Renunciation: An Escape or a Constructive Analysis?

Renunciation is emphasized very strongly in the Buddhist teachings. It is one of the three principle aspects of the path that Tsongkhapa writes about, which are absolutely essential for either sutra or tantra practice: renunciation, bodhichitta and the correct understanding of voidness (emptiness). And so, obviously, it is something that we need to understand and try to develop. Here’s how Tsongkhapa speaks about it in his text, The Three Principle Aspects of the Path (Lam-gtso rnam-gsum):

When you never generate, for even an instant, a mind that aspires after the wonderful things of recurring samsara, and you develop the attitude that day and night always is interested keenly in liberation, that at that time, you’ve generated renunciation.

With renunciation we’re not aiming for enlightenment; we’re aiming for liberation from samsara. Those are quite different. With liberation, we overcome our uncontrollably recurring rebirth so that we’re no longer under the influence of disturbing emotions and karma; and, in this sense, we no longer experience any suffering. But that doesn’t put us in the position of knowing how best to help everyone because, although we are liberated from grasping for truly established existence – which, because we are unaware and confused about it, causes our disturbing emotions; and, acting out these disturbing emotions, it builds up karma which then drives our uncontrollably recurring rebirth or samsara – and so, even though we’re free from this grasping for truly established existence, with liberation, our mind still is going to make appearances of true existence. And so that means that everything seems to us – the way that it appears to us – as if it were encapsulated, existing on its own. It means that it’s very difficult for us to really understand cause and effect fully. In other words: What are the causes of everybody’s problems in samsara? And what will be the effect of anything that we teach them? Not only the effect on them, but everybody that they interact with as the result of what we’ve taught them. But first we have to stop believing in these appearances, which occurs with liberation, and only then will we slowly be able to get our minds to stop producing these false appearances. But, anyway, let’s not talk about enlightenment here, and let’s be very clear that we’re talking about liberation when we speak about renunciation.

The Terms for “Renunciation” in the Traditional Buddhist Languages

It’s always helpful to look at Buddhist terms in their traditional languages. The Sanskrit word translated as “renunciation” is nihsarana. It’s made up of a prefix, nih, and an actual root, which is sarana. Now nih, that’s a prefix which means “out” or “away.” And sarana means “to move” or “to move quickly.” And so it’s the state of mind that is wanting to go away from, or out of something, very quickly. And what we want to get out from quickly is uncontrollably recurring rebirth: samsara.

And it’s not that we’re being born in samsara. Samsara is not a place. One has to be very careful not to think in terms of being reborn in samsara. So samsara is a situation. Actually, what it’s referring to – I’m saying this phrase all the time – uncontrollably recurring rebirth. That is samsara. Samsara: to continue to circle. And so it’s talking specifically about rebirth. We have no control over it, and it goes on and on and on. And it’s under the influence of disturbing emotions and the karma that is built up by them by acting them out. So the Sanskrit term here means that we want to get out of this as quickly as possible.

Now this prefix nih or nis actually can also mean, if you look it up in the dictionary, “certain” or “definite.” And, with the word ngey (nges), the Tibetans chose to translate that meaning of the prefix, which is probably not the original connotation in the Sanskrit word here. But, anyway, the Tibetans picked up on this possible meaning. And then for sarana, which means to move, the Tibetans chose a word, jung (byung), which means to become, to manifest, to make something happen. And so it’s the state of mind that manifests certainty. And so this is adding a little bit of a larger dimension to the Sanskrit word. And so I translate that as a “determination”: you’re certain. And it’s a determination for what? Determination to get out of samsara; to be free.

When we look at the Chinese translation of it, they have two different translations. And one, li, (离) means “to leave” – so, similar to the Sanskrit – so the state of mind to leave, to leave samsara. And the second translation that they use shi chuxian (实出现), which means “to manifest the real thing.” It’s interesting, “actual thing.” And so, again, this means to – if we think about it – it means to get this really definite real thing; that I really want to get out.

So, when we look at all these different translations, how the different cultures understood the word, it gives us a little bit larger picture of what is meant. So what is the object that we want to leave, we want to get out of? And we’re really determined – definitely going to do it, have to do it? It is, basically, suffering, and referring specifically to uncontrollably recurring rebirth. It’s a type of suffering, right? Example of the first noble truth – true suffering – and actually the deepest meaning of the first noble truth. And we want to get rid of its causes as well – second noble truth – and this means to not be attracted to anything that’s involved with uncontrollably recurring rebirth. So, since uncontrollably recurring rebirth is a lot of words to say, I will shorten it to just “rebirth.” So let’s not just think of samsara, because often when we think of samsara we have a different idea of what it’s talking about. We’re talking about rebirth. Now it’s not that we want to run away, this idea: it’s an escape from the world. We’re not talking about running away or that we want to hide and, in this sense, escape from the world. But, rather, we want to face rebirth and analyze its causes, and get out of it in a very rational way.

Why to Leave Samsara?

So then the question is: Why do we want to leave? Why do we want to get out of it? (Because renunciation is talking about a motivation.) And so with motivation in Buddhism, we have some aim of what we want to achieve; so this is getting out of rebirth. And the second aspect is some sort of emotion that’s driving us to achieve this goal. Right? An emotion. A state of mind. Why we want to achieve this.

Now we have to talk in very practical terms what this really means. One can explain all the theory and all the lists and everything. And very nice, but what does it really mean in terms of our own personal development in ordinary life? This is the important thing.

We are trying to progress through the graded stages of the path, the lam-rim, and we shouldn’t think that this is so easy. Very often we skip over the initial and intermediate levels and just go for the advanced level. And so we go to the advanced scope and say, “I’m aiming for enlightenment to be able to benefit all sentient beings.” And these are very nice words, but they don’t actually really mean anything, in terms of what do we really feel in our hearts, because we really don’t have a clear idea of enlightenment really is. And it is beyond most of our ability to think of absolutely every single being with a mind, throughout the universe; that’s a very large scope. So, nice words; but not so sincere, really, in terms of, is that really what we are feeling?

An Initial Scope Motivation for Renunciation

So let’s start with the initial scope, which is extremely difficult actually. We shouldn’t trivialize it. It is very advanced already. Usually we are, at best, on stage zero before the initial scope, most of us, which is to benefit this lifetime through Dharma practice; to make our suffering a little bit less. And that’s perfectly okay, as long as we realize that’s step zero and that there are more steps and we would like to be able to progress through the rest of the steps. But we have to start at step zero. And even just to think in terms of improving things later in this lifetime and not just want some instantaneous improvement, this is already an accomplishment.

But the initial scope is thinking in terms of future rebirth. And that, of course, means that we have to understand what future rebirth means in Buddhism. So we need to understand the Buddhist teachings of rebirth, which means to understand the whole teaching on beginningless mind, which means to understand what mind means in Buddhism. And we need to also understand karma, how the way that we act affects future lives. And we have to be convinced that all of this is actuality: it’s true. And, on the basis of that, actually do something to try to ensure that we continue to have precious human rebirths in the future. And actually do it. And so to reach that level and to have that as the main thought – tremendous great accomplishment. We shouldn’t belittle it.

Initial scope is not our topic. So we need to look at the intermediate scope. And, with this intermediate scope, one of the things is that we really can’t guarantee that we’re always going to have a precious human rebirth, can we? Precious human rebirth, not just human rebirth.

With the initial scope, we’re focusing a great deal on – out of the three types of suffering, the “suffering of suffering (sdug-sngal-gyi sdug-bsngal),” it’s called, which is the suffering of unhappiness. Basically, it’s that. Because we could experience unhappiness with many, many objects, not just pain. Pain is a physical sensation. We’re not talking about physical sensations. We’re thinking in terms of states of mind; unhappiness. But, with the initial scope, we’re thinking of terrible situations and the unhappiness that we would experience with it; and we want to avoid that. So precious human rebirth is certainly better than a rebirth as a hell creature or a ghost or an animal.

An Intermediate Scope Motivation for Renunciation

Now here’s the problem. The problem is now we need to focus, with the intermediate scope, on what’s called the “suffering of change (‘gyur-ba’i sdug-bsngal).” So suffering of change is our ordinary happiness. And it doesn’t last and it doesn’t satisfy; and the more that we have of it, actually the worse it gets. Perhaps I should clarify that. Classic example: if eating our favorite food was true happiness, then the more we ate at one time, the happier we would become. But, after a certain point, the more that we eat, that happiness changes to suffering. And so this is why we call it the suffering of change. And so, even if we have a precious human rebirth, we may lose it, and we may go down again and have massive suffering of suffering. And even within our precious human rebirth, it’s not all going to be our ordinary happiness; there’ll be a lot of unhappiness as well.

But the main object that we want to overcome with this intermediate scope is not just this suffering of change, but the “all-pervasive suffering (khyab-par ‘du-byed-kyi sdug-bsngal),” it’s called, which is uncontrollably recurring rebirth, because rebirth, uncontrollably recurring under the influence of karma and disturbing emotions, that’s the basis for the first two types of suffering. So, with this type of body and mind, it’s going to be the basis for experiencing the suffering of unhappiness and the suffering of ordinary happiness. So it’s going to continue to go up and down.

Problems with the Initial Scope Motivation

What happens when we try to actually develop this? There’s a lot of problems with the initial scope, because with the initial scope we’re praying and praying, “May I continue to have a precious human rebirth, with all the circumstances and conditions and freedoms to be able to continue my Dharma practice.” And we’re refraining from destructive behavior, which is the main thing to help to bring about a precious human rebirth. And we’re practicing as much as we can the far-reaching attitudes: generosity, discipline, patience, etc. And offering these prayers. But what does it get mixed with? It gets mixed with “And in my future lives, may I always be with my loved ones, with my relatives, my friends, and with my fellow Dharma students, and with my teachers. And may I always have the financial resources to be able to study” – and there’s a lot of attachment which is there. And so we’re not really looking for liberation. Right? We want this precious human rebirth, but with all the good things, as it were, that would come with it. It’s very attractive.

And so this is what we have to start focusing on in terms of renunciation. We have to start thinking about the suffering that’s involved. Because being with our friends, being with our loved ones, etc. – is that really the true source of happiness? Does it mean that we have to ignore them? No. But we have to look at them in a very realistic manner. To think in terms of liberation from rebirth, that’s very, very profound. I mean, it’s very hard for us to even imagine what that means. So it’s very difficult. And so we think, well, what does it mean? Does that mean that I no longer can have any friends? I can no longer having any loving relationships with anybody? What does it actually mean?

We’re not talking about a very misinformed concept of renunciation: that you give up everything and go live in a cave. We’re not talking about that. That’s not what we’re talking about. Renunciation – we’re talking about something much deeper, and about all the type of emotion and feeling that goes with that. And so we, as I say, need to focus on rebirth itself. And when we think, well, okay, my friends and relatives and so on – might be nice circumstances, but that’s not the point; that’s not what we want to focus on when we think in terms of this initial scope. Having better future rebirths; continuing to have precious human rebirths. And it’s very easy to get sidetracked in this initial level scope; to think in terms of that. “I always want to be with my friends, my loved ones, in future lives.” We want to have… What’s the point of getting a precious human rebirth in the future? It’s to be able to continue on the spiritual path; continue developing.

Now if we look at that a little bit more realistically – this is assuming that we can get a precious human rebirth each lifetime, which is unbelievably difficult; no guarantee we’ll get that – if we look in terms of what have we done mostly in our lives and what type of thoughts have we had mostly in our lives, I’m sure that most of us will find that the destructive side and the disturbing side far outweighs the constructive, positive side. So, in terms of cause and effect, it’s not going to be so easy to continue getting precious human rebirths over and over again, or even one more time.

But, even if we have precious human rebirths, how horrible it is to have to start almost all over again in each lifetime. “I want to continue on the spiritual path.” Right? The initial scope. “I am really serious about it, and I’ve worked really hard in this lifetime, and I’ve reached a certain level – as I get older, more mature in my Dharma practice – a certain understanding, a certain level of concentration, a certain level of compassion, and so on. And now I’m reborn again. And although it might be a little bit easier next time because of the instincts that I’ve laid, but how horrible that I have to go through all the stages again to be able to actually reach the point where I was last time and continue and go further.” That’s what we have to think about. Not just that, well, in every lifetime I’m going to have disturbing emotions, and it’s going to go up and down, and angry and greedy, etc.

A Dharma-Lite Version of the Intermediate Scope Motivation

You see, there’s a very light version of this intermediate scope, this renunciation, which is that I want to get rid of my disturbing emotions and karma, but we don’t make the connection between that and rebirth. Why, sure, that makes a lot of sense. It’s horrible to have this up and down, and to get angry, and all the difficulties that happen in my relationships and so on because of my anger and my attachment. And so we reduce our Dharma practice, really, to a type of psychotherapy, perhaps a deeper form than is usually available, with a huge amount of methods and so on, from thousands of years of Buddhist experience. But still we’re thinking in a – what I would call a very light version of this intermediate scope. Because actually all that we’re aiming to get rid of are the first two types of suffering: the suffering of unhappiness and the suffering of ordinary happiness. We’re not thinking in terms of rebirth.

And so the actual “The Real Thing” intermediate scope is, in addition to what we just have mentioned, but with rebirth – the third type of suffering – which is the basis of the first two types of suffering. Because we might be focusing on getting rid of our disturbing emotions and so on – the chances are we’re not going to get rid of them in this lifetime. And so rebirth is going to happen. And if we haven’t thought in terms of how do we stop that, how do we avoid that, we certainly are not on the way to liberation because, in fact, we are undoubtedly perpetuating our samsara. Why? Because we really haven’t understood the whole Buddhist teaching on cause and effect and probably don’t have a clear basis in our understanding of rebirth. So the whole thing becomes very mixed up in our minds. And although it’s beneficial obviously to think in terms of “I’ve got to get rid of all my disturbing emotions,” and so on; in the Buddhist practice, we’re aiming for much more than that.

And so I think that we can develop this disgust with all the problems that I have – and I’m in a bad relationship and it breaks up, and then I’m going to get into another bad relationship; and these syndromes repeat and repeat – and we get determined to try to be free of that. But that could also motivate us to go into psychotherapy. So why do we need Buddhism? We just make Buddhism into another form of psychotherapy, or what? So we have to develop this renunciation for… It’s almost for – I mean, this is a very dangerous thing to say – but for our ordinary type of lives. And I say it’s dangerous because it could be easily misunderstood. But it’s this type of life: that you have to start all over again as a baby, and go through all of the difficulties of being a baby – we can’t express ourselves, can’t do anything, we have to learn everything all over again, we’re helpless. What a colossal waste of time, isn’t it? I want to continue on the path. I want to develop. And (the intermediate scope) to get out of suffering completely. Or (advanced scope) I want to be able to help others.

An Advanced Scope Motivation for Renunciation

Here it becomes even stronger, our renunciation, when we are working on the advanced level. I’ve got to achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha in order to really help everybody. And our minds are expanded enough to understand what “enlightenment” means and what “everybody” means. And it’s really, really strong, that we really want to do this. Everybody’s been my mother and so kind – all these thoughts are there. And what a colossal waste of time that every now and then I’m going to have to go back to square one and be in a womb, and then be a baby, and then go to school again, and then do all the preliminary practices all over again, and do all the training all over again. And maybe when I’m forty or fifty, I’ll be able to pick up where I left off last time. How boring. And it’s such a waste of time. Very, very inefficient. And this is what we are renouncing.

And forget about “Oh, I want to be with my friends. And it’ll be so nice,” and all of that; having that. Forget it. That’s not what we’re focusing on here. And that is something that can catch us, with attachment, so that we don’t focus on what the real thing is that we need to get out of. And not just that we want to be with our friends and loved ones. “It’ll be so nice to be with my teacher again.” Like that; even that can hang us up. The point is not so that I can be together with my teacher that I like so much. The point is to be able to have spiritual teachers – it doesn’t matter who it is – and to be able to continue on the path. But it’s not just to have a nice time because it feels good to be with my teacher. Even that is not really what we want. Right? I mean, as an arhat we could be in a pure land studying with Sambhoghakaya Buddhas. That’s far better than at a Dharma center.

So when we, then, try to imagine what it would be like to actually have renunciation in our daily life, we’re not talking about giving up ice cream, or sleeping less hours at night, or this sort of thing, but to really think: “I wonder what I want in the future, and what is giving me the energy to practice as hard and as much as I can now? I want to make as much progress as I can now, so that next lifetime, if I get a precious human rebirth, maybe it’ll take a little bit less time to get back to where I am now, toward the end of my life.” And, with that, work really hard on getting rid of our attachment, our anger, these sort of things; that’s where that comes in.

So in our prayers – okay, pray for a precious human rebirth but, in addition, pray for liberation. And not just precious human rebirths so that I can continue to be with my friends and loved ones. Right? Because that usually, for most of us, is what we think of when we think of wanting to have a wonderful next rebirth. Isn’t it? If we’re honest with ourselves. And all we’re doing is perpetuating more and more and more of samsara because of that attachment. You see the contradiction here? I want to be with my friends and loved ones in order to work on overcoming my attachment. You see, it’s contradictory, isn’t it? I want to have the most wonderful circumstances so that I can work on overcoming my attachment to wonderful circumstances. That’s strange, isn’t it? So, as I say, we have to be rather strong with ourselves to really try to focus on what it is that we would like to achieve and that we need to achieve.

Renunciation of the Activators of the Karma for Rebirth

So one aspect of renunciation, then, is to overcome this third type of suffering, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and then the causes for it. So now we get into the disturbing emotions, etc. So this is what I was trying to emphasize. We don’t just want to give up the causes – the disturbing emotions are the causes; that’s the second noble truth – we want to give up the first noble truth and the second noble truth: the result of the causes, which is the suffering. Remember, Buddha taught the first noble truth first; the second noble truth second. That’s why they’re in this order. So we want to renounce the suffering, the first noble truth; and then the cause, the uncontrollably recurring rebirth. And to identify correctly what we mean by the first noble truth. It’s not just the suffering of suffering and suffering of change. It’s the all-pervasive suffering as well. Because, as His Holiness always points out, there are many other religions and philosophies that aim to get rid of the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change. Right? Be born in heaven, in paradise, and overcome worldly pleasures; worldly happiness. Other religions teach that. That’s not the special feature of Buddhism.

Now, causes. Second noble truth. What do we want to stop in order to stop rebirth? Which indicates to us what we actually need to deal with if we have renunciation: How do we lead our lives in terms of this attitude of renunciation? So the answer to this we find in the teachings of the twelve links of dependent arising; that describes the mechanism of rebirth, of samsara. And it’s a very complex system, and this isn’t really the place or the time to go into a discussion of the twelve links; but, in short, we’ll just focus on the relevant points here.

From our unawareness of reality, of how things exist, we build up – we act in destructive ways, or constructive ways mixed with confusion – and this builds up karmic tendencies (sa-bon). And these are imputed on the mental continuum, and they get activated at the time of death and they produce what’s called the “throwing karma” (‘phen-byed-kyi las) to go into future lives. And even in daily life these get activated, to produce our ordinary up and down – suffering of unhappiness, suffering of ordinary happiness.

So how do we stop rebirth? In short, what we need to do is to stop activating these karmic tendencies. If it is impossible to activate a karmic tendency, then we no longer have those tendencies. Right? A tendency can only be imputed if there are past instances and there’s the possibility for future instances of something. If it’s no longer possible to have future instances of something, you can no longer say that there’s a tendency present: a tendency is only imputed in terms of something previous and something possible that’s not yet happened. So, if it’s impossible to activate the tendencies so that there is future occurrence, the tendency is gone.

That’s difficult to understand. Let’s try to use an example. This table – let’s use a mechanical example – this table, there’s the possibility for this table to hold a glass of water on it. In the past it’s had glasses of water on it, and there’s still the possibility for it to hold a glass of water. Now, if this table gets burned and turns to ashes, there’s no longer a possibility for the table to have a glass of water on it, is there? So that possibility or that tendency is gone. That’s what we’re talking about, in a very simple example. So what we want to do is to get rid of what activates karmic tendencies, and this we find described very nicely in the twelve links.

Craving or Thirsting

Two things that activate the karmic tendencies (of course, each of them have many, many parts, as we find in the Buddhist teachings). First one is called “craving” (sred-pa). It’s the word for thirst; being thirsty. So craving: you’re really thirsting after something. So what is this object here? The object here is happiness or unhappiness or a neutral feeling. And what do we thirst after? What do we crave? Not to be parted from ordinary happiness that we have now, to be parted from unhappiness that we have, or craving just for a neutral feeling to just continue existing. There are other explanations as well.

What’s involved here? What’s involved here is that we have, throughout our life, as we all know: sometimes we feel happy, sometimes we feel unhappy. And these don’t have to be dramatic; they can be very low level. And it doesn’t seem to matter what the object is that we are seeing or hearing or smelling or tasting, or what kind of physical sensation we’re feeling – hot, cold, pleasure, pain – or what we’re thinking. Sometimes with the exact same object we feel happy, sometimes we feel unhappy. And sometimes we have a neutral feeling, which is neither happy nor unhappy; for instance, when we are in deep sleep.

Now what happens with craving? I mean, we’re going to be experiencing these up and downs our entire life – happy, unhappy, neutral. What we’re doing is we are exaggerating them. We exaggerate the good qualities of happiness, and we deny the shortcomings – that it’s going to end, it’s going to change, etc. The suffering of change. And we have to get that happiness; we have to keep it and not lose it. Because we exaggerate it into – first we make it into some solid thing, and then we blow it up into something really fantastic. And we do the same thing with unhappiness. We make it into some solid thing and then exaggerate the negative qualities of it, and forget about the good qualities – like it could help us to develop compassion for others who have similar suffering – and we have got to get rid of this horrible thing, this unhappiness. And this neutral feeling, we make it into some solid thing, and I’ve got to continue in it – we stay unconscious, asleep forever.

And so this indicates what we need to work on, because this type of craving, in terms of our feelings of happy and unhappy, is going to activate karmic tendencies, is going to perpetuate our samsara. So we want to stop perpetuating it. So what does that mean? It means don’t make a big deal out of whether you feel happy or unhappy. Or when you feel neutral: it could be with sleep: “Oh, I can’t wait until I fall asleep and then I don’t have to think about anything. So I don’t have to think about anything, my problems of daily life.” But these feelings go up and down, up and down; and so, rather than getting attached to them, I want to get rid of my making a big thing out of them.

On a deeper level, we want to get rid of these up and down feelings. But here’s the tricky part, because it’s very easy then to make the up and down feelings into a solid thing and then crave to be rid of them. And so how do we develop renunciation without it being craving to be free. This is the tricky part. That’s the very, very tricky part. Very delicate. So one has to work on that. Why don’t you think about it for a minute; maybe two or three minutes?

Okay. So the answer is that we need to understand that these feelings don’t exist in the solid way that our minds make them appear to exist. In other words, when we have craving after these feelings – or craving to be free of these feelings, or free of the craving towards these feelings – if we have craving toward that, we’re making these things into a solid thing. We’re grasping for the solid existence of the feelings of happy and unhappy, and of craving, itself. And then we, “Oh, I’ve got to get rid of it!” Well, how do you get rid of it?

Voidness as the Antidote for Craving

You get rid of it with the understanding of voidness: That they don’t exist that way. That’s an impossible way. Things don’t exist as some solid entity, encapsulated all by itself. Obviously the topic of voidness is a very long, deep, and profound topic; and, again, we don’t have time to go into that. But what is happy? What is unhappy? We have the word “happy.” We have the word “unhappy.” They refer to something. But what I experience and call “happy” this moment, and what I experience and call “happy” five minutes from now, they’re quite different, aren’t they? And what you experience is also something different. You call it “happy.” Do we feel something? Yes. But can you find it? Can you put it into one package and say this is “happy,” and now I feel it, and now you feel it how I feel it, from moment to moment, as if it were the same thing – solid? No. It’s not like that.

And so, rather than making these things into some monster that we have to get rid of, we dissolve it with the understanding of voidness. So what does that mean in daily life? That’s why I said in very simple words: we don’t make a big deal out of what we feel. “Now I feel happy.” “Now I feel unhappy.” So what? We just continue with our practice, with our work: if we’re helping others, what we’re doing to try to help others. You just continue. Doesn’t matter if I feel happy or unhappy. You just do it. “I feel unhappy now.” That’s no surprise. Why not? I’ve done lots of destructive things in the past, so there it is. What do I expect? I’m going to be happy all the time at this point in my spiritual development?

It’s like when you live, as I do – I live on a busy street. There is traffic going by my window during the day. Actually, I live on a busy corner, so there’s traffic on both sides. And, in order to live in a situation like that, you learn to totally ignore the noise of the street. And, I must say, during the day when I’m working and focusing on my working on my website, I don’t hear the traffic noise at all. I don’t pay attention to it.

And so the same thing: I’m sitting there. I’m not joyously happy. I’m not completely depressed or anything. Like any human being, sometimes I feel slightly happy, sometimes slightly unhappy. So what? I ignore it. So I think that is the key, but doing this with the aim of “I don’t want to keep on activating this samsara, this rebirth thing, the basis which is going to be for having more of this up and down and up and down.” By not making a big deal out of it, then we avoid attachment and repulsion.

Now we get into the disturbing emotions: attachment to the happiness (I’ve got to have it) and repulsion from the unhappiness (I’ve got to get rid of it). So that means also getting rid of expectations of what we want, and worries about what might happen that we don’t want to happen. We don’t have expectations that we are going to be happy or worries that we’re going to be unhappy. And we don’t get stuck in the present: “I’ve got to keep what I have now because it’s so good.” So this is part of renunciation. With the understanding that I want to stop activating all the tendencies to perpetuate this up and down and, particularly, future lives that will continue to be the basis for the up and down of happy/unhappy.

An Obtainer Attitude

Then there’s a whole list of things that belong to the second thing that activates karmic tendencies. So the first one was craving, which had to do with feelings – happy and unhappy. And the second is called, literally, an obtainer (len-pa, nye-bar len-pa). It’s an emotion or attitude that will obtain (or get for us) a future rebirth. Okay? So there’s a long list of these. Five things.

So first would be desire for some sensory object. Now, mind you, I’m explaining all of these in general. Often – or usually – they’re explained in terms of what happens just at the time of death, but I think we can apply it in general; there are explanations like that. So desire for sense objects: sights, sounds, tastes, smells, physical sensations. So we are attached to feeling happy, craving for it to continue. And now, within that state, we are craving for some sense object that we are experiencing that we like so much, we feel so happy about. Or we’re unhappy and we want to get some sense object that we don’t have. So, again, we don’t exaggerate the qualities of sense objects; we don’t make it into some big solid thing – chocolate, the most wonderful thing in the world – that “I’ve got to have it!” So, again, no big deal about any type of sense object.

You see, often we think of renunciation in terms of “I have to give it up” – no longer ever eat chocolate – but what we’re talking about is giving up this craving: “I’ve got to keep it if I have it. I’ve got to get it if I don’t have it. And, if I’m missing it, I want to get rid of that state of missing it, and get it.” If you have ever had an addiction – I think this is a very good way of understanding what we’re talking about. It doesn’t have to be addiction to a drug, a hard drug; it could be addiction to cigarettes; it can be an addiction to coffee; it could be an addiction to many things. Oh, we’re worried. I’m worried: “Will I be able to get the next cigarette? Will I be able to get the next cup of coffee? How am I going to make it through the rest of the morning if I don’t have my coffee?” Right? And then we’re expecting it, like great expectations, we’re looking forward – “Oh, I’m going to wake up after this cup of coffee and be able to get back to my work and be efficient.”

This is exactly what we’re talking about here. This is part of what is going to perpetuate our samsaric rebirths. We get stuck in all these things around us that we could experience, that are like – like glue, almost. We think that this is going to bring us happiness. And, of course, what does it bring us? It brings us ordinary happiness – suffering of change – and that’s not the aim. Now, mind you, ordinary happiness is certainly a more conducive state to experience, in terms of spiritual progress, than unhappiness. It’s a more conducive state for being able to practice; provided that it’s not to the extreme, like it’s described in the god realms. In other words, the extremes of extreme unhappiness, suffering, like in hell realms; or extreme happiness, like in the god realms. Those are not conducive at all for practice. Somewhere in the middle, as a human being – if, as a human being, a precious human rebirth, we get a little bit up and down, we can benefit from practice in that state much better, actually. In other words, a little bit of unhappy helps you develop compassion. A little bit of happy – well, in fact, I can be more interested in actually working on myself. If you’re too happy then you don’t want to do anything.

So, in any case, same thing with sense objects. If we have them and they’re useful – fine. If we don’t have them, we don’t worry about it. If we need something, make effort to get it without making a big deal out of it. I think that, in the simplest level, is the key here: we don’t make a big deal out of anything, which is a very relaxed state of mind, actually. We want to try to minimize – and eventually stop – activating all this karma, and use our time to try to build up more and more positive potentials.

Then the rest in this list have to do with different types of attitudes. I’ll go through them fairly quickly since we don’t have so much time. This has to do a lot with our attitude toward future lives; toward rebirth.

First, a distorted outlook (log-lta). So we think in terms of future lives like our hard drive gets completely wiped on our internal computer and we start all over again. In other words, no cause and effect. Or it could be a complete denial of rebirth. Or no safe and sound direction – no Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha that can indicate the direction we want to go in toward liberation. So, if we don’t take cause and effect and don’t take rebirth seriously, then we’re going to do a lot of things that are pretty much going to ensure that we continue taking rebirth, won’t we? So, as we are working with Dharma practice, not making a big deal out of what we feel or out of any objects, then we have to think also in terms of “There is rebirth. I’ve got to get out of it. And cause and effect will happen. And there is a way out, indicated by Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.” And we don’t have time to go into great detail about what that really means. That’s very profound, actually.

Then the next one is called an extreme outlook (mthar-lta), which is the feeling that our bodies are going to last forever and we won’t die. Or we think that there’s no continuity after we die, and there’s going to be a big nothing – and actually, usually we have a lot of fear about the Big Nothing. But, again, we need to avoid that. When you think about that – again, that just activates, through our confusion, it activates karma. But, rather, we think that we will die and rebirth will follow. See, the point I’m making here is that we need to face this whole issue of rebirth – take it seriously, analyze it, and work to get rid of it – rather than just denying that it exists and wanting to escape it by thinking “Well, I’ll live forever.” So, while we’re not making a big deal out of things, “Yes, I take rebirth seriously. Yes, I want to get out of it. Yes, cause and effect is going to be the key here, in terms of karma. And yes, I don’t want to activate karma.”

Next one is a deluded outlook as supreme (lta-ba mchog-‘dzin). This has to do with what’s called incorrect consideration (tshul-min yid-byed). So this is regarding our body, for example, as clean and the source of true happiness. Or regarding our body as dirty and a true source of pain, like when we have cancer. So this also is going to keep us attached to rebirth, because we overestimate the type of body that we could have. We think the body’s so wonderful or we think the body is so horrible. But, again, don’t make any big deal out of the body. All right? More of the neutral feeling. So no attachment, but make the best use of it.

And then the next one is deluded morality or conduct as supreme (tshul-khrims-dang brtul-zhugs mchog-tu ‘dzin-pa). Considering a deluded type of morality or conduct as the supreme type of morality or conduct. So “morality” is giving up something; that’s what it means. And so, for instance, ridding ourself of some trivial manner of behavior, such as a bad diet – we’re going to get rid of our bad diet and our bad physical habits – in order to be able to live forever. That’s the whole point: that we think that some trivial type of thing, compared to what’s involved with gaining liberation, is going to save us. “If I eat properly and…” Morality is giving up something: “I give up bad eating habits, and I give up not doing exercise, and things like that, then I will live forever. This is the highest thing. This is the supreme thing to do.” This is just going to perpetuate our attachment to rebirth, to bodies, to this type of eating.

And “deluded conduct” refers to doing something. Rather than giving up something, it means doing something. Like “I’m going to only eat organic food. I’m going to be a vegetarian. And this is going to make me holy and I will live forever.” This is silly. It doesn’t mean that it’s inappropriate to eat organic food or to be a vegetarian. That’s fine, but don’t make a big deal out of it. Again, we don’t want to be attached to just supporting a samsaric life. That’s the point.

And then the last one in this list is asserting our identities (bdag-tu smra-ba). Asserting our identity, which is referring to a deluded outlook toward our aggregates (‘jig-lta). And this is what’s the deepest, which is grasping for a solid “me” and identifying that supposedly solid “me” as the possessor of these aggregates – of this body and mind – the controller of them, and the inhabiter that lives inside them; and these aggregates, this body and mind, are “mine.” So, again, if we think in terms of a solid “me,” and make a big deal out of “me,” big deal out of my feelings, big deal out of objects, big deal out of my body, we’re going to be stuck in rebirth. We will be stuck in rebirths. We’re going to activate karmic tendencies, and that is going to produce not only rebirths but it will also ripen into our ordinary unhappiness and ordinary happiness.

What Happens after Attaining Liberation?

So renunciation. We have this suffering that we want to get rid of, which is rebirth, basically. Causes for it, which are all the things that will activate karma that produce rebirth. So what is the result? What would happen if we became a liberated arhat? Then what? That’s very important to know. If we’re aiming for liberation, what am I aiming for? What’s going to happen to me after that? Why would I want that? Otherwise we think of liberation as, again, this view that, well, you just go out like a candle. It’s not like that.

What happens is that in the rest of the lifetime in which we gain liberation, our body is a type of physical phenomenon, still made of the gross elements, and it can be seen or can be known by visual consciousness or mental consciousness, even by ordinary beings; and although it is still subject to getting sick and old age and death, we don’t experience any of the three types of suffering. So we don’t have unhappiness, we don’t have ordinary happiness, and we don’t have rebirth. Depending on what level of meditation absorption we engage in, we would have a more stable level of either happiness or a neutral feeling.

Then in subsequent lives, after that, our body is still a physical phenomenon, but it’s made up of subtle elements – not the subtlest wind, like the Nirmanakaya and Sambhoghakaya of a Buddha that can manifest in countless forms; it’s not that – but it’s made of subtle elements, and it’s called a “form of physical phenomenon having the functional nature of mind (yid-kyi rang-bzhin-gyi gzugs).” Or, in short, it’s called a “mental body (yid-lus).” But that doesn’t mean that it’s a way of being aware of something (shes-pa). It’s a physical phenomenon. But the name means how it functions to produce a cognition of them. It’s similar to an object known only by mental consciousness. The body functions to produce cognition of it, of the body, similar to an object that’s knowable only by mental consciousness. It’s like dream bodies. A dream body can only be known by mental consciousness. So this type of body functions like that; that’s why it’s called by this name. This word “function (rang-bzhin)” is there. How does it work, that you know this object? How do you know the body of an arhat in its subsequent lives? Body is made of subtle elements, similar to a dream body. How would you know it? Ordinary beings can’t see it; they can only know it mentally. So it functions like a dream body, which can only be known by mental consciousness, not by visual consciousness. That’s why it’s called a mental body. So don’t think that it is some type of mind; it isn’t. But arhats themselves can see their body and the body of other arhats.

If, as an arhat… We’re now an arhat. I’m a liberated being. Now what? So, although it is possible for arhats to develop bodhichitta, maybe I don’t. So what do I do as an arhat? So we’re in a pure land, with this type of pure body which changes from moment to moment, but is going to go on forever – not going to get old, it’s not going to degenerate, not get sick, not die – and we will do various meditations. Sometimes we’ll be totally absorbed on voidness. Sometimes we will be absorbed on other things. While we’re absorbed on voidness, our mind doesn’t make an appearance of true existence. And while we’re focused on other things, or not meditating, then our mind still makes appearances of true existence. But we can develop bodhichitta, either before we attain liberation or after. So either, at that stage, we can stay in a pure land and study Mahayana with a Sambhoghakaya Buddha, receive the teachings and then do the meditations, the practice – stay in a pure land and achieve enlightenment – or we can manifest as humans (or as anything else; usually it’s humans) and, like a bodhisattva, work to help others. Now, in that case, we still have mental bodies that don’t degenerate. So they change from moment to moment, but our actual mental body doesn’t get old, or get sick, or die. But it has a basis for imputation (gdags-gzhi). This is an important point. Not so easy, the last point.

So this is a difficult point. We have the gross elements of an ordinary body, coming from a mother and father. This is the exact same mechanism as with a Buddha, the Nirmanakaya Buddha. The gross elements, coming from the parents, are basis for imputation of the mental body of an arhat. Just as the gross elements of a human body would be the basis for imputation of a Nirmanakaya of a Buddha. We have a dream body. Right? So what is the basis for imputation of it in a dream? Or we have a Nirmanakaya of a Buddha. In the case of a Buddha, the basis for imputation is the subtlest wind. In the case of an arhat, it’s the subtle elements. And don’t think in terms of any of these – a Nirmanakaya of a Buddha, a mental body of an arhat, or a dream body of an ordinary person – as being a solid entity that, like an atman, comes into and sits inside a body and possesses it and controls it, and then goes out when it’s finished. That’s completely false.

The relation between the actual body of a Buddha, or the mental body of an arhat, and this physical basis is the relation between an imputation and a basis for imputation. And so the basis and the imputation on it are changing from moment to moment. Right? Like the changing weather as an imputation on the changing temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind speed, cloud cover and so on. Right? Weather’s changing all the time; the cloud cover and temperature are changing all the time. Is the weather something solid? No. Is the basis for imputation of the weather something solid? No. Is there always weather? Yes. But is it always the same temperature and so on? No. The temperature is always changing. The situation is always ending: there was a storm and then it ends. But there’s always weather. Okay?

It's a similar type or relationship between a mental body and its physical basis. A mental body goes on forever, changing from moment to moment. Sometimes it could have a grosser physical basis, and it is an imputation on that. So that gross body is also changing from moment to moment; it gets old, gets sick, dies. But the imputed phenomenon on it, the mental body, although it is changing from moment to moment as the body does different things – don’t think that it’s static: it’s not like an atman; not like a soul – but it doesn’t have any of the samsaric sufferings: it doesn't grow old and doesn’t die. This is not easy to understand. I said that in the beginning. It’s very difficult to understand, but that’s the key for understanding what happens when we become a liberated being if we’re not just going to stay in a pure land.

But if we really – with bodhichitta – we want to come and work in this world and help others as much as possible, other people are going to see us. Ordinary people are going to see this gross body, and it will get old, etc. But our way of experiencing it is going to be in terms of this mental body with no suffering. And the big, big danger here is that we tend to think of this mental body like an atman, like a soul, that this is going to be a permanent static thing, and that’s what I want. And that is a hundred percent false. Static – never changing – and that’s what I want, the eternal life of that. And that’s a hundred percent wrong. So, if we are aiming for something like that, with the misconception of what it would be like to be an arhat, you’re never going to reach it.


Does rebirth mean being reborn as a baby or could it also mean being “reborn” in this life with a different attitude?

No, we mean very literally being reborn as a baby. Not that it means more than that – it only means that, as it’s described in the presentation of the three types of suffering. This is our tendency as Westerners: we want to somehow not really deal with rebirth in terms of becoming a baby again. That’s very difficult for most of us to comprehend. And that’s why I say we could practice a lighter version of this, which is just to work to get rid of my disturbing emotions, and so on, which just are going to bring about a “rebirth” of bad relationships and so on in this lifetime. But that would be a light version. That’s not really the actual thing that in the Buddhist teachings they’re talking about. It’s beneficial, but not the real thing. Okay?


So, in short, we need to understand renunciation – determination to be free, to leave behind, to get out of uncontrollably recurring rebirth by getting rid of its causes. We have to understand what rebirth is. We have to understand what the causes are. We have to develop complete disgust with it, and boredom. Not make a big deal out of it, though. Not make a big deal out of our happiness; not make a big deal about unhappiness; not make a big deal about our body or what we’re experiencing; but working with voidness to get rid of all this craving, all this misunderstanding. And also apply that understanding of voidness and imputation to the result, to what it is we’re aiming to achieve, so that we understand what the body of an arhat would be like. Liberation. This is the stage we’re at now with renunciation. And, of course, this will be necessary as a stepping stone to enlightenment, but renunciation is talking about liberation. Remember what we said in the beginning: it’s not talking about enlightenment.

We’ve covered a lot and we’re well over time, but there’s a lot of theory that one has to understand. But there’s also in terms of “What does it actually mean in a practical sense?” And, on a practical level, don’t belittle it. And, as I say, one of the things that always stands out in my mind is “How boring to have to go through all – the baby, and education, and all that stuff, to be able to continue on the path. How boring. And I really want to avoid that. And so, to avoid that, I’ve got to overcome all the causes for that, this karma that drives rebirth. So, while I’m practicing, don’t make a big deal out of anything.” I think that’s the kernel here. Don’t make a big deal out of what I’m feeling. Don’t make a big deal out of everything around me. Don’t make a big deal out of what we’re aiming for. Just do it. Do the practice. Do the work. Okay?

Original Audio from the Seminar