|Forest Sangha Newsletter||July 1995|
Renunciation & Devotion:
Well, what's doing it? It's 'me' that's doing it. And so this 'me', this 'I' chronically gets in the way. This is an experience we are all familiar with, this 'I' getting in the way of practice.
We often get caught on the personality level. We see the moment of seeing as 'me' seeing and 'my' seeing, and then 'me' feeling and 'my' feeling, 'me' hearing and 'my' hearing, 'me' thinking, 'me' perceiving, 'me' understanding, and 'my' understanding. Eventually there's a perception of some sort of solid 'me' and the consequential 'mine'.
That construction is like a cancer in consciousness: it gobbles up enormous amounts of energy, and the rest of the organism suffers terribly. Our sense of well-being is hardly accessible when we're possessed by our ego-consciousness, this deluded perception of self.
So we should recognize the value of renunciation, in coming to see the 'me' for what it is. If we want to get to that which really matters - the heart of the matter - and realise something, then it does take renunciation.
The Buddha says in the Dhammapada, it is wisdom that encourages us to give up a lesser happiness for a greater happiness.
When I see people making a commitment to renunciation - whether it's for a period of a week, as most of you have been doing, or for a year as an anagarika - there's something very beautiful in that. It's not just a matter of doing something because it's a good thing to do, there are lots of other good things we could be doing. Renunciation is painful, it's disagreeable. We're not going to do it unless we've got some perspective on it. What's behind taking renunciation precepts is a recognition that "I need to do this." It's the heart making a statement; the heart needs to recognize this 'me' for what it is.
It's wisdom that encourages us to make a gesture of renunciation. The heart recognises a need to understand this foreign body that's operating in our psyche, gobbling up all our energy. It's not merely a value judgement saying, 'I shouldn't be selfish.' We want to go beyond that, to achieve that freedom of perspective, that clarity of seeing where we can recognize this imposter that comes in and says, 'I'm responsible for this experience.' We want to see that taking place so that we can actually see through it and not be fooled by it.
When there's a moment of pleasure, we want to be able to see that as simple pleasure. If we can't see it as simply pleasure, then when there's an awful moment of disappointment and despair and grief, we can't see through that either. It feels like my sadness, my disappointment - it's not anybody else who feels disappointed - it's me! When I feel disappointed, there's definitely an 'I' who feels disappointed, and there's no question about it.
So making a gesture of renunciation is actually a statement of saying that "I'm not going to give this 'I' everything it wants." Not because I think it's bad to have an 'I' and we're just making a value judgement of it. We could do that, and on one level of religious practice I think that's what we do sometimes. It's this issue of whether enjoying pleasure itself is the problem or whether it's our relationship to the pleasure that's the problem.
Someone was asking me the other day while we were looking at the lovely clematis flowers outside, "Is that defilement, those beautiful flowers there?" and I said, "What do you mean, having flowers is having defilement?" Actually, where 'I' comes into the picture, a problem arises because 'I' like the beautiful mauve clematis; then that awful disease clematis-wilt comes along every year and the beautiful things die just like that. And 'I' feel disappointed.
That's where the problem is, the sense of attachment. Where there's attachment, where there's grasping, 'I' is born. We can look at the clematis out there, and it's very beautiful, it's very pleasing and pleasure arises. Does there have to be grasping at that point, where it becomes 'my' pleasure? Because if it does, and somebody rips out the clematis, then there's my pain, there's a problem.
But if we investigate with mindfulness, then pleasure arises and we say, "Aha, that feels good." It does feel good. But if there's simply noticing, simple attention, then we can actually feel this aching, this "I want it to last", this aching feeling of "I want it, I want to have it." That's the 'I', that's the feeling, and if we're mindful, we can watch it, we can notice it being born, we can see it taking place. And with right effort, with careful sensitive effort, we can actually inhibit that reaction from taking place. We can see it as not necessary. We don't have to add that 'I' through grasping.
As much as we might want to do it, there's something within us that quite naturally knows it's inappropriate to try and grasp life. And so if our wisdom is still alive to some extent, it speaks to us, it encourages us to make gestures of renunciation, to actually go against this grasping tendency, which is 'I'. There's no 'I' outside of that: the 'I' is born in that activity of grasping, that contraction of awareness, that contraction of the heart. That contraction is the birthing process of self . When there isn't that grasping taking place, then there's no self being born. There is just the beautiful clematis, just the pleasure arising.
So if we have this appreciation, we don't have to worry about beautiful things like the clematis. But some things are so beautiful and so pleasant that it is good to stay away from them for a while. Some degrees of intensity of pleasure are such that the pull is too great, and the tendency to get lost is too high. So we make a gesture of renunciation by way of experiment, but not by way of value-judgement.
As the Buddha says in the Dhammapada, it's wisdom that encourages us to give up a lesser happiness for a greater happiness. So if our heart is longing for the sense of sustainable well-being - not at the expense of others, nor of the planet itself, but the well-being that arises in the heart that's living in accordance with the way things are, then it's appropriate that we give up some lesser experiences of well-being, of happiness.
We may have enough wisdom to inspire us to make these gestures of renunciation, but when the renunciation starts to take effect and we begin to see ourselves in our darker as well as brighter capacity, we may start to doubt.
When we start to experience the structures we establish in our consciousness through grasping, and which we experience as me and my way, and my desires, when that grasping is clearly in front of us, what do we do with it?
If we're not agile enough we can get very rigid about our renunciation. I'm a Buddhist: renunciation, I'm going to do it! Determination: I'm going to do it, that's what Buddhists do! If we are too rigid in our resolve and our commitment to renunciation and determination, the energy starts building up, and we tend to break.
We want to look at what's going on with making these resolutions. Often they're coming from a wise place; we need to make gestures of renunciation so as to be able to see ourselves, to see beyond ourslves and not be limited by our selfing mechanisms. But if we're too rigid, it's not going to work. So opportunities like this retreat and places like this monastery are not merely committed to renunciation. That's an important part but it's only one part of it - devotion is equally important.
The principle of devotion is a different quality altogether. Devotion is a manifestation of the heart that's trusting. When we live with a heart of trust, we can feel the devotional spirit. That's a very different feeling from the spirit of renunciation, which is much more assertive. It's like the resilience of an organism, the natural intelligence of a tree or plant. The wild rose bush out there grows thorns for protection, and that's an important part of its being; but it's very different from the wonderful fragrance when the rose bush flowers. The fibre of the honeysuckle is tough and woody, not very pretty, but without the fragrance it wouldn't be honeysuckle. So the fragrance of the holy life or the fragrance of our spiritual life is like the devotional aspect. We can compare the woodiness of the stem to our renunciation and resolve, and the fragrance to our devotion. They're very different aspects, and equally important.
Devotional practice helps us in our agility, it helps us to remember that we can trust. It's trust that brought us here on retreat. If we didn't trust that there was a higher Truth, or that it was worth making the effort, then we simply wouldn't be here. We got here because there was an element of faith. We do trust to a certain degree.
But we can easily forget to trust. Trust sometimes looks rather weak, and our trusting capacity has been seriously interfered with in our culture. Sadly, it's rare to find honesty these days, and that means that we learn to distrust each other.
When Chithurst House was purchased, the Chairman of the English Sangha Trust agreed to a price with the owner on a handshake, and he stuck by it although someone else later offered him a great deal more money. People are surprised and touched by that because it's not normal any more. What's normal is to be dishonest! There have been times when trusting relationships were more normal than they are these days; and so the capacity for trusting was less interfered with, less distorted than ours is now.
We come to this practice positively disinclined to trust, disinclined to engage with our capacity for having faith, and for drawing on that energy. Although faith and trust in Dhamma, in Truth, in the possibility of realisation has brought us here, we can still lose it if we are not fully conscious of it. So it's particularly important that we engage consciously with this capacity for trusting, for having faith. This is very much what devotion is about - this is the trusting heart.
When we say, "I am the Buddha's servant, the Buddha is my lord and guide, the Buddha is sorrow's destroyer who bestows blessings on me", and the Dhamma: "The Dhamma is sorrow's destroyer, the Dhamma upholds those who uphold it"- what are we saying here? Maybe at first this sort of talk is not very comfortable for us, it doesn't immediately fit. But if we get a little more conscious about it, we start to say to ourselves, "You know, I do believe in Truth." There is awakening. I can be asleep and be having a terrible nightmare that feels very real, and then I awake and see that I'm not in a flood and there are no bombs going off around me. I awaken and I'm so relieved.
So there is the possibility of awakening from this endless condition of always seeking, always hoping that sometime, something's going to turn out to be inherently adequate, and a source of well-being. Now that trust, that quality of trusting is worth lifting up. And so, when we say, "I am the Dhamma's servant, the Dhamma is my lord and guide, the Dhamma is sorrow's destroyer", we're lifting up this quality of trust.
Intuitively, we know there is another place, another dimension, where we do find unity, where we do find peace, and that's what we trust in. That's the potential, that's what has motivated and inspired all religions throughout the ages.That potential, that well-spring of energy within ourselves, is what I believe brings us here. When we're in touch with that potential, we have this other dimension that can sustain us if renunciation practices bring up the structures of self in too painful a way.
This place and our practices here are not merely dedicated to renunciation, but also to devotion. I think that renunciation is easier for us to accept, but it may therefore be more important for us to be open towards what devotion means, and how we can find ways of being more devotional in our practice. I don't mean by that merely being more emotional. Devotional practice without renunciation and without commitment to realisation does become rather pointless and merely emotional.
Remember, it is realisation that is the point. All of us during this week have experienced moments of feeling fed up: "This renunciation business, I don't want to have anything more to do with it!" We've got to be very careful with that, very agile. Maybe we're holding our renunciation resolve too tightly. Or with devotion, maybe you don't like chanting or bowing. Don't be so quick to judge. These are things that are aimed at reconnecting us. Devotion is reconnecting us with the capacity for simply trusting. Renunciation is putting us in touch with the capacity to receive ourselves, to see ourselves clearly, and to see beyond ourselves. When these capacities are not readily available to us, then spiritual practice is not really possible. The point of these practices is to give us this capacity, so that realisation can take place.