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Buddhadharma : Winter 2013
INTRODUCTION BY KOUN FRANZ FORUM GEOFFREY SHUGEN ARNOLD • ELIZABETH MATTIS-NAMGYEL • AJAHN AMARO The Beauty of Renunciation My first attempt at Buddhist practice was an act of renunciation. I had been reading whatever Buddhist books I could find at my high school library, and though most of them made no sense to me, one teaching from the Vinaya stood out for both its repetition and clarity: Do not sleep on a high bed. It kept coming up. So I started sleeping on the floor. I had no idea why, but it seemed important. One cold night ten years later, I left my wife behind to enter a monastery deep in the mountains of Japan. I had only my robes, my bowls, and the certainty that this, too, was important. I had not transcended attachment, not by any means—we hugged before I left, and as we did, I thought, I don’t know how to let go. I needed to learn how to let go. So, said the Buddha, do we all. The topic of this issue’s forum, renunciation, does not lend itself to easy answers. For some, the word evokes basic questions about how much we need versus how much we want, what is ours to give and what holds us back from doing so, and specifically, as Buddhists, the relationship between our investment in prac- tice and what we get in return. For others, an act of renunciation can look like just another attachment, a story people tell themselves about how spiritual they are. To really let go, they say, you also have to let go of letting go. Renunciation can be submission to a schedule that is not of your own making; it can be the offering of all things to all beings; it can be the act of embracing things just as they are. Renunciation can be a radical intui- tive leap beyond all preferences. And it can also be the choice to sleep on the floor even when you really prefer to sleep on a bed. However we define the term, we cannot avoid it. The Buddha’s story—our story— starts not under the Bodhi tree but years before in a palace, with the young prince Sid- dhartha tiptoeing past his sleeping wife and newborn son, through the gates, and into the darkness, vanishing into poverty and solitude. We call this choice, this midnight escape, the Great Renunciation. But why? Is it great because of what he left behind, or because we are unsure if we could do the same? How do we know unless we try? The fact is, we do try. In small ways and large, we enact and reenact Siddhartha’s departure—and his stealth. This morning while most people were still sleeping, lov- ers slipped quietly away to meditate with a sangha across town. Mothers and fathers snuck nimbly down hallways and around toys to do prostrations in the kitchen. Work- ers set off in buses to retreats far away, spend- ing their hard-earned wages to do so. In these ways and many more, we become intimately familiar with our palace walls, knocking them down, rearranging them, jumping over them, coming back, starting over. In the conversation that follows, our pan- elists—three teachers from three different tra- ditions—examine the role of renunciation in our life and in our practice. They encourage us to discover what lies on the other side of the walls we’ve built, beyond mine and yours. Renunciation is about more than just doing without things. It’s the beautiful realization that you already have everything you need. 56 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY WINTER 2 0 1 3