Is there more to the idea of renunciation than just the everyday idea of rejecting one kind of behavior in order to gain something you consider more valuable?
We are all familiar with the idea in everyday life. A wrestler rejects carbs for some weeks in order to make weight before a match. An undergraduate rejects weekend partying for several years in favor of a part-time job to help fund more formal education to obtain greater lifetime income. A businessman rejects going on a fishing trip during his vacation time in order to take a seminar that will increase his chances of promotion.
You gotta pay the price. There’s no free lunch. Give to get.
Many religious traditions also include the idea of renunciation. A nun gives up sex in order to be a better servant of God. A Christian gives up killing and adultery in order to secure a better position in the afterlife. A priest takes a vow of poverty as a means of reducing secular attachments.
Even these religious examples, though, seem to involve the idea of renouncing something to gain something supposedly more valuable. Is that all the idea of renunciation amounts to?
The idea becomes most interesting when it is taken to involve the deliberate rejection of all personal gain.
What is the most important kind of renunciation? The renunciation of thought.
Words like ‘thought’ and ‘thinking’ refer to conceptualizing. Since a concept is a principle of separation, to conceptualize is to separate (sort, divide, discriminate, differentiate, segregate, distinguish). The concept redness separates objects into those that are red and those that aren’t. Concepts are inherently dualistic.
The most troublesome separation is that between self and other. It leads to the practice of spending life trying to gain satisfaction for the insatiable self. Yet the idea of a self (an ego/I, the egoic mind) is itself a thought!
Perhaps the Buddha’s most famous idea is the idea that there is no substantial self. What we ordinarily think of as a self is nothing but a cluster of body, feeling, perception, conceptual fabrications, and cognizance. None of these by itself is a self; none of these is personal.
He said, “Seeing in this way, as a trained practitioner, you become disenchanted with the body, feeling, perception, conceptual fabrications, and cognizance. Being disenchanted, you are free from infatuation. Because of this dispassion, you are liberated.” [From Anattalakkhana Sutta; Samyuttanikaya 3.22.59, G. Wallis, tr.] Doing that undermines the three poisons [infatuation, hostility, and delusion] and enables the clear insight into present-moment awareness that results in eradication, quenching, and unbinding.
Jesus also rejects attachment to self: “If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave self behind. . . What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self?” [The New English Bible, Luke 9, 23 & 25; cf. Mark 8, 34 & 36.]
Renouncing attachment to the idea of self is more than just a merely intellectual revolution; it is ethically critical. Why? It erodes the separation between self and other. As Jesus puts it: “Love your neighbor as yourself” [Matthew 22, 39]. Genuine love is not a selfish taking; it is selfless giving. It leads to the practice of spending life trying to serve others.
Permit me three clarifying points.
First, the renunciation of thought should not be understood as a total rejection of thought. Thought itself is not the problem. In fact, it is not only useful but critical for problem solving. The problem is our incessant attachment to thought.
Second, the renunciation of our incessant attachment to thought cannot be accomplished through thinking. Thinking about unbinding is not realizing unbinding. This is why the Buddha referred to “a trained practitioner.” Mastery of a spiritual practice is required.
Third, the human condition is to be trapped in thought. Salvation is freeing ourselves from that trap.
Freedom requires a skillful balance between thought and no-thought. Such liberation requires an apprehension of the unity behind all duality.
Since we are normally slaves to thought, what is required is freedom from our attachment to thinking.
Sages think, but they are not trapped by their thinking. Since the ego/I is a creation of thought, sages are not trapped by their ego/I’s. This is what enables them to be the greatest lovers, the greatest givers.
Sages claim that thoughts become not only less intrusive but more effective after spiritual awakening from the conceptual dream.
If these ideas attract you, what should you do? Practice renouncing attachment to thinking.
That is not an easy practice to master, but there’s nothing complicated about it. Just practice letting go of incessant thinking. The more you practice that properly, the better you’ll get at it and the easier it will become.
Living well is that difficult and that simple.
The Tao Te Ching [S. Mitchell, tr] puts it with its usual direct succinctness and clarity: “Stop thinking, and end your problems.”