Going from Renunciation to Compassion

Renunciation and compassion are the same attitude, a determination to be free of suffering and its causes, just focused on ourselves in the former case and on others in the latter. When we know all the details for generating renunciation – the causes, the accompanying mental factors, the understandings and so on – we will be able to develop compassion in the fullest way.

Renunciation and compassion are two important states of mind that we need to cultivate as part of our motivation as we proceed on the Buddhist spiritual path. Specifically, I’d like to explore some of the issues that are involved with these two states of mind, particularly because the two are very closely related to each other. In fact, they are very much the same state of mind, it's just that what they’re aimed at is different.

The Buddhist teachings are all aimed at helping us to get rid of suffering and problems. The method used to do this is to discover their true causes within ourselves and to rid ourselves of those causes so that they no longer produce suffering. This method is based on the conviction that it’s possible to remove those causes in such a way that they never recur again. To accomplish that, we need to develop a pathway of mind: a way of understanding that will completely counter and eliminate the root cause for our problems, which is basically our lack of understanding, our unawareness.

This is in keeping with the structure of the Four Noble Truths, the first and most basic teaching that Buddha gave. When we look at renunciation and compassion, we see that both are aimed at suffering, with the wish for that suffering to be gone. The main difference between the two is that with renunciation our mind is focused on our own suffering, and with compassion it’s focused on the sufferings of others. The state of mind, then, is very similar, isn’t it? But then the questions arise, is the emotion actually the same and how do we make the transition from one to the other?

The Meaning of Renunciation and Compassion

The term “renunciation” is used not only in English, but also in practically all the other languages in which Buddhism is presented in the West. Nevertheless, one starts to question whether that is the proper translation of the original Sanskrit or Tibetan term. One wonders, perhaps, if the term might have been coined by the missionaries who were among the earliest translators of Buddhism to the West and who understood Buddhist teachings in a different conceptual framework from the original. After all, the word “renunciation” carries the connotation of giving up everything, because it’s bad to be involved with worldly affairs, and going to live in a cave or monastery. But that’s not actually the connotation of the term in Sanskrit (nihsarana) or Tibetan (nges-’byung). The term, particularly if we look at the Tibetan, means a determination; it means to become certain. It is referring specifically to the determination to be free from the suffering that it is focused on.

To develop that determination to be free from suffering requires the willingness to give up that suffering and its causes. Therefore, it does have that connotation of giving up something or turning away from something. That “something” is the suffering and its causes that we are focusing on, having first recognized them. Only after recognizing that this is the suffering I’m experiencing, and this is its cause, and I don’t want to experience them anymore, I want to get out of them, can we develop the willingness to give them up. “I want it to be gone,” I suppose, could be a more neutral way of expressing this. This is the case whether this state of mind is focused on our own suffering or, in the case of compassion, focused on the sufferings of others. Although the person experiencing that suffering – ourselves or others – is different, the wish is the same. We wish for it to be gone.

The Factors Involved in Generating Renunciation and Compassion

It’s not only very important to recognize what it is that we’re focusing on – namely, some specific suffering and its actual cause, which are being experienced by us or others – but also to recognize the various other factors that are involved. Tsongkhapa, in his Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra explains very clearly what factors are required for being able to meditate effectively in general. First, we need to understand what is meditation. Meditation is a method whereby we familiarize and habituate our minds with a certain mental state or object by repeatedly generating that state or focusing on that object.

In order to know how to familiarize ourselves with that state of mind, we need to know all its specifics. We need to know:

  • What that state of mind is focused on – in this case, suffering and its causes.
  • How that mind relates to that object. The technical term is “how it takes that object.” The way that our minds take that object here is with the wish for it to be gone. Our minds are not just focusing on suffering and its causes and paying attention to them. The way in which our minds relate to them is “Be gone!”

Any state of mind is a composite of many different mental factors, such as concentration, intention and so on. If we know all these factors, it helps us actually to generate the desired mental state. For this, Tsongkhapa specifies many other points that we also need to know. These include:

  • What that state of mind relies upon – in other words, what are the states of mind that we need to have developed prior to it, that will help us to build up to this state of mind and support it; for instance, identifying suffering and recognizing it in us and in others.
  • What mental factors will help the state of mind that we want to generate and which ones will harm it – for example, love will help it, whether it’s love for ourselves or for others; and hatred, whether it is self-hatred or hatred of others, will be detrimental to it.
  • What will be the benefit and use or function of that state of mind once we generate it – for example, renunciation will help us actually to free ourselves of our suffering, and compassion will help us to enable others to free themselves of their suffering.

Although this might sound like a lot of technical detail, it is actually extremely helpful in approaching Buddhist training or any type of spiritual training with the aim of developing, for instance, love or compassion. How do you do that? Often it’s the case that we don’t know exactly what is meant by love or compassion, and so we just sit with a blank mind, not knowing what to do. Or maybe we have our own ideas of what love or compassion might be, but our own ideas are usually vague. If we’re trying to generate something vague, the best we can hope for is to have only a vague feeling and it’s probably a vague feeling of something that is not what Buddhism is instructing us to develop.

Although in Buddhist training we’re working with what might be called “spiritual values,” states of mind, and so on, the approach is scientific and precise. It’s precise because we know exactly what we’re trying to do with our minds and how to do it. If we have precision in how we work with our minds, our hearts, and our emotions, we can actually cultivate them in a positive way. Otherwise, it’s all very vague.

Some of us may not be very scientifically or rationally oriented. Some of us may be more intuitive and work more with emotions. But if we look at intuition closely, we find that the best type of intuition is the kind that’s precise. Intuition that is vague doesn’t quite get us very far. So, regardless of what type of personalities we have, precision is very helpful.

Mental Factors That Accompany Renunciation and Compassion: A Decisive Feeling of “Enough Already”

What are the mental factors that accompany renunciation and compassion? I’d like to paint a precise picture of what these mental states are that the Buddhist teachings discuss. But even if we can describe these states of mind and emotions precisely, the question naturally arises of how can we come to actually feel them? And then, how can we know that what we feel is the real thing?

Well, if we have a precise idea of what these states of mind need to contain in order to be the real thing, then we can compare what we are experiencing now with what the real thing must be. In examining what we are feeling, we can try to deconstruct it, see all the pieces that go into it, and discover which parts of that state of mind are weak or deficient. Then we will know what we need to work on in order to attain a more precise state of mind. Analyzing and understanding our feelings is not a process that destroys the feelings. It’s a process that’s followed in psychotherapy as well, to help us to heal and be more beneficial for others as well as ourselves.

What is the dominating emotion that is present with renunciation and compassion? It’s the word yid-’byung in Tibetan, which is not easy to translate. But it’s a state of being fed up with something: “I’ve had enough of something.” Sometimes it’s translated a little bit more strongly as “disgust,” and in the past I’ve translated it like that as well. We’re disgusted with our suffering and disgusted with the suffering of others. But on further reflection, I think that that’s too strong a word, because disgust can easily go off into the disturbing emotion of repulsion. I think the tone of this emotion is a little more neutral. “Enough of this suffering, it’s got to end” – whether it’s our own or somebody else’s suffering. So, this has a certain component of decisiveness to it. “That’s it; enough!”

I think we can relate to this in our ordinary experience. We could be suffering and want to get out of this suffering. But we don’t actually do anything to get out of it until we firmly make up our minds and reach that point where we say, “That’s it, enough.” So, feeling “enough already” is one component of renunciation and is its major emotional tone.

Believing a Fact to Be True

Another mental factor that accompanies renunciation and compassion is believing a fact to be true. Sometimes it’s translated as “faith,” but I think that’s an inappropriate translation. It’s inappropriate because faith can also be in something false or uncertain, like faith in the steady growth of an economy. Here, belief in a fact is aimed at something that is true, and it believes that it’s true. So we’re not talking about believing in the Easter bunny or something like that.

Believing a Fact Based on Reason

There are three types of belief in a fact. First is believing a fact based on reason. With this, we’re focused on suffering and we have firm belief in the fact that this really is suffering and it really has come from this cause. In addition, we have the confident belief that this suffering can be removed, and it can be removed forever.

That last point is a very important component. If there were no confident belief, based on reason, that suffering can be removed and that a specific opponent can remove it forever, the whole emotional tone would be different. For example, we might recognize that we have a certain problem in life and we might even have at least some understanding of its cause. We might really like to get out of our problem, and we might even have reached the point at which we deeply feel we have had enough. We really want to do something about it. But suppose we think it’s hopeless, that there’s no way really of getting out of our problem and that we just have to shut up and learn to live with it. Or we feel that we’re condemned to have this problem forever. That’s a very different state of mind, isn’t it, from the belief in fact described in Buddhism? In that state of mind in which we feel it’s hopeless, it’s very easy to become very depressed about the whole situation. We are completely frustrated because, although we would really like to get out of our problem, we realize that it’s actually only wishful thinking and there’s not much that can be done.

That is why our conviction, here, that we can get rid of our problem forever, has to be based on reason. We understand how we can rid ourselves of the problem and we’re convinced that it will work. This gives us hope, and hope gives us strength, and strength is very important for being able actually to do something to rid ourselves of the problem. That’s believing a fact based on reason.

Clear-Headedly Believing a Fact about Something

The second type of believing a fact to be true is called “clear-headedly believing a fact about something.” It clears the head in the sense that it clears our minds of disturbing emotions, without also clearing out the object. What does this mean? This means that this confident type of belief that suffering can be removed forever clears our minds of depression; it clears our minds of doubt about the situation; it clears our minds of a feeling of helplessness and fear. When we have a lot of problems and difficulties, we live in a great deal of fear, thinking, “It’s going to be like this forever” or “I’m afraid to do anything because maybe I’ll just make it worse.”

I’m sure we all know examples of this, either in ourselves or in others. For example, we might be in a terrible relationship with somebody, a very destructive, abusive relationship, but we’re afraid to get out of that relationship and end it because life may be worse without this person. But with confident belief that we can get rid of the problem by ending the relationship, and that in ending it, everything will get better in our lives, we clear our minds of fear and indecision.

With this second type of confident belief, we also get rid of exaggerating the negativity of suffering. We may in fact have a problem, but if we exaggerate the negativity of that problem, we make it into a horrible monster in our minds. We can even externalize the problem and make it into the work of the devil, making ourselves even more afraid. But with renunciation based on clearheaded belief that it is possible to get rid of suffering forever, we are not afraid. We are not running away from our problems, trying to escape in fear, but rather we face our problems and tackle them with confident belief that we will succeed.

We need to be careful, then, how we understand the emotional state involved with expressions such as “escape from the prison of samsara.” It is not that our minds are upset and confused because of fear and hatred of our samsaric situation of uncontrollable recurring suffering. With clearheaded belief that it is a fact that we can liberate ourselves from all these sufferings, we have a calm, clear determined state of mind.

Believing a Fact with an Aspiration Concerning It

The third type of belief is believing a fact with an aspiration concerning it. The aspiration here is that “I will get out of this, and I’m going to do something to get out of it.” An everyday example of this state of mind would be somebody who has grown up in poverty and is determined to be free of its limitations and make something more successful of their lives. It’s not that such people are filled with hatred of their situation. They’re very clear, calm, and know what they need to do to break out of their poverty and get out, and they’re going to do it, because they’ve had enough of this situation. They know what they have to do, and they just do it, straightforwardly.

I’m thinking of an example of a friend of mine who grew up in a very poor family, in a very rough neighborhood. He went to a school where mostly people in his class were in gangs, and fighting with each other. He was determined to be free of that. He knew what he had to do; he worked very hard to get the money and get the opportunity to go to university. There he studied medicine and now he’s a very successful brain surgeon.

Compassion Has the Same Components as Renunciation

That’s what renunciation is when it’s focused on our own suffering. When it’s focused on the suffering of others, it’s the same thing. We are focused on the suffering of others, and the way that our minds are relating to it is with the intention “this has got to go.” The state of mind and emotion accompanying it is this same feeling of “this is enough.” We realize that everybody has all these problems of life that we experience, but it’s not that we are disgusted or feel hopeless about it. Those, again, are disturbing types of emotion. We are confident in our understanding and belief that this is the cause of their problems and it is possible for them to get out of it as well. It’s not that we’re just wishing them well, but deep inside we know that it’s hopeless. Our belief is a clearheaded type of belief, so our minds, with this compassion, are cleared of disturbing emotion. That’s very important.

I think of examples. I remember my mother used to watch the local news on American television and she’d hear about all the murders, robberies, rapes and so on that took place each day and she’d get very angry and indignant: “How terrible this is; it shouldn’t happen.” This looks like compassion, but actually it’s a very disturbed state of mind. This is not the “real thing” compassion. There is a mixture, in this case, of compassion and concern, but also anger and being upset.

Compassion – the “real thing” compassion – is not an upset state of mind; it’s a very clear state of mind. It is accompanied by a belief with an aspiration, which is that “I’m going to try to do something about it, to help remove this suffering.” So it’s not just wishing that “they” do something about it, but I’m going to try to help. This aspiration and intention, however, has to be based on a realistic understanding of what it is that we can do. It’s not mixed with this idea of “I’m God Almighty and I’m going to go out and save the world,” and “if I succeed in helping this person, how wonderful I am; and if I fail, I’m guilty.” This is why we need to understand so well and have confidence in the process by which suffering can be removed. The process is one that arises dependently on many, many causes and factors, not just on my will power and my wish for the suffering to be gone.

Renunciation and Compassion Focused on the Suffering of Pain and Unhappiness

As we explained, the first component necessary for generating either renunciation or compassion is that it needs to be focused on suffering, either our own suffering or the suffering of others. The first question, then, is what kind of suffering is it focused on? The Buddha specified three types of true suffering. Without going into tremendous detail here, the first of the three types we can focus on is pain and unhappiness.

It’s not so difficult to want pain and unhappiness to be gone. I’m sure we have all experienced this in the dentist chair. But that’s a very interesting question to investigate, actually. When we’re sitting in the dentist chair and we’re experiencing the pain of the dentist drilling a tooth without Novocain, do we have renunciation of that? Is that our state of mind? What actually is our state of mind? What are we feeling in that chair? For most of us, I think it’s fear and anxiety. As with renunciation, we focus on the pain that we feel, but then unlike renunciation, we usually exaggerate it and make it into a monster. We certainly aren’t calm, at all.

But suppose we approach this situation with renunciation. We would still be focused on the pain of the drilling. We would like our suffering from that pain to be finished. We’ve had enough of it and we are confident that we can get rid of it. But now here comes an interesting complication. We can understand that we can get rid of it simply by being patient and waiting it out. We are not going to be sitting in the dentist chair with this dentist drilling our tooth for the rest of our life. Impermanence is there and the drilling will end; we just have to bear with it. With this thought, we can be calm and we can be confident that if we remain calm and don’t freak out in the chair and tense up, the suffering of the pain of the drilling will be finished and gone.

Another possibility is that we can be confident that we can be rid of the suffering of this pain by changing our attitude toward it. This refers to the mind training or attitude training method of changing adverse circumstances into positive ones. For example, if we think of the suffering of all the people who are being tortured in Tibet or in other places of the world and compare that with what we’re experiencing in the dentist chair, we understand that our pain is trivial by comparison. Understanding the relativity of our suffering helps us to remain calm in the face of our relatively small pain and we will not suffer so much from it. The pain will still be there, but it is no longer a big deal.

In both these examples, we have renunciation. What are we renouncing? On the surface level, we are renouncing the pain. But regardless of our attitude toward it, we can’t be rid of the pain immediately; we still experience a painful physical sensation until the drilling stops. In fact, the pain will continue until the dentist is finished, whether or not we renounce it. Nevertheless, being confident that the pain of the drilling is impermanent and we will soon be free of it because of its impermanence helps us to tolerate the pain. Thus, if we examine more deeply, we are actually renouncing the unhappiness we might have while experiencing the physical pain. With a change of attitude, we can be rid of that unhappiness immediately.

When fear and anxiety accompany our experience of being in the dentist chair, these mental states give us even more unhappiness and make the situation even worse. But if we change our attitude toward the pain, for instance by understanding either its impermanence or its relativity, we can be confident that we will not suffer mentally and emotionally from the drilling.

This, then, is the practice of renunciation, based on understanding what it is that we are renouncing here, referring to what we can actually rid ourselves of by a change of attitude. We are renouncing:

  • Unhappiness experienced in relation to a painful physical sensation,
  • Painful mental and emotional states,
  • The unhappiness experienced in relation to these painful mental and emotional states.

A change in attitude completely alters the whole situation of experiencing pain. We’ve seen examples of this with great lamas who have died in Western hospitals, whether it’s of cancer or some other terminal illness. Certainly they must have been experiencing physical pain, but also certainly they have renounced being unhappy and afraid of that pain. Instead, they change the whole situation by thinking of the suffering of others and their sadness, particularly the discomfort of the doctor who feels helpless. These lamas show great concern for how the doctor feels and, likewise, how all the people that come to visit and pay their respects feel as well.

What is underlying this way that they are dealing with their sickness? It’s renunciation and compassion. They have renounced the tension and mental pain of the entire situation, with regard to both themselves and to everybody else who’s involved. And they’re not just pretending to have renunciation. These lamas are not just saying on the outside, “It’s okay; I’m okay, don’t worry,” but inside they don’t feel it’s okay. If that were the case, they would be missing this clearheaded belief: the type of confident belief that clears away the fear and discomfort because of knowing that by applying this or that mental opponent, the whole tension of the situation will become diffused. Of course, the more familiar we are with these practices of renunciation and compassion, as these lamas are, renunciation complete with all its accompanying factors will arise automatically. It won’t be something artificial that we have to generate.

Another example of a difficult situation would be losing our job or losing our savings. Although we might feel awful about this, everyone else who loses his or her job or savings also feels terrible. We want that unhappiness and depression to be gone, both in us and others. Going from renunciation to compassion doesn’t mean that we stop renouncing our own suffering. Rather, we expand our state of mind to include everyone: that means both us and everybody else.

Renunciation and Compassion Focused on the Suffering of Ordinary Happiness

That was renunciation and compassion aimed at just the suffering of pain and unhappiness. Our ordinary happiness, however, is also problematic. It is, in a sense, also a form of suffering. This suffering refers to the fact that our ordinary happiness never lasts; it’s never satisfying; and we never have enough. Also, it soon changes into discomfort and unhappiness. That’s why it is called the “suffering of change.” For instance, if eating ice cream were a true cause of happiness, then the more we eat, the happier we should become. But obviously we reach a certain point that the more we eat, the sicker we feel. Our ordinary happiness at the ice cream changes and we are no longer happy.

In short, ordinary happiness is frustrating. No matter how much we wish to continue feeling happy, we never know when our mood will change. Further, we’re never satisfied with the happiness we have now or with the happiness that we’ve had before. We always want more. We can also renounce this suffering of change with the determination to be free.

But, what does that mean to renounce ordinary happiness? Does it mean we don’t ever want to be happy again? Is it that we want: to give up our happiness because it’s unsatisfying? To think like that would be a gross misunderstanding of the Buddhist position. Ordinary happiness is impermanent and inevitably is going to end, as was the case with pain and unhappiness. But with renunciation we accept that fact and don’t exaggerate the good qualities of feeling ordinary types of happiness while they last.

That is how we overcome the suffering from our ordinary happiness. We enjoy it for what it is, a temporary good feeling, while knowing full well that it’s not going to last. Because we know it’s going to end, we’re not frustrated. We don’t expect it to last forever. But while it lasts, we enjoy it. It’s not that we experience it, knowing it will end, but are anxiously dreading the moment it will stop. Remember, with clearheaded belief in the fact that it will end, we clear our minds of any discomfort at that thought.

I’ll give an example: being with a friend that we don’t see all the time. The friend leaves after visiting for a short while and we’re not satisfied. We wanted the person to stay longer. Well, what did we expect to get from that visit that we feel unsatisfied at not getting? Did we really expect that somehow being with this person would make us ultimately happy and get rid of our loneliness and insecurity forever? If he or she stayed five minutes longer, would we be satisfied?

We’re unsatisfied because our expectation was not fulfilled, but it was a totally unrealistic expectation. What we expected is impossible. On the other hand, if we don’t expect anything miraculous to happen, then we’re satisfied with whatever does happen. This is accepting reality. We enjoy the visit, the meal, the intimacy or whatever it is that we have now with the person. We know it’s not going to eliminate our unhappiness or loneliness or hunger forever; but we don’t expect it to. We’re not exaggerating the visit from our friend; we’re clearheaded about it and not upset or disappointed when he or she leaves. We enjoy it for what it is and when it’s finished, it’s finished.

Once we have renounced the problems that we face with our ordinary happiness, how do we extend that to the ordinary happiness of others? Obviously when we’re focused on somebody else’s problems with ordinary happiness, then again being clear-minded is very important. Certainly it’s not that we’re jealous that the other person is happy and we’re not, even though we realize that their happiness is not going to satisfy them. Rather, we recognize that this person is, for instance, expecting too much from their relationship with a friend, or they’re always going to be frustrated and dissatisfied no matter what nice things happen to them. We recognize that as the problem. It’s not that we don’t want them to be happy. What we’re focusing on is the unhappiness or the problem that comes from their way of experiencing ordinary happiness.

By differentiating here between happiness and the problems with happiness, it enables us to rejoice in the happiness that the other person is feeling. Rejoicing is emphasized very much in the Buddhist teachings. We rejoice in their happiness; however, we understand realistically the shortcomings of ordinary happiness and we have compassion for the problems that they might have with that happiness. Nevertheless, even if it’s ordinary, worldly happiness, we’re able to rejoice in it.

Renunciation and Compassion Focused on All-Pervasive Suffering

The deepest form of suffering pointed out by Buddha is “all-pervasive suffering.” This refers to uncontrollably recurring rebirth, so-called “samsara,” which is the basis for experiencing the first two types of problems. It is the form of suffering Buddha uniquely specified as true suffering in his presentation of the four noble truths. We’re going to continue to have a so-called “tainted” body that, in one form or another, is going to have to go through the whole process of being born, having to learn how to walk and do things all over again, and which easily gets injured and will inevitably get sick, grow old, lose its abilities and die. And we’re going to continue to have a “tainted” mind that in one way or another is going to be confused, make a lot of projections, have all sorts of strange thoughts, and continually go up and down with shifting moods.

We’re always going to be in complicated relationships that are never going to be satisfying. Things are going to happen to us that we don’t want to happen. We’re not always going to get what we like; and in fact, often we’re going to be parted from what we like and meet with what we don’t like. When others act in this way or that, we don’t like it: we can’t get our way. We become frustrated; we don’t get what we want even though we try very hard to get it, like a good job, a good partner, or whatever. There’s no certainty, not only about our future lives, there’s no certainty about what we are going to feel like in the next moment.

We’re always going to have to forsake this type of body and the current life that we’re leading and fit into a whole new rebirth and learn everything all over again, make friends once more, and so on. And of course there is little guarantee that we will be reborn as a human next time; the odds are we will not be human. We could be reborn as a cockroach, or worse. With renunciation we’ve had enough of this.

It’s quite interesting to examine the state of mind that’s involved here with this level of renunciation. I think there’s also an element of being bored with uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth. Because we don’t exaggerate what samsaric life is like, then in a sense we’re not fascinated with it. We’re just not interested; it’s always the same thing over and again.

If we’re not fascinated with the ever-repeating problems that we have to face in life, and in fact we’re bored with them, it’s not that, as a result, we don’t care what happens. It’s not that we adopt the disinterested attitude of “whatever.” Rather, we understand that the cause of the all-pervasive problem of uncontrollably recurring rebirth is our disturbing emotions, our disturbing attitudes, and our compulsive behavior driven by them. Even more, we understand that the true cause of this suffering is the unawareness and confusion that lie behind our disturbed states of mind and compulsive behavior. We’re determined to be free of it.

This determination to be free of samsara is the “real thing,” the deepest level of renunciation. Moreover, we’re confident that we can bring an end to this horrible syndrome of samsaric rebirth. As a result, our minds are not disturbed that we’re in this state; our minds are clear. We are determined to do something about liberating ourselves. Further, we know what to do to bring it to an end and we are confident that we can do it. When we switch this determination to be free from samsara from being focused on ourselves to being focused equally on all others, then it becomes “great compassion.”

Dangers to Avoid When Developing Renunciation

Renunciation and compassion are presented within the context of the three scopes of motivation of lam-rim, the graded stages to enlightenment, and so we can analyze the dangers that might occur when developing the two by looking at them in this context. The initial scope motivation is to work to improve future lives, so that we continue to have a precious human rebirth with all the opportunities to be able to continue on the spiritual path to enlightenment. The danger when we develop this initial level of motivation is that we can easily develop attachment to a precious human rebirth. We feel, “I want to be reborn and continue to be with my friends and my loved ones, and have wealth and comfort,” and things like that. So our striving for better rebirths can be mixed with a great deal of attachment. When this happens, we are exaggerating the good qualities of a precious human life. Desire and attachment, after all, are based on exaggerating the good qualities of something. With desire, we think, “I have to have it,” when we don’t have something, and with attachment, “I don’t want to let go of it,” when we already have it.

The danger with renunciation is similar to this danger with attachment, but in the dimension of repulsion. Rather than attraction that comes from exaggerating the good qualities of a precious human rebirth, with renunciation we have the danger of exaggerating the negative qualities of samsaric existence. Because of that exaggeration, we feel repulsion for it, leading to that area of disgust that we were speaking of before. Disgust and repulsion are closely related.

When we work on developing renunciation, we do this within the context of striving to become someone of intermediate scope of motivation, namely someone striving to attain liberation from samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. This is not so simple. We’re focusing now on the drawbacks or shortcomings of samsara, which is one of the so-called “four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma.” We try to think all the time about the disadvantages of samsara.

When we’re really into doing that, then we’re looking at the drawbacks of samsara in everything that we experience in life. This can color our emotions and experience of life very strongly. In any situation that we’re in, the first thought that would come to our minds would be suffering. For instance, we see somebody, and we might feel a little bit of attraction, but then we think “suffering.” We get into a new job and think, “Suffering; this is going to be terrible.” No matter what happens, “suffering.” The telephone rings, “suffering.” Anything. We get into the shower, “Suffering; it’s going to end, and I’ll just need another one later. Boring.” In this way, it’s very easy to develop a very negative attitude toward life in general: toward everything we experience and especially toward people. We buy a new computer, “suffering; it’s going to break; a virus is going to come in.” We meet a friend and our first thought is how unsatisfying our time will be. We can’t enjoy anything. This negative attitude that everything is horrible and stupid can lead to depression.

Combining Joy with Renunciation and Compassion

How do we deal with this danger of becoming negative and depressed? Is the solution simply to say, “Enjoy the beauty of life?” Well, we have to be very careful here. Is taking joy in life being naive about life’s suffering nature? Is it contradictory to renunciation? Transfer this to compassion; we’re thinking, “How sad that everybody is suffering; how horrible that is.” Does combining this sadness with the joy of being delighted to see someone mean, “I’m happy with your suffering?” No, it certainly does not. So how do we combine a sense of joy and happiness with renunciation or compassion?

When we are trying to find joy in our life and take joy in meeting others and find joy in their lives, we’re focusing on something different from what we’re focusing on when we are experiencing renunciation and compassion. We’re focusing with joy on the Buddha-nature potentials of ourselves, of others and on all the wonderful opportunities for spiritual advancement that our lives can offer. We all have the potentials that enable us to attain Buddhahood and that is something to rejoice in. That is the source of joy. We’re not focusing with joy on the suffering nature of our own and others’ lives.

With renunciation, for example, we look at ourselves and at our lives, and we recognize and acknowledge the suffering that is there. Although it is sad, we are not depressed at it. Nor do we adopt the attitude of “whatever,” which is actually a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. Rather, with renunciation we’re confident that we can rid ourselves of our suffering. We are determined and decisive that we’re going to do something about this intolerable situation; we know what we need to do and we’re confident that we can do it and be rid of it. Thinking like that would make us happy, wouldn’t it?

Still, it’s a very delicate matter to try to combine these two states of mind: joy and either renunciation or compassion. Do they happen simultaneously; does one underlie the other? Do they alternate, as with the practice of tonglen, taking on suffering and giving happiness? How do we actually put these together in our daily lives – having sincere renunciation, but without the negative state of mind of feeling everything is stupid and worthless, and feeling depressed? It seems to me that with renunciation or compassion and joy, we are just looking at our own and others’ lives from the viewpoints of two different aspects of them. But I think each of us needs to analyze this for ourselves.

Having Renunciation Does Not Mean Avoiding Interaction with Others

Suppose we actually succeed in developing renunciation so that we’re not attracted to things in our ordinary mundane existence. Suppose we then conclude that any type of worldly relationship we get into is just going to bring suffering and so we decide to become a monk or nun and live in a monastery. Even if we make such a decision, we need to be very careful that we don’t become disgusted with people in general, because that becomes a major block to feeling compassion for them. We could end up thinking, “You’re just trouble!” This builds up a habit of not wanting to get involved with anybody. If we’re going to become a compassionate person, we need to be involved with others and try to help them if they are in need.

Aversion or indifference to others, then, is one of the biggest problems when developing renunciation. When we meet someone, we might feel, “This person is just going to be trouble. Dealing with him or her is just going to bring me suffering and problems. They’re not going to take my advice; they’re going to give me a hard time,” etc. This is something we have to work on avoiding.

When we are developing renunciation, we need to look at our own suffering from two points of view. First of all, we view our suffering as intolerable and we’re determined to be free of it. Moreover, we recognize that we have Buddha-nature, the basic potentials that enable us to be free of all suffering and become liberated and even a Buddha. Recognizing our potential to be free of all suffering does not negate feeling joy in life, but rather fills us with joy. This joy, then, is not contradictory with our renunciation, our determination to be free. In fact, this joy reinforces our renunciation. So rather than neglecting ourselves and neglecting working to free ourselves with an indifferent attitude of “whatever,” we have great care for ourselves and, in a sense, compassion for ourselves.

The same analysis applies to developing compassion for all others. We wish for them to be free of their sufferings as well and rejoice in the fact that, based on their Buddha-natures, they too can become free. We then take realistic steps to help them. In other words, we want their sufferings to go away, but we care about the persons who are experiencing the suffering and don’t want them to go away.

We apply this approach first to ourselves. “I want my suffering to go away, but it’s not that I want to destroy myself. My negative attitude of rejection is focused on the suffering, not on me as a person.” It can be very easy to confuse the two and think, “I’ll kill myself in order to get rid of my suffering.” When this differentiation is clear with respect to ourselves, then we can similarly think with compassion, “I want your suffering to go away, but I don’t want you to go away.”

It’s not very easy to make this differentiation. Likewise, it’s not very easy to rid ourselves of this faulty generation of renunciation, which causes us to feel repulsed by people and to avoid becoming involved with anybody, thinking, “Just leave me alone. I just want to go to my cave or monastery and meditate.” Even if our disturbing emotions are so strong that they seriously hamper our ability to help others and we need to meditate in solitude in order to work on those emotions, still we need to avoid having a negative attitude toward others or ourselves and a lack of compassion.

The Relation between Persons and the Suffering They Experience

How do we avoid this problem of developing a negative attitude? For this, we need to go beyond the sphere of what I call “Dharma-Lite” and analyze in terms of “Real Thing Dharma.” Dharma-Lite presents methods based purely on concerns for this lifetime; whereas Real-Thing Dharma is based on accepting past and future lives.

A lifetime is imputed on the continuum of all the moments in our life. Our lifetime is not identical with any one moment, nor does it occur independently of any of these moments. Further, we can’t even say that our lifetime is identical to the sum of all its moments, because all the moments of our lifetime aren’t happening at the same time. When we are adults, our childhoods are no longer happening. Our lifetime is merely imputed on the continuum.

According to Real-Thing Dharma, persons are similarly imputed on individual mental continuums. But the mental continuums on which they are imputed do not last only for this lifetime. They last forever with no beginning and no end. Persons are also not identical to any one moment of the mental continuum on which they are imputed; nor do they exist independently of the continuum or as identical with the entire continuum as if the entire continuum were happening all at once.

A similar analysis holds true regarding any feature of the mental continuum on which any person is imputed. In the case of renunciation and compassion, the feature of the mental continuum is all-pervasive suffering. Persons exist and experience suffering, but they are not identical with any specific suffering situation that occurs with the mental continuum on which they are imputed. Nor are they identical with the all-pervasive suffering that has been occurring on their mental continuums with no beginning. When we realize these facts, we don’t identify “me” or anybody else with the suffering any of us experience. Because of not confusing “me” or “you” with suffering and thinking that they are identical, then when we want that suffering to be gone, we don’t want “me” or “you” to be gone as well.

In this way, we have a much clearer view of the “me” of others and ourselves. Suffering and its causes can be removed from our mental continuums such that they never recur, but the persons who were experiencing those sufferings can never be removed. Just as mental continuums have no end, likewise persons imputed on them, each one a “me,” have no end.

If we understand the innate purity of the mental continuum and that suffering and its causes can be removed forever, we need also to be careful not to identify “me” with the pure mental continuum either. Otherwise, we may become naive about the suffering and not take removing it seriously, because we believe that suffering doesn’t actually exist.

Making the Transition from Taking on Suffering to Giving Happiness in Tonglen Practice

When we think of the suffering of others or our own suffering, it’s sad. We certainly don’t feel happy that we’re suffering or someone else is suffering; we feel sorry that this is happening. In the teachings on tonglen, giving and taking, we focus on the suffering of others, or even our own suffering, and naturally feel sad about it. It isn’t that we don’t feel anything, as if the suffering were unreal and didn’t hurt. Then we imagine taking on the suffering; we willingly accept experiencing it ourselves. We then give them or ourselves love, which is the wish to be happy. So we switch from feeling the sadness of the suffering we accept on ourselves to feeling the happiness that we send out.

Making this transition from feeling sad to feeling happy is a stumbling block for many people when practicing tonglen. How do we all of a sudden change from feeling sad to feeling happy? After all, these two are conflicting feelings. We saw a similar issue when discussing how to balance focusing on suffering with renunciation and, without getting depressed, also being able to experience the joy of life and its possibilities for liberation. It’s the same type of issue here.

We can understand the importance of being able to balance sadness with happiness when we think of the example of visiting a sick relative or friend. We feel sad that they’re sick and suffering. But if, while visiting our loved one, we remain sad and unhappy, that doesn’t help the person at all. We need to cheer up our sick relative or friend. But how do we generate a happy feeling in that situation? Is it only artificial? Do we merely put a big smile on our face, while feeling horrible inside?

To make a sincere transition from sadness to happiness here, we can apply the fairly advanced teachings of mahamudra, the “great sealing nature of the mind.” First of all, when we take on the suffering of others or ourselves, we are voluntarily accepting suffering. When we do this sincerely, it gives us a feeling of self-confidence and strength. We do not have the so-called “victim mentality” of poor me, I’m suffering.

With the mahamudra method, we regard the sadness we feel with this suffering as a wave on the top of the ocean of the mind. With the inner strength we have gained at voluntarily accepting suffering, we are not emotionally tossed about by the wave. Calmly, we let the wave of sadness we experience settle down. Once it has naturally settled, we are able to access the innate, quiet joy of the mind. It naturally shines from our hearts and this is what we give to others or what we experience ourselves with tonglen.

There is nothing disturbed or disturbing about this natural joy of the mind. We don’t announce or make a show of our happiness, as in “What a shame that you’re sick. I feel bad for you, but I’m happy with my life. Everything is going well with me.” Our relaxed, innate joy quietly comforts and soothes others and ourselves.

The Foundations on Which Renunciation and Compassion Are Built

When we began our lecture, I pointed out that Tsongkhapa explained that generating a state of mind, for instance compassion, requires first knowing what it is built up on. Compassion is built up on the basis of having developed proper renunciation first. With renunciation, we’re determined to be free of our disturbing emotions, which drive our uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and we are working on ridding ourselves of them.

The next step in building the foundation for compassion is to develop equanimity on the basis of our renunciation; in other words, on the basis of working to eliminate our disturbing emotions. With equanimity, we focus on all beings in an open manner, without the disturbing emotions of attraction, repulsion or indifference toward any of them. We are equally open to everyone, since we are all equal in that each being is merely imputed on a beginningless and endless mental continuum. Because, over beginningless time, we have had every type of relationship with every type of being, we do not identify anyone with the type of relation we might have had with any of them at any one time: friend, enemy or stranger. Therefore, there is no basis for attraction, repulsion or indifference.

There’s no benefit in focusing on the times when every being has at some time been our enemy and even our murderer. It is much more beneficial to focus on when everybody has been our mothers and then think of the kindness that everybody has shown us as our mothers or as whoever were our primary caretakers. Even if our mother in this lifetime has abused us and was terrible, the minimum kindness she showed was that she didn’t abort us. Either she, or nowadays perhaps our surrogate mother, has been especially kind to us because they have carried us in their wombs.

The next step is usually translated as “repaying that kindness,” but I tend to think the term “repay” gives the wrong impression. This is because “repay” implies a debt in a business deal and, if we don’t repay our debt, we’re guilty. Rather than a feeling of obligation or guilt, the emotional tone intended as the basis for this step is appreciation and gratitude for the kindness we’ve received. Then, on the basis of that emotion, when we imagine our mothers as blind, confused and delusional, about to fall off a cliff into an abyss of harmful behavior and ourselves standing next to her and knowing how to help, naturally we will take responsibility to do whatever we can to prevent her downfall. If her own son or daughter won’t help her, who will?

On the basis of feeling deeply grateful for the kindness everyone has at one time or another shown us and being more than willing to express our gratitude by actually helping them, we automatically develop what’s called “heart-warming love.” We feel such a warm connection with everyone, that whenever we encounter anybody, we feel automatically close to them, like a mother for her precious only child. We’re sincerely concerned about their welfare and would feel sad if anything bad happened to them.

It’s on the basis of that heart-warming love that we have the type of love cultivated in Buddhism: the wish for all beings equally to be happy and to have the causes of happiness. On the basis of this love for everyone, we develop compassion: the wish for them to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. So, we can see that underlying and supporting compassion is a complex of many positive emotions, such as a feeling of openness and closeness with everyone, gratitude for their kindness, heart-warming love, affection, and so on. All of these are contained within compassion.

By extension, then, if compassion is the state of mind of renunciation aimed at the suffering of others, then the foundation of compassion should likewise be present in some sort of form with renunciation. This means that first we need to have equanimity toward ourselves – not attraction, not repulsion, not indifference. Then we need to realize that it’s of no help to focus on the negative things that we’ve done in this life and past lives. Parallel to seeing when others have been our mothers and been kind to us, we need to focus on the positive, kind things we’ve done for ourselves. The fact that at present we are enjoying all the beneficial circumstances of a precious human life is the karmic result of constructive actions we’ve done in the past. We appreciate the kindness we’ve shown to ourselves in doing that and are grateful. This leads to heart-warming love toward ourselves, not self-hatred. We sincerely care for our welfare and would feel terrible if anything bad were to happen to us.

When working with compassion, one of the main principles that equalizes everybody is that everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy, and everyone equally has the right to be happy, not unhappy. “Everybody,” here, includes ourselves. Therefore, we too have the right to be happy; we too have the right not to be unhappy. Therefore, developing renunciation – this determination to be free – is basically developing compassion for ourselves.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not encouraging a dualistic attitude toward ourselves, that “me” who is being compassionate toward myself is different from the “me” I am feeling compassion toward. “Being kind to ourselves” is just a figure of speech. But if we want to be kind to ourselves and free ourselves from suffering and unhappiness, we need to develop the attitude, for instance, of “I don’t want to get into a sick relationship with this person; I don’t want to get angry; I don’t want to get upset; I don’t want to become attached.” In this way, we work with this determination to be free of our problems, and it’s another angle for how we balance the feeling of “everything is suffering” with a basic feeling of warmhearted happiness and calmness.


We’ve covered a lot of material, but I wanted to present a more complete picture of this very important topic in Buddhism. It is not just a topic that we study, but in terms of our own personal development, it is important for indicating how we develop renunciation and compassion. We have examined how to make the transition from renunciation to compassion in a healthy, stable way and the relation of the two states of mind.

Original Audio from the Seminar