The Meaning of Renunciation: The Determination to Be Free
This weekend we are going to be talking about a central topic in the Buddhist teachings – the determination to be free, usually translated as “renunciation.” This term renunciation is a little bit difficult to understand. I think primarily because it doesn’t quite convey the meaning of the original terms in Sanskrit or Tibetan.
In the original languages, the term has the connotation of becoming certain, becoming definite; and it has the further connotation of being certain that we want to leave something. If we look more deeply, it means what I have been translating it as: a determination to be free, to be free of various sources of suffering and problems, various limitations.
What we are renouncing, what we want to leave behind and gain liberation from, are our various problems and limitations and their sources, the causes for them. After all, the central theme in the Buddhist teachings is to get rid of suffering. Everything that Buddha taught was intended to help people overcome the various problems they face in life – not only in this life, but from lifetime to lifetime.
The Four Noble Truths
This we can see very clearly from the first teaching of the Buddha, which was the four noble truths. These are the various factors that those who are highly realized, the aryas, those who have seen reality non-conceptually, have seen to be true.
- Many people have identified many different problems in life, but what Buddha pointed out was what the true problem is, the deepest problem.
- Others were able to uncover the various causes of different problems that we have, but Buddha saw the true cause, the deepest cause of these problems.
- Others had seen that we can achieve relief from our problems, we can stop them to a certain extent, but Buddha saw that what they had advocated was only temporary relief; the problems came back again. Buddha saw what would be the true stopping of problems.
- Others had seen what types of understanding will bring us like a path to the attainment of liberation, a true stopping of our problems, and they also taught that that understanding would be an understanding of reality. But Buddha saw what they had taught was not deep enough, was not effective enough, and so he taught what was the true path, what was the true understanding in terms of the true description of reality. If we understand that, that will bring about a true stopping on the deepest levels, of the true causes of our true problems.
When we try to understand and work with these four noble truths, it’s very important to identify what are the misconceptions about our problems, their causes, their stoppings and the understandings that will bring about their stopping, and why they are incorrect, or why they are insufficient, and then to understand what the actual true four facts are – these four noble truths. That’s the way that we work with them.
But to overcome our problems and limitations, what these true problems are, we need to develop the determination to be free of them. That doesn’t mean just “I wish I were free,” but it also means that we’re determined to be free of their causes, their true causes, because we’ve identified what those true causes are.
Lam-rim, the Graded Stages of the Path
The various problems and limitations that we face are addressed in the structure of what’s known as lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. With them, we work to overcome the various levels of problems progressively.
If we look at what was identified by Buddha as the true problems, we have three levels of them:
- Unhappiness – that’s usually referred to as the suffering of suffering, but it’s referring to unhappiness basically. The unhappiness that we experience most dramatically is with the worse rebirth states.
- Once we have addressed that, then we can focus on the next level of problems: our ordinary happiness, that never lasts, never satisfies, etc.
- Underlying that type of problematic ordinary happiness, as well as unhappiness, is the third level of suffering, which is our uncontrollably recurring rebirth. This is the basis for experiencing this uncontrollable up and down of our experience of life, in terms of happy and unhappy.
Then on a deeper level, although Buddha didn’t mention this next problem, in terms of true suffering, the first noble truth, nevertheless also what is problematic is our limitations in being able to help others, so that also needs to be overcome.
The Three Levels of Graded Motivation
The three levels of lam-rim graded motivation address these various problems and limitations.
- With an initial scope motivation, we work to overcome unhappiness, specifically unhappiness with worse rebirth states.
- With an intermediate one, we work to overcome the problems of ordinary happiness, unsatisfying happiness, and the better rebirth states, and uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether.
- With an advanced scope motivation, we work to overcome the limitations that prevent us from being omniscient, from knowing all the ways to help everyone.
With each of these scopes of graded motivation, we can speak of a determination to be free of that level of problem or limitation. Although the teachings specifically on renunciation, the determination to be free, are found in the lam-rim texts in the context of the intermediate scope of motivation, we can apply this principle that we want to develop – this determination to be free – on all three lam-rim stages.
Tsongkhapa, the source of the Gelug tradition, indicates this already in his Three Principal Aspects of the Path – a very important text in the Gelug tradition. There, he speaks of two levels of renunciation, two levels of this determination to be free. He speaks first about the renunciation with which we do not aspire for the pleasurable things of this lifetime, since they prevent us from taking advantage of our precious human rebirth, and to develop instead a keen interest, our main interest, in improving future lives. This is the first level of renunciation, indicating what we develop on the initial level. We want to be concerned about our future lifetimes, our future rebirths, and of course avoid worse rebirths. For that, we need to change our major focus from this lifetime, trying to benefit this lifetime, so that is a determination to be free of that obsession with just this lifetime, and think instead of future lives.
We’re trying to expand our minds, our understanding, our scope of looking at things, from just immediate rewards in this lifetime, from what we do, immediate consequences, to the long-term consequences in terms of future lives. This is in terms of the potentials, the habits, the tendencies and so on, that we build up on our mental continuums, which will continue and have long-term consequences.
The second level of renunciation that Tsongkhapa mentions in his text is the renunciation with which we do not aspire for the pleasurable things of future lives, but develop keen interest instead in attaining liberation. That is what we usually think of when we think of renunciation.
The Sakya Tradition of “Parting from the Four Clingings”
One of the central texts of the Sakya tradition is called Parting from the Four Clingings. It was revealed by Manjushri to Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, the first of the five great founding masters of the Sakya tradition in Tibet. Sachen Kunga Nyingpo was born 34 years after the passing away of Atisha, the great Indian master who introduced the three lam-rim graded scope teachings to Tibet. The text reads:
If there is clinging to this lifetime, one is not a Dharma practitioner. If there is clinging to samsara (uncontrollably recurring rebirth), it is not renunciation. If there is clinging to one’s own aims, it is not the bodhichitta aim. If grasping for self-established existence arises, it is not the view.
In the Sakya tradition, then, the material that we find first with Atisha and the Kadam tradition that evolved from him, and later in the lam-rim texts of the Gelug tradition, is organized in terms of parting from, or in other words, this determination to be free, and gaining liberation from clinging to these four different phenomena.
I think it’s very important for overcoming a sectarian view of “We have the exclusive truth in our lineage” to understand that, in the various Tibetan traditions, the same material is presented, but structured slightly differently. And why not? Having many different ways of organizing the material – information architecture, we call it in the digital age – helps to meet the differing needs of a large variety of readers and users.
I’m currently involved in the production of our new website, and there we identified the six most typical types of users. Based on that, we are planning to develop an information architecture that suits each of these types of users, so that each can gain easier access to the material. It’s the same thing, in terms of how you would organize the material of the sutras that are organized either as lam-rim, or Parting from the Four Clingings, or the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to the Dharma, and so on. There are many different information architectures for it.
In the context of the Parting from the Four Clingings, we see that the two types of renunciation or determination to be free that Tsongkhapa pointed out correspond to Sachen Kunga Nyingpo’s parting from the first two types of clinging: clinging to this lifetime and clinging to samsara. The Sakya master added to these two determination to be free from clinging to our own selfish concerns – self-cherishing – and clinging to self-established existence. Both are included in Tsongkhapa’s presentation of the advanced scope motivation.
Dharma-Lite and Real Thing Dharma
I think we could also add another level here, the level that I have been referring to as “Dharma-Lite” as opposed to “Real Thing Dharma”, and that is the Buddhist teachings without the presentation of rebirth. His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses a slightly different information architecture to present the same point, by referring to Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist religion.
Buddhist science and philosophy would be with what I call “Dharma-Lite,” which is perhaps not the nicest term. Buddhist science and philosophy is a more respectful term – His Holiness is certainly more skillful than I am. Buddhist religion would refer to the Real Thing Dharma. It’s just a different information architecture. I certainly didn’t mean to put down Buddhist science and philosophy as being something less real than Buddhist religion, by using these words “Dharma-Lite” and “Real Thing Dharma,” so I hope that people don’t misunderstand.
This Dharma-Lite level of renunciation, which I think is important to have before we have the four standard ones – that is before we have belief in rebirth – would be renunciation of working for only short-term benefit in this lifetime, instead of our main interest being in long-term benefit in this lifetime. For instance, taking out a big debt to buy a new car, a new computer, a new apartment, and so on, and not thinking at all that we’re never going to be able to pay it back. So not thinking of the long-term consequences in this lifetime, but just aiming for immediate gratification of what we want now. We need to develop the determination to be free of that, because that produces incredible problems, doesn’t it? That would be the Dharma-Lite level, which we can see is a very serious level, and not something that we can just take lightly.
I think that we can also add beyond these four levels of parting from clinging a level that is specific to tantra. In tantra, we need to develop the determination to be free of ordinary appearance-making and ordinary clinging to these appearances. In other words, clinging to our minds giving rise to ordinary appearances of samsaric bodies and environments, but instead having our main interest be in having our minds give rise to the appearances of Buddha-figures (yidams) and mandalas – pure appearances. And rather than clinging to the self-established existence of either samsaric ordinary appearances or these so-called nirvanic appearances of mandalas and so on, to have our main interest be in their voidness, emptiness.
The Importance of Analytical Meditation
On this weekend, I’d like to discuss all these different levels of determination to be free. For each of them, I propose to follow a scheme of analysis. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is always emphasizing the importance of so-called “analytical meditation.” This is what brings about clear understanding and transformation in us, rather than just reciting mantras or doing rituals. His Holiness says that all the time, because people tend to limit their Dharma practice to merely performing rituals and recitations with almost no understanding, and that has very little benefit.
Buddha didn’t teach us that if we want to overcome our problems, the true path for overcoming them is to pray that we get free of them. He taught as a true path the understanding of reality, in order to get rid of the ignorance, the unawareness that underlies our problems. Don’t just pray to be free.
There are many different types of analytical schemes that we can use for trying to understand the Buddhist teachings. What is used in Buddhism is the three-fold education scheme found in all Indian systems of education:
- You need to listen to the teachings and become convinced that you’ve heard them correctly.
- Then you need to think about what you’ve read, or what you’ve heard, in order to understand it, and analyze it so that you’re convinced that what it teaches is correct.
- Then meditation is familiarizing our minds with that understanding, so that it becomes integrated into our lives. You do that through repetition; what is often just referred to as so-called “practice.”
Analysis is then found both in the thinking process and in the meditating process, but sometimes there’s a bit of confusion there. We need to analyze in order to understand a certain teaching, so analysis is very much involved in this second step, the thinking process. If you want to call that meditation, fine, but that’s not the classic meaning of meditation. But for most of us, that’s actually what we’re doing when we do so-called analytical meditation. We’re trying to understand something, figure it out.
As a result of this analysis, we come to a conclusion. For instance, the conclusion that what I have in this life is impermanent; it’s not going to last forever. So, we come to a conclusion, we are convinced of it, and we understand why the conclusion is correct: in this case, things are impermanent. That’s the conclusion of the thinking process.
Then, the meditation process is when we’ve already understood it, then we want to – I translate the word “analysis” more precisely here as discern it. In other words, we go through all this analysis again, not this time to become convinced and understand – we’ve already understood it – but to refresh it in our mind, so that then we can discern, for instance, that my youth, my health, is impermanent. It’s not going to last forever. This lifetime is not going to last forever, so we discern it. That’s what is technically called “analytical meditation.”
Then you stabilize it – it’s called “stabilizing meditation.” So, we focus on our body for example, and we have that general understanding that it’s impermanent, and we stay focused on that understanding with all the instructions of shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind. This stabilizes the understanding.
Once we have gotten a stable understanding with a shamatha-style of meditation on the fact that our body is impermanent, then we can try, which is quite difficult, to have vipashyana-style meditation. We’re not talking at this level about the actual states of shamatha and vipashyana – but that style of meditation. The style of vipashyana mediation is that then we focus again on the body, with that understanding of its impermanence, but rather than just having the general understanding of impermanence as we do with shamatha-style meditation, we discern all the details and all the reasons, being able to do that without mental wandering – without going “blah blah blah” in our head or having any dullness. So, it’s much more advanced than simply shamatha, but it’s on the basis of shamatha that we have vipashyana. All this is very clear in Tsongkhapa’s presentation of these points in the Lam-rim chen-mo, his Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path.
It’s very helpful, I think, to understand and know these various stages of how we transform our attitudes, transform our understanding, transform our behavior, by going through these different stages of listening to teachings, thinking about them, and meditating in terms of discerning or analytical meditation, and then stabilizing it with shamatha-style meditation and vipashyana-style meditation. This is a gradual process, a gradual path.
An analytical scheme then, is very useful for being able to train ourselves through this process. In the various writings of Tsongkhapa, we can find many different analytical schemes that he explains for how to meditate properly – in other words, knowing what to focus on, knowing how the mind focuses on that object, many different factors. These are extremely beneficial instructions and important for us to learn, if we seriously want to develop ourselves by using the Buddhist methods of meditation.
Being Creative with Analytical Meditation
Then we need to be creative. Being creative means that, although Tsongkhapa and the great masters didn’t specify how we apply all these methods to each little point of the Dharma, we need to put together various analytical methods that we’ve learned from the texts and apply them for each particular point of the Dharma that we want to understand and develop within ourselves. I think that’s a very creative process – not that we make up something new, but we put together the various pieces that we’ve learned into a scheme that will be appropriate for the topic that we want to work on.
It’s like a doctor learns various things in the medical texts, but then needs to put different pieces together according to what he or she has learned, in order to deal with each specific patient and each specific sickness. Likewise, we are training in a sense with the Dharma to become doctors of the mind – not in the sense of psychiatrists or psychologists but, as Buddhist practitioners, we put together what we have learned from all the teachings into an effective method to deal with each specific issue and problem that comes up in our lives. Based on that methodology, I have crafted a scheme for working with determination to be free on each of these six levels that I’ve specified.
If we’re going to work on various problems with Buddhist methods, it’s very important to be quite organized, to have a procedure of how we are going to actually tackle the problem, and of course, follow – I’m working so much in the Internet these days – what’s called in the internet industry, “the agile approach.” With this approach, we modify what we are doing as we go along, according to what comes up. If we try a certain method, a certain approach, and as we are working with it, we find that certain problems come up, we modify our approach so that we take care of those problems as well. Things might have to be changed a little bit – that’s the agile approach.
That’s very important in dealing with any project, and specifically when working on ourselves, so we don’t get stiff and inflexible. It doesn’t mean that we have to make up new stuff ourselves, it just means we have a vast knowledge of the Dharma, so that in any situation as we’re working on ourselves, if something unexpected comes up, like all of a sudden we develop a great deal of fear in our meditation, that we modify and adapt something else from what we’ve learned in the Dharma to deal with that particular issue at that time. That’s being agile, that’s being flexible.
That’s why His Holiness emphasizes education so much. Buddhist education – if we’re going to follow the Buddhist practices, we need to know the Buddhist practices; we need to know the teachings.
Over-Refutation and Under-Refutation of the Object to Be Refuted
Okay, here’s the scheme, and you might find something else that you want to add to this in your own practice, but I find this quite helpful:
First, we need to adopt the principal that Tsongkhapa emphasized so much in his discussion of how you do vipashyana meditation on voidness, on emptiness, which is correctly identifying the object to be refuted, and not to over-refute it or under-refute it. This is such an intelligent, reasonable approach that Tsongkhapa emphasizes so much – we need to realize that it could be applied very effectively on almost everything in the Dharma teachings, on every point in the lam-rim.
- Identify the object to be refuted that we want to get rid of.
- Don’t over-refute it and get rid of too much.
- Don’t under-refute it and get rid of too little.
Here then, we need to identify correctly what the object that we want to free of is – in other words, we don’t want to be free of what is more than that and which is unnecessary and even harmful. And we don’t want to be determined to be free of not enough, so that we’re still left with a problem.
Identifying the Causes of Clinging and the Disadvantages of Clinging
Several more steps follow from that:
- As suggested by the second noble truth, we need to correctly identify the cause of clinging to this.
- Then the approach that is used throughout the lam-rim teachings is to identify the disadvantages of clinging to it. This helps us to be motivated to get rid of it. We have that in the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind to the Dharma, meditating on the disadvantages of samsara. We need to apply that here; it’s very relevant.
- Then, as suggested by the third noble truth, the true stopping, we need to have a clear and correct idea of what we’re aiming for, and again, not over-estimate or under-estimate it.
- Then, we need to know what are the benefits of attaining this freedom?
- And what are we going to do with it, once we’ve attained this state of freedom. We don’t want to just hang out in some pure land and enjoy ourselves; that’s not what we want to do with our liberation, for example.
- Then in terms of the fourth noble truth, we need to have a clear and correct idea of the method for attaining this freedom, and not over-estimate or under-estimate its effectiveness.
- And then based on the Buddha nature approach to things, we need to develop confidence that the method will work – and not over-estimate or under-estimate its effectiveness – and that we can succeed in achieving the goal by applying it.
This is the methodology that I want to apply to our determination to be free from these six levels of problematic situations and problematic habits that we’re in. What questions do you have?
Questions about Purifying Karma
When we are trying to get rid of negative karma, are we actually trying to get rid of all the negative karma that we have, or are we trying to abandon specific types of karmic obstacles? In other words, are there certain abandonments that you achieve with each practice, and does that mean that basically we are not getting rid of all our karma with them?
You need to differentiate whether you are working specifically to purify karma, in other words, purify away and get rid of the karmic tendencies and potentials, or whether you are aiming to get rid of the disturbing emotions that activate them and which bring about building up more karmic potentials.
When we work with purification practices, we are usually aiming at just getting rid of negative potentials, not the positive karmic potentials, which, in order to attain liberation from samsara, we have to get rid of as well. But we start with the negative ones. If we do Vajrasattva purification, for example, we focus on purifying the negative potentials, and this will deactivate them in a sense, but not get rid of them fully from our mental continuums. They won’t ripen into suffering, but they will still slow down our attainment of liberation – Tsongkhapa makes that quite clear.
Successful Vajrasattva purification – which is extremely difficult to do successfully because it requires perfect concentration, perfect motivation, etc. – doesn’t ensure that we’re never going to build up negative potentials again. But if we want to get rid of all karmic potentials and tendencies, including the positive ones, the ones that just further samsara, then we need to meditate on voidness.
Then we’re not doing a specific purification practice in the style of Vajrasattva. But, as is indicated quite clearly in the twelve links of dependent arising, what we’re aiming for with our voidness meditation is to get rid of our disturbing emotions and attitudes that will activate karmic potentials and tendencies. We want to get rid of the first link of dependent arising, which is unawareness or ignorance, which would cause us to build up more karmic potentials, either positive or negative.
Ignorance, or unawareness is what brings on the disturbing emotions, which bring on compulsive karmic behavior, which brings more karmic potentials and tendencies, either positive or negative.
And remember, positive karmic potentials are keeping us in samsara just as much as the negative ones are. We build up positive karmic ones, based on strong ego-grasping from, for instance, wanting to be a perfectionist, because “I have to be perfect.” Well, that will improve your samsara, but it’s still samsara. It’s positive, but samsaric positive.
Then when we work with the understanding of voidness to initially stop these twelve links of dependent arising, what we work on is first getting rid of the doctrinally-based disturbing emotions and unawareness, and then the automatically-arising ones – so it’s in stages. This takes care of getting rid of the emotional obscurations, and we attain liberation, so no more karmic potentials or tendencies. But then we need to get rid of the cognitive obscurations that prevent omniscience, and for that we continue working with the understanding of voidness. Here, we focus on getting rid of the constant habits of not only grasping for self-established existence, but also the constant habits of karma.
This scheme of thinking about benefits and shortcomings is very logical; it is based on reason. But sometimes our behavior is not so logical. It is irrational, for instance we might know logically that it is not necessary for us to watch some videos on YouTube, but we still go and do that. Or for instance, there are also some practices like maybe mantra practices that sound quite illogical, but maybe they can help with this irrational behavior. Or on the other hand, maybe you could also explain that mantras have certain logical reasons to practice.
First of all, we need to realize that our unawareness or ignorance, and the habits that have been built up based on it, have no beginning on each of our mental continuums. That means that it’s very, very strong. It’s not going to be easy to overcome this incredible force of negative habits, because it’s been built up with no beginning. Aside from a correct understanding of reality to directly oppose our unawareness, our ignorance, we need a tremendous amount of positive force for our minds to be able to overcome this inertia of negativity that’s been built up with no beginning. If we understand that, and that really sinks in, then it becomes perfectly reasonable that we have this teaching of building up three zillion eons of positive force to be able to attain enlightenment. Why? Because we are opposing beginningless negativity. Then we understand, and then we have patience.
There are many ways to build up positive force – so-called “merit.” I’m not going to go into big lists about this, but you asked specifically about mantra, and whether mantra use is rational or irrational. My teacher Serkong Rinpoche often said that the three most powerful things in the universe are technology, medicine and mantra. He was not an irrational person, he was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama – very rational – the debate master of His Holiness. It’s taken many decades of thinking about it before I start to have a little glimpse of what he might have meant about the importance of mantra. On the deepest level, what mantra is working with – the word literally means to protect the mind – but what it’s working with is shaping the subtle energies of the body. These subtle energies of the body are as the carriers of our disturbing emotions and attitudes.
We can understand that from the simple example of when we’re nervous. There is clearly nervous energy in our minds, not just our bodies, when we’re upset and nervous. Our minds are unclear and our thoughts often run wild. In martial arts and in yoga there are various physical methods for working on these subtle energies, gaining control over them, so that this can affect our minds. In the Buddhist teachings, we emphasize mantra as a subtler way of dealing with these subtle energies; shaping them, getting them under control, and that too has a huge effect on our states of mind and behavior. Like medicine and technology, it’s one of the most powerful methods for benefiting ourselves and all others.
Of course, the level that we work with now when we recite mantras is a very beginner level – there are many more advanced levels in the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga tantra. But what we do now is a start. Just try not to recite mantras with an incorrect understanding that these are like magic words and if we say them often enough, we win a prize, a reward.
When I asked the young Serkong Rinpoche, the reincarnation of my teacher, what his predecessor meant by mantras being one of the three most powerful things in the world, he replied that this was referring to the prajnaparamita (the perfection of wisdom or far-reaching discriminating awareness) mantra in the Heart Sutra:
Because it’s like that, far-reaching discriminating awareness is the (great) mind-protecting mantra, the mind-protecting mantra of great knowledge, the mind-protecting mantra that’s unsurpassed, the mind-protecting mantra equal to the unequaled, the mind-protecting mantra completely stilling all suffering. Because of its being not deceitful, it’s to be known as the truth. In far-reaching discriminating awareness, the mind-protecting mantra has been proclaimed, “Tadyatha, (om) gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha. The actual nature: gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far-beyond, purified state, so be it.” O Shariputra, a bodhisattva great-minded mahasattva needs to train like that (for behavior that’s) in profound and far-reaching discriminating awareness.
If we understand the practice of mantra to be the practice of far-reaching discriminating awareness of voidness, then it is, in fact, the most powerful thing in the universe. So, we can understand the power of mantras from both the method and the wisdom sides.