The meaning and purpose of renunciation

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Part of a series of talks given during the annual Young Adult Week program at Sravasti Abbey in 2006.

Dukkha and renunciation

  • The different kinds of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness)
  • Understanding renunciation

Young adults 03: Renunciation (download)

The purpose of renunciation

  • Studying dukkha as the motivation to practice
  • Renunciation as an act of kindness to ourselves
  • Developing faith and confidence in the Dharma

Young adults 03: Purpose of renunciation (download)

Questions and answers

  • Purification practices
  • Sorrow
  • Relating to pleasure in a healthy way

Young adults 03: Q&A (download)

Excerpt: Having to experience dukkha alone

We’re born alone—we go through the whole birth experience all by ourselves.

We die alone. Even if there’re many people around us, we’re the only one dying. Even if we die in a car crash with somebody else, we’re each having our own experience as we die. All throughout our life, we experience things by ourselves; nobody else can crawl inside of us and change it, or take it away.

This was really shocking for me when I first heard it. For a long time, I was always looking for somebody who’d deeply understand me and always be there to take my suffering away. But I could never find that person. [Laughter] So when I heard this teaching, it was like, “Oh! No wonder I couldn’t find that person, because that person doesn’t exist.” Why? Because we all have our own experiences. We’re all in our own samsara, our own cyclic existence.

In one way, thinking about all of these was a tremendous sense of relief because it was like bringing it all out in the open. In another sense, it was very shocking to me because I saw very clearly how deeply entrenched we are in cyclic existence. I saw what it meant to be under the control of afflictions and karma. It was much more horrific than I had thought.

Excerpt: What’s the purpose of thinking about the different types of dukkha?

Venerable Chodron outside in a discussion with a group of youth.

Because I cherish myself in a healthy way, I’m going to get myself out of this situation I’m in.

The purpose of thinking about these different types of dukkha is not to get fearful or depressed. There is no need for the Buddha to teach us how to get fearful and depressed; we are well able to do that all by ourselves. If we become depressed, anxious or fearful after this kind of contemplation, it means we’ve got to the wrong conclusion.

What the Buddha is really trying to do is to get us to see the situation clearly, with wisdom, and say, “I don’t want to continue doing this. There is an alternative to this. I can stop the causes for this. Because I cherish myself in a healthy way, because I have love and compassion for myself in a healthy way, I’m going to get myself out of this situation.” This is the determination to be free, or renunciation.

Excerpt: “I should practice the Dharma” vs. “I want to practice the Dharma”

When you have that kind of ascertainment [deep conviction in the teachings], you stop seeing the teachings as a bunch of things that are being forced on you. You stop seeing the Buddha’s advice, precepts or recommendations on how to think and behave as a bunch of “shoulds”, “ought tos” and “supposed tos,” but we actually go, “Oh wow! Yeah, if I follow these, they will get me out of the predicament I’m in.”

Do you see that shift in the mind? We can often understand teachings on an intellectual level without too much difficulty. But we have to bring the understanding from up here [our head] into here [our heart]—we have to see it through our own experience. That’s when an impact is made and a stable kind of confidence in the teachings arises. That’s when we really want to start practicing the Dharma instead of always telling ourselves, “Oh, I should practice and I should change. I shouldn’t act this way. I know it’s not good for me, but it’s so much fun. Well, I’ll still do it now but I’ll stop doing it tomorrow.” You know that mind? [Laughter]

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