Renunciation: An Escape or a Constructive Analysis?

Renunciation is emphasized very strongly in the Buddhist teachings. It is one of the three principal 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). 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 Principal 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 are freed from grasping for truly established existence. That means we are no longer unaware and confused about how we and everything exists. Unawareness of reality causes disturbing emotions to arise; and under the influence of disturbing emotions, we act compulsively, driven by compelling karmic impulses. This builds up karmic potentials which, when activated by more disturbing emotions, ripen and cause our uncontrollably recurring rebirth or samsara. With liberation, we overcome our uncontrollably recurring rebirth so that we’re no longer under the influence of grasping for truly established existence, disturbing emotions, karmic impulses and compulsive behavior. In this way, we no longer experience any suffering. However, that doesn’t put us in the position of knowing how best to help everyone.

So, even though we’re free from this grasping for truly established existence, with liberation our mind is still going to make appearances of truly established existence. That means that the constant habits of our grasping for truly established existence cause our mind to give rise to deceptive appearances of everything. Everything appears to us is as if it were encapsulated, self-established and existing by its own power. Because of that, we cannot understand karmic cause and effect fully because we are unable to the see the full picture of how everything arises dependently on everything else. We do not fully understand what the causes of everybody’s problems are and what will the effect of anything that we teach them will be. Not only can we not know the effect on them, but also the effect on everyone that they interact with as the result of what we’ve taught them. 

First, we need to stop believing in these appearances, which occurs only with liberation, and only then can we slowly become able to get our mind to stop producing these false appearances. Anyway, let’s not talk about enlightenment here. 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 main term, sarana. The prefix nih means “out” or “away,” and sarana derives from the stem of the verb meaning “to move” or “to move quickly.” It’s the state of mind of wanting to move away from, or out of something, very quickly. What we want to get out from quickly is uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara. 

It’s not that we’re being born in samsara. Samsara is not a place. We have to be very careful not to think in terms of being reborn in samsara. Samsara is a situation. Actually, what it’s referring to is – I’m saying this phrase all the time – uncontrollably recurring rebirth. That is samsara. Samsara, meaning “a circle,” is talking specifically about rebirth. We have no control over it, and it goes on and on and on. It’s being driven under the influence of disturbing emotions, the compelling karmic impulses brought on by them, the compulsive actions driven by those impulses and the karmic potential built up by those actions. The Sanskrit term for renunciation, nihsarana, then, means that we want to move out of this as quickly as possible.

Now this prefix nih, or nis, can also mean, if we look it up in the dictionary, “certain” or “definite.” With the word nge (nges), the Tibetans chose to translate that meaning of the prefix, which is probably not the original connotation in the Sanskrit word here. Anyway, the Tibetans picked up on this possible meaning. Then for sarana, which derives from the stem “to move,” the Tibetans chose the word, jung (byung), which means “to become, to manifest, to make something happen.” It’s the state of mind that manifests certainty, and so this adds a little bit of a larger dimension to the Sanskrit word. I translate that as a “determination”; we’re certain. It’s a determination for what? The determination to get out of samsara, to be free.

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

When we look at all these different translations, how the different cultures understood the word, it gives us a little bit of a larger picture of what is meant. What is the object that we want to leave, that we want to get out of and that we’re really determined and definitely have to do and are going to do? It is, basically, suffering, and it refers specifically to uncontrollably recurring rebirth. It’s a type of suffering, right? Uncontrollably recurring rebirth is the main example of the first noble truth – true suffering – and actually the deepest meaning of the first noble truth. 

We want to get rid of its causes as well – the second noble truth – and this means not be attracted to anything that’s involved with uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Since uncontrollably recurring rebirth is a lot of words to say, I will shorten it to just “rebirth.” 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. It’s not that we want to run away – this idea that renunciation means 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. Rather, we want to face rebirth, analyze its causes, and get out of it in a very rational way by eliminating its causes.

Why Leave Samsara? 

Then the question is: Why do we want to leave? Why do we want to get out of it? That question arises because renunciation is a motivation. A motivation in Buddhism requires having some aim of what we want to achieve, so this is getting out of rebirth. The second aspect is some sort of emotion that’s driving us to achieve this goal. Right? It’s an emotion, a state of mind, why we want to achieve this. 

Now, we have to talk in very practical terms about 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. We go to the advanced scope and say, “I’m aiming for enlightenment to be able to benefit all sentient beings.” These are very nice words, but they don’t actually mean anything in terms of what we feel in our hearts, because we don’t have a clear idea of what enlightenment really is. It’s beyond our ability to think of absolutely every single being that has a mind throughout the universe; that’s a very large scope. They’re nice words, but not so sincere, in terms of, is that really what we are feeling?

An Initial Scope Motivation for Renunciation

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. That’s perfectly okay, as long as we realize that’s step zero and that there are more steps. We would like to be able to progress through the rest of the steps, but we have to start at step zero. Even just to think in terms of improving things later in this lifetime and not just wanting some instantaneous improvement – this is already an accomplishment. 

With an initial scope motivation, we are thinking in terms of future rebirth. That, of course, means that we have to understand what future rebirth means in Buddhism. 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. 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, we need to actually do something to try to ensure that we do not have any of the three worse types of rebirths in the future and continue to have, instead, precious human rebirths. So, we need to actually do something the ensure that. To reach that initial level of motivation and to have that as our main thought is a tremendous accomplishment. We shouldn’t belittle it. 

The initial scope is not our topic, so we need to look at the intermediate scope. 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? A precious human rebirth, not just a 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), which is the suffering of unhappiness. Basically, it’s that. We could experience unhappiness with many, many objects, not just with pain. Pain is a physical sensation. We’re not talking about physical sensations. We’re talking about states of mind, unhappiness, that can accompany perceiving something with any type of sensory consciousness or that can accompany thinking about or remembering something. With the initial scope, we’re thinking of terrible situations and the unhappiness that we would experience with them; we want to avoid that as much as possible in our next rebirth and gain a precious human rebirth. A precious human rebirth is certainly better than rebirth as a hell creature or a ghost or an animal, since it certainly has less suffering of unhappiness. Our motivating emotion for wanting to attain such a precious human rebirth is dread of this suffering of suffering, especially in the worse rebirth states.

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). The suffering of change is our ordinary happiness, and it doesn’t last and doesn’t satisfy; the more that we have of it, the worse it gets. Perhaps, I should clarify that. A classic example is, if eating our favorite food were true happiness, then the more we ate at one time, the happier we would become. However, after a certain point, the more we eat, our happiness at eating it changes to suffering, so this is why we call it the suffering of change. Even if we have a precious human rebirth, we may lose it, and we may go down again and have massive suffering of suffering. Also, 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. 

The main object that we want to overcome with this intermediate scope is not just this suffering of change, but also the “all-pervasive suffering” (khyab-par ’du-byed-kyi sdug-bsngal), which is uncontrollably recurring rebirth. This is because rebirth, uncontrollably recurring under the influence of compelling karmic impulses and disturbing emotions is the basis for the first two types of suffering. In addition, this samsaric body and mind that we have – even a precious human one – is the basis for experiencing the suffering of unhappiness and the suffering of ordinary happiness; and this suffering we experience is going to continue to go up and down no matter what our rebirth state might be. We dread that as well. It has been going on forever and it is really boring. We feel, “Enough already!”

Problems with the Initial Scope Motivation 

What happens when we try to actually develop these two scopes of mind? There are a lot of problems with the initial scope because with this as our motivation, we’re praying, “May I avoid worse rebirths and continue, instead, to have precious human rebirths with all the circumstances, conditions and freedoms to be able to continue my Dharma practice.” We’re refraining from destructive behavior, which is the main cause to eliminate in order to avoid worse rebirths. To bring about a precious human rebirth, we’re practicing as much as we can the far-reaching attitudes: generosity, discipline, patience, etc., and offering these prayers. But what does all this 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, with my fellow Dharma students and my teachers. May I always have the financial resources to be able to study.” There’s a lot of attachment there, 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. 

What we have to start focusing on with renunciation is the suffering that’s involved even with a precious human rebirth. Is being with our friends and loved ones really the true source of happiness? On the other hand, 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 is very, very profound. It’s very hard for us to even imagine what that means. We worry, “Does that mean that I can no longer have any friends? I can no longer have any loving relationships with anybody?” What does renunciation actually mean? We’re not talking about a misinformed concept of renunciation – that we give up everything and go live in a cave. That’s not what we’re talking about. With renunciation, we’re talking about something much deeper. As I said, we need to focus on rebirth itself. 

When, with an initial scope, we think that being with our friends and relatives and so on will provide us with nice circumstances, that’s not the point; that’s not what we want to focus on when we think with this initial scope about having better future rebirths and, in particular, continuing to have precious human rebirths. What’s the point of getting a precious human rebirth in the future? It’s to be able to continue on the spiritual path, to continue developing further toward liberation and enlightenment. It’s not to be with our loved ones again.

Now, if we look at that a little bit more realistically, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get a precious human rebirth. If we look at what we have mostly done in our lives and what type of thoughts we have mostly had, I’m sure that most of us will find that the destructive, disturbing side far outweighs the constructive, positive side. In terms of karmic 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.

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 – I’ve attained a certain understanding, a certain level of concentration, a certain level of compassion, and so on. Now I’m reborn again. Although it might be a little bit easier this 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. It’s just so awful and so boring. 

It’s not merely that in every lifetime, we’re going to have disturbing emotions, and they’re going to go up and down, and being angry and greedy, etc., and that’s what we want to get out of. Of course, we want to get out of that as well – that’s the cause of our all-pervasive suffering of rebirth. But how awful that we will have to be a baby and grow up before we can tackle that – this is what the actual suffering of rebirth entails.

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 we want to get rid of our disturbing emotions and karma, but we don’t make the connection between that and rebirth. In other words, we want to get rid of the cause of rebirth, but not rebirth itself. We agree that, sure, it’s horrible to have this up and down, and to get angry, and all the difficulties that happen in our relationships and so on because of our anger and attachment. And then we reduce our Dharma practice to simply a type of psychotherapy, perhaps a deeper form than is usually available, with a huge number of methods and so on, from thousands of years of Buddhist experience. Still, we’re thinking about what I would call a very light version of this intermediate scope, because, actually, all that we’re aiming to get rid of are disturbing emotions and karma as the causes of the first two types of suffering: the suffering of unhappiness and the suffering of ordinary happiness. We’re not thinking in terms of them being the causes of all-pervasive suffering, the suffering of rebirth and the sufferings that rebirth itself entail.

The actual “Real Thing” intermediate scope is, in addition to what we just have mentioned, aiming to get rid of the third type of suffering, all-pervasive suffering, and rebirth, which is the basis on which we experience the first two types of suffering. We might be focusing on getting rid of our disturbing emotions and so on, but the chances are we’re not going to get rid of them in this lifetime, so rebirth is going to happen. If we haven’t thought about how do we stop rebirth, 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 karmic 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. 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. 

It’s quite possible to become disgusted and get fed up all the problems that we have – we’re in a bad relationship, and it breaks up, and then we’re going to get into another bad relationship, and these syndromes repeat and repeat – and we become determined to try to be free of that. But that could also motivate us to go into psychotherapy. So, why do we need Buddhism? Do we just make Buddhism into another form of psychotherapy, or what? 

We have to develop this renunciation for our ordinary types of lives. This is a dangerous thing to say because it could be easily misunderstood. This type of life means the type of life in which we 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 and we have to learn everything all over again – we’re helpless. What a colossal waste of time, isn’t it? We want to continue on the path, and we want to develop, and with the intermediate scope we want to get out of suffering completely, and with the advanced scope, we want to be able to help others. But we’re a baby and have to learn everything all over again. How awful. This whole thing of rebirth is what we want to stop.

An Advanced Scope Motivation for Renunciation 

Our renunciation becomes even stronger when we are working on the advanced level. We’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. It’s really, really strong that we really want to do this. Everybody’s been our mother and so kind; all these thoughts are there. What a colossal waste of time that every now and then we’re 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. Maybe when we’re 40 or 50, we’ll be able to pick up where we left off last time. How boring. It’s such a waste of time and very, very inefficient. This is what we are renouncing. 

Forget about, “Oh, I want to be with my friends. And it’ll be so nice,” and all of that, forget it. That’s not what we’re focusing on here. 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. It’s not just that we want to be with our friends and loved ones, “It’ll be so nice to be with my teacher again.” Even that can hang us up. The point is not so that we can be together with our teacher that we 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. It’s not just to have a nice time because it feels good to be with our 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. 

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: “If I’m unable to attain liberation in this lifetime, then 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, we work really hard on getting rid of our attachment, our anger, these sorts of things; that’s where working on overcoming our disturbing emotions comes in. 

In our prayers, it’s okay to pray for a precious human rebirth but, in addition, we need to pray for liberation, and not just precious human rebirths so that we can continue to be with our 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. All we’re doing is perpetuating more and more and more of samsara because of that attachment. 

Do you see the contradiction here? We say we want to be with our friends and loved ones in order to have conducive circumstances for working on overcoming our attachment. You see, it’s contradictory, isn’t it? We want to have the most wonderful circumstances so that we can work on overcoming our attachment to wonderful circumstances. That’s strange, isn’t it? 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 Karmic Potentials for Rebirth 

One aspect of renunciation, then, is to overcome this third type of suffering, the all-pervasive suffering of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and then the causes for it. Now, we really get into the discussion of disturbing emotions, etc. This is what I was trying to emphasize. We don’t just want to give up the causes for rebirth – the disturbing emotions are the causes; that’s the second noble truth. We want to give up both the second noble truth and the first noble truth – the sufferings of rebirth. 

Remember, Buddha taught the first noble truth first; the second noble truth second. That’s why they’re in this order. We want to renounce the suffering, the first noble truth, and then its cause. And to identify correctly what we mean by the first noble truth, it’s not just the suffering of suffering and the 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? To be born in heaven, in paradise, and overcome worldly pleasures, worldly happiness – other religions teach that. That’s not a special feature of Buddhism.

Now, the causes, the second noble truth: What do we want to stop in order to stop rebirth? This 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? The answer to this we find in the teachings on the twelve links of dependent arising. They describe the mechanism of rebirth, of samsara. 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. We’ll just focus on the relevant points here. 

From our unawareness of how we and all others exist, we are driven by compelling karmic impulses to act in destructive ways with disturbing emotions or in constructive ways mixed with the confusion of disturbing attitudes. As a result, this builds up negative or positive karmic potentials. These are imputation phenomena on the basis of the mental continuum. An imputation phenomenon is something that cannot exist or be known separately from a basis, like for instance age. Age cannot exist or be known separately from it being the age of something. Likewise, karmic potentials cannot exist or be known separately from a basis, a mental continuum. 

When some karmic potentials get activated at the time of death, they give rise to what are called “throwing karmic impulses” (‘phen-byed-kyi las), which drive the mental continuum into future lives. Even in daily life, karmic potentials get activated to produce our ordinary up and down suffering of unhappiness and suffering of ordinary happiness. 

How do we stop rebirth? In short, what we need to do is to stop activating these karmic potentials. If it is impossible to activate our karmic potentials, then we no longer have those potentials. Right? A potential can only exist as an imputation phenomenon if there are past instances of something, and there’s the possibility for future instances of something similar. If it’s no longer possible to have future instances of something, we can no longer say that there’s a potential present for it; a potential for something can only exist as an imputation phenomenon if there is a previous cause that is no longer happening and a possible result that is not yet happening. If it’s impossible to activate a potential so that there is no future occurrence of a result, the potential is gone. 

That’s difficult to understand. Let’s try to use an example. This table – let’s use a mechanical example – there’s the possibility for this table to hold a glass of water on it. The table, in a sense, is the cause for supporting the glass. 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? That possibility or that potential is gone. That’s what we’re talking about, in a very simple example. What we want to do is to get rid of what activates karmic potentials, and this we find described very nicely in the twelve links. 

Craving or Thirsting

There are two things that activate the karmic potentials, specifically at the time of death. Of course, each of them has many, many parts, as we find in all the Buddhist teachings. The first one is called “craving” (sred-pa). It’s the Sanskrit word for thirst, thirsting (tṛṣṇā). With craving, we’re really thirsting after something. So, what is the object here? The object is happiness or unhappiness or a neutral feeling. What do we thirst after? What do we crave? Not to be parted from the ordinary happiness that we have now, to be parted from the unhappiness that we presently have, or for a neutral feeling attained in a deep state of concentration or sleep not to decline. There are other explanations, as well. 

What’s involved here? What’s involved is that throughout our life, as we all know, sometimes we feel happy, sometimes we feel unhappy. These don’t have to be dramatic; they can be very low level. 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 ups and downs our entire life – happy, unhappy, neutral. What we’re doing is we are exaggerating these feelings. We exaggerate the good qualities of happiness, and we deny the shortcomings – that it’s going to end, it’s going to change, etc. It’s the suffering of change. We have to get that happiness; we have to keep it and not lose it. First, we make it into some solid thing, and then we blow it up into something really fantastic. 

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. With this neutral feeling, we make it into some solid thing, and we’ve got to continue in it – we stay in deep meditation or stay asleep and unconscious forever.

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 potentials and so is going to perpetuate our samsara. So, we want to stop perpetuating it. What does that mean? It means don’t make a big deal out of whether we feel happy or unhappy. Or in terms of a neutral feeling, it could be with sleep: “Oh, I can’t wait until I fall asleep, and then I don’t have to think about anything, I don’t have to think about or deal with my problems of daily life.” However, these feelings go up and down, up and down. Rather than getting attached to them, we want to get rid of making a big thing out of them. They’re nothing special.

On a deeper level, we want to get rid of these up and down feelings altogether. 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. How do we develop renunciation without it being craving to be free? This is the tricky part. That’s the very, very tricky part. It’s very delicate, so we have to work on that. Why don’t you think about it for a minute, maybe two or three minutes?


The answer to how we get rid of this craving 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 craving to be free of our craving toward these feelings – if we have such craving toward any of these, we’re making these things into solid things. We’re grasping for the solid existence of the feelings of happy and unhappy, and of craving, itself. Then we, “Oh, I’ve got to get rid of it!” Well, how do we get rid of it? 

Voidness as the Antidote for Craving 

We get rid of craving toward our feelings with the understanding of voidness, emptiness. Our feelings don’t exist as solid things. That’s an impossible way of existing. Things don’t exist as some solid entity, encapsulated all by themselves. Obviously, the topic of voidness is a very deep and profound topic; 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” at 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.” Is it the same as what I call “happy?” Do we both feel something? Yes. But can we find it? Can we put it into one package and say this is “happy,” and now I feel it, and now you feel what I feel, from moment to moment, as if it were the same thing, solid? No. It’s not like that.

Rather than making these things into some solid, findable monster that we have to get rid of, we dissolve them with the understanding of voidness. 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? Nothing special. We just continue with our practice, with our work. If what we’re doing is to try to help others, we just continue. It doesn’t matter if we feel happy or unhappy. We just do it. “I feel unhappy now.” That’s no surprise. Why not? We’ve done lots of destructive things in the past, so there it is. What do we expect – that we’re going to be happy all the time at this point in our spiritual development?

It’s like when we live, as I do, 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. In order to live in a situation like that, we learn to totally ignore the noise of the street. I must say, during the day, when I’m working and focusing on my website on my computer, I don’t hear the traffic noise at all. I don’t pay attention to it. 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. 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 (we’ve got to have it) and repulsion from the unhappiness (we’ve got to get rid of it). 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 or because it’s so bad.” This is part of renunciation, but with the understanding that we want to stop activating all the karmic potentials to perpetuate this up and down and, particularly, the karmic potentials to perpetuate 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 items that belong to the second thing that activates karmic potentials. The first one was craving, which had to do with feelings – happy and unhappy. 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? There’s a long list of these, five things.

First is longing desire for some sensory object that we don’t have or attachment to one that we are presently experiencing. 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 them in general; there are explanations like that. So, desire for sense objects: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations. We are attached to feeling happy, craving for it to continue, and now, within that state, we have attachment for some sense object that we are experiencing that we like so much and feel so happy while experiencing it. Or we’re unhappy, and we have longing desire to get some sense object that we don’t have. Again, the antidote is not to exaggerate the qualities of sense objects; we don’t make some sense object into some big solid thing – the taste of chocolate, the most wonderful thing in the world – that “I’ve got to have it!” 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” – to no longer ever eat chocolate – but what we’re talking about is giving up this longing desire, attachment and greed: “I’ve got to keep it if I have it and get even more, and if I don’t have it, I’ve got to get it. And when I’m missing it, I want to get rid of that state of missing it and get it.” If we 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 an addiction to a drug, a hard drug; it could be an addiction to cigarettes; it could be an addiction to coffee; it could be an addiction to many things. With an addiction, we’re 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? Then, before getting it, we have 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 glue, almost. We think that this or that is going to bring us happiness. Of course, what does it bring us? It brings us ordinary happiness – the suffering of change – but 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, is the best. If, as a human being with a precious human rebirth, we get a little bit of up and down, we can benefit from practice in that state much better, actually. In other words, a little bit of unhappiness helps us develop compassion. With a little bit of happiness, we can be more interested in actually working on ourselves. If we’re too happy, then we don’t want to do anything.

In any case, it’s the 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, we make an effort to get it without making a big deal out of it. I think that, at the simplest level, is the key here: We don’t make a big deal out of anything – nothing special – which is a very relaxed state of mind, actually. We want to try to minimize – and eventually stop – activating all our karmic potentials for more samsara and use our time to try to build up more and more positive potentials for liberation and enlightenment. 

Then the rest in this list of obtainers has 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). We think of our minds in future lives as being like the hard drive on our internal computer getting completely wiped, and then 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 true direction to go in toward liberation. 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? 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 karmic cause and effect will happen, but there is a way out, indicated by Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.” We don’t have time to go into great detail about what that really means, but 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.” Actually, we usually have a lot of fear about the big nothing. Again, we need to avoid that. When we think about that, it just activates karmic potentials through our confusion. Rather, we need to be confident that we will definitely die some day and that rebirth will definitely follow. 

See, the point I’m making here is that we need to face this whole issue of rebirth – we need to 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.” While we’re not making a big deal out of things, we need to think instead, “Yes, I take rebirth seriously. Yes, I want to get out of it. Yes, karmic cause and effect is the key here. And yes, I don’t want to activate karmic potentials.”

The 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), and it’s 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. This is also 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. Again, don’t make any big deal out of the body. All right? So, no attachment, but make the best use of it.

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. “Morality” refers to giving up something; that’s what it means. For instance, ridding ourselves 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; we think that some trivial type of thing, compared to what’s involved with gaining liberation, is going to save us. “If 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, and to this type of eating. 

“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 then 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 good samsaric life. That’s the point.

The last one in this list is asserting our identities (bdag-tu smra-ba). Asserting our identity refers to a deluded outlook toward a transitory network (’jig-lta), namely toward our aggregates. 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, the inhabitant that lives inside them, and these aggregates, this body and mind, are “mine.” Again, if we think in terms of a solid “me” and make a big deal out of “me,” a big deal out of our feelings, a big deal out of sense objects, a big deal out of our body, we’re going to be stuck in having samsaric rebirths. We’re going to activate karmic potentials, and that is going to produce not only rebirths, but it will also ripen into our 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, and the causes for it, which are all the things that will activate karmic potentials that produce rebirth. 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 are we aiming for? What’s going to happen to us after that? Why would we want that? Otherwise, we think of liberation as, again, this view that we 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. Although it is still subject to sickness, old age and death, we don’t experience any of the three types of suffering. 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, and we’re not attached to either of them.

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. 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. The name means how it functions to produce a cognition of it. 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 a dream body. 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 we know this object? How do we know the body of an arhat in its subsequent lives? The body is made of subtle elements, similar to the bodies of the gods on the plane of ethereal forms. How would we know it? Ordinary beings can’t see it; they can only know it mentally and not by visual consciousness. That’s why it’s called a mental body. 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. 

We’re now an arhat, a liberated being. Now what? Although it is possible for arhats to develop bodhichitta, maybe we don’t. What do we do as an arhat? 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 truly established existence. And while we’re focused on other things, or not meditating, our mind still makes appearances of truly established existence.

Now as an arhat we can also have bodhichitta, either we developed it before we attained liberation, or we can develop it afterwards. Then, as a bodhisattva arhat, we can stay in a pure land and study and practice 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, but usually, it’s humans) and, as a bodhisattva, work to help others. Now, in that case, we still have mental bodies that don’t degenerate. 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 support. This is an important point but a difficult one to understand. 

We have the gross elements of an ordinary body, coming from a mother and father. This is the exact same mechanism as with a Nirmanakaya Buddha. The gross elements, coming from the parents, are the basis for support of the mental body of an arhat, just as the gross elements of a human body would be the basis for support of a Nirmanakaya of a Buddha. 

Don’t think in terms of a Nirmanakaya of a Buddha or a mental body of an arhat as being a solid self, a static atman, that 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. In the case of a Buddha, the self of a Buddha is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the subtlest wind and subtlest mind of the Buddha and this whole “package” takes the gross elements of a gross body as its support. Similarly, the self of an arhat is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the subtle elements and subtle consciousness of the arhat and this whole “package” too takes the gross elements of a gross body as its support.

The relation between the actual body of a Buddha, or the mental body of an arhat, and this physical basis is the relation between something supported and a basis that supports it. Both are changing from moment to moment. However, a mental body goes on forever, changing from moment to moment. Sometimes it could have a grosser physical basis, and it is supported on that. The gross body on which it is supported is also changing from moment to moment; it gets old, gets sick, dies. But as for the mental body supported on it, 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, and it doesn’t have any of the samsaric sufferings. It doesn’t grow old and doesn’t die. This is not easy to understand, as I said in the beginning. It’s very difficult to understand, but that’s the key to understanding what happens when we become a liberated being if we’re not just going to stay in a pure land. 

If we really – with bodhichitta – want to appear 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. 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 we want, the eternal life of that. That is a hundred percent false. If we are aiming for something like that, with the misconception of what it would be like to be an arhat, we’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, 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. That’s why I say we could practice a lighter version of this, which is just to work to get rid of our disturbing emotions, and so on, which are just going to bring about a “rebirth” of bad relationships and so on in this lifetime; that would be a light version. That’s not really the actual thing that the Buddhist teachings are talking about. It’s beneficial, but not the real thing. Okay?


In short, we need to understand renunciation – the determination to be free, to leave behind, to get out of uncontrollably recurring rebirth by getting rid of its causes. We need to understand what rebirth is. We need to understand what the causes are. We need to develop complete disgust with it and boredom, but not make a big deal out of it, though. We need not to make a big deal out of our happiness, not make a big deal about our 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. Also, we need to apply that understanding of voidness 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 intermediate lam-rim stage we’re at with renunciation. Of course, this will be necessary as a steppingstone 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 needs to understand, as well as what does renunciation actually mean in a practical sense. On a practical level, it’s important not to belittle it. As I say, one of the things that always stands out in my mind is, “How boring to have to go through all of that – being a baby, getting an education, and all that stuff – to be able to continue on the path. How boring. I really want to avoid that. To avoid that, I’ve got to overcome all the causes for that, these compelling karmic impulses and compulsive karmic behavior that drive 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 we’re feeling. Don’t make a big deal out of everything around us. Don’t make a big deal out of what we’re aiming for. It’s all nothing special. Just do it. Do the practice. Do the work. 

Original Audio from the Seminar