What could possibly motivate someone to renounce everything for the dharma? I know it has twelve letters, but somehow, renunciation has become a four-letter word for spiritual people. Because of that, teachers coming to the West rarely use the word renunciation anymore.
Why is that? How can the lamas who arrive to teach about enlightenment, read from the old texts, (which is a lot about renunciation) and yet are concerned to mention renunciation? Could there be something about the word ‘renunciation’ that creates the opposite effect of the meanings of the texts to people in the West?
Unskillful renunciation means to renounce what you already possess and now you have to give up. The other unskillful meaning is something you really want that has to be given up even before you get it. Both of these meanings are untrue and renunciation has a bad reputations in the West.
A nameless student, one who was very interested in spiritual development sent me a frantic letter, “Rinpoche, I’m just so confused because I feel like I want to achieve enlightenment. However, what about Susie?” (Well, I don’t know who Susie is!! What about Susie?”)
“I promised Susie that I would marry her! If I should go for enlightenment then I have to renounce everything and what about Susie? She’s expecting this, and not only that but I was expecting to have children! Now you tell me about all this enlightenment stuff and now I have to renounce all of that? Well, what am I going to tell Susie?”
“ Maybe it is possible that I could get enlightened, but Susie’s here with me now. She is something that I want and I know I can get her. Whereas this enlightenment, I’m not so sure that I’m going to be able to finish what I start. Right now I’m thinking you asking me to give up everything that I like.” (Rinpoche: not true).”And I don’t know about enlightenment.”
This is also the crux of lay Tibetan community’s inability to deeply delve into practice. Lay Tibetans say, “If you’re really interested in Dharma then you give up everything, even your house, and you become a monastic. But don’t ask me to give up anything. I will do my cultural Buddhist practice. And later in life when I’ve used up all of the available resources like my body and my years, when that’s almost all used up, then I’m going to think about renouncing because then I’ve had all of my enjoyments.”
I don’t like telling the truth like that. This is why very few strong teachings are given to Tibetan lay people. The teachings are there and laypeople come in the time they can take, as a blessing for their future life when and if they can become a monk. The difference between a practitioner, a non-practitioner and someone who is Buddhist sympathizer is putting the teachings into practice.
Western people exposed to Buddhism are receiving strong practices without the renunciation teachings that are part of the practice. I suppose those giving the practices hope that people will understand eventually and I see that many do. And many don’t.
In the classic texts, “Come and become a monastic in order to receive the strongest benefit. If you don’t become a monastic, then...” And they don’t cover that part. There are a few few texts that cover that, but so few that we’ll say it’s not taught.
So for the very interested lay practitioner who is not free or capable of life-long committed vows there are transitional stages. It is good to think about the difference between renouncing something completely that you like and bringing that attraction into a careful balance. Ask yourself “Could I reduce the attractions and the compulsions that consume the best part of my energy and time? Could I apply that energy and time for something even more valuable?” That something else could be the lifesaving techniques described in the buddhadharma. It is possible to have renunciation and still lead a lay life. Just not easy!