What Does it Mean to Renounce?

By Lama Thubten Yeshe

What does it mean to renounce the world? Take Shakyamuni Buddha for example. He left his kingdom and went into the jungle. We call that renunciation. He had the sun, the trees, and the earth all around him, and although he had left his wife and family behind, perhaps he had other pleasures there. Now, since westerners dedicate their lives to the pursuit of pleasure, it is important to know what renunciation means.
From the Buddhist point of view, everybody in the world needs renunciation. Without it there is too much suffering; people become crazy, broken hearted and emotionally disturbed. Being renounced means becoming more reasonable through knowing the characteristic nature of pleasure and the objects of pleasure.
Before Shakyamuni Buddha renounced the royal life, he had visited the town and Been various manifestations of suffering: old age, sickness and death. He realised that there was no reason to cling to the reputation of being a king or to the pleasures of marriage. He was flexible. He saw that he was ok with these things, but also that he would be just as ok without them. He knew he could live in the jungle and be just as happy and healthy as he was in the palace. Flexibility is the key; you are all right if you get pleasure, and you are all right if you do not. In this way you become very easygoing.
We Westerners are not easygoing. When we miss out on pleasure we are not at all easygoing. That means we don't have renunciation. Renunciation does not mean that we have to give up ice cream, but rather that if you get ice cream, you enjoy it in a reasonable way and if you don't get ice cream, you are still all right. You don't have to scream at your parents or your husband or your wife. Just think, 'OK, I'm not going to get any ice cream today. I'll still be OK.' Of course I'm just using ice cream as an example, but you can apply all of what I'm saying to any relationship with other people or things.
If you get a chance to enjoy something, then enjoy it as much as possible but in a reasonable way - with dignity and a refined, or transcendental, attitude. Enjoy that pleasure as it is, instead of with delusion, superstition, and fantasy. When you discover the 'as it is' of things, everything gives you pleasure. That's true. I really believe it. When you touch reality, you find and appreciate beauty everywhere and get pleasure from whatever object you encounter.
Many people are scared of Buddhism. 'Oh, Buddhism means you have to renounce. The Buddha gave up his wife and child and went into the jungle. He was irresponsible, a bad example for our society.' That's a complete misunderstanding. Renunciation doesn't mean just toning something out. Proper renunciation requires you to understand the nature of reality. Without understanding reality, there's no way you you can develop renunciation; once you understand it, renunciation comes. Simply pushing doesn't work. Renunciation means discovering a new, basic reality.
The logic for all this is in the Lam Rim; there's no reason to crave sensory pleasures because they're so small, so transitory, so impermanent; you're only deceiving yourself by craving and clinging to objects that you mistakenly see as permanent. In the Lam Rim, you deal with reality and reality talks to you. That helps to release the pressure created by your grasping mind. I'm only talking theoretically, but if, in your everyday life, you analyse how your imagination builds up fantasies, how these fantasies become concrete, and how this leads to deluded action, you will understand the evolution of samsara through your own experience.
But sometimes renunciation means that you do have to give some things up. If you live in a big city and are trapped in a very disturbing situation, it may be hard to find space. In that case it is better to leave the situation for a while until your confused mind has had a chance to clear itself. That is important, because here the situation itself is making things difficult for you. You are not leaving because you are really renounced, but because you are overloaded, overwhelmed, and without the space to sort out the mess. When you leave such a situation for a while, you can look at it objectively and see more clearly what to do. If you stay, day by day the confusion will build until it completely suffocates you. There's no way that wisdom can grow while you are smothered by the demon of dualistic conceptions. Therefore, it is important to go away for a while, but be skilful when you do so.
Real renunciation comes from understanding; simply moving away is not true renunciation. Many people already do this; when troubles come, they go somewhere else. That's our style. Even our idea of a holiday is that you get away from your usual problems. You mean well, but it's not true renunciation. On the other hand, many Buddhist meditators have done the same thing, going to secluded places to escape from samsaric situations. It depends upon how you manage your life, how you cope with normal situations. Remember the story of Lama Je Tsong Khapa? He studied and taught for years and had thousands of disciples. One day he selected eight bodhisattva-disciples and took them to a mountain retreat, where they remained isolated for a long time. It wasn't that he had to worry about samsara - he was already renounced - but through his actions he was telling us something; if you want to shift from your present level of consciousness to a higher one, you need a long period of peaceful tranquillity to practise intensive awareness.
That's why I always recommend that every year my students spend at least ten days in retreat, renouncing all their worldly relationships for a period of strong meditation. Cutting off completely for ten days is not too much, but at least it will give you a taste of renunciation. If you don't experience the peace and tranquillity of at least this level of renunciation, it will have no reality for you, and you won't be convinced of its benefits; renunciation will be just something else that you've heard of. Experience is the most important thing. That's how you find solutions to your problems. Our problems are so deeply rooted in our unconscious that it takes tremendous energy to eradicate them. It's certainly not a short, one-time job.