“Revulsion for the world” and “renunciation of all pleasure” are not familiar topics for Western Buddhists. They sound like old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone Christianity. Not very nice; so probably they couldn’t have much to do with Buddhism?
But according to the table I presented recently, revulsion and renunciation are the prerequisite and essential method—the ignition key and engine—of non-tantric Buddhism.
If that is right, maybe there’s a problem. Consensus Buddhism—the current American Buddhist mainstream—rejects revulsion and renunciation. How is that supposed to work? If you pull out the engine, what makes the vehicle go?
Attitudes to renunciation
I am guessing that your reaction so far may be:
- Modernists: Surely renunciation isn’t essential in Buddhism! It’s one of those pointless traditions we’ve dropped, without losing anything significant.
- Traditionalists: Yes, of course renunciation is the heart of Buddhist practice.
- Scholars: Yes, renunciation is critical, but scripture doesn’t say it’s the single essence of the path.
For modernists, I want to explain why revulsion and renunciation were critical in traditional non-tantric Buddhism. I will address several modernist misconceptions:
- Meditation is the essence of Buddhism, so renunciation is optional
- Renunciation is for monks; it’s not necessary for lay people
- The Middle Way is moderation: neither renunciation nor self-indulgence
- We can abandon attachment to pleasures instead of abandoning the pleasures themselves
I do not advocate a return to renunciation—although I believe it’s the right path for some people at some times. However, if you reject renunciation, you need a replacement engine. It is not clear Consensus Buddhism has one—which may be why it doesn’t seem to take people far. Tantra, on the other hand, offers a clear Buddhist alternative to renunciation.
If you are a traditionalist, you can skip the rest of this post.
If you are a scholar, you also can skip the rest of this post, but I do have a response to the objection “that’s not quite what scripture says.”
The modern Buddhist suppression of renunciation
Renunciation means giving up all sensory enjoyments and ending all non-religious connections and responsibilities.
Once, just out of curiosity, I went through a pile of Western dharma books and magazines, looking up the topic of renunciation. Most of them didn’t even mention it. From the few that did, I learned that renunciation means, one, giving up unhealthy relationships; two, abandoning your controlling mindset; and three, dropping your fear of the unknown. [None of these is accurate.] Now, we don’t need the Buddha to tell us those things. We can learn the first lesson from our parents, and the other two from a good therapist. But the Buddha recommended giving up a lot of things that most well-meaning parents and therapists would tell their children and patients to hold onto tightly. And yet you don’t see any mention of this in American dharma.
Here, two key modernizers reinterpret renunciation to make it more palatable:
What we renounce is anything in experience that that is a barrier between ourselves and others. —Chögyam Trungpa [paraphrased]
Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away. —S. T. Suzuki
This was probably a helpful move in the 1970s—to show that Buddhism doesn’t have to be renunciative, which was the common misunderstanding at the time. (Vajrayana is anti-renunciative, and Zen waffles.)
But redefinitions like these are now seriously misleading, because the common misunderstanding is the opposite: that Buddhism has no need for renunciation. Pretending that renunciation means something other than “giving up sensory enjoyments and worldly involvements” hides the central principle of most Buddhism.
That is bad for two reasons:
- Renunciation is a hugely valuable practice for some people at some times. It is now mostly obscured in Western Buddhism.
- Sutrayana—traditional non-Tantric Buddhism—makes no sense unless you understand that renunciation is central. Tantra makes no sense unless you see it as a systematically anti-renunciative alternative. Consensus Buddhism makes no sense unless you know its renunciative roots.
How renunciation works
Gotama Buddha lays it on the line in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (supposedly his first teaching after enlightenment):
The cause of suffering: craving produces rebirth, accompanied by delight and lust, finding fresh delight—now here, and now there—craving for sense pleasure and for existence…
The cessation of suffering: renouncing and ending that craving.
These are the Second and Third Noble Truths.
The First Noble Truth is that all experiences contain suffering. This suffering cannot be eliminated by ordinary means. Especially, you cannot eliminate suffering by satisfying cravings, because sensory pleasure just creates more craving.
Renunciation simply reverses this causal chain. You avoid sensory contact, especially with objects that fuel craving. (“Objects” here includes people and experiences.) If your external environment is extremely bland, the raging fire of lust gradually subsides, and suffering decreases.
Memory and habit keep some flames burning, so the second phase of renunciation is internal. Vipassana disassembles all mental structures, until there’s no machinery left in which suffering could occur. This too is a process of disconnection and inhibition.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Path. It may not be obvious that this Path can be summed up as “renunciation,” but as the Nibbedhika Sutta says:
From the cessation of contact with sense objects comes the cessation of sensuality; and exactly this eightfold path is the way to the cessation of sensuality.
(I have edited most scriptural quotations to simplify their highly repetitive language. You can follow the links to standard translations to check I haven’t distorted their meaning.)
“Revulsion for the world” is recognition of the First Noble Truth: suffering is pervasive, it cannot be alleviated by better conditions, and it is so awful that pleasure has no value and existence in the world is worse than nothing.
For most people, including most Buddhists, this seems obviously false. Life is a mixture of pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow. Even if your life is worse than nothing, others are better. If you could be reborn as someone rich, beautiful, healthy, powerful, beloved, good-humored, talented, and so forth, you’d be delighted to repeat that forever.
If you have that attitude, you cannot practice Sutrayana. (Remember that “Sutrayana” is all of Buddhism except Tantra.)
In the Tapussa Sutta, a layman says to Gotama Buddha: “Yo, I heard you guys are into renunciation. That sounds like a total drag. Nobody wants that. Your religion is a non-starter.” And Gotama says, “Well, yeah, I have to admit, before I was enlightened, renunciation seemed like a good idea in theory—but super depressing when I thought about actually doing it. So I wondered why, and I realized I hadn’t yet convinced myself that sensual pleasure is always bad. Eventually, I decided it definitely does always suck, which is what made it possible for me to get the first jhana [level of meditation].” (It’s still the orthodox view that it is impossible to attain the first jhana if you have any sexual desire.)
So if you want to practice Sutrayana, the first step is to generate revulsion. How?
- You meditate on all forms of suffering, and exaggerate them in your imagination.
- You condition your mind to feel disgust for pleasure by associating it with innately revolting substances.
- You use logical reasoning to conclude that pleasure is worthless and impossible.
It is not just a matter of giving up attachment to this life’s rewards, but of losing our taste and affinity for the whole of worldly existence. This is why it is necessary to contemplate and meditate upon the faults of conditioned existence. Otherwise, we may imagine that samsara possesses any manner of attractive qualities…
Consider a person who has a sickness that causes vomiting. As soon as he sees something revolting, he will immediately retch uncontrollably. This is how you should feel toward conditioned existence, a sense of revulsion rather than attraction.
—Chogye Trichen Rinpoche
“Meditating upon the faults of samsara” means visualizing every form of existence and contemplating in detail the appalling suffering it contains. Fire-and-brimstone scriptures elaborate extensive descriptions of the many realms of Hell, and the exquisitely creative tortures each inflicts. Then contemplate the vast and varied suffering of non-human animals and of spooks. Most important, consider the unbearable misery of human life, which is like a sparrow being torn apart by a hawk. Dwell constantly on the horrors of old age, sickness, and death, until you are certain that life is an ceaseless nightmare, and you resolve irreversibly to avoid living again.
We are most attached to our bodies (the source of pleasure and continued existence) and most desire other people’s bodies (for sex). Patikulamanasikara meditation replaces this craving with disgust. It is only bodies’ surfaces that seem attractive. Mentally disassemble your body, or the body of someone you are hot for, to realize it is a skin-sack full of shit and piss and pus and blood, held together by stringy bits and wormy bits and blobby squishy bits, all inside a cage of bones. Visualize that body dying and decaying through several stages of putrefaction.
Similarly, develop revulsion for food by mentally associating it with dog’s vomit. Apply this method to all other sensory desires.
If you are of an intellectual bent, you may find your brain overpowering your stomach’s disgust. Brains produce devious, deceitful arguments like “I prefer sex with living people to rotting corpses” and “since I don’t butcher my spouse during sex, I don’t have to see his or her intestines.” As the antidote, contemplate Aryadeva’s extensive logical proofs that pleasure is physically impossible and a mere illusion, but that suffering genuinely exists.
But what about the Middle Way?
Maybe revulsion seems unreasonably extreme. Surely the Buddha’s “Middle Way” is more comfortable:
Two extremes ought not to be practiced: (1) indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and (2) self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable. —Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
Presumably this means “moderation in all things”: simple enjoyment is good and wholesome if it doesn’t cause practical problems, and only extreme, self-destructive hedonism is harmful?
The Middle Way is not just any “sensible” path avoiding positive and negative extremes. It’s at the zero point, where there is neither pleasure nor pain. The goal is equanimity; neutrality; absence of either desire or aversion.
For Sutrayana, there is no such thing as a sensible, safe, or acceptable quantity or type of sensory pleasure. All sensory pleasure results in craving, and is incompatible with the path.
Just as a fisherman casts a baited hook into a lake, and a hungry fish swallows it—so it falls into misfortune & disaster, and the fisherman can do with it as he will—in the same way, there are six hooks in the world:
(1) forms visible to the eye—agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing—and likewise (2–6) attractive sounds, aromas, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas. If you relish these, you have swallowed Mara’s hook, and fallen into misfortune & disaster. The Evil One can do with you as he will.
To enjoy a bright blue sky, the sound of a gurgling brook, the flavor of tea or scent of wet leaves, the sensation of bare feet on carpet—however slight such pleasures may seem, these are hindrances that must be destroyed.
Abandoning craving vs. abandoning objects
Consensus Buddhism teaches that renunciation is unnecessary because what actually has to be abandoned is attachment, or craving for objects, not the objects themselves. For example, it’s not a problem to enjoy eating muesli, so long as you aren’t attached to its taste.
Sutrayana explicitly rejects this comfortable approach. It is true that craving is ultimately the problem, not objects; but objects automatically cause and increase craving. That is just how the mind works. So it is not true that you can enjoy them without craving. If you think you are doing that, you are willfully deluded, and headed straight for hell.
In the Alagaddupama Sutta, the Buddha rebuts this wrong view.
For a person to indulge in sensual pleasures without sensual passion, without sensual perception, without sensual thinking: That isn’t possible.
For a Mahayana take, here’s Nagarjuna again:
Recoil from the pleasures of sensory objects, as though they were
Venom, poison, a weapon, an enemy, or fire.
Sensory objects bring ruination! The Buddha
Has said that they’re like the kimpaka [a sweet but poisonous fruit].
Abandon them! By their iron chains,
Worldly people are bound in the prison of recurring samsara.
Only Vajrayana says that you can break the automatic causal link between sensory enjoyment and craving. And, the Vajrayana texts say that this is possible only using tantric techniques.
Consensus Buddhism tries to get tantric results without using tantric methods. Tradition says that’s impossible. Maybe tradition is right.
Better to stick your penis in the mouth of a black viper than a woman’s vagina. —Buddha
I see no other form that so captivates a man’s mind as the form of a woman. The male mind is obsessed with the female form.
I cannot conceive of any touch that so overpowers a man’s mind as the soft touch of a woman. The male mind is addicted to female sensation.
—The Obsessed Mind, Angutara Nikaya I [1–2]
Because modern people don’t see anything inherently wrong with sex, the intensely anti-sexual doctrines of Buddhism have been suppressed. American Buddhists are often unaware that celibacy is necessary for any serious Sutrayana practice.
This is most obvious in the Vinaya, the rules for monks and nuns. The first and most important rule is: No sex! In fact, this summary of Vinaya is only a slight exaggeration:
- No sex.
- Especially not with women.
- No, not with monkeys, either. Or chickens. You pervert.
- Geez! No! No sex with goddesses, ogresses, corpses (whether fresh, slightly decomposed, or mostly decomposed), tree-spirits, decapitated heads, nuns, elephant trunks, snake-demons, transexuals, hungry ghosts, open wounds in a person or animal’s body, inflatable dolls, fembots, or entities not explicitly enumerated hereunder.
- Don’t do anything else that is fun or enjoyable, either.
- There is no rule #6. ’Cuz we’ve pretty much covered it.
- Oh, yeah, try not to make a nuisance of yourself. But don’t sweat it, because the main thing is: no sex! Did you get that?
Supposedly monastic rules only began when one of the Buddha’s first students had sex. His reaction:
Worthless man, haven’t I taught the Dhamma for the ending of craving? Haven’t I advocated abandoning sensual pleasures and destroying sensual thoughts?
Worthless man, better to stick your penis into the mouth of a black viper than into a woman’s vagina! Better to stick your penis into a pit of burning embers than into a woman’s vagina! Then you would undergo death or death-like suffering—but you would not, on that account, fall into hell.
But if you have sex, you will—after death—fall into hell.
According to the story, the “worthless man” had sex only once, with his wife, not out of desire, but out of filial duty. (His parents needed a grandchild to avoid inheritance taxes, and begged him to impregnate her.)
The point is that sex is inherently bad, because it causes desire for more sex, even if you initially do it for a reason other than desire.
Mahayana mainly has the same anti-sexual (and anti-woman) attitude. I want to include many quotes here, but the post is too long, so I’ll refer you Shantideva’s The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. The first meditation method he recommends (8:37–71) is a detailed contemplation of the foulness of women’s bodies. Also read the Shurangama Sutra 6:10–18: “If you had no thoughts of lust, you would not have to follow a continual succession of births and deaths” and so on.
But what about lay practice? And isn’t meditation the essence of the path?
At this point the Consensus Buddhist may say:
Maybe tradition says that renunciation is somehow helpful for monks, but that’s a masochistic Asian fetish—a cultural accretion we’ve left behind. We are Americans, not monks! Meditation was always the essence of Buddhism, and that’s our path in the West. Even in Asia, laypeople, who certainly had sex and yummy curry, practiced meditation and attained enlightenment.
Before the Protestant Reformation of Buddhism in the 1800s, it was extremely rare for laypeople to practice Sutrayana. Instead, they practiced the “worldly yana.” That is also called the “yana of gods and men” because its goal is a better rebirth—as a god or man—within the world, rather than to exit the world into nirvana. Its path “accumulates merit” through virtuous action, and does not include meditation. Traditional texts waffle on whether this yana counts as “Buddhism” or not. They say it’s better than nothing, but not really different from being a virtuous non-Buddhist.
For one dwelling in a home there is no opportunity to enjoy the happiness of renunciation, because the home life is the dwelling place of all the defilements, because a wife and children impose restrictions on one’s freedom, and because the diverse crafts and occupations such as agriculture and trade lead to numerous entanglements.
After the Protestant Buddhist Reformation, lay meditation became common, but almost all Asian teachers still insist that meditation works only as a continuation of external renunciation. Mahasi Sayadaw, who invented the most common vipassana method, wrote only a few decades ago:
Lay people have to maintain chastity [complete celibacy, per the Eight Precepts] and abstain from partaking of food after midday, dancing and singing, all these being forms of sensuous pleasure. When one is engaged in meditation practices, one has to forgo all kinds of sensuous enjoyment just like monks who have gone forth from the worldly life, because they tend to hinder the development of morality, meditation, and insight. A meditator, even if he is a layman, must not, therefore, indulge in worldly enjoyment.
Mahayana teaches the same, for instance in the Shurangama Sutra 6:14:
When you teach people to meditate, they must first of all sever the mind of lust. This is the first clear and unalterable instruction on purity given by all the Buddhas. Any explanation counter to it is the teaching of Papiyan [the Devil].
Pre-Reformation Buddhism acknowledged the theoretical possibility that laypeople could practice Sutrayana, but its attitude was “why on earth would you?” To practice, you have to renounce everything, and then it’s much easier to be a monk. The monastic structure was created to support renunciation. A renunciate layperson got neither the benefits of lay life nor the benefits of monastic life.
Modern Asian lay Buddhism tries to get both benefits by alternating periods of pseudo-monastic Sutrayana practice and periods of ordinary lay worldly-yana practice.
The mystery of non-renunciate vipassana
It’s now proven that vipassana, which was invented to complete the process of renunciation, is effective for completely different purposes. It can benefit Westerners who renounce nothing, and enthusiastically pursue sense pleasures. I’m mostly mystified about why that works.
In making meditation widely available, Consensus Buddhism has succeeded magnificently. But what makes it Buddhist? It isn’t Sutrayana, because it rejects renunciation. It doesn’t aim for superior rebirth, so it is not the yana of gods and men. It rejects Tantrayana too. If Consensus Buddhism is a new yana, what is its goal, and how does its path lead there? And is it a Buddhist yana, or some other religion?
Indeed, Consensus Buddhism shades off into non-Buddhist meditation systems, like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Some Consensus Buddhist teachers express a sense of crisis because they can’t say what they offer that secular meditation doesn’t.
I think Consensus “Buddhism” has more in common with liberal Christianity than Buddhism. Perhaps recognizing this could begin a new way forward?
Is renunciation really the essence of Sutrayana?
If you don’t care about fussy academic details, skip ahead over this section, and enjoy my musical comedy instead.
If you are familiar with scripture, you have a valid reason to doubt that renunciation is the essence of Sutrayana. Many scriptures discuss its importance, but I have not found a passage that makes it the one-word summary of the path.
However, this is the view of the Sakya School, one of the four branches of Tibetan Buddhism. The Yogini’s Eye is the foundational textbook for Sakya Tantra, written in the 1100s. Chapter 4 explains that renunciation of desirable objects is the overall method of Sutrayana, whereas Tantra uses desirable objects to power the path.
This is also the view of some Western Theravadins. An article titled “Renunciation” by T. Prince asserts that Buddhism “is essentially a teaching of renunciation,” and explains exceptionally clearly how that functions.
So, I didn’t make this up. However, Sakaya is just one School; and as far as I know, T. Prince has no particular credentials. So one may still have doubts. We could ask both “is the claim accurate?” and “is the claim useful, regardless of accuracy?”
Textbook explanations of Tantra agree that its path can be summed up as “transformation of energy.” Definitions of non-tantric Buddhism usually involve multiple lists: of noble truths, folds of the path, precepts, paramitas, and so on. Perhaps the Sutrayana path is not as conceptually coherent as Tantra’s, so it is impossible to capture it in a nutshell.
Whether “renunciation” covers all those truths, folds, and so on, is a subjective judgement call. I think it’s reasonably accurate.
(If so, one might wonder why nothing in scripture says that. I suspect it’s because it was so obvious it didn’t need stating. The question is complicated by the fact that in each of the Buddhist languages, there are several words that are commonly translated “renunciation.” For instance, in Pali, pabbajja is often translated “renunciation,” but it literally means “going forth” from home life to become a monk. Nekkhamma is also translated “renunciation”; it literally means “non-lust.” So, the question is not about a particular technical term, but the overall concept of giving up worldly enjoyments and involvements.)
Even if summing up the method of Sutrayana as “renunciation” were not altogether accurate, I think it’s useful for three reasons.
- It helps explain the difference between Tantrayana and Sutrayana (which is what this section of my blog series is about). Anti-renunciation—deliberate enjoyment and involvement—is central for Tantrayana.
- Renunciation is, at minimum, extremely important for mainstream Buddhism. This may come as a useful shock to many American Buddhists.
- Consensus Buddhism has tried to eliminate the renunciation it inherited from Asian ancestors, but hasn’t entirely succeeded. In an upcoming post, I’ll ask what effect the residual renunciation has.
The Great Mass of Suffering
Gotama Buddha was right. Renunciation is super depressing.
While researching this post, I read hundreds of pages of scripture—and man, it’s awful stuff! My girlfriend put me on suicide watch, and kept me strictly separated from knives and pills. [I may be exaggerating slightly.]
The Great Mass of Suffering Sutta is graphic torture porn. While I read it, something snapped. Suddenly it flipped from horrifying to hilarious.
As a tantrika, I think it best to end this long, miserable post with some light entertainment. I have re-written The Great Mass of Suffering as a melodramatic musical comedy in three Acts.
Act I: Violence.
Gotama Buddha, played by Dudley Do-Right, addresses his antiphonal chorus of
Mounties monks. He explains that all nefarious deeds, such as Snidely Whiplash tying Nell to the train tracks, are caused by sensual desire. He describes the cruelty of these villainous acts in lengthy and lurid detail, along with their punishments.
When the criminals are captured, kings have them tortured in many ways. They flog them with whips, beat them with clubs. They cut off their hands, their feet, their ears, their noses. They subject them to the ‘porridge pot,’ the ‘polished-shell shave,’ the ‘Rahu’s mouth,’ the ‘flaming garland,’ the ‘blazing hand,’ the ‘burning antelope,’ the ‘meat hooks,’ the ‘coin-gouging,’ the ‘lye pickling,’ the ‘pivot on a stake,’ the ‘rolled-up bed.’ They have them splashed with boiling oil, devoured by dogs, impaled alive on stakes. They have them tied to railroad tracks, so their bodies are severed and shredded by a locomotive. They have their heads cut off with swords, so that they incur death or deadly pain.
(Apparently, in those days some miscreants were so dastardly that cutting off their heads merely inflicted deadly pain, and they survived to commit additional, headless miscreance.)
Dudley Do-Right explains that “this mass of suffering visible here & now, has sensuality for its reason, sensuality for its source, sensuality for its cause, the reason being simply sensuality.”
Also, sensual desire is the cause of mosquito bites and sunburn. Um…?
In fact, the logic of this Act is not precisely clear. Dudley is unfailingly heroic, but perhaps not the most perspicacious of Mounties. Perhaps he has confused “all evil acts are the result of sensual desires” with “all sensual desires result in evil acts.” These have different implications.
Anyway, his conclusion is this:
What, monks, is the escape from sensuality? The subduing of desire-passion for sensuality, the abandoning of desire-passion for sensuality: That is the escape from sensuality.
So thank goodness for that. After a brief musical interlude, it’s on the the main attraction: sex!
Act II: Sex.
Suppose, monks, there were a maiden of the noble caste, fifteen or sixteen years old, neither too tall nor too short, neither too thin nor too plump, neither too dark nor too pale. Is her beauty & charm at that time at its height?
“Yes, lord,” sings the chorus of delighted disciple Mounties in reply.
You might see that very same woman when she’s eighty or a hundred years old: aged, roof-rafter crooked, bent-over, supported by a cane, palsied, miserable, broken-toothed, gray-haired, bald, wrinkled, her body all blotchy. What do you think: Has her earlier beauty & charm vanished, and the drawback appeared?
“Yes, lord,” sings the chorus of disappointed disciple
Mounties monks in reply.
You might see that very same woman sick, in pain, & seriously ill, lying soiled with her own urine & excrement. What do you think: Has her earlier beauty & charm vanished, and the drawback appeared?
“Yeeeehs, lord,” sings the chorus of disgusted disciples, looking at each other apprehensively, wondering where Dudley is going with this.
You might see her as a corpse cast away in a charnel ground, picked at by crows, vultures, & hawks, by dogs, & hyenas… a skeleton smeared with flesh & blood, connected with tendons… bones scattered in all directions — here a hand bone, there a foot bone, here a shin bone, there a thigh bone, here a hip bone, there a breast bone… What do you think: Has her earlier beauty & charm vanished, and the drawback appeared?
“Uh… yes… lord??” some sing falteringly, and they all sidle off the stage.
I’ve dropped most of the horror from the original. It just goes on and on and on. I found it sickening—and I say that as someone who likes this sort of thing. (I even write some myself.) But that’s what it’s supposed to do: inspire revulsion.
Dudley doesn’t ever explain what the rotting woman has to do with anything. He just concludes that abandoning desire “is the escape.” I think what he’s trying to say is that all pleasures (even sex with a hot fifteen-year-old) are utterly worthless, because they don’t last forever.
Any normal person would reply “that’s stupid—temporary pleasures are better than none.” (“Why I am not a Buddhist” is a sensible, clear, and respectful critique along those lines.) However, throughout Sutrayana, there’s the idea that permanence is the only genuinely desirable state. Sutrayana’s promise is the eternal bliss of nirvana. Tantra, on the other hand, accepts change, values temporary pleasures, and rejects nirvana.
Act III: Jhana.
Act III amounts to “jhana sucks too,” which is dull, so let’s quit while we’re ahead. Phew.