Renunciation is the engine for most of Buddhism

“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:

  1. Modernists: Surely renunciation isn’t essential in Buddhism! It’s one of those pointless traditions we’ve dropped, without losing anything significant.
  2. Traditionalists: Yes, of course renunciation is the heart of Buddhist practice.
  3. 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.

Because renunciation contradicts the modern worldview, Buddhist modernizers have had to deny, ignore, or redefine it. Thanissaro Bikkhu describes the result:

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:

  1. Renunciation is a hugely valuable practice for some people at some times. It is now mostly obscured in Western Buddhism.
  2. 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.)

Generating revulsion

“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?

  1. You meditate on all forms of suffering, and exaggerate them in your imagination.
  2. You condition your mind to feel disgust for pleasure by associating it with innately revolting substances.
  3. 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.
Balisika Sutta

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.

All worldly pleasures should be abandoned.
—Nagarjuna, the most important Mahayana philosopher, in The Tree of Wisdom

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:

  1. No sex.
  2. Especially not with women.
  3. No, not with monkeys, either. Or chickens. You pervert.
  4. 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.
  5. Don’t do anything else that is fun or enjoyable, either.
  6. There is no rule #6. ’Cuz we’ve pretty much covered it.
  7. 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.

Dhammapala, the second-most-important Theravada theorist, wrote:

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Renunciation is, at minimum, extremely important for mainstream Buddhism. This may come as a useful shock to many American Buddhists.
  3. 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!

[Begins at 1:23 in the video:]
Do, do the ‘cruel immersion’; do, do the ‘flaming tongue’
Do, do the ‘holy mash-up’—something for everyone!
Do, do the ‘firey furnace’; do, do the ‘sticky jazz’
Do, do the ‘holy motion’—we want what everybody has!

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.

But then:

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.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

49 thoughts on “Renunciation is the engine for most of Buddhism”

  1. Excellent post. And, although I’m an academic, I don’t have any problem with your summary of the path. The only minor quibble I’d add is that the level of renunciation required is proportional to how quickly one wishes to achieve enlightenment– in other words, lay-people who wish to live a life of only moderate renunciation can do so, in the aim of a favorable rebirth. I believe I have mentioned this before, but one of the things that puzzles me about Consensus Buddhism is the way it mixes and matches parts of the monastic path with parts of the lay path without any corresponding adjustment to the immediate goals.

  2. It may be problematic to lump the early tradition together with the Mahayana, because it would appear that in the vast corpus of Mahayana literature there is (at a minimum) a certain amount of equivocation and revision regarding what renunciation entails exactly, and perhaps a bit of a ambivalence about and contradictory assertions regarding the concept.

  3. @ Michael — Thanks, glad I made no major errors! Yes, the Consensus mixture of different yanas, without no clear concept of how they fit together or what the goal is, is puzzling. This post is mainly background for an analysis of that—coming up soon!

    @ Greg — Yes, you are entirely right about this. I’ll discuss this issue of Mahayana starting to waffle on renunciation in my next post. (This one was already way too long!)

  4. “If your external environment is extremely bland, the raging fire of lust gradually subsides, and suffering decreases.”

    In my personal experience (and any addict can tell you this too), the path of renunciation or abstention increases the amount of pleasure one gets from the stimulus. So while the craving may eventually subside as long as one is NEVER around any temptations, as soon as one is exposed to the stimulus, the longer it’s been the more desire is aroused.

    On the other hand, regular indulgence REDUCES the amount of pleasure one experiences from the stimulus. If you drink every day, you get less buzzed on more alcohol than if you don’t drink for a couple months and then have a couple drinks.

    Just thought I’d throw that wrench in there.

    I do think you are absolutely right that sutrayana is about complete renunciation though. Think about it–there wasn’t even anything that pleasurable back then, compared to modern foods, drinks, drugs, sexual opportunities, video games, television, etc. etc.

  5. So while the craving may eventually subside as long as one is NEVER around any temptations, as soon as one is exposed to the stimulus, the longer it’s been the more desire is aroused.

    Yes, and this is why you need vipassana. Its function is to disassemble and permanently destroy the mental machinery that keeps craving operative even when there is no sensory provocation. Eventually you become immune to the stimulus.

    Although this is not the main method of my own practice, it does clearly work (to some extent, at least) and is valuable, for instance in working with addiction, as you say.

  6. After reading “Why I am not a Buddhist” I have to wonder… exactly HOW tantra is a part of buddhism?

  7. @Nive – It might be more useful to ask how Buddhism is a part of Tantra, since Tantra is its own thing that is a part of other religions as well.

    @David – It is like Consensus Buddhism is trying to hack its own tantric path in the jungle, come hell or high water. Except they refuse to call it tantra, because of the association it has in the Western mind with sex (though they would probably never admit to being sex negative), as well as they refuse to admit that what they are doing is essentially re-inventing the wheel (pun intended). This re-invention of the wheel could turn out to be not Buddhism, or could turn out to be something new that is. It will be interesting to see how it goes.

  8. @ Niv — The short answer is that if you continue in the direction from Hinayana to Mahayana, going further in a straight line, you get to Buddhist Tantra. Explaining that would be a pretty big project, which for now I’m trying to avoid!

    @ JL — Yes, I think this is exactly right! Five posts in the future, I’ll agree in detail.

  9. What even many western tantrics can overlook is that the samayas are the engines that drive tantra- and violating them also drains the power from tantra. The vows are a whole lot different, and don’t involve renunciation in the same way as sutra does (especially when you get to the dzogchen vows) but they are also equally important. The more clear I get about the samayas the more powerful my practice is. The samayas create a container that holds the power. In Longchenpa’s commentary on the Guhyagarbha tantra he discusses how the samayas are the deity- it is them that holds one to the path, and the view, and therefore they are the path and the deity itself that does the transforming. Many western tantrics can be very lax on attention to them- usually also out of a lack of awareness of their importance, which also comes from a lack of education. This is certainly an issue in new age tantra- which really shouldn’t use the word tantra, actually -and I really wish it wouldn’t- as it creates a serious PR problem for the actual tantrics.

  10. Why not enjoy death and decay? Why not enjoy a fine wine and a gorgeous woman? Equally. Sorry if this sounds naive and juvenile, but I think discovering the wonder and divine beauty in everything seems appealing. It has to be actively cultivated and possibly entails developing a meta-persona (seer) but it sounds better than some sort of blissful stasis.

    Anyways, great post! I wish I would have read something like when I was a “Barnes-&-Nobles Buddhist”. I had so many misconceptions about Buddhism, it astounds me.

  11. I wrote an article similar to this on my blog entitled “Buddha against sex and sensual pleasure”. Very few Buddhists in the western world know what real Buddhism is. Most embrace the teachings of peace, non-violence and compassion to satisfy their desires. There can’t be peace as long as there is desire. Desires lead to frustration, anger, and ultimately violence. What the Buddha, and other enlightened beings really recommended was dispassion – the rest will follow naturally.

  12. “If you are familiar with scripture, you have a valid reason to doubt that renunciation is the essence of Sutrayana.”

    > Put simply no it’s not the essence of sutratayana. It’s the essence of preparation for deep meditation. The Sutras’ consistent characterisation of the problem they seek to alleviate is that it is caused by intoxication (pramāda) with the pleasures of the senses (kāma). Other short-hands exist, but they point back to this.

    Pleasure itself is never the problem. Intoxication is. That is why the most common one word summary of the path, included in the last words of the Buddha, is apramāda, which in this context is sobering up from intoxication with the pleasures of the senses. Gross physical renunciation is certainly part of the training, because it gives us access to the dhyānas which are a far more refined form of pleasure. Consider the story of the Buddha’s cousin Nanada who is taken to heaven (an allegory for dhyāna) so that by comparison worldly beauty and pleasure lose their hold over him.

    At least least two forms of pleasure are blameless: sukha and prīti. They are an integral part of the process of cultivating dhyāna. They naturally fall away as samādhi deepens, but they are not in the same category as kāma.

    Revulsion is simply a bad translation of nibbidā which refers to the sense of disappointment and weariness that one experiences when one sees through kāma. It can be cultivated through observing that what we think of as beautiful is in fact ugly, but it must go deeper than simple disgust.

    In fact renunciation practised in the right spirit is liberating. Especially if it is accompanied by Samādhi – which I’m guessing you left out of your exploration since you don’t seem to mention it. I’m not quite sure why you are blind to samādhi in this account, but having left it out you have certainly skewed the presentation rather dramatically. It’s why we go on about dhyāna.

    I think you inadvertently mix up ancient and modern Theravāda with Pali texts. These are three distinct phases of one thread in the skein. Certainly they ought not be treated as synonymous as you do above. Sometimes many centuries separate the commentators you mention. It’s as though you were lumping together the author of Beowulf, Shakespeare and Earnest Hemingway. It doesn’t make sense in our culture, why would it make sense in India/Thailand?

    I’ve said it privately, but I need to say it publicly as well. My sense of your treatment of other forms of Buddhism, particularly Theravāda and/or Early Buddhism is that you have a massive bias against. And that bias constantly shows in how you approach the material, how you treat it, and the conclusions you come to. You sit down with the Pali texts with the intention of finding fault and making fun. Ultimately it’s superficial and trite. You yourself seem blind to your bias and present yourself as someone who is neutral (this is pseudo-objectivity of scientific rationalism). Your arguments against what you call consensus Buddhism have a crusading quality to them that I associate with Romanticism. And your rejection of the mainstream and affirmation of your views on Tantra strike me as Protestant in character. And in this lies the irony of your project to criticise other Buddhists in terms drawn from McMahan. I know you deny the charge, but to me you write like a modernist, not like a post-modernist.

    Tantra is a development from a time about 1000 years removed from the milieu of early Buddhism. Everything about India had changed down to the racial make up of the people in the regions where tantrikas, to the languages they spoke, to the questions they asked about life, and the social and political institutions they relied on. The problems tantra was and is trying to solve were conceptualised very differently and the solutions were a grand synthesis of all the religious methods of the day as a way to reinvigorate religion and occurred across the board – Tantra is as much Hindu as Buddhist. Thus it’s doctrines and methods are largely unrelated to those of earlier Buddhists – or even later Buddhists of, say, 13th century Japan that are also influential in the West.Tibetans transformed tantra and made it their own – a cursory comparison with Shingon is ample to demonstrate this. Well into the 20th century prominent members of Shingon schools were publishing the opinion that Tibetans did not practice Buddhism at all.

    Your explanations and comparisons have no resonance for me as they clearly lack any feel for the non-tantric forms of Buddhism. You appear to write in a partisan way, but do so under the guise of objectivity. I just don’t enjoy reading this kind of stuff and had you not emailed me about it I wouldn’t have read this – the first line is inaccurate enough to put me off.

    But that’s not the worst thing. You talk about “ways forward” but things _are_ moving ahead while we analyse from the sidelines. They just aren’t moving in a direction you like. It’s not as if you are in dialogue with the leaders of Buddhism. Like Glenn Wallis and other critical voices this is a very small discussion amongst outsiders about what the mainstream are getting wrong – which the mainstream largely ignore as they get on with implementing their ideas on a worldwide scale. Mindfulness® is absolutely huge – part of state provided health care in the UK now. There is a mindfulness group for MPs and senior civil servants in our government. As a phenomenon it dwarfs bloggers like us – it dwarfs the entire world of Buddhist scholarship in numbers and resources. And the research they link it to is not philosophical but scientific. None of them are citing my published papers (almost no one cites anything I’ve published). Because Mindfulness® makes a difference to people’s lives – directly and tangibly. And we don’t. Facts don’t change people’s lives.

    The reality is that none of this matters except to loner geeks like us. The Daniel Ingrams and Kabat Zinns and Pema Chodrons of the world will always be far more influential than us because they work with people rather than ideas, and they make a difference in people’s lives. If you want to influence or even change the face of Buddhism you’re going about it the wrong way.

  13. Sadhu! Very good, Mr. David Chapman.

    “And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.”
    — SN 45.8

    It’s like if you ride a horse and want it straight ahead and not in circles. One rein is aversion, you pull with “resolve on ill-will”. The other rein is greed, you pull with “resolve on on renunciation”. And the head of the horse is delusion, twist around if you have no skills in pulling and this you solve with “harmlessness”, turning down you stick to views.

    So if one simply pulls on one rein, there is nothing but a turning in wheels.
    But how ever, there will be less willing to go straight ahead and greed is common and common accepted as positive, jet just one side of the coin.
    And to make it understood:

    The Lonely Path

    Whatever there is in the mind: If our reasons aren’t yet good enough, we can’t let it go. In other words, there are two sides: this side here and that side there. People tend to walk along this side or along that side. There’s hardly anybody who walks along the middle. It’s a lonely path. When there’s love, we walk along the path of love. When there’s hatred, we walk along the path of hatred. If we try to walk by letting go of love and hatred, it’s a lonely path. We aren’t willing to follow it.

    … especially because there a so many cheater and drug dealers (metta for those who live ensnared to the 5 strings of sensuality). So for those with less wisdom, not easy to see but nothing then a short popular food for the social service industry generally called “Buddhism”.

    From wrong view comes wrong resolve …. and if people are good, they develop some amount of Gecko-samadhi for worldly purposes.

    metta & mudita

  14. A very good collection of how to work against defilement is “The Five Mental Hindrances and Their Conquest ” from Ven. Nyanaponika Thera. Here the part to get sensual desire come down:

    1. Sensual Desire
    A. Nourishment of Sensual Desire

    There are beautiful objects; frequently giving unwise attention to them — this is the nourishment for the arising of sensual desire that has not arisen, and the nourishment for the increase and strengthening of sensual desire that has already arisen.

    — SN 46:51
    B. Denourishing of Sensual Desire

    There are impure objects (used for meditation); frequently giving wise attention to them — this is the denourishing of the arising of sensual desire that has not yet arisen, and the denourishing of the increase and strengthening of sensual desire that has already arisen.

    — SN 46:51

    Six things are conducive to the abandonment of sensual desire:

    Learning how to meditate on impure objects;
    Devoting oneself to the meditation on the impure;
    Guarding the sense doors;
    Moderation in eating;
    Noble friendship;
    Suitable conversation.

    — Commentary to the Satipatthana Sutta
    1. Learning how to meditate about impure objects
    & 2. Devoting oneself to the meditation on the impure
    (a) Impure objects

    In him who is devoted to the meditation about impure objects, repulsion towards beautiful objects is firmly established. This is the result.

    — AN 5:36

    “Impure object” refers, in particular, to the cemetery meditations as given in the Satipatthana Sutta and explained in the Visuddhimagga; but it refers also to the repulsive aspects of sense objects in general.
    (b) The loathsomeness of the body

    Herein, monks, a monk reflects on just this body, confined within the skin and full of manifold impurities from the soles upward and from the top of the hair down: “There is in this body: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, intestines, bowels, stomach, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, lymph, saliva, mucus, fluid of the joints, urine (and the brain in the skull).”

    — MN 10
    By bones and sinews knit, With flesh and tissue smeared, And hidden by the skin, the body Does not appear as it really is… The fool thinks it beautiful, His ignorance misguiding him…

    — Sutta Nipata, v.194,199
    (c) Various contemplations

    Sense objects give little enjoyment, but much pain and much despair; the danger in them prevails.

    — MN 14

    The unpleasant overwhelms a thoughtless man in the guise of the pleasant, the disagreeable overwhelms him in the guise of the agreeable, the painful in the guise of pleasure.

    — Udana, 2:8
    3. Guarding the sense doors

    How does one guard the sense doors? Herein, a monk, having seen a form, does not seize upon its (delusive) appearance as a whole, nor on its details. If his sense of sight were uncontrolled, covetousness, grief and other evil, unwholesome states would flow into him. Therefore he practices for the sake of its control, he watches over the sense of sight, he enters upon its control. Having heard a sound… smelt an odor… tasted a taste… felt a touch… cognized a mental object, he does not seize upon its (delusive) appearance as a whole… he enters upon its control.

    — SN 35:120

    There are forms perceptible by the eye, which are desirable, lovely, pleasing, agreeable, associated with desire, arousing lust. If the monk does not delight in them, is not attached to them, does not welcome them, then in him thus not delighting in them, not being attached to them and not welcoming them, delight (in these forms) ceases; if delight is absent, there is no bondage. There are sounds perceptible by the ear… odors perceptible by the mind… if delight is absent, there is no bondage.

    — SN 35:63
    4. Moderation in eating

    How is he moderate in eating? Herein a monk takes his food after wise consideration: not for the purpose of enjoyment, of pride, of beautifying the body or adorning it (with muscles); but only for the sake of maintaining and sustaining this body, to avoid harm and to support the holy life, thinking: “Thus I shall destroy the old painful feeling and shall not let a new one rise. Long life will be mine, blamelessness and well-being.”

    — MN 2; MN 39
    5. Noble friendship

    Reference is here, in particular, to such friends who have experience and can be a model and help in overcoming sensual desire, especially in meditating on impurity. But it applies also to noble friendship in general. The same twofold explanation holds true also for the other hindrances, with due alterations.

    The entire holy life, Ananda, is noble friendship, noble companionship, noble association. Of a monk, Ananda, who has a noble friend, a noble companion, a noble associate, it is to be expected that he will cultivate and practice the Noble Eightfold Path.

    — SN 45:2
    6. Suitable conversation

    Reference is here in particular to conversation about the overcoming of sensual desire, especially about meditating on impurity. But it applies also to every conversation which is suitable to advance one’s progress on the path. With due alterations this explanation holds true also for the other hindrances.

    If the mind of a monk is bent on speaking, he (should remember this): “Talk which is low, coarse, worldly, not noble, not salutary, not leading to detachment, not to freedom from passion, not to cessation, not to tranquillity, not to higher knowledge, not to enlightenment, not to Nibbana, namely, talk about kings, robbers and ministers, talk about armies, dangers and war, about food and drink, clothes, couches, garlands, perfumes, relatives, cars, villages, towns, cities, and provinces, about women and wine, gossip of the street and of the well, talk about the ancestors, about various trifles, tales about the origin of the world and the ocean, talk about what happened and what did not happen — such and similar talk I shall not entertain.” Thus he is clearly conscious about it.

    But talk about austere life, talk suitable for the unfolding of the mind, talk which is conducive to complete detachment, to freedom from passion, to cessation, tranquillity, higher knowledge, enlightenment and to Nibbana, namely, talk about a life of frugality, about contentedness, solitude, aloofness from society, about rousing one’s energy, talk about virtue, concentration, wisdom, deliverance, about the vision and knowledge of deliverance — such talk I shall entertain.” Thus he is clearly conscious about it.

    — MN 122

    These things, too, are helpful in conquering sensual desire:

    One-pointedness of mind, of the factors of absorption (jhananga);
    Mindfulness, of the spiritual faculties (indriya);
    Mindfulness, of the factors of enlightenment (bojjhanga).

    C. Simile

    If there is water in a pot mixed with red, yellow, blue or orange color, a man with a normal faculty of sight, looking into it, could not properly recognize and see the image of his own face. In the same way, when one’s mind is possessed by sensual desire, overpowered by sensual desire, one cannot properly see the escape from sensual desire which has arisen; then one does not properly understand and see one’s own welfare, nor that of another, nor that of both; and also texts memorized a long time ago do not come into one’s mind, not to speak of those not memorized.

    — SN 46:55

    Effort, and this needs a good reason. You can wait this reality of dukkha knocks on your dorr, or you can put some faith into it and prepare your self. Its like the decision to abstain from candies and brush teeth which is of course not easy if you believe in the protection of health insurance and science to overcome reality.

  15. Hi Jayarava,

    Thank you very much for the long, knowledgeable comment! You raise many interesting issues, and I’ll answer in a somewhat different order.

    The substantive point of my post was that numerous Pali and Mahayana scriptures agree that renunciation of sense pleasure is absolutely necessary, and a major aspect of the path. Do you disagree with that?

    I quoted from a wide variety of sources, across two millennia, to demonstrate that this is a universal point of Hinayana and Mahayana agreement (taking “Mahayana” in the narrow sense as not including Vajrayana).

    It was not my intention here to criticize renunciation, or traditional Buddhism. Quite the opposite! In fact, my impression from comments here, and on the Reddit thread about my post, is that many traditionalists have found it a clear statement and strong defense of what they practice, against the corruptions of modernism. I agree completely that “renunciation practised in the right spirit is liberating,” as you say. Renunciation is not my path, but I totally respect anyone who follows it.

    The reason this matters is that modern Western Buddhism rejects renunciation. If renunciation is critical to all previous non-tantric Buddhisms, we need to understand how and whether Western Buddhism works without it (and without tantra). This is genuinely puzzling to me.

    One possibility is that Western Buddhists have discovered that it is possible to achieve apramāda through samādhi without practicing external renunciation. This would go strongly against scripture, and would be a remarkable breakthrough, but seems possible. Do you think that’s a good characterization of modern Western practice? (My guess is not: few modern Buddhists want to sober up from intoxication with the pleasures of the senses. But I’m unsure.)

    So far I’ve covered the aspects of your comment that seem relevant to this particular post and to “strike at the critical point.” Of the remainder, I’ll reply in order to two categories: discussion of my broader project, and technical items that seem a bit tangential.

    I’m not sure I understand your criticism of the general project, so I guess actually I won’t respond to most of that. I think your last paragraph is very well-taken, though:

    The reality is that none of this matters except to loner geeks like us. The Daniel Ingrams and Kabat Zinns and Pema Chodrons of the world will always be far more influential than us because they work with people rather than ideas, and they make a difference in people’s lives. If you want to influence or even change the face of Buddhism you’re going about it the wrong way.

    I worry about this all the time. I dropped this blog for a year as a result. I’ve come back to it only because I’ve found there’s strong demand for modernized Buddhist tantra, and no one else is publicly working out what that might mean. Because I’m a loner geek, I don’t want to teach, but I hope I can contribute in this way. I do think it’s possible I will influence popular teachers, if I ever actually get to the point (how modern tantra can work) instead of writing preliminary background material.

    Mindfulness® (simplified secularized samatha-vipassana) is indeed huge; that doesn’t seem a bad thing. It has been the “killer app” for Consensus Buddhism. I think a simplified secularized version of tantra is also possible, and could be another “killer app.” That might have huge impact too.

    On to specific, more technical points. These are probably not worth discussing further, but for the sake of completeness:

    Tibetans transformed tantra and made it their own – a cursory comparison with Shingon is ample to demonstrate this. Well into the 20th century prominent members of Shingon schools were publishing the opinion that Tibetans did not practice Buddhism at all.

    Shingon is based on an earlier version of Indian tantra than the Tibetan version is. Shingon includes only “outer tantra.” I’ve talked in depth with a Shingon teacher, and I find that the Shingon and Tibetan versions of that are startlingly similar.

    Tibetan Buddhism also includes “inner tantra,” which also originated in India, after the line of transmission into China was broken. It’s true that there were further developments in Tibet, but I suspect that the Japanese critics attributed all differences to Tibetan heresy, though most actually occurred in India. For us, it should make no difference where innovations occurred, but Asian Buddhists often equate “Indian” with “authentic.”

    “Bias constantly shows… you sit down with the Pali texts with the intention of finding fault and making fun.” As far as I can remember, this is the first time I’ve ever discussed Pali texts. I’m not sure what you are thinking of here. I was upfront, in the last section of this post, that I found some of the texts unpleasant, illogical, or both, but that is a statement of personal distaste rather than objective condemnation.

    “At least least two forms of pleasure are blameless: sukha and prīti.” Yes, that’s why the scriptures talk about “sense pleasure”—these are categorized as non-sense pleasures.

    “Revulsion is simply a bad translation of nibbidā”: it translates many different terms, perhaps badly; I mentioned nekkhama and pabbajja as examples, and noted that the point is not a word but the overall concept.

  16. Johann Hanzze, thank you very much! Glad you thought it good. The additional scriptural passages here should be helpful… I wanted to include more myself, but felt that the post would become too long.

  17. David, start to consider is always good. Just don’t fear the silents which comes with it. Addicted to joy, we normally don’t like peace. That needs a lot of nuts. Not many would like to be really cool. No need to argue on this place.

  18. “I think Consensus “Buddhism” has more in common with liberal Christianity than Buddhism. Perhaps recognizing this could begin a new way forward?”

    This was one of the most striking observations to me in this post and I would very interested to hear more about your observations on this one.

    Admittedly, the topic is interesting to me because it’s been on my mind. Reading some liberal christian pastors lately, I have been struck at how interchangeable the theology feels with a lot of western buddhism…

    Both spiritual systems strongly emphasize self-compassion and working to become a more decent person in one’s everyday life. Also, it seems like mindfulness basically = God’s presence in the way these terms are actually used and encouraged in each system. I’m questioning if there is anything that western buddhism offers that’s considerably different, except the bonus of not having to deal with the Bible, and the baggage that particularly book holds for people…

  19. Emma, actually you are wrong and right. Buddhism has much equal with Christianity and the sozio-liberal movement in this or on that tradition has also much common. The question is always, does one understand the basics of good tradition, or does one just like use a label to justify his incapacity.
    That what is seen as baggage by the ordinary people is in fact the heart to find an entrance.

    Its really not about attaining, and if there is something to get, it is all about giving up and giving and this possibility, this invitation is the only gift. Do you like to take it?

  20. Emma — My observation is that Consensus Buddhism does not recommend renunciation in the genuine Buddhist sense, which means giving up all sense pleasures. Instead, it has an ethics of being satisfied with a reasonable amount, moderation, simplicity, modesty, and charity. It says that pleasures are OK if they are the right kinds of pleasures in the right amount at the right time for the right reason, but you need to constantly guard against having too much fun because that wouldn’t be nice.

    This isn’t a Buddhist approach, but it is the approach of Protestant Christianity. I think the leadership of the Consensus unconsciously replaced Buddhist values with these Protestant ones.

    A secularized version of Protestant values is now the code of public decorum for the American middle class. That is, to be middle class in America, you need to demonstrate that you can conform to this value system when ritually required to do so. I think that Consensus Buddhism functions (for its adherents, not the leadership) mainly as training in how to conform to that code. This is the reason the Consensus appeals only to the middle class. (The working class and upper class think these values are ridiculous.)

    During the 1970s, the American middle class split into the left/green-meme middle class, and the right/blue-meme middle class. Previously, Protestant public values had defined the middle class, but that was now no longer an option for the green half of it.

    Consensus Buddhism is one solution to the problem of “how do I demonstrate publicly that I am a proper, ‘good,’ ethically-correct person, if I can no longer do that by going to church?” It just removes the Biblical mythology from the value system and substitutes a sprinkling of Buddhist mythology.

    Tantra, obviously, does not have Protestant values. I think tantra may be useful to people who want to escape the limitations of the restrictive middle class world-view. As the economic basis for the Western middle class is shrinking, this may be an increasing fraction of the population.

    I am struggling to decide whether to write more about this. It’s interesting but a big topic, and I have way too many!

  21. Putting this in a more positive way, Consensus Buddhism and liberal Christianity seem to be facing similar crises of relevance.

    When no one really believes the mythology any more, what is left? Both struggle to find ways to distinguish themselves from secular humanism.

    Joining forces might be an option. Consensus Buddhism brings meditation, which has great genuine value and popular appeal (although it is in danger of losing that to McMindfulness). Liberal Christianity brings a century or so of hard thinking and personal exploration of what spirituality can mean in a secular society, and when “God” is understood mostly as a metaphor. This also has popular appeal, and genuine value, with much more serious thinking-through than Consensus Buddhism can offer.

    I can’t take the speculation any further than that. Maybe it’s just silly, I don’t know!

  22. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity brings anything. Its you your action that brings results. Lazy and following their mood, people love to waste their times in speculations. McConsumy is the hero, yet even this gets poring…

  23. David – thanks for expanding on your comments re: consensus buddhism and liberal christianity. Definitely gave me more food for thought…

    …but my overall two cents on your writing project is, don’t stress about saying more on this topic for now. Interesting to be sure, but count me among the readers waiting for the real “goods” – how tantric paths can / may develop in modern culture.

    For example, you write, “I think tantra may be useful to people who want to escape the limitations of the restrictive middle class worldview.” I certainly hope so. That’s what’s missing for me in most modern buddhisms I have encountered…a feeling of “breaking out” or cracking open something new. But NOT breaking out of human existence or the human condition, rather coming into full body contact with it all.

  24. “But NOT breaking out of human existence or the human condition, rather coming into full body contact with it all.” Serves greed very well, doesn’t it. So may there many how are possibly to scarify for your pleasure.

  25. For what it’s worth — and without being a complete apologist for early Buddhism — I think the context for the statements about sex need to be taken into account. In a time that is without reliable birth control, high levels of social responsibility, no industrial automation of work, and short lives that typically lasted 40 years I’m guessing… for a woman or man to have a child would basically mean that their free time was taken away for their entire life. The methods that were known by Buddha for awakening could not be used, because for him it took seven years of 100% practice. So I can understand with why he piled on the negative language surrounding sex, especially for those who managed to remove themselves from family obligations and become beggars, those that “had a chance”. I don’t agree with the sentiment, I think the language is heavy handed and quite toxic, but I can understand why such a hardline stance was taken.

    Just wanted to make that comment since I think it is part of the puzzle of understanding the traditional teachings.

    Obviously there is a huge potential for making early teachings into dogma, but you’re handling that discussion just fine! Thanks, I’m enjoying this series.

  26. It is much simpler, jamie, from a practical side, if special beggars are potential inseminaters, it is sure that they are a danger for people.
    If they start to be a danger or a potential competitor, that they need to sell drugs to stay on the marked. Like everybody does. So its not only direct for the own practice, that one who walks the holly way starts to abstain for harming und taking what is not given, step by step, but also very practical, to have a possibility to survive. At least virtue is the reason for being worthy for gift. Such a sage does never use your gifts against your welfare at least.

  27. I don’t get it

    It started quite straight and clear but in the end, I’m afraid I can’t figure out what’s the point of this long post. Is it some kind of tantric exercise? Are you trying to equate sutras with ‘over the top’ tantras?

    If the point is ‘Consensus is wrong’ I think you’ve already done that (and in a much clearer and sharper way) in your Consensus Series.

    If it’s ‘renunciation is cool, so cool in fact that it’s only suitable for very few people, so let’s forget about it because, in practice, renunciation sucks’ I can’t make any sense of it and I think it’s even contradictory with some of your previous statements: if Tantra is not (not anymore, at least) drinking semen and menstrual blood, why Sutra should be becoming a dummy angel? Extreme renunciation may be giving up all sensory enjoyments and ending all non-religious connections and responsibilities, but you don’t have (and probably most people mustn’t) to run 100 km through a desert to be physically fit. My point is that renunciation is central if you’re into Sutrayana, but that doesn’t mean giving up you job and family, shaving your head and become a monk forever. Anyway, I agree that Consensus has replaced renunciation (any kind of renunciation) with indulgence, confusing avoiding the suffering with indolence. ‘Dharma has become a commodity’ as Thanissaro Bikkhu said in the interview.

    If your point it’s ‘old Buddhism was fanatically renunciative’, I can’t argue with you, since I’m not a scholar not even a dilettante of Buddhist history; it’s just that I suspect that these examples you give are (as usually happens with religious traditions) an ‘extremistic’ evolution in response to a period of decay.

    But the biggest problem I have with this post is that doesn’t meet your (usually high) standards of writing in terms of quality and clarity. Well, none can be at 100% all the time. Hope you get back to it soon.

    Best wishes

  28. David,

    I’d like to invite you to examine your hermenuetic. Analyzing modern Sutrayana by going back to the Sutras is a bit like explainig Judaism through Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Reading these books, one would conclude that Judaism is a strict militaristic doctrine that approves slavery and dispenses capital punishment. It has of course adapted to Modern ethics. One could call Rabbinical Judaism “consensus Judaism.”

    Buddhism changes when it lands on foreign soil, Tibet combined it with Bon, and Japan with Shinto. In the West, Buddhism joined with the Western philosopical tradition. Buddhist meditation centers strike me as resembling the Greek philosophical schools. I’ve often wondered why there are not similar centers teaching Stoicism and Epicureanism.

  29. Hi, thanks for the comment!

    I agree that insisting that recent Sutrayana is, or should be, based on the sutras is a common, important mistake. (I wrote about this a couple years ago.)

    However, I don’t think I made that mistake in this post. I quoted authors from many different Buddhist cultures and eras, up through the 20th century. And the point is, renunciation is still central for Sutrayana in every Asian Buddhism today. Does that seem wrong?

  30. I saw this

    “I’m trying to be both a Buddhist and a businessman.”
    “What’s the most difficult part of that?”
    “Wanting to be successful, while at the same time letting go of the attachment to desire.”
    “Isn’t that impossible?”
    “You can desire. You just can’t be attached to desire. It’s about living in the moment and enjoying the attempt to realize your ideas, while at the same time letting go of the need for a positive outcome.”

    and immediately thought of this post.

  31. Thanks, Rachel! I think this is probably a sensible & workable approach. What I don’t know is where it comes from. Not Buddhist scripture, so far as I know (but I don’t know the later Mahayana scriptures at all well). I would guess Zen, which goes well beyond scripture, but it might be purely Western. It’s not the tantric approach, in which you’d actively transform the desire. Perhaps more like Mahamudra?

    Does anyone else know?

  32. Agreed, in the Bhagavid Gita, Krishna says, “You have the right to work, but not to the fruits of your work.” In other words, do your best and let the chips fall where they may.

  33. Meditation is renunciation. By closing your eyes, you’re renouncing the sense of sight. If you follow the precepts, you’re renouncing a large set of actions by body, speech and mind. Indeed, just being content is renouncing the willing and planning and craving to be somewhere else.

    Just by saying ‘this is good enough’ you are renouncing craving.

    Consider “It 49: Held by Views”:

    “And how, bhikkhus, do some hold back? Devas and humans enjoy being, delight in being, are satisfied with being. When Dhamma is taught to them for the cessation of being, their minds do not enter into it or acquire confidence in it or settle upon it or become resolved upon it. Thus, bhikkhus, do some hold back.

    “How, bhikkhus, do some overreach? Now some are troubled, ashamed, and disgusted by this very same being and they rejoice in (the idea of) non-being, asserting: ‘In as much as this self, good sirs, when the body perishes at death, is annihilated and destroyed and does not exist after death—this is peaceful, this is excellent, this is reality!’ Thus, bhikkhus, do some overreach.

    “How, bhikkhus, do those with vision see? Herein a bhikkhu sees what has come to be as having come to be. Having seen it thus, he practises the course for turning away, for dispassion, for the cessation of what has come to be. Thus, bhikkhus, do those with vision see.”

    I think you are, perhaps, confusing renunciation for ‘overreaching’ here. Renunciation is not as simple as saying “the world sucks, everything is bad.”

    Also, the ‘pleasure of renunciation’ is the deep meditation that is the result of renunciation. The whole point is that the pleasure of meditation is a lot better than any pleasure you can get out of the five senses.

    Of the pleasure from the five senses it is said it should “not to be cultivated, not to be developed, not to be pursued, that it is to be feared.”

    But the pleasure of the sixth sense (the mind), that of the jhanas, “is called renunciation-pleasure, seclusion-pleasure, calm-pleasure, self-awakening-pleasure. And of this pleasure I say that it is to be cultivated, to be developed, to be pursued, that it is not to be feared.” (source:

    Consider also, that when a monk asks the Buddha for ‘the Dhamma in brief’ so that he can practice, i.e. what to actually do, the Buddha gives the development of the four brahmaviharas as reply (source:

    How can developing loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity to it’s fullest be ‘the Dhamma in brief’? My point here being that there is more to this idea of renunciation than being grossed out by the world.

    Also, that bit about the monk who had sex: it would be better that he put his penis in the mouth of a snake than in a vagina, not because sex is so bad, but because of all the bad kamma he made for himself for having sex *as a monk*. The point is to drive home how much bad kamma he has made; it’s going to be worse for that monk than having a snake bite his dong.

    Yes, sex isn’t good in Buddhism, but if you look at the suttas where the Buddha is teaching layfollowers:

    “A wise man should avoid unchastity as (he would avoid falling into) a pit of glowing charcoal. If unable to lead a celibate life, he should not go to another’s wife.” (source:

    If you can’t be celibate, than at least don’t cheat. Not exactly brimstone and fire.

    Be well! :-)

  34. Probably the best, the most informative one of all the posts on this blog I have read so far (at least for me). I’m surprised, even a bit shocked to hear that (some) American Buddhists are so resistant to accept that Buddhism is a religion of ‘No Sex’ in general (except for a few notable exceptions, such as Tantric Buddhism).

    It’s not that I have never heard of anything about American Buddhist value, ethics, disposition – liberalism, environmentalism, social engagement, openness, Anti-sectarian sentiments etc… -.

    But it’s far beyond my expectation that they are so much resistant to the notion, Buddhism as a religion of No-Sex.

    To most (traditional, back warded) traditional, dogmatic Korean Buddhists (including myself), that would be much more surprise than the fact that many American Buddhists prefer ‘liberal, secular’ interpretation of Karma & Rebirth doctrine.

  35. Glad you found this useful!

    But it’s far beyond my expectation that they are so much resistant to the notion, Buddhism as a religion of No-Sex.

    Yes, this is utterly shocking for American Buddhists (who are mainly completely unaware of it). “Sex is good” is one of the most important principles of American leftish secular morality (and therefore of American “Buddhist ethics”).

    To most (traditional, back warded) traditional, dogmatic Korean Buddhists (including myself), that would be much more surprise than the fact that many American Buddhists prefer ‘liberal, secular’ interpretation of Karma & Rebirth doctrine.

    Yes; Asian Buddhism started to question karma and rebirth back in the 1850s (Mongkut basically rejected it). The modern Buddhisms of most Asian countries reinterpret it, at least. It’s only in America in the 1980s that sexual liberalism was declared “Buddhist,” and that hasn’t be exported back to any Asian country, so far as I know.

    It’s funny how different American and Asian Buddhisms are from each other, and how ignorant Americans are of this! Maybe funny how ignorant Asians are of it too :-)

  36. Re: Abandoning craving vs. abandoning objects

    Sutrayana explicitly rejects this comfortable approach. It is true that craving is ultimately the problem, not objects; but objects automatically cause and increase craving.

    This isn’t in agreement with what I learnt on a fairly traditional Theravada-ish meditation course (by S.N. Goenka). It was said that the six senses cause sensations on the body, which can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The point of vipassana is to equanimously observe the sensations on the body, have neither craving nor aversion towards them, and be aware of their impermanence. So the point is, no matter what objects are perceived by your senses, as long as you observe the bodily sensations caused by them and not react to them, the link is broken and they won’t cause craving (nor aversion). I thought it was a fairly mainstream Buddhist view of how the mind works, am I wrong?

  37. Goenka’s system is not traditional at all. It’s more traditional than the Consensus, but it’s almost perfectly dissimilar to Theravada before it was Protestantized in the late 1800s.

    The point of vipassana is to equanimously observe the sensations on the body, have neither craving nor aversion towards them, and be aware of their impermanence.

    My understanding is that this is not a traditional practice. Goenka made it up. It is a very distant derivative of the actually-traditional practice of meditation on the foulness of one’s own body. That meditation consists of considering each part of your body conceptually and trying to convince yourself that it is revolting.

    no matter what objects are perceived by your senses, as long as you observe the bodily sensations caused by them and not react to them, the link is broken and they won’t cause craving (nor aversion). I thought it was a fairly mainstream Buddhist view of how the mind works, am I wrong?

    In the post, I quoted a whole series of scriptural passages that say you are wrong.

  38. Goenka’s system is not traditional at all. It’s more traditional than the Consensus, but it’s almost perfectly dissimilar to Theravada before it was Protestantized in the late 1800s.

    As far as I understand, hardly anyone meditated in the period before Theravada was Protestantised. So for a meditation technique, I’d say it’s as traditional as we can get.

    Goenka made it up.

    Goenka surely didn’t make it up. This technique can be traced back to Ledi Sayadaw, and AFAIK there is no evidence on whether he invented it or learnt it from somebody.

    very distant derivative of the actually-traditional practice of meditation on the foulness of one’s own body

    In what way is it related? The vipassana technique I learnt involves no visualisation, no imagining, no convincing, but just observing sensations. I can’t see anything common at all.

    I quoted a whole series of scriptural passages that say you are wrong.

    Most of them seem to be just about sex, so I guess they say I’m wrong, but only with regard to one specific kind of pleasure. I couldn’t find anything here that would say that any pleasant sensation will invariably cause craving. Perhaps Balisika Sutta could be interpreted that way, but it’s by no means unambiguous. I don’t know what is exactly meant by “relishing”, but it seems to me that it is something that involves craving. And it it said “if you relish these”, which means that it’s optional.

  39. In what way is it related?

    Historically. My recollection is that the practice started with the meditation on the foulness of the body, and successive re-inventions during the twentieth century eventually transformed it into what Goenka taught. I don’t remember off-hand where I read this, so my memory may be incorrect.

    At this point you seem to be more interested in proving I’m wrong about something (anything, you don’t seem to care what) than in having a dialog. I’m not interested in arguing. I will ignore you if you continue.

  40. Sorry if I made such an impression, I didn’t mean that. I learnt a lot about Buddhism from your blog.

  41. Dear Mr. Chapman,

    I am a Buddhist from India. I like your “approach”, that’s the only reason I’m posting here. I would like to clarify a few things from you with about which I am confused. These are as follows:
    1. One case mentioned here is that of a monastic student having sex with his wife for filial duty while he had accepted monastic practices & the Buddha practically scourges him. Now that, if I have understood you correctly, is a “complete denial” of sex and by “American secular Buddhist standards”, a monk having sex with his wife is OK? Given the whole context of the story, does it fit for the example intended?

    I also got an impression from your writing that these monastic codes were also for the laymen as prescribed by the Buddha. So, in a way, “a layman = monk + family” !!!
    If I have understood you correctly, the Buddha advocated avoiding the slightest contact from the things that may arouse sense pleasures. But eating a meal always invokes sense pleasure ( at least with me and each and every one I got to know at my 40 years of age !! ). And the Buddha used to eat meal, may be a little, but yes for sure!!! What was he doing? Hypocrisy? Praying on innocents? Please explain.

    In much simpler terms, “Surely renunciation isn’t essential in Buddhism! It’s one of those pointless traditions we’ve dropped, without losing anything significant.”- That’s a Western myth; and “renunciation is crucial to eastern traditions” is a reality, that is the prominent theme in your writing. But I am an eastern Buddhists and I do not find any of your understanding of eastern traditions in India or among the Theravada community (both lay and monastic) from other eastern traditions!!!!

    If your comments gives me this impression, is it my fault in understanding or something else (and I didn’t mean to disrespect anyone, just curious) ??

    Thanks & Regards

  42. Hi,

    Now that, if I have understood you correctly, is a “complete denial” of sex and by “American secular Buddhist standards”, a monk having sex with his wife is OK? Given the whole context of the story, does it fit for the example intended?

    I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you are asking here. American secular Buddhism doesn’t say anything about monks, because it doesn’t have them. Many (not all) traditional Asian Buddhisms said that lay people ought not to have sex, and that they should have as little as possible if they were going to do it at all.

    I also got an impression from your writing that these monastic codes were also for the laymen as prescribed by the Buddha.

    Hmm, no, vinaya is explicitly only for monks and nuns. On the other hand, the lay precepts appear to be a sort of weak derivative of vinaya; maybe that’s what you are thinking of?

    But eating a meal always invokes sense pleasure.

    As I mentioned in the post, there is a practice of developing revulsion for food by mentally associating it with dog’s vomit. If you accomplish that, then you eat only because you have to in order to live, even though you find it revolting.

    I am an eastern Buddhists and I do not find any of your understanding of eastern traditions in India or among the Theravada community (both lay and monastic) from other eastern traditions!!!!

    Asian Theravada has been extensively modernized over the past 150 years, and bears little resemblance to what it was previously. I’ve written about this in many posts; this page might be one good starting point.

    Best wishes,


  43. Hmmm,

    Either I don’t understand the answers or I am unable to put the questions understandably. ( May be its a place for whitemen with christian background only who understands buddhism better than eastern buddhists! ) Anyways, thanks for your effort.

    With Regards

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