Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Revulsion Is the Foot of Meditation

Cross-posted today at The Interdependence Project.

I've been thinking a lot lately about this quote by Robert Aitken Roshi:

Renunciation is not getting rid of the things of this world, but accepting that they pass away.

Renunciation is one of those widely misunderstood and misrepresented Buddhist ideas. The misunderstanding usually has something to do with what Aitken Roshi refers to here: getting rid of the things of this world.

As Western Buddhist practitioners this may be an easy groove for us to slip into. Our cultural religious heritage is one that regards this world and its things (and us, as creatures embedded in the world) as fallen -- fundamentally corrupt. According to this view, there is a pure and uncorrupted world somewhere else waiting to be exchanged for this one -- but to go there requires getting rid of the things of this world. This idea finds its most vivid expression in those zealots who flagellate or otherwise mutilate themselves as a way to mortify the flesh and aspire to a world beyond this one -- but it also comes in much more common and more subtle flavors.

It would be natural to carry that kind of trip into our Buddhist practice, and think of renunciation as some kind of ascetic mortification. But the Mahayana Buddhist view of renunciation to which Aitken Roshi was referring is quite different. It is an internal attitude of renunciation towards the cause of suffering itself: the ego-clinging that distorts reality. "The primary cause of unhappiness," says Eckhart Tolle, "is never the situation but your thoughts about it."

So much of our suffering in life arises not from the things of this world, but from the way we relate to them with our minds. We cling to things; we do not want to accept that they pass away. With possessions and relationships and circumstances, we grasp at what makes us happy and push away what makes us suffer. But maybe at this point we have begun to suspect why the mahasidda Tilopa advised his student Naropa: "You are not bound by appearances; you are bound by clinging. Cut through your clinging, Naropa."

Appearances -- the things of this world -- are just what they are. They come and go. Sometimes they rock and sometimes they suck. But we get ourselves all in a twist trying to control things, and trying to keep them a certain way. Refusing to work with things as they are, we suffer. Accepting that the things of this world pass away means that we do not hold on to anything. Appearances have no real power to bind us if we do not cling to them.

In the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, there is a famous lineage prayer that includes the line: "Revulsion is the foot of meditation." We have to be sick and tired of our own suffering, and able to see how much of it we cause ourselves -- and willing to stop. That revulsion towards our own self-created suffering, which is rooted in ego-clinging and misunderstanding, is the basis, the foot, the foundation of everything else on the Buddhist path.


Unknown said...


Rocking post! You hit on so many good points--clinging, aversion, and the true meaning of renunciation. I really enjoyed reading this. Keep the posts coming.

wayfarer said...

On this occasion, I don't entirely agree. I think renunciation really is letting things go - bad habits, bad emotional attitudes, among other things, but also a lot of things that worldly people regard as perfectly wholesome. Sure Buddhism is not ascetic but it is a renunciate philosophy. Even if it is true that this might be a matter of attitude rather than literally giving things away, the ability to do without and not depend on things is pretty crucial. And pretty difficult!

Wanapitei said...

Excellent post. But I had trouble with the remark attributing this as a specific to Mahayana Buddhism. As someone practising within the Theravada tradition that attribution felt sectarian. I can't help but feel Robert Aitken Roshi's statement applies to all who practice Buddhism.

Dennis Hunter said...

Wanapitei, thank you, it's good to hear how this came across to you. By qualifying that as a Mahayana notion of renunciation, I wasn't trying to distinguish it from a Theravada view but from what Tibetan Buddhism would characterize as a "Hinayana" view (which is, to risk oversimplification, more along the lines of "getting rid of the things of this world"). The three-yana system is crucial to understanding Tibetan Buddhism altogether. But it's frustrating because "Hinayana" and "Theravada" often get mixed up together in conversation, but in fact they are not at all synonymous; they are not even referring to the same class of phenomena. Thanks again for raising this issue.