Posted inDogen, Henry's Messages

Message from Henry: Renunciation, Part 2

July 19, 2016

In giving up we gain; in renouncing we possess; in surrendering we win.


If you missed Renunciation, Part 1, click here to read it.

But firstly, what does “home” mean? And secondly, what does “leaving it” mean?

On the first level, home simply means home. The house, usually with a family in it, and various chores and responsibilities and duties that go with it. As well as comforts and pleasures specific to living there. A building, a lifestyle, a set of relationships. To leave home is to leave all of them.

What about “home” as a psychological state? Home, on this level, is the mind of samsara. The mind of fear, hope, ambition, relief, anxiety, and so on. The mind that wants success, satisfaction and self-sustainingness on a worldly level. And doesn’t want disappointment and failure. The mind that pertains, in fact, to the physical home.

At this level, to renounce home means to leave that whole mind. To abandon the web of desires and fears that pertain to life in a home. “Directly upon encountering the Dharma, we will abandon the law of the world,” says Dogen’s “Prayer for Arousing the Vow.”

We will let go of our attachment not just to various things and people, but to the entire system of attachments. Attachments tend not to be isolated entities, but to share roots. They form a root-system. To renounce home, in this sense, means to uproot the whole system, the whole web of attachments. To be free of it. To be free, in fact. Once we let go of, or renounce, or leave that entire system, we are free. Existentially, completely free. We don’t trade those attachments for others, we give up the whole system of attaching. How? By giving up the mind that does attachment.

And how on earth do we do that?

Dogen tells us, and Rujing told him: “The principle of Zen is ‘Body and mind fall away’.” That’s how we do it.

So what does “Body and mind falling away” mean? It means giving up and surrendering everything. The world and everything in it, and our very selves. That is true renunciation, and anyone can do it, no matter the circumstances. It happens independently of circumstances. It’s about the mind, the truth, the reality that exists always independently of circumstances, though never separate from circumstances.

Of course, it’s not easy to give it all up. That’s why we train assiduously. The sitting helps, the deepening trust with the teacher helps, and in the case of Zen training, the koans we study help. Each koan is an expression of the world discovered once we have given ourselves up. In koan training we allow the koans to jump through us, to take us over. Hundreds of small surrenders, and sometimes big ones, one for each koan, and eventually the structure is weakened to the point where it loses its structural integrity, and may all fall down.

This involves not just the self collapsing, but the whole world that the self has created. They vanish together, at once, and nothing is left. It’s as if a mirage were suddenly to disappear. What is left is not some version of the mirage, reduced or adjusted, nor even an absence of the mirage, but nothing at all. Yet not a nothing that is in some way a something. Just completely nothing.

Then even that nothing must be given up.

In one sense, perhaps that is true renunciation, true home-leaving. To leave everything. To give everything up. Once that happens, the Dharma can truly reach us, we can become true children of the Way, and be reborn just as the entire earth is reborn. Then we discover true wakefulness, we find what was here all along, something unimaginably awake, unimaginably beautiful. If this has a name – which it doesn’t – it would be the Awake One, the Awakened, the Buddha. It is the purpose of training to discover this. Perhaps it’s the purpose of a human life, of being a human body and mind, to find this.

In giving up we gain; in renouncing we possess; in surrendering we win.

In the story of two old Zen masters of the Tang period, Seizei said with irony to Sozan:

“Master, I am alone and poor. Please help me to become prosperous.”

Sozan took one look at this solitary beggar and saw the Dharma shining from him. “Venerable Seizei!” he responded, no doubt with a big smile.

“Yes, master!” Seizei replied.

“You have been drinking the finest Hakka wine [a particularly prized wine of medieval China] yet say you are impoverished!” – in other words, who are you kidding?

What is this wealth that both Seizei and Sozan have found, mendicant wandering beggars though they are? What is the prosperity they both recognize in the other? What does Seizei really mean by being “alone and poor”?

These are questions we alone must answer for ourselves. And while a life in orders may help us find answers to them, it is by no means the only way. Either way, lay or monastic, if we commit to a teacher, a sangha and a path of training, we will certainly come to understand a deeper meaning of renunciation.

Message from Henry is taken from our July 19, 2016 newsletter.
Image: Pearl Sky, by Vladimir Pustovit, CC by 2.0, from

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