could be seen as a process of transforming our pleasures – from those offered by the world, as I have described it, to those offered by higher states of consciousness, or something even more peaceful than that – that is to say the pleasures of Insight and Liberation. It is important to renounce on the basis of a firm confidence in the happier state to which one is moving.

Renunciation as a Gradual Path

Most men think that renouncing the world simply means to give up sex, but the issue of renunciation is much more complex – and interesting – than this. (Recall that in his exhortation to cut down the forest of attachments, the Buddha called man’s attachment to woman ‘the brushwood’ of craving – it is not even a little tree.) Man’s attraction for woman is usually taken as the model of thirst, grasping, attachment, and consequent bondage – for obvious reasons. However there are many more subtle and serious attachments that come to light as we work towards Liberation.

The Buddhist texts speak about renunciation of things to which we are strongly attached: wife or husband, home, children, career, money, food, status, independence and so on. But for most people to think of abandoning these things is not appropriate – at first. It would probably be too big of a transition, it could all seem rather daunting, if not actually undesirable, or simply inconceivable. The practice renunciation seems to work most effectively if it is done a step at a time. Renunciation is a gradual path.

Stages of Practice of Renunciation

Reflection on the Unsatisfactory Nature of ‘the world’

It is perhaps only possible to renounce things when we have ‘seen through’ them. So initially it may be enough to simply reflect on the unsatisfactory nature of ‘the world’, to reflect on Dukkha, the first Noble Truth, to reflect that the things of the world are not all they are cracked up to be. Pleasurable though they undoubtedly are, the cost, in terms of loss of freedom and contentment, is high; and even so things of the world often let us down. They turn out not to be as expected.. When we have begun to see through the objects of our attachment – seen their true nature – we can happily renounce them.

The well know steps of the transcendental path, here slightly modified, can be applied:

In dependence upon knowledge and insight of things as they really are arises disenchantment; in dependence on disenchantment arises dispassion; in dependence upon dispassion arises freedom; independence upon freedom arises the knowledge that one is Free.

First one becomes aware that one is bound by an attachment and that it is painful, or at least unsatisfactory, ignoble, restrictive and so on. Seeing things as they really are leads to disenchantment, freedom from the spell that has held one in its grasp. Free of the enchantment one is then able to disentangle the bonds. Gradually the emotional investment in the object of attachment is reduced until one becomes free. Finally one knows oneself to be free and rejoices in the fact.


Reflection may stimulate the desire to practice renunciation but then one has to actually do something. Traditionally, the most fundamental Buddhist practice is Dana – giving. It is said that someone who cannot practice generosity can hardly call themselves a Buddhist at all – we all have something to give. The practice of generosity is the first step on the path of renunciation and it is something that everyone can do. Anything that that we think we can own can be given, not just money and objects. The goal is to develop a spirit of generosity. It is important to reflect that, even though the receiver may enjoy some fruit from the act of giving it is the giver who is the main beneficiary, since it is an act of renunciation, a step towards freedom.

Taking advantage of Loss

Frequently renunciation is forced upon us. This offers a great opportunity. We can either mope and moan about the loss, or take advantage of it to practice renunciation. When a sexual relationship ends for example there is often considerable grief and pain, but there is frequently a glimmer of relief, a touch of freedom in the emotional mix. By consciously focusing on the positive aspects we can find the opportunity to let go not just of the person concerned but of that type of relationship altogether. Even if it take several attempts!

A friends of mine arrived home on day to find her house on fire. Apparently she felt as if a burden had been lifted from her shoulders. So – much to the surprise of her neighbours and the fire fighters – she simply sat by and calmly watched the flames engulf her life. She was free.

I have had the experience of being involved in a certain work or project which for one reason or another I have passed on to others. Giving up one’s work in this way – as in the case of retirement – can be very painful. There is a loss of status, and reputation and one looses one’s influence, even power, as the new people take over. The choice is to become a grumpy, resentful old man, like King Lear, or to renounce the responsibility and enjoy the freedom. One should perhaps take the advice of St John Cassian who, in the early fifth century said that “Renunciants ought to flee women and bishops.”

In the tantric tradition the yogi courts loss by giving up everything and living in the cremation grounds – the place of ultimate loss which he faces directly. He sits firm, as it says in the Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, ‘with his back to the stupa’- supported by the inspiration of the Buddha – until he is free.

Going Forth from Home

The act of going forth from home into the homeless life – either to a monastery, or into the forest, or to the cremation ground – is the traditional method of practising renunciation. But such a big step is unlikely to be taken by many people. A more appropriate practice is to leave the world temporarily – to go on retreat, another time honoured Buddhist practice. It is on retreat that one experiences in a very direct manner not only the struggle with one’s attachments, but the joy and delight of freedom from them – especially through the practice of meditation which is traditionally practised away from ‘the world’. As previously mentioned in the Pali cannon we find the Buddha saying as a prelude to any discourse on meditation:

‘Having gone to the forest, to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, he sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and establishing mindfulness in front of him……’

Shantideva, after a long passage which exhaustively – if not exhaustingly – points out in shockingly graphic terms the failures of ‘the world’ and sensual desires, Shantideva says:

‘ Thus one should recoil from sensual desires and cultivate delight in solitude, in tranquil woodlands empty of contention and strife. On delightful rock surfaces cooled by the fresh sandal balm of the moon’s rays, stretching wide as palace’s, the fortunate pace, fanned by the silent, gentle forest breezes, as they contemplate for the well-being of others. Passing what time one pleases anywhere, in an empty dwelling, at the foot of a tree, or in caves, free from the exhaustion of safeguarding a household, one lives as one pleases, free from care, one’s conduct and dwelling are one’s own choice. Bound to none, one enjoys that happiness and contentment which even for a king is hard to find.’

Gampopa quotes a text – the Chandrapradipasutra – which I think means the Moonlight sutra:

‘Food, drink, robes, flowers, incense and garlands are not what best serve and honour the Victor, the finest Being of all. Whoever, longing for Enlightenment and saddened with the evilness of condition life, takes seven paces towards a place of retreat with the intention of staying there in order to benefit beings has far greater and better merit than those who make such offerings’.

So, whether we go for a day, a weekend, a week, a month, a year, or the rest of our lives, it is on retreat that we can taste the joys of renunciation – the freedom that comes from stillness, simplicity and contentment. When we see the Truth of the Buddha’s teaching we discover what we are really after.

Transformation of Lifestyle

However it is possible to go on retreat, have a profoundly positive experience and then come back to the world and quickly forget it entirely. So, we need conditions to support this delicate inspiration. Something that will enable us to cherish this memory, this vision, of the higher inspiration and pleasure.

It is interesting to note that many of the major steps in the development of the FWBO came after a group of people had been on retreat together. In the first few years of the development of the FWBO the main annual events were Sangharakshita’s series of talks in the Autumn, and the Spring and Summer retreats. After each of those retreats there were developments. Invariably those who attended the retreats wanted to continue the retreat experience into their everyday lives. To enable this required a transformation in the way they lived, and thus the various institutions of the movement developed – in particular the centres, communities and team based right livelihood businesses. Retreats provided such a positive experience of leaving ‘the world’ that renouncing ‘the world’ seemed not to be a difficulty, but a delight, even a sort of joyful imperative, and so some effort was made to replicate the conditions of the retreat in everyday life.

These conditions needed to be built, and they need to be maintained. Building alternative lifestyles can be a long, slow, and sometimes difficult process. It is easy to forget the enormous amount of effort that has gone into the creation of the fragile conditions which support the difficult process of renunciation – and unfortunately it is very easy to loose what has been so painstakingly produced.

The Support of Spiritual Friends

Another inspiration and essential support to the practice of Renunciation is to be with spiritual friends who share one’s aspiration. It is unfortunately true that sometimes in the West even Buddhists fail to support the renunciant because his or her aspirations go so firmly against the norms of western society. We need the support of those who see the real value of renunciation.

Those who exhibit a higher degree of happiness and freedom as a result of simplifying their lives and letting go of the world can give confidence to others. Buddhist renunciants generally seem to be bright, kindly and joyful – not like those gnarled ascetics of another religion who call down judgement of hell on their brothers and sisters for living a decadent life.

We also need guidance. We do not have an established tradition of renunciant lifestyle in the West. This will have to be learned. A lot can be gleaned from the experience of the monastic tradition of the West, and of modern traditions in Asia – we can learn from the successes and failures of others. There is a lot of food for thought. Are the successes of the Christian cenobitic tradition, the massive and powerful monasteries of the middle ages what we want! What are the issues and problems facing modern Korean or Tibetan communities?

We may well find this kalyana mitrata from the Buddhist scriptures – particularly the Pali Cannon. It is a delight to discover in these ancient texts, from a profoundly different culture, incidents that reflect exactly what one experiences in Europe in the Twentieth-first Century. I have recently been reading about various monastic traditions, and find myself feeling proud to be part of a movement that seems to come from the core of the human condition. In all times and many (though not all!) cultures, for many different kinds of spiritual motivations, men and women have left the world in search of higher and more thoroughly satisfying values. It is inspiring to feel an affiliation with this wide and marvelous community.

Difficulties with Renunciation

I began this essay by saying that Renunciation was not a popular subject. Despite the Buddha’s teaching and reports that freedom from the constraints of the world is the highest happiness, there is still a reluctance to Go Forth. Why is this? Firstly it may be hard to understand why we should leave the simple comfort of a worldly life even though it admittedly has its limitations. Secondly even if one does move away from ‘the world’ one frequently encounters unpleasant difficulties rather than the joyful states promised.

Sometimes even a professed Buddhist will declare that they simply do not want to let go of the world – in fact they like it and want to go even more deeply into it! They may even protest that this in not what the Buddha meant at all. This contradiction is but one of the strange and wonderful things about people! According to one record of renunciant life in Thailand monks are at most danger in their fifties when the idealistic fire of youth has cooled and the desire for a comfortable domesticity reasserts itself with undeniable force. This phenomena is clearly observable in general in the Buddhist movement in the West, and in particular within the Western Buddhist Order.

However, it is more likely that a Buddhist can see the need to renounce the world but just doesn’t have the heart for it. In this case it is important to reflect on the Buddha’s teachings and exhortations to understand the relationship between renunciation and freedom; disentanglement and contentment. There is a great wealth of material for such reflection to be found in the texts of all schools of Buddhism. It is also important to reflect on one’s own experience – especially the losses we experience in life – from the loss of a credit card, to the loss of status, to the loss of someone we love.

Sometimes we can understand the faults of ‘the world’ in agonizing detail but still make no personal effort to let go of it. We see the faults but we are still under the spell – we have not yet become disenchanted. So it is crucial that such reflections need to be supported and deepened by the practice of meditation – on retreat where the conditions are most supportive – and then that those insights be supported by action.

Dealing with strong desires

The practice of renunciation will inevitably lead us into some painful conflict with our ‘worldly’ desires. The more naively idealistic may try to simply push their desire aside and claim that it is overcome. This kind of repression is often associated with a forceful assertion that everyone else should renounce this or that as well!! As well as becoming a heavy presence in one’s associates’ lives now, there will undoubtedly be a reaction later when the desire can no longer be held at bay and reasserts itself in an uncontrollable manner. Such an approach can lead to as forceful a repudiation of the renunciant lifestyle as it had previously insisted upon it.

On the other hand when difficulties arise another strategy is simply to give up the struggle. This may be because one feels the desire is ‘natural’, which indeed it is, and that to ignore it may lead to repression, which it may. But often this is really just spiritual laziness. The Buddhist life is a struggle to be Free.

It is possible to resist the strong natural pulls which bind us to the world by remaining fully conscious of the struggle and engaging with it. The myths of the world are replete with stories of the heroic quest – the Buddha’s quest for Liberation was heroic. The renunciant life requires the heroic virtues. A friend recently said that the spiritual life should be a dance not a wrestling match. In some ways this is true, but it is often a wrestling match, and occasionally it seems to be more like single handed combat against an army of demons!

One can work successfully on one’s attachments by making consistent effort in a sort of weaning process. It may take time but, little by little, with the occasional determined step into the unknown even the strongest spell can be broken

Doubt and Seduction

Inevitably doubts will arise, rational doubts that need sorting out by careful thought, and irrational doubts that gnaw at one’s confidence. Sometimes, seeing a friend engaged in a new and exciting affaire, or visiting the comfortable home of another, or reflecting on the successful career of a third, one can wonder if one is on the right track. This needs careful reflection and a deep understanding of why one practices renunciation. There are of course classic answers to these doubts – but the confidence has to come from the heart.

Sometimes friends don’t help. They say that you are being too hard on yourself – you are, after all, only human. And, given the climate of psychological analysis, one or two are bound to try to point out how it is this, or that, or the other psychological factor that is driving you to such abnormal behaviour. One must be wary of such well meaning friends.

Sometimes Mara, the deceiver, the seducer, the personification of doubt, can whisper into one’s mind. Often, usually when I am enjoying contentment in the middle of a long retreat, Mara will say “This is all very well you enjoying yourself like this – but what about other people! Why don’t you do something useful to relieve the suffering of the world instead of sitting here enjoying yourself – selfishly.” He has a point – I could have devoted my life to finding a cure for cancer, or at least building roads or houses. But supposing I’d found a cure for cancer which is not a bad use of a life – people, perverse as they, are would simply go and die painfully of something else! On the other hand, during my moments of greatest contentment I could face death with ease and a sense of fulfilment. Isn’t finding this state and helping others to discover it a worthy contribution to the world? It is not a bad counter argument – it is certainly true – but it is only when I am in a contented state that the argument carries its full weight. Doubt can be overcome only partially by rational argument – in the end it takes a higher state of consciousness to completely silence Mara’s seductive voice.

Abandoning Hope

In my teens and early twenties, I ‘d go out on Saturday nights in the hope of something happening – which probably meant finishing up in bed with someone. Usually this hope was not fulfilled and towards dawn on Sunday morning, I’d wander away from the last club or party and slowly creep back to my lonely bed, feeling thoroughly bleak. Recently I rediscovered this feeling. I go to the coastal towns to shop for food and other supplies every week or two. It is always a little exciting, I cannot resist the vaguely formed hope that something may happen, I might see something I like in the shops, or on the beach, or walking in the streets. But eventually I find nothing comes up to expectations and, sometimes reluctantly, I head back to Guhyaloka with a sense of unfulfilled craving – the same feeling I felt in my youth. As I drive up to the mountains I feel bleak – hopeless – unfulfilled. At first I thought it may be to do with Guhyaloka – but then I realised that it was the result of my unfulfilled expectations – even though they were vague and unformed. Craving leads to Dukkha – here was a direct experience. After a few hours back in the mountains – or at worst a couple of days – the feeling would have passed and my contentment would be re-established. It was some time before I realised that abandoning hope – the emotional support of expected pleasures in the future – was a part of the practice of renunciation. Hopes, like all desires can be fulfilled or abandoned. Often it is impossible to fulfil hopes – especially if they are the unformed creation of the existential force of craving, so, like craving, the sensible thing to do is to abandon them. This is uncomfortable and can only be achieved by bearing the discomfort until it eventually dissolves, sitting with the discomfort until one is liberated by seeing that the hopes are false hopes – they will not provide any form of lasting happiness.

Results of the practice of renunciation.


Once some Jain ascetics were trying to make a point about asceticism. They said that King Bimbisara lived in greater pleasure than the Buddha. The Buddha replied that this was a false assumption. He was happier than his friend the king, because he could sit quietly in great pleasure for as long as he wanted. King Bimbisara, on the other hand, needed the external supports of his palaces, dancing girls, fine food, the love of his courtiers, and so on. The Buddha’s pleasure is of course the blissful states of meditation and ‘something more peaceful than that’.


The Freedom towards which Buddhists aspire is on many levels according to the degree of renunciation practised. It can be freedom from the responsibilities of the ‘dusty home life’, the onerous demands of social life, the suffering of attachments to things, people, and opinions. It is freedom from craving for this or that mode of existence. It is ultimately freedom from the bondage of belief in a permanent ‘self’, freedom from the push and pull of the craving and aversion of an ego-centred consciousness. It is the Freedom experienced by an Awakened consciousness liberated from the narrow confines of a self-centred personality. This liberated state is one of great peace and profound contentment; it is characterised by universal love and penetrating wisdom; but it is also a state of Great Bliss.

Image of the Dakini

Buddhist doctrine, myth, and iconography makes it quite clear that renunciation is not to be associated with feelings of loss and grief, nor with the gloom of harsh asceticism, nor with bleak damnation of the rest of humanity. It is always associated with joy and bliss. The Great Renunciants are depicted as joyful happy people. The hardships of Milarepa’s quest are well know, but so it his indefatigable joy and magically uplifting effect on other people. In the Vajrayana there is a very powerful image of the ultimate Liberation that arises from total renunciation embodied in the figure of the Dakini who is encountered in the Cremation Ground.

The Dakini appears in the place of radical transformation, the place of death and dissolution, the place of total renunciation. But rather than being afraid of death she wears signs of death as her ornaments. She wears necklaces, bracelets, anklets made of bones and skulls which enhance her attraction. She carries a chopper to cut off even the most subtle bonds. She is fearsome but infinitely attractive – as is Freedom – terrifying but, once embraced, ecstatically blissful. She is completely free. She is completely naked, emotionally full, red bodied, full of energy and vitality. She is wild and unbounded – free from all social constraints, all social business. The world means nothing to her. She dances her freedom in the infinite blue sky. The Dakini is not a human woman – she is the reward of Renunciation – the absolute reward – Absolute Freedom. She will appear only in the cremation ground – as one practices renunciation.

The Buddha’s final renunciation of everything was extremely Peaceful and Beautiful. In the stories of the Mahasiddhas – whose lives illustrate the inner experiences of the spiritual Life – they are often said to ‘Go to the Land of the Dakinis surrounded by a host of Dakinis in this very body’. As a result of their radical renunciation they experience the bliss and ecstasy of Liberation. The Liberation of the Awakened Ones is characterised both by the Beauty and Tranquillity of Absolute Contentment – and by the Absolute Bliss of complete Freedom – this is what Renunciation is all about.

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