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Buddhadharma : Winter 2013
WINTER 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 59 PHOTOS(LEFT—RIGHT):WILLIAMKANDOJOHNSTON;JACQUELINEBENYES;BELINDABLUEBELL toward simplicity—although I noticed a few weeks ago that for eight-hundred-plus dollars a night, a high-end hotel was marketing itself as a haven with no Internet access and no cell phone coverage! So there is a sense that renunciation has been lost culturally. And yet on the spiritual level, a basic hunger for simplicity remains. We might not think of retreats as a renunciation program, but when people do a silent retreat for a week or ten days, there’s an appreciation among retreatants that what they’re doing—not speaking to other people, following a rou- tine, sitting together with others and not constantly wiggling around on a cushion, learning to deal with discomfort for extended periods—is in fact powerful. The complexity, busy- ness, and agitation of the culture at large increases the longing for that kind of simplicity. BUDDHADHARMA: Are Western practitioners willing and able to embrace renunciation as an important aspect of Buddhist practice? ELIZABETH MATTIS-NAMGYEL: I think Americans in particular have a lot of trouble with the idea of renunciation, with the notion of somebody taking away their freedom. We don’t like to give up freedom. But in the Tibetan tradition, it is said that the mind is like a limbless person sitting on a wild horse. We can’t rein it in when we don’t have arms. So we need some forms; we need the vows and precepts, which give us the support to live within the boundaries of our intention. And they create choice, actually, because when you’re a limbless person sitting on a crazy horse, you don’t have much choice. Sometimes the language of the vows and precepts may seem outdated or like they don’t make a lot of sense, but in my tra- dition I have always felt encouraged to investigate what will serve in any given situation. I can’t imagine living without that infrastructure—it’s what we need to live a sane life. BUDDHADHARMA: Is renunciation a tough sell, though? When you’re working with your students and speaking to people in different communities, do you find that renunciation is some- thing people resist? ELIZABETH MATTIS-NAMGYEL: It depends on how you talk about it. You have to talk about the function of vows and precepts. How and why do they serve us? I was recently talking to a friend who is in AA, and the issues are similar. It’s very clear that if you’re wrestling with addiction, you are like a limb- less person on a wild horse. You need tools to direct your life in a sane way. AA participants have these one-day-at-a -time vows that give them infrastructure, a pathway. For example, it can be very powerful to take a vow that you’re not going to react to someone who evokes anger in you. Renunciation doesn’t take away choice; it creates choice. It creates freedom, because we’re not just reacting habitually. People understand that aspect very well. I think many of the issues around the “tough sell” of renun- ciation are largely due to a language problem. I was read- ing Rose Taylor Goldfield’s new book, Training the Wisdom Body, in which she discusses renunciation as emergence. What are we emerging from? From a very confused state in which we don’t know how to bring our actions together with our intentions, a place where we react out of ignorance and create a lot of trouble for ourselves. So I think renunciation is the foundation of everything. It needs to be more deeply explored. AJAHN AMARO: Yes, in English the word “renunciation” has the connotation of gritting one’s teeth and bearing a diminished situation for some sort of spiritual good. It’s going without something that you would really prefer to have. But within Buddhist practice, the quality of renunciation, or nekkhamma as it’s called in Pali, doesn’t have that sense of diminution; it has a whole different tone. The word bramacharya, which can be used as a synonym for the renunciant life and also for celibacy, literally means “divine conduct” or “walking with the gods.” So rather than going without, one is actually choosing to walk with the divine instead of being caught up in ordinary worldly preoccupation. BUDDHADHARMA: How does one move from an ordinary view of renunciation to one that embraces this notion of walking with the divine? GEOFFREY SHUGEN ARNOLD: I think there has to be a leap of faith with renunciation, a willingness to give up something that we still want to hold on to, that still holds a promise of satisfaction. We can begin by practicing with renunciation in an externalized way. That’s what the structure of a retreat does in the beginning—it gives us a schedule and parameters, precautions and precepts. We may feel an affinity with these or we may resist them, but still, there’s a sense of these coming Americans in particular have a lot of trouble with the idea of reununciation. You have to talk about the function of vows and precepts and how and why they serve us. —Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel