Posted inDogen, Henry's Messages

Message from Henry: Renunciation, Part 1

July 12, 2016

Suffering is not only about the stuff we recognize as bad. It’s about being caught in a sticky web. It’s about not being free. It’s about not seeing the truth. 


In the old days, this momentous step would in most cases involve home-leaving. Joining the community of practitioners and living in it. Leaving behind the everyday world of families and finances, love-making and child-rearing, money, “success” and “failure” – the “getting and spending with which we lay waste our powers,” as the poet Wordsworth put it. In other words, the main activities of what we call “the world.”

Dogen said that without this step of renunciation it was impossible to “become a buddha.” Unless you’ve renounced your home, you’re not going to make it in this Dharma training. But he later revised that assertion, to make sure his audience truly understood what he meant by “leaving home.” Not only that, but today, there is a large and growing Buddhist laity in the West. Many western practitioners are non-monastic. So what might renunciation mean in a lay context?Comforts, luxuries, possessions, family relationships, sex, conjugal love, money – no lay practitioner should ever underestimate just how much there is to renounce in their lives. To some extent, their time is their own. Many decisions and choices can be dictated by factors other than need.

For many Buddhists, “home-leaving,” or renunciation, or joining a monastic order – becoming a pauper, dependent on a sangha for your survival and support – would seem an irreplaceable step in the journey towards becoming a Bodhisattva. Can renunciation really mean anything significant in a lay context?

To answer this in a roundabout way, first some thoughts on suffering. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize that our suffering is suffering. Sometimes it’s obvious. We just feel rotten: scared, anxious, hopeless, grief-stricken, remorseful. Or torn up with rage, or equally pernicious, quiet disgruntlement. Or by depression and despair. Not to mention all the physical forms of suffering: pain, hunger, cold, and so on.

But what can be harder to recognize is that the things that relieve us of these feelings temporarily, that make us feel good, that we want, are also part of our suffering. It’s a system. The system has pluses and minuses. It couldn’t work, it couldn’t hold us, if it was only negatives.

To take the example I know best – myself. I made my living as a writer for over twenty years. For most of that time, as long as my writing life wasn’t going the way I wanted, I was quietly disgruntled, uneasy, anxious, angry or even despairing. Then when at times it did go the way I wanted, I was light-hearted, energetic, happy, even carefree. My state of mind was not in my own hands. I had more or less entirely given it up to outside forces. I win a poetry prize, I’m elated, maybe for a few days or even weeks, if it’s a big one. It got to the point where one success led to another, and eventually to a well-received book. Which led to readings, awards, fellowships, and so on. All of that became highly gratifying. But at a certain point I began to notice that a small success which a couple of years before would have kept me buzzing for several days, now gave only perhaps a few hours’ joy or relief.

Meanwhile I had got to know the next level of “success” as a poet. Here, it was no longer about prizes, about spikes in one’s poetic well-being, as it were. It was all about what kind of status you might be moving towards, both within the poetry community, and in the public eye (these two could be distinct). I began to find myself tracking the notional popularity and status graphs of other poets I knew, and ones I didn’t. How were they doing? Was a colleague getting ahead? Was another falling behind?

I had been completely hooked. My inner life was not my own. I was caught. Despairing at the negative turns; jubilant at the positive.

Both these reactions are two sides of one single coin, which is called suffering. This may seem a relatively insignificant example, but at least it’s a clear one…

Suffering is not only about the stuff we recognize as bad. It’s about being caught in a sticky web. It’s about not being free. It’s about not seeing the truth.

It’s about being caught in a system where you decide to postpone addressing the two great matters of a lifetime: who am I? And: what does it mean that I will die? In other words, what are life and death?

To turn away from these questions is to miss the incredible opportunity represented by a human life. No matter what happens to you, it’s not as important as these two supreme issues – which are in fact so intimately related that they are really one issue.

So, for one reason or another, we are driven to turn to the practice, to the training. We recognize that something is missing from our life, and some inkling tells us that the monastery, the zendo, the practice hall, the spiritual community, might be the place to work out what it is, and to find it.

Click to read Part 2 of Renunciation.

Message from Henry taken from our July 12, 2016 Newsletter
Image: I sit quietly, by Nick Kenrick, CC by 2.0, from

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