Renunciation: Life-Denying or Life-Affirming?

I rarely post a blog, but I felt compelled to write this.

Yesterday I was posed a question by a non-Buddhist friend. Because I participate in the pagan community—this question was asked at Kansas City Pagan Pride Day—some find it baffling how I can call myself Buddhist while still entertaining a social life within the pagan paradigm.

I am not, admittedly, pagan. At least, not as pagan as I once was. While Paganism is a beautiful celebratory practice that led me to where I am now, and while I still associate quite closely to my Druid friends, I have outgrown my Pagan clothes long ago and have found refuge in the teachings of the Buddha. (That is perhaps for a later installment).

Back to the question at hand. My friend posited that Paganism and Buddhism are altogether incompatible as a practice. Specifically, that the Buddhist approach and concepts of renunciation, disenchantment, disillusion, and dispassion seem to suggest a life-denying way of thinking.

On the opposite side of this, my friend argued, is a hedonistic tendency among Pagans to embrace life and all its pleasures.

This boils down to a Buddhist renunciation vs. Hedonism. It’s unfair to categorize Buddhism as a life-denying, ascetic path that turns its back on the world (since Buddhism is in essence a Middle Path between hedonism and asceticism). Just as it is unfair to categorize and over-simplify Paganism as a purely hedonistic path. But because Hedonism is what was argued, I will be focusing on that.

There are so many misconceptions revolving around these ideas of Buddhism and renunciation/disenchantment. I hope to clear up some of those with my own understanding on the topics.

I started thinking about these misconceptions of the Buddhist concept of renunciation and disenchantment. What do non-Buddhists usually think of these? Renunciation sounds like a scary word, evoking ideas of giving up all worldly possessions and living in rags, living a life of voluntary homelessness. But this is not what is meant by renunciation.

Renunciation is the first practice of the second stage of the Eightfold Path—Right Intention, or Right Thought. It is a sort of “freedom from desire.” So in this sense, yes, this is incompatible with a Pagan idea of hedonism, which connotes a sort of giving into every sensual desire. But it does not deny pleasure.

Quite the opposite, this idea of renunciation—or a more positive way of thinking of it, generosity—aims at delivering oneself from the pain, worry, and grief that is caused by the pursuit of pleasures of the senses. By freeing oneself from the maddening drive to accumulate more and more pleasurable experiences, one will discover a more profound, refined state of being—that of letting go.

In Buddhism, the most fundamental teachings—the Four Noble Truths—says that dukkha, or the pervasive dissatisfaction and uncertainty of life (popularly “suffering”) is caused, in part, by our constant desire and pursuit of sense pleasures, to gain what we do not already have. This is because we constantly mistake that which brings temporary relief from our craving for true peace and happiness. Things and experiences can’t give us this peace because those circumstances from which pleasure arises will inevitably change and go away. They’re temporary. You’ve never eaten a piece of cake so good that nothing ever bothered you anymore.

Christina Feldman, in her book The Buddhist Path to Simplicity, says this about renunciation: “A life dedicated to depth and compassion invites us to let go of the layers of relentless need and thirst to accumulate that can govern our lives, and to understand the insecurities and anxieties that separate us from ourselves and others. Renunciation is the greatest of all kindnesses . . .

To let go of the things that don’t bring us well-being and peace, it’s helpful to recognize the truth of the matter: that these things are temporary and will pass.

You want the piece of cake, you eat it. Feel bliss? Maybe for a minute. Then you want another piece, or maybe it was too rich and now your tummy is upset. Maybe you regret it. Maybe you are worried because that was a pretty big piece, and now everyone will hate you for taking the best part. Worry, paranoia, regret, more wanting, discomfort.

And is it really the cake that made you happy, or is it the fact that the wanting of the cake is finally gone that gives you a sense of temporary relief?

It’s not a mortal sin for eating the cake. Eat the cake! I like cake sometimes. The fundamental problem is the craving. And it’s really not even the arising of craving that causes the problem, even! It’s the fact that we buy into it, we believe it. We adopt the religious conviction for the time being that the cake/booze/sex/money is a legitimate form of relieving our suffering. But then when we feed into that belief, the relief fades away, transforms back into craving. You’ve never had the Cake to End All Cake. It’s not as if a piece of cake was so good that you never craved cake ever again.

So in order to solve this problem, we have to be generous with this craving: give it not the attention it wants, but the attention it deserves: be mindful of it. Watch it with curiosity. Where does it come from? How does it feel? How long does it last? I bet you’ll find some really interesting observations.

In short, the difference is this: You can let the cravings govern your choices, or you can choose to govern your cravings.

Pay attention to them and see which ones bring about a deeper, truer happiness.

The idea of disenchantment, disillusion, and dispassion are all intrinsically tied up with renunciation. When you recognize the truth that experiences and sense pleasures will never bring a satisfying end to your suffering, you begin to rely so much on those devices to bring you happiness.

The Buddhist definition of disenchantment is quite a literal one: we become not-enchanted. We dis-enchant ourselves. Enchantment can be viewed in a theatrical way as a spell cast over us. It is our job to break that spell.

What are we enchanted with? What is the illusion? As I mentioned earlier, the illusion is that we think sense pleasures will bring us happiness. To become disillusioned is to recognize the illusion and see past it.

It is not to abandon the world wholesale, just the false advertisements! It is to stop believing everything we think. We can see the world around us as it is: always changing, unreliable in its promises to deliver us happiness and peace.

All of this is not diametrically opposed to hedonism. In fact, to be on the opposite side of hedonism would be a life-denying ascetic approach, which Buddhism is not, either. Instead, Buddhism takes a Middle Way approach between the two. What Buddhism denies, or renounces, is our enchantment with the world. Renounce your reliance on the craving of sense pleasures, not necessarily the sense pleasures themselves.

It’s like clenching your fist upon your desires: your fist grows tired, cramped, painful. What renunciation is not is to turn your hand over and spill the desires onto the floor (that would be the other side of the desire coin: aversion).

What renunciation is is to open up your palm skyward, hold your desires gently and kindly so you can reveal it and see it for what it is, illumined by the brilliant light of awareness.

When you stop clinging so tightly, you can gain a broader perspective and realize there is a deeper peace to be found outside the paradigm of striving for sense pleasure. We can break down the limiting illusions we buy into and see the world for what it truly is.

The mouse races inside the maze to find the alluring origin of the delicious smell of cheese. When she finds it, she eats it. Then, there is no more cheese. She is placed at the beginning again and the trials begin again, unbeknownst to the mouse to only repeat the process ad infinitum. Besides, she is not interested or even aware of the process occurring: she doesn’t know that obtaining the cheese effectively and inevitably leads to the restart of the trials. All she knows is she wants the cheese.

If the mouse was to look up and realize she could climb the maze walls, she would see the other mice running the same process. She could watch the process unfold. She might even realize the futility of trying to obtain the cheese, always destined to do it again and again. What once seemed so important now seems like a pointless endeavor. Instead, she finds that she could find the edge of the maze and jump safely to the ground, finally free.

As the Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide illustrates quite beautifully: When my house burned down I gained an unobstructed view of the moonlit sky.

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1 Response to Renunciation: Life-Denying or Life-Affirming?

  1. YariGarciaWrites says:

    This was very well-written, and it allowed me to understand the concept of renunciation. I had read about Buddhism being called “the middle way” or “the middle path” before, and this definitely clarifies that.

    Thanks for sharing, and take care 😊

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