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Renunciation Part 2

January 4, 2011

Cultivating Renunciation During Buddhist Meditation (According to the Pali Suttas) Part 2

This is the second half of a research paper written for my Buddhist Meditation class.  I recommend reading Part 1 first, where the translation, meaning, and appearance of ‘renunciation’ within the early Pali suttas has already been examined in broad strokes.  Part 2 contains a more detailed examination of specific supporting texts, one ancient and one modern, in favor of the academic thesis: that meditation continuously cultivates a spirit of renunciation long after (or without) shaving one’s head.

Does Renunciation Occur Before or During Meditation: A Close Reading of the Tapussa Sutta

The Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41) gives one of several step-by-step walkthroughs of the nine (or ten) levels of jhana, or meditative absorptive states, within the Pali sutta. This particular sutta was chosen for a more in-depth treatment here because it both directly references ‘renunciation,’ but also appears to apply renunciation without direct use of the word. Renunciation is initially seen as a prerequisite for the first jhana. The word itself does not appear again in the sutta. However, the language of moving from one jhana to the next is very similar (practically formulaic) to that used to describe entering the first jhana.

“…having seen the drawback of sensual pleasures…having understood the reward of renunciation, I familiarized myself with it. My heart leaped up at renunciation, grew confident, steadfast, and firm, seeing it as peace. Then, quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities, I entered and remained in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation.

“…So at a later time, having seen the drawback of directed thought … My heart leaped up at being without directed thought… With the stilling of directed thoughts and evaluations, I entered and remained in the second jhana: rapture and pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation – internal assurance.

“…So at a later time, having seen the drawback of rapture… My heart leaped up at being without rapture… With the fading of rapture, I remained in equanimity, mindful and alert, physically sensitive to pleasure, and entered and remained in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.’”

The text continues in this vein until the ninth jhana and then freedom, or Nirvana. Basically it says that, at each new stage of meditative absorption, new attributes or characteristics are attained or experienced, but that in time, the meditator (the Buddha in the sutta) sees that despite these attainments he or she still suffers. Therefore, he or she lets go of/gives up/stills these attainments and in doing so moves on to the next level, where he or she attains new attributes/experiences. But does the repetitive text really indicated deepening levels of renunciation given that the word ‘renunciation’ is only used in relation to entering the first jhana?

In English, to renounce is synonymous with to give up, reject, relinquish, surrender, etc. The question is whether it has the same similarities in Pali as in English. If we define it narrowly as “freedom from sensual lust” it may not apply, as this is given up when entering the very first jhana, hence the use of renunciation in this early part of the text. Yet, if we broaden the definition even slightly, to “freedom from lust, craving, and desire” or “self-abnegation,” the states attained and abandoned progressively begin to appear as further refinements of renunciation for each contains subtler and subtler manifestations of desire (i.e. desire for equanimity, rapture, etc.) or ego/self (i.e. infinite consciousness). Further, this is the understanding of several modern teachers, including Prince.

Prince’s View of Continuous Renunciation

One thing I was not able to discover in the course of my research are the bonafides of one T. Prince, the author of this highly convenient description of renunciation.  The article itself was published in two different print sources and then made available on the Access to Insight website, a trusted Therevadan online source.  However, I was unable to find Prince’s biography to discover what credentials he holds or which teachers/traditions he follows. He does use the Sanskrit and more common Mahayana word ‘nirvana’ rather than the Pali ‘nibbana.’ However, the article itself appears to meet academic standards, reference other generally a Theravadan subjects, and a notation in the citation information indicates Prince is likely Australian, and without a full first name, is difficult to track down from half a world away.  Therefore, I chose to use it anyway.  Also, though this counts little in academic circles, his explanation jives with others I have read (though not sourced) and my own understanding.

In his lengthy article “Renunciation,” Prince recognizes three stages of renunciation: outer, inner, and ultimate. The first, outer renunciation, includes the decision to become a monk or nun in order to practice the Dharma. However, even in this earliest phase, Prince is careful to articulate the motivation and ultimate goal of renunciation, which is not becoming a monastic for the sake of becoming a monastic, but rather as a means to an end. “In fact, just as one only renounces Samsara in order to obtain Nirvana, so the sole purpose of renouncing bad or unwholesome qualities is to allow good or wholesome ones to take their place.” So from the very beginning, he sets up renunciation as more than a singular event.

Outer renunciation is followed by inner renunciation. “Now he is free to turn his attention to renunciation of the other, inner world, of the psychophysical life which is his ‘self.’ He begins by endeavoring to become detached from the activities of his senses, and of his mind and body, by the practice of mindfulness.” Thereafter, the monastic is able to enter the first jhana, or what Prince calls ‘absorption,’ the common English translation for jhana, via “the successful practice of intense concentration of the mind – a process which is often called, rather vaguely, ‘meditation.’” This is the first stage of inner renunciation, however, it does not stop there. The monastic continues through the various stages of jhana until “he has left the world a long way behind, but he must turn his mind back to it, if he would complete the process of renunciation; for the final deliverance comes, not from looking away from the world or the self, but from seeing through them.”

This “seeing through” is consistent with Thanissarro Bhikkhu’s instructions to use perception, or “bringing them out into the open,” to cure our mistaken attachments to sensual pleasure. Prince specifically calls on the necessity of clear perception to achieve ultimate renunciation, which he set up in his early discussion of outer renunciation.

“His final deliverance, his ultimate renunciation, comes now with the destruction of what are known as the asavas (Pali) or asravas (Sanskrit), a word which defies translation. (Literally, it means a flowing in or a flowing out.) …He knows as it really is: ‘This is ill, this is the origin of ill, this is the cessation of ill, and this is the Way that leads to cessation… Free, he knows that he is free, and he understands: ‘Exhausted is birth, the holy life is fulfilled, what was to be done has been done, there will be no more of the present state.‘”

“…With this final and certain insight, renunciation of both self and world becomes complete, and the monk, now an arahant, has attained the deathless state, Nirvana.”

Prince holds that even in the initial desire to practice, in the donning of robes and shaving of the head, in the very first attempts to sit in meditation and in all the jhanas passed through along the way, the intention remains the same, to renounce samsara in order to achieve nibbana. It is because of this continuous intention that one can conclude renunciation is not merely the taking of monastic vows, but rather a continuous process cultivated through meditation and culminating in enlightenment.


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. This is supported by the broader definitions of renunciation, or nekkhamma, including self-abnegation. The various places the word renunciation appears in the Pali suttas also indicate it is not one time event, but rather a means to an end. Contemporary commentaries tend to agree, often discussing renunciation as something that both leads to and deepens during meditation practice. Finally, Prince lays out a three stage understanding of renunciation which is consistent with the views of other modern teachers and in keeping with the text of the suttas. Renunciation is not an event or a decision, but the continued cultivation of intention throughout lifelong Buddhist practice and meditation specifically.  This is an important concept to understand both here in the West, where the purpose monastic renunciation is in question, and among Asian cultures which may have allowed their definition of renunciation to narrow.


After presenting this research and my conclusion to the class, several folks had interesting questions.  Venerable Kit (spelling?) remarked that as a monk, he had never contemplated renunciation beyond carrying out his decision to become a monk and he was most interested to learn renunciation also had a deeper interpretation or understanding.  Later, he singled me out in the hall during the break to ask me why I had chosen this topic.  Though he did not say so in as many words, I had the distinct impression that he and the other venerables in the class were surprised to find a layperson taking such interest in the subject, let alone coming to such a novel (to them, if not to the larger Buddhist academic community) thesis.

This makes two things clear to me.  One, neither the lay community nor the monastic community has given in depth thought to the subject, at least not within the ranks of novices.  This seems odd considering the vital importance of renunciation (at some level) in even beginning a practice.  That it is not stressed throughout seems a lost opportunity.  Two, a gap remains not only between the practices and languages of the Western convert and ethnically Asian communities (a gross oversimplification, I know), but in what each group thinks is interesting or important to the other group.  If a monk doesn’t think renunciation is important to a layperson, they are hardly likely to expound on the subject.  Likewise, the reverse is not doubt true for other topics.  In this way much opportunity for understanding and communication may be lost.

Visiting Sunnayatam Monastery near San Diego, CA.The author (left) and lay and monastic classmates visiting and practicing together at Sunnayatam Monastery near San Diego, CA.


However, overall I was gratified by the reception my work received from both my fellow students and my professor.  Please look for a process breakdown for this paper as part of the Riding Lessons section soon.


Bullitt, John T., editor, “A Glossary of Pali and Buddhist Terms,” Access to Insight, 2005-2010,

Chu, William, “Lecture 9” and “Lecture 10,” REL 530 Buddhist Meditation, Fall 2010 (Note: these slides used for the text of the Petakopadesa, which was otherwise not available in English translation)

Khantipalo Bhikku, “Practical Advice for Meditators,” The Wheel No. 116 (1986), Buddhist Publication Society

Prince, T, “Renunciation,” Metta, Journal of The Buddhist Federation of Australia (1986)

Sayadaw, Mahasi, “Thoughts on the Dhamma,” The Wheel No. 298/300 (1983), Buddhist Publication Society

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Trading Candy for Gold: Renunciation as a Skill,” published online by Access to Insight (1999), accessed Nov. 21, 2010

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, translator, “Anguttara Nikaya 9.41 Tapussa Sutta – To Tapussa,” “Majjhima Nikaya 19 Dvedhavitakka Sutta — Two Sorts of Thinking,” “Majjhima Nikaya 66 Latukikopama Sutta — The Quail Simile,” “Majjhima Nikaya 78 Samana-Mundika Sutta — Mundika the Contemplative,” Tripitaka, Access to Insight,

Authors not listed, Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary, hosted by the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia, Digital South Asia Library, University of Chicago,

Web Sources

Yahoo! Answers, “How to become a Buddhist monk?”,

BuddhaNet, “The Monk’s Rules: FAQ,” The Buddha Dharma Education Association,

New Buddhist, “Do you need to become a monk/nun…,” Jelsoft Enterprises, LLC,

Access to Insight, various pages as footnoted,


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