In order to embrace the spiritual path fully, be able to grow on it and walk along it with a feeling of security, one has to renounce. Renunciation doesn't necessarily mean cutting off one's hair or wearing robes. Renunciation means letting go of all ideas and hopes that the mind would like to grasp and retain, be interested in and wants to investigate. The mind wants to have more of whatever is available. If it can't get more, then it makes up fantasies and imaginings and projects them upon the world. That will never bring true satisfaction, inner peace, which can only be won by renunciation. "Letting go" is the key word of the Buddhist path, the fading away of desire. One must realize once and for all that "more" is not "better." It is impossible to come to an end of "more," there is always something beyond it. But it is certainly possible to come to the end of "less," which is a much more sensible approach.
Why sit in seclusion in meditation and spoil one's chances at all the opportunities the world offers for enjoyment? One could go on trips, work at a challenging job, meet interesting people, write letters or read books, have a pleasant time somewhere else and really feel at ease -- one could even find a different spiritual path. When the meditation does not succeed, the thought may arise: "What am I really doing, why am I doing it, what for, what's the good of it?" Then the idea comes: "I can't really do this very well, maybe I should try something else."
The world glitters and promises so much, but never, never keeps its promises. Everyone has tried a number of its temptations and not one of them has really been fulfilling. The real fulfillment, the completeness of peace, lacking nothing, the totality of being at ease and not wanting anything, cannot be fulfilled in the world. There's nothing that can fill one's wants utterly and completely. Money, material possessions, another person, some of these can do so. And yet there's that niggling doubt: "Maybe I'll find something else, more comfortable, easier, not so demanding and above all something new." Always that which is new promises fulfillment.
The mind has to be understood for what it is, just another sense, that has as its base the brain, just as seeing has as its base the eye. As the mind-moments arise and contact is made with them, we start believing what we are thinking and even owning it: "It's mine." Because of that, we're really interested in our thoughts and want to look after them. It's a foregone conclusion that people look after their own belongings much better than they look after other people's things, so that one follows one's own mind-moments and believes them all. Yet they will never bring happiness. What they bring is hope and worry and doubt. Sometimes they supply entertainment and at other times depression. When doubts arise and one follows through on them, goes along with them, they can lead us to the point at which there is no practice left at all. Yet the only way to prove that the spiritual life brings fulfillment is to practice. The proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Nobody else can prove it to us; wanting outside proof, so that all one has to do is grab a hold of it and nourish oneself is a wrong approach.
The fulfillment we are looking for is not what we can get and stuff into this mind and body. The gaping hole is much too large to fill. The only way we can find fulfillment is to let go of expectations and wanting, of everything that goes on in the mind, so that there is nothing lacking. Then there's nothing left to fill.
The misunderstanding, which recurs over and over again is this typical attitude of: "I want to be given. I want to get knowledge, understanding, loving-kindness, consideration. I want to receive a spiritual awakening." There is nothing that one can be given, except instructions and methods. One needs to do the daily work of practice, so that purification will result. The lack of fulfillment cannot be remedied by wanting to be given something new. We're not even clear about where this is to come from. Maybe from the Buddha, or from the Dhamma, or we might want it from our teacher. Possibly we would like to get it from our meditation, or from a book. The answer is not in getting something from outside of ourselves, but rather lies in discarding everything.
What do we need to get rid of first? Preferably the convolutions of the mind that constantly tell us stories which are fantastic and unbelievable. Yet when we hear them, we ourselves believe them. One way to look at them and disbelieve them, is to write them down. They sound absurd when they're written down on paper. The mind can always think up new stories, there's no end to them. Renunciation is the key. Giving up, letting go.
Giving up also means giving in to that underlying, subconscious knowing that the worldly way doesn't work, that there is a different way. We cannot try to remain in the world and add something to our life, but rather give our ambitions up completely. To stay the way one is and then add something to that -- how can it possibly work? If one has a non-functioning machine and adds another part to it, it's not going to make it function. One has to overhaul the whole machine.
That means accepting our underlying understanding that the old ways of thinking aren't useful. There's always dukkha again and again. It keeps coming, doesn't it? Sometimes we think: "It must be due to a particular person, or maybe it's due to the weather." Then the weather changes or that person leaves, but dukkha is still present. So it wasn't that and we have to try to find something else. Instead we need to become pliable and soft and attend to that which is truly arising without all the convolutions, conglomerations, proliferations of the mind. That which arises may be either pure or impure and we need to know how to handle each one.
Once we start explaining and rationalizing, the whole process breaks down again. We mustn't think that we can add anything to ourselves in order to make us whole. All has to be taken away, the whole identifiable lot, then we become a whole person. Renunciation is letting go of ideation, of the mind-stuff that claims to be the person who knows. Who knows that person who knows? These are only ideas churning around, arising and ceasing. Renunciation is not an outward manifestation, that's only its result. The cause is an inward one, which is the one we need to practice. If we think of a nunnery as a place for meditation, we will find that meditation cannot happen without renunciation.
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For the Welfare of Many by Bhikkhu Bodhi