Thursday, April 29, 2010


In the well-woven world of spiritual endeavor, descriptive times are sometimes devoted to renunciation. In Buddhism, for example, monks are occasionally described in technicolor as being people "with one robe and one bowl" -- meaning, on behalf of laymen who may have quite an accumulation of stuff, that that stuff is not going to get them into whatever heaven is on their to-do list. Sex, food, clothing, acquisitiveness, housing, chocolate -- all this and a lot more like it may be on the imagined renunciate's list.

The word "renounce" is defined by an Internet dictionary this way:

▸ verb: cast off or disown ("She renounced her husband")
▸ verb: turn away from; give up
▸ verb: give up, such as power, as of monarchs and emperors, or duties and obligations
▸ verb: leave (a job, post, post, or position) voluntarily

And sure enough, for anyone expressing a bit of determination in the world of spiritual endeavor, there are habits and acquisitions that need to be investigated and, in one sense, cast off. In Zen Buddhism, for example, the thought may cross a student's mind to get to a monastery where things will be less diverting, more serene, and in line with a renunciate spirit. It's a common enough thought and some people actually try it and succeed. I tried it and failed ... and thank my lucky stars that I did.

As a starting point -- a point of encouragement -- I think renunciation is a pretty good thing. By trying to renounce one thing or another, students bring their attention to bear and inspire an investigation of what previously had gone unexamined. Making a virtue out of it is not so much the point. Attention and what actually works are the point.

And in the course of investigating, in the course of some actual-factual practice, a strange thing happens. Bit by bit the dime drops -- no person described as a renunciate could ever afford to renounce anything. To do so would defeat the hopes and dreams of anyone pursuing a spiritual path.

Renunciation creates the very thing it hopes to defeat, which, in the end, just amounts to ego. If there were truly something to renounce, you would first have to create it in order to renounce it. This lesson is not learned from a book or in the lecture hall of the mind, but it is learned in actual-factual practice. How could the early invitations to something called "renunciation" ever hope to "save all sentient beings" or even just live a sane a peaceful life if the best anyone could do would be to separate this from that?

Renunciation, so-called, is a good place to start but, as in horse racing, a poor place to finish. Practice tells this tale whereas all the caterwauling in the world about "renunciation" remains little more than a (perhaps fine) encouragement. The question that practice asks and answers is, "encouragement for what?" And no honest(wo)man can answer that question.

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