True Renunciation

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Nagarjuna Institute, Ibiza, 1978

From a teaching by Lama Yeshe at Nagarjuna Institute, Ibiza, Spain, 1978. Edited by Ven. Thubten Wangmo. First published in Wisdom Energy 2, Publications for Wisdom Culture, Ulverston, England, 1979.

Lama Yeshe teaching at University of California’s Oakes College on the Santa Cruz campus, 1978. Photo by Jon Landaw.

Why do we human beings suffer and why are we confused? Because our minds grasp at happiness and pleasure. Failure to understand the transitory quality of temporal pleasures causes us to cling to them. But if we developed penetrative wisdom we would see that this grasping attitude only gives rise to problems. We would also understand that by overcoming our attachment to ordinary pleasure we open the way to the joy of inner liberation, liberation from suffering. Therefore we have to learn how to experience pleasure while remaining detached. In other words, we must learn about renunciation, the basic practice on the path to liberation.

Most of us do not know what renunciation means. We are disturbed when we hear about giving up attachment to sensory pleasures, which we take to mean having to suffer in order to achieve inner liberation. “This lama is forcing me to suffer instead of making me happy.” But renunciation does not mean that we must give up happiness or that it is desirable to suffer. On the contrary, our aim is to achieve a state beyond suffering.

The root of all problems: difficulties in communication and relationships, neurotic fantasies, expectations, frustrations, doubts and so on, is the mind that clings to pleasure. This grasping mind is the result of our basic misconceptions about reality, and it is this grasping that causes human beings to suffer. With this mistaken approach even taking a meditation course can cause suffering. If at the beginning you expected that by the end of the course you would be blissfully enlightened, you would only be sadly disappointed.

The aim of our daily life is to satisfy each physical desire as it arises—day after day, month after month, year after year. We try to achieve happiness by perpetuating something that is essentially transitory. This expectation, stemming from a misconception, can never be fulfilled, and is therefore totally irrational. It is impossible to achieve ultimate happiness until we develop a genuine aversion to this instinctive grasping at pleasure. Unless this grasping mind is subdued, it is farcical to say “I am seeking inner liberation.” The methods for subduing the mind might sound simple, but they are almost completely inaccessible to most people; they find them so difficult to practice.

One way to understand how the grasping impulse functions is by observing how we react when we hear the names of our home town, and friends and relatives, or the sound of our own name. Strong attention and interest automatically arise in our own minds. When the great yogis and saints of Tibet discovered this uncontrolled reaction in themselves they gave up their homes and families in search of ultimate tranquility. The trouble with remaining near our home, the source of our attachments, is that we have intensely pleasurable attachments with the place where we learned to smoke, drink, and have marvelous parties with our friends. It is our symbol of sensory gratification and our minds cling to these memories. Even if we ourselves are not particularly attached to our friends or relatives, they are usually attached to us. The solution is relinquishment. Relinquishment is not merely physical departure but, much more to the point, inward detachment from the pleasure and involvements of home. This is renunciation.

Although many people leave their own countries for a place such as, say, Ibiza, this is not a sign of renunciation. It is their sentimental, unstable minds that make them leave home. Somehow they hope to undergo inward change by visiting a new country, but there is in fact no real difference. Their old ways of thinking and acting are the same, no matter where they are.

A great example of true renunciation is Shakyamuni Buddha. As an enlightened being he came to this earth to show others the path to enlightenment. He was born into a royal family in India and lived a life of ease, surrounded by luxury, a loving family, devoted servants and loyal subjects. But in the course of time, he came to examine the nature of that existence closely and saw only confusion and dissatisfaction in the lives of all about him. He then abandoned his kingdom to follow the life of an ascetic.

If we look beyond the mere historical facts of this story, we can understand its symbolic meaning. Buddha renounced his life of comfort and self-indulgence as a result of discovering the hidden pain inherent in every pleasure. He realized that clinging to sensory pleasure is a hindrance to inner peace, which is true happiness.

It is not surprising that we encounter powerful hindrances when trying to control our cravings for sensual fulfillment; just consider the extent to which our life is geared to chasing one pleasure after another. Attachment results from the innate belief that constant self-indulgence can satisfy the ever-present longing for happiness. But if we step back for a moment and examine with penetrative wisdom the actual nature of transitory pleasure, we shall discover a quality of painfulness inherent in that pleasure.

The painful nature of attachment is brought to light in the meditation on what are known as the eight worldly phenomena, a doctrine exhaustively expounded in Lama Tsongkhapa’s text, The Graduated Path to Enlightenment. In this meditation we observe the unsettling effects of eight inter-related states of mind. We investigate how excited we become upon encountering the four main objects of attachment: (1) the pleasures of the six senses (the five bodily senses plus the mind), (2) possessions, (3) praise and (4) pleasant words and sounds; and how miserable we are when deprived of these four.

According to these external conditions of gain or loss we decide, “Now I’m happy,” or “I’m so miserable!” Deep reflection on our daily experiences with the eight worldly phenomena brings us to the conclusion that these eight attachments are incompatible with the search for inner peace. Even if we have been meditating for a long time, we cannot be called truly spiritual, truly on the path to liberation, if we still grasp at these eight worldly phenomena.

It is foolish to believe yourself spiritually motivated if you allow your mind to be driven here and there by attachment. This is like the behavior of a monkey that spends the entire day jumping around. When you watch that monkey you think how ridiculous it is but fail to realize that you are doing exactly the same thing yourself. Your own distracted mind cannot stay still for a moment, but skips from one desirable object to another. If you examine yourself you will realize that this is an accurate description of your own life, and not just one more philosophical concept. It is an objective account of the way your mind functions.

Lack of control is common to all sentient beings, from the tiniest insect right up to human beings, and is caused by ignorance. This is not to say that our own nature is essentially negative, but simply that our mind ignorantly grasps at illusory delights which inevitably disappoint us by causing suffering. Thus, for our own protection, it is essential to investigate and fully understand the real nature of our existence, and to cut through the darkness of ignorance with the sword of wisdom.

The enlightened beings’ freedom from all mental and physical pain cannot be reached without renouncing attachment to sensuous pleasure. Yet we have inexhaustible appetites for good food, drinking and talking with friends, lying out on the beach or hiking in the mountains. We dedicate most of our life to pleasure. It is clear we have not yet followed Buddha’s advice to jettison our absurdly mistaken belief that transitory pleasures are the source of true happiness. These pleasures have no solid or enduring quality, and there is absolutely no point in pursuing them so feverishly.

No one is expected to accept these doctrines on trust. However, it is good to be open-minded and to listen to what they have to say. They show that suffering is an inward process, and is caused by our own mental attitudes. It is our responsibility to inquire into the possible truth in this. In this way we can discover for ourselves the true nature of happiness and suffering. “Is what I am doing really making me happy or will it just let me down?” This method of contemplation is based on objective reasoning.

Another way to investigate and understand the reality of attachment is to use your past sicknesses and pains as examples. Try to remember what events led up to each of them. You will undoubtedly discover that although you looked forward to having a good time, the anticipated pleasure was eventually transformed into pain. Perhaps you went hiking and blistered your feet, or mountain-climbing and broke your leg, or went down to the beach and lay in the sun, got badly sunburnt and all your skin peeled off! Looking at these situations as a means of understanding the evolution of pain is a simple and objective way of observing the nature of transitory pleasure.

We can see that whatever we do, we do because we want to be happy. From the moment we were born until now we have looked forward expectantly to every successive pleasure and have thought, “This is really going to be marvelous!” But confirm this for yourself. Meditate. If you use your wisdom you can see that you have been living like a butterfly fluttering in the darkness.

Sometimes we even quarrel over a few words, or our possessions, because we believe them to be the source of true happiness. It is easy to see how sick such an attitude is. Again, it stems from a misconception, an attitude of mind that attaches great importance to such trivial petty things. But the really important thing is that we should make a deliberate effort to understand how mistaken and treacherous our usual outlook is, leading as it does to nothing but disappointment and misery.

Although we may think ourselves seekers after truth, very few of us are entirely convinced of the need to destroy our misconceptions. It is as if our minds were split in half, one half determined to subjugate attachment, while the other half goes on wavering. The result is a mind like a yo-yo, constantly bobbing up and down. Half the mind wants to enjoy the beach, while the other half tries to meditate. We lack the firm, indestructible mind.

After all this talk of misconceptions and wrong attitudes, of ignorance and suffering, we might come to think our very essence impure. But it is not. A pure essence, the buddha nature, dwells in every sentient being and is simply obscured by a veil of ignorance. Some people believe that children are naturally pure until their minds become corrupted with social attitudes. There is indeed a clear and tranquil consciousness in both children and adults, but it is obscured by misconceptions which give rise to craving and suffering instead of the joyful awareness of mind’s basic purity.

At all social and cultural levels, everyone flounders in a morass of delusion. The poor think the rich happy, while the rich despise the poor, thinking them the most miserable beings. In reality, both views are wrong, since they are based on the superficial conclusion that contentment is entirely dependent upon physical comforts. The opposite is in fact the case. For all beings happiness is to be found in the mind that does not pursue physical comfort.

What can we do when our deep-rooted instincts encourage us to act in ways completely opposed to our ultimate benefit? With infinite wisdom and compassion, the enlightened beings have shown us the way to deliverance from this confusion. The way is meditation on the impermanence of phenomena, and meditation on death as expounded in The Graduated Path to Enlightenment. By means of this meditation we can see how impermanence and death exist within us from the moment of birth. With sustained meditation we shall gradually develop intuitive awareness of this truth. As we become increasingly conscious of death’s approach and of its inevitability, our compulsive grasping at illusory pleasures spontaneously subsides. It slowly dawns on us that all our lives we have been working hard in the expectation of achieving comfort and peace at some time in the future. And we remember the countless beings who have lived, trapped in a maze of unfulfilled hopes and expectations, only to die in disappointment and bitterness.

Even if you are not a great yogi with indestructible meditative powers, you should at least develop the simple but clear understanding that you were not born on this earth for the sole purpose of gratifying your sense desires. This understanding can generate a power of determination to give up attachment. This determination alone becomes the cause of your future liberation from suffering. When you reach that liberated state of consciousness even a catastrophe will not affect you. Inescapable disasters happen all the time in this troubled world. Each of us therefore has the responsibility of attaining for himself a level of consciousness conferring immunity to all hardships.

Buddhism might seem exceedingly harsh in proposing a life of such extreme renunciation as to be hardly worth living. But close examination reveals a compassionate philosophy which aims to bring all beings into direct contact with their own true nature. When human beings actually follow these teachings, their innate potential for living on a higher plane is realized. Simply working for mundane comforts and necessities is the task of ants and chicken who spend most of their lives seeking and consuming food and water. Our human intelligence should see beyond a life dedicated to sense gratification. At the very least we should have a deeper understanding than chickens.

How was it possible for the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa to live happily alone in his Himalayan cave with no possessions, and only nettles to eat? It was possible because he had no desires. You see, suffering is not found in external objects, in a cave or in our body. It is our ignorant mind that is miserable. We can emulate Milarepa by renouncing the grasping mind as he did while at the same time continuing to lead lives free of undue hardship. We have the opportunity to do our inner work for liberation without having to struggle under harsh conditions in the mountains. The only requirement for gaining the tranquility and contentment of Milarepa is a mind freed from attachment.

When we say liberation depends on a non-attached mind, it does not mean that you must throw all of your belongings into the ocean straight after this talk. However, there are different levels of practice according to individual capacities. There are certain times when remaining in contact with the objects of attachment can give rise to great conflict. In such cases you should separate yourself physically from those objects. Generally, however, a transformation of your inward relationship with desirable objects is enough. To think that samsara consists of external objects—the world, your own body, or other people—and then to cast them away, is completely mistaken. Samsara is within you. If you do not transform your attitudes you may go away to meditate in a cave, but samsara will still be there with you.

We should avoid being over-ambitious when we first hear the Buddhist teachings on wisdom, compassion and renunciation: deciding in a burst of energy to give up all our attachments and dedicate our entire lives to others. It is impossible to transform the mind instantly into that of a great ascetic. It is not as simple as going into town, buying some paint and quickly repainting the garage. It takes time to change the mind’s habitual behavior. It is only after a long, gradual process of meditating, with frequent confirmation by means of analytical wisdom, that growth and finally perfection will occur.

What can we do to get rid of attachment? One excellent practice for training the mind is to replace concern for self with concern for others. Usually we cling to our own well-being, worrying only about me, me, me. We do not allow space in our minds for others, although we may utter empty words of concern for them. This attitude can be changed first by observing how such a self-centered mind brings only harm, and then by practicing a method of thought transformation in which we exchange the objects of our concern: we cherish others instead of ourselves.

Another powerful method of thought transformation is the equilibrium meditation, in which an equal feeling for all beings is cultivated. This is achieved by eliminating our usual feelings of attachment for friends and hatred for enemies through logical reasoning. By such means we can see how friends and enemies are equally kind and helpful, and thereby learn to feel only compassion and love for them, and for all others.

A third method is called giving and taking. In this meditation we dedicate all our material possessions, good qualities and merit to others, and take upon ourselves all their problems, pains and sicknesses. These sufferings are drawn into our hearts in the form of black smoke. This technique causes the ego to tremble with fear because it always wants the best for itself and tries its hardest to avoid the slightest discomfort.

Constant practice of these meditations will help to destroy this self-centered ego. These and many other thought-training meditations are found in The Graduated Path to Enlightenment.