Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The determination to be free

The determination to be free

A multi-part course based on Open Heart, Clear Mind given at Sravasti Abbey’s monthly Sharing the Dharma Day from April 2007 to December 2008. You can also study the book in depth through the Sravasti Abbey Friends Education (SAFE) online learning program.

Understanding the determination to be free from samsara

  • Meaning of Tibetan nge jung and English “renunciation
  • Samsaric attachment and renunciation
  • Analogy of two tigers and a strawberry
  • Renouncing suffering and its causes
  • Ethical conduct and renouncing harm
  • Developing concentration, restraining the mind
  • Wisdom that destroys ignorance and suffering

Open Heart, Clear Mind 08: The determination to be free (download)

Questions and answers

  • The effects of negative actions
  • Ethical conduct and concentration
  • Conceptions of the self
  • The seeds of karma

Open Heart, Clear Mind 08: Q&A (download)

The topic we are doing this week is the determination to be free. It’s one of the three principal aspects of the path, so it’s a very important topic. It’s important to understand what it means correctly, because there is a lot of misunderstanding about it.


The Tibetan term is ngé jung. It’s often translated as renunciation, but ngé means definite, and jung means to arise. You want to “definitely arise,” to “definitely emerge,” from what? From suffering and confusion. When we talk about renunciation, what we want to renounce is suffering and confusion. However, the word renunciation is a bit tricky in English, because when we hear “renunciation” we think that we’re renouncing happiness, don’t we? Oh, that person’s so renounced, meaning, they don’t do any of the things that other people do to be happy. We get this image that a renunciate is someone who walks around with no shoes, and terrible food, and matted hair and they’re suffering so much because they’ve renounced all this happiness. But who wants to renounce happiness? We’re renouncing suffering. We’re renouncing unsatisfactory conditions.

The question comes, “Oh well, so then I can renounce and I can go to the bar, and I can go to a pub, and I can go to the disco, and I can go to movies. Because I’m not renouncing happiness, and all those things make me happy!” Then the question is to check up: Do they really make you happy? That’s the question. Do those kinds of things really make you happy? Do they really bring you peace in your mind?

When we look at a lot of the things that we’re attached to—and we all have different things—some of you may think “Oh, a bar, that’s good place, I want to go there!” Some people might said “Oh, a bar, what a drag! I want to go to  the bakery, forget the bar, give me the bakery!” We each have our own version of it, but the thing is whatever it is that we’re grasping onto for self pleasure, does that actually bring happiness? Or does it wind up being unsatisfactory? And therefore something that we wouldn’t mind letting go of if there’s a state of greater happiness, of greater satisfaction—get what I’m saying? Because as beings wandering in cyclic existence, we’re very attached to the immediate pleasures that comes through contact with sense objects, we’re kind of addicted to that. We all have our own sense objects that we enjoy, and what one person likes another person doesn’t but whatever it is we’re kind of addicted to our own brand of it.

We’re actually being very narrow-minded, so small and narrow because we think that only those things bring happiness, whether it’s the bar or the  bakery or the bureau (business office) if you’re a workaholic. We think, “That’s going to bring happiness.” That isn’t our own experience, actually! Because we’ve all had those things and they’re nice for a while, but then they leave us kind of flat afterwards, because we’re back in the same place where we were  before. Whatever we got out of it, whether we’re an alcoholic, a “bakeryaholic,” or workaholic, we’re back where we started from after we’ve done whatever it was.

What we’re renouncing is not the pleasure. We’re renouncing this unsatisfactoriness in our life, this inability to find a peaceful mind, or to have any kind of satisfaction in our life. This feeling like we always have to go here, there, here and there, in a perilous pursuit of pleasure. What we  often called struggling for happiness. When we talk about renunciation, that’s the sign of giving up a low-grade happiness. When we translate that term as “definite emergence” or “determination to be free,” then we’re looking on the positive side of “I want to come out of the box I’m in,” and “I want to definitely emerge into a happy state. I’m determined to be free of my suffering and to attain liberation.” That is based on knowing that there exist other kinds of happiness besides sense pleasure happiness.

There’s the happiness that derives from meditative concentration. There is the happiness that derives from just applying the Dharma in our daily life, and letting go of a lot of things that keep our mind so constricted and tight. And then of course there’s the ultimate happiness of being able to purify the mind completely and attain full enlightenment, and really be able to benefit all beings.

We don’t have a lot of experience with the higher levels of happiness. At the beginning it seems a little bit scary. We look more at the renunciation side and say, “That’s scary. I don’t want to give up  these things, because I don’t know if I’m going to get anything better.” But then part of it is realizing that you’re not giving up the pleasure and happiness you had, you’re giving up the suffering that it brought, and you’re giving up the attachment to the object which is what brought the suffering. It’s not the object that brings us suffering, it’s our attachment to it, when the mind is bound to the object that brings so much pain. We’re giving that up and aspiring for a state that is free of that, and that freedom in and of itself is something blissful and tranquil, and deeply satisfying.

That’s a little bit of talking just about the word, and what we’re trying to do. Just this whole idea of relinquishing misery, and relief from pushing away unsatisfactory conditions, instead of holding on to unsatisfactory conditions, thinking that they’re happiness when they aren’t.

They tell the story, some silly story, of the guy who had a tiger chasing him, so he leapt off a cliff, but there was a tiger at the bottom of the cliff. He grabbed a branch and so he’s hanging there on the branch between the two tigers. And there’s a strawberry growing there and so he said, “Oh, what a wonderful strawberry. Now I can enjoy.”

Different traditions use this story in different ways. But I always look at it as, if you’re between two tigers what kind of happiness are you going to get from a strawberry? I mean, yes, it should be the whole pleasure to be in the moment. They often tell the story: yes, just be in the moment. Don’t be afraid of the tiger that was chasing you before, and don’t be afraid of the tiger that’s to come. But just enjoy the strawberry, and be in the moment. Some people tell the story like that, but personally speaking, that doesn’t do much for me. I don’t think I’m really gonna find some fulfillment in a strawberry, when I’m hanging on a branch between two tigers. If you look at it that way then, what do you want to do? You want to get out of that situation altogether. What you really want to do is you want to learn to fly. Forget the strawberries, learn to fly! Because that would get you out of the situation altogether.

Often in our life we face so much confusion and so many confusing choices. “Should I do this? Should I do that? What’s going to give me more pleasure?” Or, “What’s going to give me less pain? Because there’s this tiger here, and that tiger there, and it’s time to navigate all of this.” But that’s still thinking within the box. “How can I navigate my life so that I can get as much pleasure, and stay away from as  much pain as I can?” Whereas what we’re striving for spiritually is to free ourselves from that unsatisfactory condition of being trapped in that box altogether. Let’s get out of this mess altogether.

In renouncing the suffering, we also want to let go of the causes of the suffering. And here we back up just a step. We begin to see that some of the things that we’re very attached to actually bring us a lot of problems. We begin to see that going to the bar is nice, but then you come home drunk and you don’t feel well the next day; and going to the bakery is nice, but then you put on all this weight and you feel really uncomfortable, and your doctor isn’t very happy with you and you get diabetes; or you become a workaholic and ultimately that isn’t very satisfactory either, you get the money and the prestige but then your family life suffers, and so many other things suffer.

What I’m getting at is that these things look attractive, but if we look at them closer they don’t even bring the immediate happiness that we always want. They might give us an instant rush but even in this life they bring many problems and difficulties with them. And through chasing after them we create negative karma which fogs our mind, obscures our mind, puts us in more painful situations.

Renouncing the causes of suffering

When we are developing the renunciation of the suffering, of the unsatisfactory conditions, it’s also renouncing the causes, which is a lot to do with the attachment and craving and clinging that we have to all of these things to start with. If we didn’t see all these things as so wonderful to start with, and crave and cling to them, then we wouldn’t have all the problems later.

Are you getting what I’m saying? It’s like if you don’t have a washing machine then you don’t have to be afraid of your washing machine breaking. It’s like if you don’t have attachments for certain things, then you don’t have to worry about whether you have that object or don’t have that object. Your mind is even more balanced, more equanimous there.

We want to give up the suffering feelings, and we want to give up the causes of those suffering feelings. The basic causes are the attachment and ignorance and anger that make us get involved with a lot of different things that then cause the karma to ripen for us to have suffering feelings. Or cause us to get involved with the external objects and people, and then we generate confusion, attachment, and  anger and we create more negative actions that plant the seeds for more suffering in the future. We’re renouncing not only the suffering feelings and the miserable situations, but all the causes that act to bring us into those situations, particularly attachment and craving, and then also of course hatred and resentment and anger, and pride, and jealousy and confusion: all those kinds of things.

Ethical conduct

What happens is the more we want to be free of suffering then the more we want to stop the causes of suffering. And so here is where ethical conduct comes in, because when we keep good ethical conduct then we are in the process of renouncing the causes of misery. Getting what I’m saying? So ethical conduct isn’t just about being goody two-shoes. It’s about having some wisdom and knowing, “Oh, this causes misery. I’m renouncing the cause of misery.” I’m keeping good ethical conduct, because if I do that then I abandon the actions that cause misery, I create more actions that bring on happiness.

Ethical conduct is the wish not to do harm. Thinking of ethical conduct that way, it’s not a bunch of rules that somebody’s imposing on us, it’s the wish not to harm. The more we increase that wish not to harm, the more we are distancing ourselves from the causes of our own misery. True isn’t it? The more we cultivate that wish not to harm, the more we’re distancing ourselves from the ignorance, anger, and attachment that act as the causes of our own misery. The ethical conduct is something that we do for ourselves, for our own benefit, and then of course we also do it for the benefit of others. Because if we see that others want to be happy and don’t want to suffer, then we don’t want to do harmful actions that cause them suffering. When we keep ethical conduct we’re abandoning the causes of our own misery and we stop causing other people misery. It works to the advantage of both ourselves and others.

The whole thing about how ethical conduct is so important in this path is for this reason: as we give up the wish to cause harm, then we’re also giving up creating the cause of suffering for ourselves. That’s the first step on the path—that thing of giving up causing harm.

Now, it is very interesting for us to look in our mind, cause we always spout the words, “I don’t want to harm anybody. I want to be a gentle Buddhist practitioner. I don’t want to harm.” Well… look, it is very interesting to look in our minds a little bit, and sometimes how we kinda get a little tingle from making you-know-who uncomfortable, and we don’t remember doing something to them, don’t we? Somebody did something to you and you just get the right Aghr! and then you look so innocent afterwards.

Or it just that you know sometimes we have this kind of rebelliousness in us, this kinda, “Mmmm.” You know that one? “… make me!” Or we have all different little ways, somehow feeling like we’re trumping one on other people. We’re not necessarily harming them physically. Well, some people want a capital punishment and dropping bombs, but sometimes we don’t mind hurting their feelings a little bit. We don’t mind offending them, we don’t mind making them feel uncomfortable. Our mind really gets some kinda buzz off of this, it’s like “Oh… I’m more powerful. I can harm somebody… Mmmhm.” But then we don’t show that, because we wouldn’t be a good person if we acted like that.

It’s quite interesting for us to look at this wish to give up harm, it’s actually not so easy, yes, not so easy. It requires a good bit of looking at ourselves. Why do I think that harming somebody else is going to do me good? Why do I feel that kind of it’s going to make me powerful? Or give me more prestige? Or give me some kind of feeling of control? I can bug somebody, basically, isn’t it? We sometimes get a high off of bugging people. And we’re so innocent. “Mmmm, does that bother you? I’m so sorry.” “You really should be attached to (inaudible: 23:10).” “I didn’t mean any harm. You’re just oversensitive and attached.”

We need to look a little bit, what’s that mechanism going on in our mind, if we get this whole thing. Yes, not doing stuff to other people, rather interesting isn’t it? We learned it as kids sometimes. Remembering when you’re a kid, you just get some kind of, “ I know how to make mom and dad mad.” And then in school “I know how to make my teachers mad.” And then “I know how to do something to really disturb somebody else.” Just looking at that mind, that ego identity, that gets something out of feeling that I have some power if I can make other people uncomfortable.

As I said, ethical conduct is abandoning the wish to do that. It is relinquishing that, giving that up. If we want to have power, we’re not going to get power through that. In other words, our mind is looking more closely about what is power and what isn’t power. It’s being able to do something to somebody else, whether you drop a bomb on them or capital punishment or bug them, whatever it is. Is that the kind of power that is really worthwhile having? We do some introspection along that line so we begin to give up that wish to harm.

There’s the renunciation, and the ethical conduct is the first step we take: it helps us put our life in a good direction. Just free ourselves completely from this situation of being stuck in low-grade happiness. What we call cyclic existence or samsara, having to take rebirth again and again,  under the influence of ignorance.


Then the next step after that is we develop concentration, so we’re going to be able to focus the mind, instead of having the mind be like a mad elephant charging around, or like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. Ethical conduct comes before concentration. Now why? First of all, it’s easier to do because with ethical conduct we’re restraining physical and verbal actions; with concentration we’re restraining the mind. Restraining the mind is harder to do than physical and verbal actions. So, we have to start out with the ethical conduct that abandons the harmful physical and verbal actions, and then progress to the concentration that relinquishes the negative mental attitude. If we don’t give up physically and verbally harming people, how in the world are we going to give up the mental afflictions that make us want to harm them?

The thing is, and this is important to really see in our life, is that the body and the mouth don’t move without a motivation. There’s always a motivation in the mind first. That’s why working with the mind is more difficult than with the body and speech, because the mind comes first. The motivation in the mind comes first. Then, after that motivation to make the mouth move and make the body do something, there’s some kind of time there, before the body and speech react. That’s why it’s easier to stop the verbal and physical negative actions than it is the mental ones, and so that’s why ethical conduct comes first, and then concentration is built upon that.

Also, if we’re doing a lot of unethical activities then the mind is going to be thinking and spinning around all of that. Then when we sit down to meditate, instead of being able to concentrate we’re going to be plotting our next way to harm somebody, or we’re going to feel guilty about having done so. Unethical conduct makes meditative concentration difficult, because it just takes our mind off the object of meditation, and into conniving or into remorse and guilt.


Then upon that basis of concentration, so that the mind becomes more stable and it’s not buffeted around by all the negative emotions, it can stay single-pointedly on an object, then upon that basis it becomes possible to develop wisdom, and that wisdom penetrates in to the nature of reality, it sees things as they are. And when it does so it acts as a counterforce to the ignorance. When the ignorance is abandoned, then the attachment, the hatred, resentment, jealousy, arrogance, all these kinds of things that grow out of the ignorance, then they’re also removed.

So, that’s why we have this three-stage process: ethical conduct, concentration and wisdom. They’re called the three higher trainings in Buddhism. When we describe the path to liberation it’s founded upon these three higher trainings: ethical conduct, concentration and wisdom. By practicing those, we’re able to actualize that determination to be free that we had.

The determination to be free wants to cut off all the suffering and the confusion we have. By this three-fold training, then we’re actually doing it for practicing the path that does that. It brings the mind to a state where there’s freedom from all of these afflictions. That freedom from the afflictions and the unsatisfactory results that they bring—just that freedom itself—is such a state of relief and bliss. And then on top of that, when we use that to work for the benefit of others, and really commit ourselves to being of service and benefit to others and leading them on that path to liberation as well, then there’s even more of a sense of joy and bliss, because you really know that you’re not just looking out for your own liberation, but you really have a mind, a heart, of love and compassion for everybody, and you really want everybody to be happy.                       

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.