Making Life Meaningful with Meditation on Impermanence and Renunciation

Making Life Meaningful

Now we will continue with the text. We are on the second verse.

(2) Listen with a clear (mind), O fortunate one, whose mind would rely on the path pleasing to the Triumphant through being unattached to the pleasures of compulsive existence and eager to make meaningful your life of respites and enriching factors.

The pleasures of compulsive existence refer to the fact that for us normal people, our minds are always chasing after sense pleasures. We always want to feel good, and it’s like we’re completely in love with pleasure. If the only thing we seek in life is pleasure, it’s actually quite destructive. It’s the reason why nothing truly meaningful happens in our lives. We just keep chasing after pleasures. We’re completely obsessed with searching for pleasure and gratifying our senses, yet we never find satisfaction. It makes our whole life completely mundane. Even animals do this. Furthermore, it doesn’t bring us any peace of mind, and nor does it work as an antidote to suffering. 

When we are constantly engaged in mundane activities or seeking sense pleasures, it just brings a whole lot of problems, a whole lot of suffering. There is a great lama who wrote a text called Remembering Impermanence. He said that whatever mundane activities we are engaged in, they will never come to an end until we ourselves decide that enough is enough. As soon as we finish one task, another one pops up. 

There is literally no end to the list of mundane activities that we can spend our whole lives on. First, we look for a house. We need to have enough money to buy and take care of a house, so we have to get a job, which usually takes up a lot of our time. Then, once we buy our house, we need to furnish it, and continue working to pay for the upkeep. There is no end to it. Even finding and paying off a house does not mean that our activities finish. We still need to clean the house every so often! It’s a little bit like waves in the ocean, which come one after the other with no end. Our worldly activities are the same, unless we consciously decide to put a stop to them. Actually, we will not find any satisfaction in these worldly activities.

Isn’t it true that since we were children until now, our whole life has been one activity after another, one problem after another? When we’re small we have to get an education, so we go to school. We’re told we need to do this in order to find a good job. Later on, it’s difficult to get into university. Once we finish our education, we again have problems to find a job. When we do find a job, we are always wanting more money and a better position. And if we do manage to have a very flourishing career and become quite well-known, then we have to protect the fame and wealth we’ve created. There is no end to this. We strive to render our life of respites and enriching factors meaningful, as the text says, but we do it in totally the wrong way. Right now, we have this precious human rebirth with freedoms and endowments. It is not truly meaningful if we just live an ordinary life as described so far. Isn‘t it true? 

We all have our own goals and aims in life, and nobody can tell us to do anything. Even the Buddhas can’t force us to do anything. It’s up to us to live our lives as we decide. But now we are talking here about destructive emotions and how to abandon them. If, as soon as the discussion is up, we carry on with our normal lives and completely disregard what we’re talking about and do whatever we want, then of course the teachings won’t work. It is interesting how most of us understand well the meaning of the teachings, we even completely agree with them, and yet for some reason we still don’t abandon our pursuit of worldly activities and goals. 

Renunciation: The Determination to Be Free from Samsara

The reality is that gaining liberation and enlightenment is not just about investigating and seeing the disadvantages of our disturbing emotions. We also need to strive to give rise to all the excellent qualities of the mind. When we talk about renunciation, at the basic level it means really wanting to be liberated from samsara. In Tibetan, the term is nge-jung, with nge meaning “definitely,” and jung meanings “coming out” or “emerge.” So, in Tibetan, the idea is that we have the thought where we definitely want to come out of samsara, uncontrollably recurring existence. The great master Kedrub Je, one of the main disciples of Lama Tsongkhapa, said that what most Dharma practitioners have is in reality not genuine renunciation. Mostly, we are just really tired of samsara, so we lament and complain about it, but we have not truly cultivated the mind of renunciation. We complain about all the problems and think of how nice it would be to get out of samsara, but this is not genuine renunciation. We have another term in Tibetan for this, which describes a claustrophobic mind, a mind that is fed up. With this mind, we reject samsara to a certain extent, but it is not genuine renunciation. That’s why it is difficult for us to give up our pursuit of worldly activities. 

If we investigate where our problems come from and how exactly they arise, we’ll see that all our problems and negative emotions are connected with our concept of self. In whatever we think or do, there is always this “I, me, and mine” somewhere there. Really, this whole idea of “I” that we have is the source of all of our problems, conflicts, and destructive emotions. Let’s take the example of a conflict or even just a heated discussion. If we investigate why we have a problem with another person, if we start to analyze where the conflict comes from, we’ll come to the conclusion that the other person said this terrible thing that we can’t put up with and can’t accept. So, “I” had aversion for something and that’s how the conflict was born. That aversion comes from our sense of “I.” 

Of course, for us, our “I” is so much more precious than the other person. Since it is so precious, it is important what it feels and thinks and therefore if we cannot put up with something that the other person has said, we reject it. It’s very simple, but that’s how it works. This shows how precious the self is for us, and how important this “I” and “me” is. If we really examine where our problems come from, we will see that in the end everything goes back to our misconception of the self, the “I.” 

The Three Higher Trainings

These types of destructive thoughts and emotions are traditionally called the three poisons. These three are longing desire, hostility, and unawareness. If we investigate what underpins them all, we will find that it is this wrong conception of the self. We have to really examine whether it’s true that all our problems come from grasping at the self and self-cherishing. This is something we have to investigate. And something that we really have to understand is that all the worldly activities we spend our time on don’t bring us the happiness that we seek. Now we are on this path, looking for how we can abandon the cause of our suffering. In Buddhism, we start firstly with the practice of ethical self-discipline, or shila in Sanskrit. 

There are gradual steps on the path of practicing ethical self-discipline. At the start, we have to work on the coarser levels of our destructive emotions, such as hatred and attachment, and try to abandon the activities that are the consequence of these coarse disturbing emotions. We do this by training our body and speech. Eventually, at some point, we will realize that if our minds are not pacified, then even if we can manage to control the coarser levels, the destructive emotions will still keep popping up. At that point, we have to pacify the mind by cultivating shamatha, with which we stabilize the mind by cultivating concentration. However, concentration alone doesn’t completely pacify our minds. When we are practicing shamatha, our destructive emotions are hidden and do not manifest. But as soon as we come out of our shamatha session, the destructive emotions arise again. In order to solve our problems fully, we need wisdom or discriminating awareness. Discriminating awareness doesn’t just pacify disturbing, destructive emotions. Rather, discriminating awareness knows the ultimate nature of things and can truly and totally end our suffering. 

These three gradual steps are known as the three higher trainings: the higher training in ethical self-discipline, the higher training in concentration, and the high training in discriminating awareness. These three are really important regardless of one’s religion or beliefs. If you are an intelligent person and understand that you really want to be happy and don’t want to suffer, these three higher trainings are crucial. Without them, it will be very difficult to make life truly meaningful. 

The Higher Training of Ethical Self-Discipline

Thinking of ethical self-discipline, if we look at our family life, there is always some kind of problem we have to face. Often, parents are stressed out, kids are stressed out, and in that kind of environment, no matter how much we wish to be happy, we will never be happy. Why? Because the minds of these family members have not been trained in patience, for example. If one of them was patient and cool, then the others’ mind would cool down too. When arguments flare up, we have to watch our body and speech – we practice the ethical self-discipline of patience and wait for the other person to calm down. When everyone is a bit calmer, we can sit down and try to find solutions. If we want to have peace within our family, this is what we need to do – cultivate patience. Otherwise, there is no way to find happiness. In this way, in the end, we will always be able to find solutions. For example, family members can decide that they will try to avoid doing certain things or try to behave in a different way. Together, we can build peace and happiness within the family. This is actually the practice of ethical self-discipline, and how we can put immediately put it into practice in our daily lives. 

The Higher Training of Concentration

The second of the three higher trainings is in concentration. Even if I promise my partner that, from now on, I will no longer do the thing that irritates them so much, I know I will fall back into it because I have such strong habits. Therefore, I know that I have to use my memory – keeping mindful of what I’m doing and saying – to remind myself that if I do or say this, the other person will be upset and unhappy. In this way, we can slowly train our minds, making them more and more stable. This is the actual practice of concentration. 

The Higher Training of Discriminating Awareness

When it comes to the third and most important higher training in discriminating awareness, we also need to try to put it into practice in our daily life. We can observe how nearly all conflicts arise due to aversion, due to us feeling aversion toward something that is said or done. What we should do is focus within. Instead of looking outside and identifying problems outside of ourselves, we need to go within and investigate why we don’t like something. We need to see how this whole negative chain reaction is born and how it is all due to the way our minds work, how we think, how the habitual patterns of the mind have led to that. In the end, we discover that all problems come from our own mind. This is wisdom. I can assure you, if you do this, you will no longer have problems of this kind within your family. 

Giving Meaning to Our Lives

With the three higher trainings, then, we are talking about how to give meaning to our life. I truly believe that understanding the three higher trainings is of extreme importance and that they are beyond any religion. It’s impossible to realistically think that everyone in this world will become a Dharma practitioner. We are all so different, we have different predispositions, our mindsets and intelligence levels are different, and so on. However, these three higher trainings – in ethical self-discipline, concentration, and discriminating awareness – can be of benefit to all of humankind if we put them into practice. If we really practice them, we will have a happy, peaceful, and meaningful family life. The well-being of the family spreads to other people in our apartment block, village, country. In that way, whatever we do in our lives, even within our own small family, becomes very meaningful because of the wider repercussions outside. That is why I believe that these three higher trainings are of benefit to everyone. If we practice them, it will benefit everyone. 

This practice of ethical self-discipline does not necessarily mean to take vows, or solemn promises in front of a teacher. Everyone can train in ethical self-discipline, concentration, and discriminating awareness. The text we’re going through is called the Three Principal Aspects of the Path. As I mentioned, these three are renunciation, bodhichitta, and voidness, which cover the meaning of all the teachings of the all the Buddhas. We are practitioners, we study Dharma texts and many of us understand the meaning of these texts. Having understood how important these teachings are, we will also become aware of how meaningless our daily activities are compared with the teachings that can lead us on the path, bringing genuine, true benefit for ourselves and others. It is on the basis of this thinking that a strong mind of renunciation will arise. What we often lack is effort. More specifically, effort that will take us in the right direction. Normally, we find it very easy to put effort into useless things. We said earlier that joyous effort is joy in doing constructive things. When we truly understand the benefits of constructive deeds and disadvantages of destructive deeds, then joyous effort and perseverance will arise spontaneously. Until then, it is almost impossible for joyous effort to arise, and we will keep struggling in our efforts to practice constructively.

Utilizing Our Human Intelligence

It’s really important to use our intelligence at all times. We have to be logical. For example, if there is a problem within the family because the father is very stressed out and it’s difficult to talk to him, then of course we can’t just force him to talk and expect that things will change. But let’s say that we know that our father likes to have a glass of wine here and there, we could kindly offer him a nice glass of wine. He’ll probably be quite pleased, and his mind will be little bit less negative and more pacified. Then, slowly, we can raise difficult issues. We have to be skillful and use our intelligence. We have to be practical and wise. 

If you’ve been to many teachings, you’ll have heard it said that we have been around since beginningless time. Therefore, our habits have also been with us since beginningless time, and so we can’t just expect people to change overnight. We have to be intelligent in that respect, we should not have non-realistic expectations. It will take some time. When we talk about analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of our actions, we are not saying it’s something that we will be able to do properly right now. First, we have to study, understand the teachings, and meditate. Then, it will all make sense. 

So, we need to practice. And we need to follow the steps. We can’t just jump from here to there. Seeing as we’re in Italy, I’ll use the example of cooking pasta. Imagine I’ve come from India to teach you how to make pasta! In order to make good pasta, you have to find the recipe. You have be very careful with how much parmesan and olive oil you use, and how long you boil the pasta for. The timing has to be very accurate. If you follow all the steps correctly, then you make fantastic pasta. Then, the most important thing is the tongue. Is it delicious or not? Other people might say that it’s just so-so, even if you feel that it’s really delicious. Of course, before making judgments, we have to make sure to follow every step of the recipe. Buddhist practice is the same. We have to follow all the steps in order to have a direct experience. We cannot have a direct experience of the Dharma unless we know the steps, the path that leads there.

So, we’ve been discussing the mind of renunciation, where we want to put an end to conditioned existence. Renunciation is the determination to be free, with a mind that is absolutely certain. Before this, we are just tired of samsaric existence. That has to happen first. Using our intelligence, we see that all the activities that are the result of mental afflictions keep us trapped in samsaric existence, in the uncontrollably recurring cycle of suffering. This will lead us to understand that we have to put an end to the causes that lead to the experience of suffering. This means abandoning destructive actions. This is the practice of ethical self-discipline, with which we abandon the destructive actions of body and speech. But, in order to overcome suffering fully, we also need to pacify our minds. For this, we have to make our minds very stable by practicing concentration. Then, on top of all this, we develop our discrimination awareness. That is the formula to get out of samsara. The whole path to Buddhahood starts with the mind of definite emergence, the determination to be free of samsara. The moment that this mind is generated is the first moment of the path.

The First Principal Aspect: Renunciation

Now, let’s look at the third verse.

(3) Since taking keen interest in the pleasurable fruits of the ocean of compulsive existence without pure renunciation is no method for (achieving) the peace (of liberation) – in fact, by craving what is found in compulsive situations, limited beings are completely bound – first, strive for renunciation.

In the third verse, it says pure renunciation. Why is there this word “pure?” This is to differentiate pure renunciation from the renunciation that has more to do with being simply fed up with our problems and the sufferings of samsara. Pure renunciation comes from our understanding that let alone Buddhahood and liberation, not even the wish for liberation can arise until we understand that conditioned existence is suffering. The very first step that we need to take is to generate pure renunciation, with a genuine mind that wants to renounce samsara. 

Turning Away from Obsession with This Life

(4) By accustoming your mind that there is no time to waste when a life of respites and enrichments is so difficult to find, turn from your obsession with the appearances of this life. By thinking over and again about the problems of recurring rebirth and that (the laws of) behavioral cause and effect are never fallacious, turn from your obsession with the appearances of future (lives).

Regardless of the activities we do while we seek worldly goals, they all keep us trapped in recurring samsaric existence. The method we usually employ to stop following the fantasy of worldly happiness is to contemplate impermanence. There are many ways we can meditate on impermanence. Coarse impermanence, subtle impermanence, impermanence in general. One of the best methods is that of bringing to mind that death is certain. 

As Shantideva says in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, we all want to be happy, yet we destroy the causes of happiness as if they were our enemy. None of us want to suffer, yet we chase after the causes of suffering as if they were our most beloved friend. With this kind of thinking, how could we possibly find genuine happiness? This is the right question to ask. 

The Importance of Contemplating Impermanence

It is good to start by thinking of impermanence. Impermanence is an extremely important topic, and we should contemplate it as often as possible. Most of us like to cultivate a bodhichitta aim and meditate on voidness, yet we often forget about the foundations of the path. Regardless of how much effort we put into generating bodhichitta, realizations cannot arise without a strong foundation. In order to build a house, we need a foundation. If we don’t have the foundation, we can’t build anything. In the same way, if we want to practice Dharma, we need strong foundations. What provides a strong foundation in Dharma are meditation on impermanence and the generation of the mind of renunciation. The strong foundation we need is the mind of pure renunciation. The basis of this mind is our understanding of impermanence. 

It really is of extreme importance to think about and contemplate impermanence. We have the opportunity to receive teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and that’s amazing. However, if we don’t have the foundation of meditation upon impermanence, then, regardless of the great aspirations we might have while listening to His Holiness’ teachings, or however determined we are that we are going to really practice, as soon as the teachings are over, we are back to our usual selves. We forget about all those aspirations and decisions. Why? Because we don’t have a strong foundation. We haven’t really gained any realization of impermanence. So again:

(4) By accustoming your mind that there is no time to waste when a life of respites and enrichments is so difficult to find, turn from your obsession with the appearances of this life. 

Here, it talks about the appearances – or fantasies – of this life. Sometimes we have this romantic idea of practicing Dharma, but as long as we are attracted to the appearances of this life, whatever we do is not genuine practice of Dharma at all. The practice of Dharma must be based on an understanding of the law of cause and effect. We have to study and contemplate past and future lives. We have to gain certainty that there are past and future lives. If we don’t really think about future lives and just leave the whole idea aside and move on, then it’s going to be very difficult for us to observe the laws of karma. If we don’t have certainty in the existence of past and future lives, how could we really gain an understanding of the law of cause and effect? We have to understand that we ourselves are responsible for what is going on in our lives and what is going to happen to us in the future. We have to take responsibility for this life and future lives. All of this has to do with our understanding of the law of cause and effect.

Past and Future Lives

Before we can really understand how the laws of karma work, we have to first understand how and why there are past lives. The correct way of establishing the existence of past and future lives is through the reasoning explained in detail in Dharmakirti’s Commentary to Dignaga’s “Compendium of Validly Cognizing Minds.” Actually, it’s not a simple topic. 

It’s also a little bit difficult for me because no one ever asks me about future lives, they only ask me if I remember my past lives! Many people ask me about my past lives, but I don’t remember them. Whether one remembers past lives or not is not proof of the existence or non-existence of past lives. Just because we don’t remember them doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. 

Actually, there are many children who remember their past lives. They can name their parents from their past lives and several cases have been verified. Therefore, some people do have the ability to remember that past lives. When we say this to scientists, they might say that these kids have mental health issues or maybe the parents transmitted some information to them. They somehow can’t quite accept it as proof of the existence of past lives. 

In any case, the main point is to understand whether the mind and brain are the same thing. Are they one or not? Over the last few decades, quite many Mind and Life Conferences have taken place. The key point of most of them seems to be scientists trying to work out whether the mind and brain are the same thing or not. It appears that, nowadays, some scientists are very close to saying that they are not the same thing. If Western science were to prove beyond doubt that there is no separation between mind and brain, that the mind and brain are one and the same, then this would cause many problems, especially to us Buddhists!

This is surely a very important topic to ponder about. However, if we don’t know how to think about it correctly with logic and reasoning, and instead just mull over it and get stuck, our minds can become overwhelmed with doubt. If we fill our minds with all these doubts, we probably won’t get far. We actually lose a lot of time if we first wish to establish that past and future lives truly exist before we start practicing. 

There is a verse that Shantideva wrote, and His Holiness often recites:

As long as space endures, as long as sentient being remain, until then, may I too remain and dispel the sufferings of the world.

Regardless of whether or not we believe in past or future lives, it is great if we can have this kind of motivation. It is something that we should integrate into our lives. Then we can move forward with our Dharma practice, otherwise we might get stuck with a bunch of conceptualizations that don’t lead anywhere. 

One time in Dharamsala, I was debating with a friend of mine. He’s a Westerner and Buddhist practitioner, and he’s very big and strong! So, we started debating and I defended the position that past and future lives don’t exist. I kept presenting various reasons why there are no past and future lives. At some point he became very nervous. He couldn’t find the right reasoning to prove that there are past and future lives. For me, it was just a debate. At some point, he got up and said, “You know what? Thinking about past and future lives is just like how Buddha Shakyamuni explained it. When a soldier goes to war and is wounded by an arrow to the eye, the soldier will not worry about where the arrow came from but will be mainly absorbed in the pain and therefore…” He was telling me that what is most important is to have a good heart and that getting trapped in discussions about past and future lives doesn’t really matter and doesn’t help either. I really appreciated that. 

Being Fed Up vs the Mind of Renunciation

Ok, back to the text. We have to understand that we cannot find a single moment of satisfaction of any kind, or genuine happiness at all, in this current life and in all future lives for as long as we are trapped in samsara. We absolutely must give rise to the mind of renunciation that wants to be free of recurring, compulsive existence. 

There is a difference between a tired mind and a mind of renunciation. A mind that is tired and fed up with the experiences of samsara is the first step. We understand the disadvantages of samsara, however that mind is not so stable, and sometimes we still relish in the appearances of samsara. What does Lama Tsongkhapa say?

(5) When, by accustoming yourself in this way, you never generate, for even an instant, a mind that aspires for the splendors of recurring samsara, and you develop the attitude that day and night always is interested keenly in liberation, at that time, you have generated renunciation.

Renunciation is not a mind that is sometimes attracted to samsara and sometimes tired of it. It is a mind that, day and night, continuously has the intention to seek liberation. When we have this stable mind of renunciation day and night, then we can say that it is pure renunciation. Then, even at night when we are asleep and dreaming, this intention of seeking liberation is present. Somebody who has generated renunciation will still be able to keep on going about the activities of this life as before, but he or she will no longer be attached to anything in worldly existence. We need this stable mind of renunciation. 

Renunciation Doesn’t Mean Giving Everything Up

Now for some very important points about renunciation, because a lot of people get the wrong idea, thinking it means that you need to give everything up completely. The mind of renunciation, the mind that is not attracted to the appearances and fantasies of this and future lives, does not have anything to do with giving up ordinary things. It’s also not the kind of mind that gives up, that is resigned to just accepting things as they are. Not at all. With renunciation, the determination to be free, we keep on with what we are doing, but we also give up any fantasies about what kind of satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness we can find in worldly things. We will know that there is irreversible happiness to be found, and compared to that, all other experiences are of no value at all, they are completely meaningless. The mind is not resigned at all, but rather the mind is very, very determined. 

I don’t remember the whole verse, but somebody once asked Nagarjuna a question, saying, “Master, who is the richest person of all?” Nagarjuna replied that the richest person is the one who is fully satisfied and free from attachment. 

Time is almost up for now, and we’ve only covered the first principal aspect of the path, which is renunciation, the determination to be free from compulsive, samsaric existence. Tomorrow, I will cover the other two principal aspects, a bodhichitta aim and a correct view of voidness.