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Buddhadharma : Summer 2006
buddhadharma| 59 |summer 2006 Just as the river Ganges inclines towards the sea, slopes towards the sea, flows towards the sea, and extends all the way the sea, so too Master Gotama’s assembly with its homeless ones and its householders inclines towards Nib- bana, slopes towards Nibbana, flows towards Nibbana, and extends all the way to Nibbana. (Majjhima Nikaya (MN) 73:14) Although the layperson may not be “homeless,” to use another phrase that refers to monks and nuns, it is still very clear that renunciation must be a part of every follower’s path as they incline, or slide, toward nirvana. In the Dantabhumi Sutta, the Buddha addresses Aggives- sana and talks about the layman, Prince Jayasena: So too, Aggivessana, Prince Jayasena is obstructed, hindered, blocked, and enveloped by a still greater mass than this – the mass of ignorance. Thus it is impossible that Prince Jayasena, living in the midst of sensual pleasures, ... could know, see, or realize that which must be known through renunciation, seen through renunciation, attained through renunciation, realized through renunciation. (MN 125:10) Here, the Buddha is talking about someone very much like himself as a young man. Some Western teachers have explained that what the Buddha meant by renunciation was that his followers should relinquish their attachment to things, not necessarily the things themselves, a notion that the American Theravadin teacher Santikaro calls “a liberal legalism, à la Bill Clinton.” There is perhaps confusion between the term relinquishment (patinissagga), which could be defined as this mental exercise, and the more concrete concept of renouncing those things which embroil us in desire. But both these actions are neces- sary in the Buddha’s outline of the path to nirvana. We must give up things, people, and concepts, as well as extinguish the mental mechanism of attaching to them. Abandoning the trappings of wealth, as Gotama did, is still put forward in the teachings as a practice for householders. Speaking to the monk Udayin in the Latukikopama Sutta, Gotama says, there are certain clansmen here who, when told by me ‘Abandon this’ ...aban- don that and do not show discourtesy towards me or towards those bhikkhus desirous of training. Having abandoned it, they live at ease, unruffled, subsisting on others’ gifts, with mind [as aloof] as a wild deer’s. (MN 66:12) In the Dhammapada, one of the most revered and accessible of Buddhist scrip- tures, it says, “I do not call him a Brah- man merely because he was born in the caste of holy ones, or of a Brahman mother. ... But one who is free from pos- sessions and worldly attachments – him I call a Brahman.” (XXVI:396) (The word brahman referred originally to any holy person, but now when capitalized refers to the caste of Vedic priests.) This quote makes clear that both the mental attach- ments and the possessions themselves are to be renounced, but Buddhist teachers in the West rarely cite such passages. Santi- karo says that the Buddha never required his lay disciples to lead lives of voluntary simplicity, they just did it as a result of their deepening spiritual insight. “You see that most of the really important lay leaders in the early sangha renounced their wealth and status,” explains Santikaro. “King Pas- enandi gives up his throne, the merchant banker Anathapindika gives his wealth away; Citta, the foremost dhamma speaker among the laity and Visakha, a very accom- plished laywoman, do the same.” Writings and dharma talks by North American Buddhist interpreters soothe middle-class devotees with the diminished expectations of Buddhism-lite. Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire, to pick only one recent example, says: “Renuncia- tion need not mean a turning away from desire, but only a forsaking of the acting out that clinging creates.” Zen teacher Ed Brown once summarized this concept by saying, “It’s okay to pick something up, as long as you can put it back down again.” These simple dicta are true as far as they go, but emphasizing the importance of detachment, or nonattachment to things, as mere mental attitude without any real- life implications, compromises the nature of the original teachings. michaeldavidmurphy This smoothed-out version of Bud- dhism gives us permission to have our lifestyle, to be wealthy – even pam- pered – without having to wring our hands in guilt. It requires no concrete action in the real world – except for the occasional retreat with our favorite teacher. But it’s important to notice a few things before we rest easy in this comforting inter- pretation of the dharma. The first principle that should not escape our attention is the original teaching on generosity (dana). The Buddha saw poverty as a curse and wanted householders to earn enough to support themselves and their families – and to help their villages. He even gave very spe- cific advice to Anathapindika, one of his wealthiest lay followers, on what today we call “asset allocation.” As Robert Aitken Roshi said once, “Someone has to make money so others of us can be poor.” And this is indeed the Buddhist formula for sup- porting monastics. It relies on a laity with disposable income to support the monks. In Asia, Buddhist teachers summarize the path for laypeople as being composed of dana, sila (ethical behavior), and bha- vana (spiritual development). In the West, however, the formula is recited, and emphasized, in reverse: bhavana (more specifically, “meditation,” which was the formula for monks) sila, dana. Middle- class North Americans want to become accomplished meditators, and many of us spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year to attend retreats and workshops in an effort to “get” enlight- enment, as though it were one more accomplishment, one more thing to cross off our to-do list. We want to buy enlight- enment rather than sacrifice for it. But instead of getting, the early teach- ings suggest that we engage in the prac- tice of giving. Dana is really a spiritual method. Practicing generosity helps us to overcome greed and clinging; it facilitates the realization of no-self – and it feels good. The Dhammapada says clearly: These three ways lead to the deathless realm: living in the truth, not yielding to anger, and giving, even if you have only a little to share. (XVII:224) ➤ continued page 84