Last week, the summer dharma class (“The Practice of Aging and the Aging of Practice”) took up the topic of connection and loss; this week, the topic is letting go and exploring what’s new. Both of these suggest a rather unpalatable word – renunciation – which has the unfortunate modern connotation of denial and deprivation of what we most want and cherish. One translation might be, “Teeth-gritting misery for the sake of spiritual nobility.” (I’m going to suffer, but it’s going to be holy suffering, dammit!)
Lent is not a Buddhist practice, yet there is ample acknowledgement in Buddhist texts that as we age, we become more ready to give up certain habits, and the habits themselves become tired. We’re ready to let go of them, and they are just as eager to be dropped (albeit sometimes not without a fight). As Norman Fischer says, “Renunciation is giving up what you don’t need anyway.”
The Book of Serenity (Case 32) lists the fifth stage of practice as the stage of relinquishment. Zen Master Dōgen noted that one of the five pre-conditions to awakening is cessation of worldly activities. Elsewhere, he notes that when dharma practice fills our body and mind, we realize that something is missing. That “something” is anything, anywhere to hold on to. Scary.
If we let go (renounce), not only will the thing that was held disappear, we will disappear. Because who are we, minus our stuff?
The Abhidharma offers a clue that neatly avoids both an “I” and nihilism in one breath, and reveals the possibilities unleashed by renunciation:
The word does not imply the complete disappearance of all the components of the respective aggregation. Some of them always survive – or more correctly recur – in the combination of the next moment, while others, conditioned by their previous occurrence, may reappear much later. Thus the flux of the lifestream is preserved uninterrupted.