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Renunciation Part 1

January 2, 2011


The following is the first half of a term paper complete for my Buddhist Meditation class, which, ironically, involved no actual Buddhist meditation.  It was, rather, a very detailed look at the descriptions of meditation found within ancient Buddhist texts and the Pali scriptures in particular.  The subject, renunciation, is one of personal interest to me as it is akin to motivation.  For all of my path, I have struggled to find the motivation to pursue a diligent meditation practice.  I have largely failed.

The form this paper takes is enormously influenced by the professor who assigned it.  In large part, it copies his research and analysis style so as to conform to his academic expectations.  It is, therefore, rather more pedantic than my own inclinations.  It was also presented to the class as a whole for their feedback and I had some interesting conversations with my monk and nun classmates as a result, a summary of which shall follow the second post in the Afterword.  In addition, I will break down and analyze this paper and the process by which it was created as a Riding Lesson for the edification of future college aspirants.  (Note the number of GRE words in that sentence alone!  La!)  Footnotes have been removed for better blogging.  Personal notes which were not part of the turned -in paper are in italics.  Enjoy!

Nun bowing to Buddha
Nun bowing to Buddha at Wat Metta near San Diego, CA

Cultivating Renunciation During Buddhist Meditation (According to the Pali Suttas) Part 1


In Buddhist circles, renunciation is spoken of most often in reference to an individual’s choice to take up the robes of a monastic, to shave one’s head and ‘renounce’ the life of a layperson in order to practice Buddhism in a dedicated manner. In Asia, there is a long tradition of Buddhist monks and nuns reaching all the way back to the Buddha himself. However, while monasticism is not unknown in Western civilization, it has not been as widespread of late (perhaps never) as Buddhist monasticism in Asia remains. Therefore, it is not uncommon for Western Buddhist converts to question the importance of renunciation in following the path of practice. Whether full ordination is necessary to practice Buddhism is a common question among the online message boards of English language Buddhists.

In the first few years of my practice, the online and now mostly defunct forum E-sangha was host to some interesting discussions on the subject of renunciation.  Many wondered if becoming a monastic was necessary or beneficial.  Some seemed to see it as an escape from the stresses and responsibilities of their established lives rather than merely a path to deeper practice.  Others argued that full renunciation of worldly attachment was entirely achievable while leading a lay life.  The battle lines were largely drawn between the Therevada and Vajrayana camps.  And most of the discussion was occurring amongst Western convert practitioners, often laypeople, with backup from quotations of their masters and gurus, often out of context, no scriptural citation, and seemingly little personal evaluation.   It was a he-said-she-said debate. This paper does not come down on either side directly, but was rather an opportunity for me to gather more information and insight into the topic at large.

In light of this, a renewed interest in just what is meant by ‘renunciation’ has been spreading. Renunciation and cultivating the spirit of renunciation appears often in relation to meditation, when not being used to directly mean monastic ordination. Sometime renunciation is depicted in the context of a single event that takes place prior to beginning ‘serious’ meditation training and sometimes it is an ongoing process which only deepens with meditation.  Clarification is needed and modern Buddhist teachers have been responding, as will be seen below, but very little examination of the source texts has been included in the (often online) discussion.

This paper will look at the treatment renunciation receives in the oldest of Buddhist writings, the Pali Suttas. It shall examine the word itself, it’s definition and translation, where it appears in the suttas (non-exhaustive), and how it is being applied in modern context. Once this foundation is established, the paper shall then take a closer look at the language of the Tapussa Sutta, part of the Anguttara Nikaya (“The Further-Factor Discourses”), and then examine one teacher’s (Prince) interpretation in light of this. Based on these factors, it is demonstrable that although a desire for or commitment to renunciation must precede meditation training, renunciation is further cultivated during meditation and arises naturally as a result of ongoing meditation practice, resulting finally in renunciation of samsara itself and attainment of nibbana (nirvana).

Definitions of ‘Renunciation’

The Pali word most frequently translated as ‘renunciation’ is nekkhamma. Per Access to Insight, nekkhamma means “Renunciation; literally, ‘freedom from sensual lust.’ One of the ten paramis,” or ten perfections of character. The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary defines it as “giving up the world & [sic] leading a holy life, renunciation of, or emancipation from worldliness, freedom from lust, craving & desires, dispassionateness, self – abnegation” and lists a number of sources within the Pali Cannon. Renunciation is equated with “secluded from sensual pleasures” in the Petakopadesa 7.72, although this sutta is considered supplementary in Sri Lanka and Thailand, but fully part of the Tripitaka in Burma/Myanmar. In addition, the word nekkhamma appears in relation to vitakka, or directed thought, where renunciation is a type/object of vitakka, such as resolve to renunciation or nekkhamma-sakkappa.

Use of ‘Renunciation’ in Pali Scripture

The word ‘renunciation’ appears several times in the English-language translations of the Pali Cannon, most commonly in the Majjhima Nikaya (“The Middle Length Discourses”), though also the Anguttara Nikaya, and quasi-canonical works like the Petakopadesa, which is part of the Khuddaka Nikaya (“Collection of Little Texts”).  Below is a non-exhaustive list of quotations.

Petakopadesa 7.72: “Here, for fulfilling non-passion he thinks the thought of renunciation. … And so he enters and remains in the first jhāna, which includes directed thought (vitakka) and evaluation (vicara), as well as joy and pleasure born of seclusion.”

Majjhima Nikaya 19: “And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, and resolute, thinking imbued with renunciation arose. I discerned that ‘Thinking imbued with renunciation has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, and leads to Unbinding.”

Majjhima Nikaya 66: “With the abandoning of pleasure and pain … he enters and remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This is called renunciation-pleasure, seclusion-pleasure, calm-pleasure, self-awakening-pleasure. And of this pleasure I say that it is to be cultivated, to be developed, to be pursued, that it is not to be feared.”

Majjhima Nikaya 78: “And what are skillful resolves? Being resolved on renunciation (freedom from sensuality), on non-ill will, on harmlessness. These are called skillful resolves.”

As one can see, renunciation is discussed in relation to entering first jhana, that is the earliest of the states of ‘absorption’ achieved in meditation, as well as a type of pleasure experienced during the fourth jhana. In addition, it is described as a skillful means or resolve, i.e. that which harms neither self nor other. It is also described as a leading directly to “Unbinding” or nibbana (nirvana). Therefore, renunciation is more than simply shaving one’s head, donning a robe, and retreating from sensual pleasures, although this is no doubt important.

Modern Commentaries on Renunciation

For a contemporary understanding of renunciation, especially in regards to meditation, works by three modern teachers were briefly consulted. Bhikkhu Khantipalo, rather than placing renunciation solely prior to meditation, states “Meditation implies renunciation, and no practice will be successful unless one is at least prepared to make efforts to restrain greed and hatred, check lust, and understand when delusion is clouding the heart.” He goes on to discuss “outward” renunciation, as in becoming a monastic, and then concludes “one thing is sure: inward renunciation, an attitude of giving-up with regard to both unskillful mental events and bodily indulgence, is absolutely essential.”

In his discourse on the Sakkapanha Sutta, Mahasi Sayadaw discusses many emotions that may be encountered by the meditator, including despair. “According to the commentaries, we should welcome the despair that results from non-fulfillment of desire in connection with renunciation, meditation, reflection, and jhana.” In other words, despair experienced during meditation can lead to a renewed spirit or renunciation.

Preeminent American monk, translator, and scholar in the Thai Forest Tradition, Thanissaro Bhikkhu tells us “our attachment to sensual passion tends to be stronger and more constant than our attachments to particular pleasures. This attachment is what has to be renounced. How is this done? By bringing it out into the open. …As the Buddha pointed out, sensual passion depends on aberrant perceptions: we project notions of constancy, ease, beauty, and self onto things that are actually inconstant, stressful, unattractive, and not-self.” Meditation is commonly used as a tool to “see things as they are,” or perceive the nature of ourselves and reality in order to achieve enlightenment. Therefore, in this case as well, a modern teacher is discussing renunciation within the context of ongoing meditation practice, not as a simple prerequisite.

Please check back for the thrilling conclusion of Renunciation Part 2 and discover if our heroes do in fact attain nibbana!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff Pearson permalink
    June 27, 2011 7:06 pm

    I would like to offer that renunciation gets much of its bad conotations in the West because we think that it implies loss and the giving up of treasured activities. To be sure, the Buddha teaches that basic virtue is a must for dhamma practice, but if you aren’t engaged in criminal activity or regularly binging on mind altering substances you probably have that covered. That’s renunciation and it helps one to have enough peace of mind that one can practice.

    My experience is that sustained over a period of time, regular practice provides joy and pleasure that one can never find in worldly experiences. The Buddha was not speaking metaphorically in the Anapanasati Sutta about training the mind to be sensitive to rapture and pleasure. That’s the actual instruction and it is absolutely attainable by mortals and householders. I don’t know why this is not discussed more by dhamma instructors. People run towards what is pleasurable and recoil from what is not pleasurable. How much easier it is to give up a lesser pleasure for a greater pleasure!

    Finally, I hope that you can find the motivation to stick with a daily meditation practice. I have been influenced by the writings of Thanissaro Bhikhu who frequently refers to the dhamma a skill, much like a manual skill. In fact the Buddha did the same; think of the simile of the saw or the simile of the bathman. In the same way that one does not learn to swim without getting in the water, my experience leads me to believe that one cannot understand the dhamma without a daily meditation practice.


  1. Renunciation Part 2 « Dharma Cowgirl
  2. 2011 Roundup « Dharma Cowgirl

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