As a prince living in luxury, and his father keepng him away from anything that he thought might be distressing, the young Buddha was innocent to what we as humans will suffer. Eventually he was able to leave his seclusion and travelled, with his servant Channa, beyond the walls of his palace. Here he observed for the first time an old man, a sick man, a dead man and finally, a wandering ascetic. Each time he asked Channa what it was that he saw and received the reply that he too along with all others would be like the first three. Upon seeing the monk he determined to renounce his life and take the path of the renunciate and find the way to end suffering. He decided to leave his wealth, family, wife and child and take to the road.
What are we take from this story? To renounce, do we have to do similiar, leave all we have, and step into the unknown? Or can we ‘leave home’ in other ways, and is renunciation about something else?
I took the route of monastiscm, but for others that is not the way. We can still renounce because our relationship with life changes when we decide to undertake to practice and live by the Precepts. When we do this those areas of our life which we previously clung to as neccessary start to fall away. When we turn towards living from the heart, that which previously seemed important becomes less so. They start to fall away and lessen in significance. We don’t have to physically leave home, sell the house and car and give up our livelihood. Yet when we trust the heart we can draw on a deeper well of wisdom and see what it is that is that is more important for walking the path. Rather than seeing renunciation as a wilful act of getting rid of maybe see it as a trust in what is. To sit with and trust that all is well.
We start to give up that which wants to know. That which wants an answer or a full stop. We turn towards a way of living where each moment is enough. To enter into repose and look deeply into that which wants to add and fill up from an external supply. It doesn’t mean we don’t do anything, far from it, but it points to where we frantically are trying to fill a hole which truly doesn’t exist. To renounce is to have the courage to allow that which is unfolding to unfold, and not to put limits on our potentiality. However hard it may appear to bear, to judge our effort or deem what it is that is appropriate in zazen, (i.e. judge what arises), we are turning against renouncing. This we all can do. Whether we have grown our hair or shaved it off, we all have the potential to turn towards and not away from that which is showing itself.
To know we are all going to die, as do all things, is one thing, and not insignificant, yet to live from that place is another.
What is this life that is expressed. These shifting sands that have no substaniality to them. It is not that we live each moment as if it is our last, in a conscious way, yet underneath all we do and say there is a movement towards letting go of life and death, so that we can live fully and free. When we renounce the self, (which is always grabbing and clinging on, because it is frightened that if it lets go all is lost), we can live from a more expansive place of giving and just letting be our desires and needs.
To follow the way of the Buddhas and Ancestors is learning how to listen and follow. Watch when our lives tighten up and we cling to the known form and can’t hear the teaching of the moment. To know release from this suffering is to see compassion arise for self and other. To know suffering and let go is to have empathy with others who must be suffering also. Whilst our suffering can be unique in its particulars we can only fully experience it if we know that it isn’t ours, but a common condition of being alive. If compassion is to be compassion then suffering can’t be owned in that way.
The Buddha showed that there can be an end to suffering, and that the end was living the eightfold path. the activity of our lives is the expression of this. The eightfold path like the precepts shows that how we live is the the direction to penetrate the cycle of suffering. As it says in the Shushogi, “the most important thing for Buddhists is to understand birth and death completely”. To renounce ways of being which carry on the cycle of suffering is the activity of the Buddhas and Ancestors.