adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, July 1st, 2003

The Buddhist path is often considered one of renunciation. This is easy to see in the lifestyle of simplicity and restraint followed by Buddhist monastics. The role of renunciation in the lives of lay practitioners is not so easy to understand. Lay practitioners are not asked to renounce money, sex, or a varied wardrobe, or to shave their heads or not eat after noon. Yet renunciation remains important -although we might prefer to call it letting go, releasing, freeing, or perhaps unburdening.

Because so many people have serious reservations about the idea of doing without, Buddhist teachers in America are sometimes reluctant to teach about renunciation. In giving Dharma talks, I often get the impression that this is not a popular theme. Certainly, there are good reasons to be suspicious of exhortations to let go. For example, renunciation may be confused with aversion or repression instead of an impulse of freedom. Overdone, renunciation may blind us to our real needs or healthy motivations. Or renunciation may be burdened with puritanical notions of good and bad, purity and impurity. Most important, we may confuse the renouncing of things and experiences (like money, sex, and possessions) with the essential work of renouncing our clinging to them.

The Latin root of the word “sacrifice” means “to make sacred.” The Buddha did not teach renunciation as a form of denial or asceticism. Rather, he taught letting go as a way to achieve a greater good, a greater happiness, and ultimately to attain what might be called the “sacred” dimension of liberation. The Buddha once said, “If one sees that a greater happiness is found by letting go of a lesser one, the wise person will let go of the lesser happiness.”

Even though it doesn’t take much mindfulness to recognize that suffering comes with clinging, we often find it hard to let go of clinging-or even to see letting go as possible or worthwhile. Strong feelings of desire often come with a compulsion that makes the desire seem necessary. Or we may approach clinging like a lottery-we are willing to bear the risk of suffering in exchange for the chance that the clinging will bring us well-being. Furthermore, letting go can be frightening. Clinging may give us a sense of taking care of ourselves-holding tight to security, judgements, people, self-identity, or possessions are all ways of protecting ourselves. People may not know how to function in the world without the motivation and self-identity that come from clinging.

Renunciation is often difficult. Grappling with the power of desire, attachments, and fear may require great personal struggle. But that struggle yields many benefits. We develop the inner strength to overcome temptation and compulsion. We don’t have to live with the suffering and contraction that come with clinging. Clinging can be exhausting; letting go is restful. We may taste the luminous mind of freedom, which is hidden when clinging is present. And, last but not least, we are more available to work for the welfare of others.

Renunciation should bring joy, or at least a lightness of being. If it is done with resentment or resistance, then the renunciation is not thorough-some clinging remains. We need continued mindfulness to understand what we still need to let go of.

Suzuki Roshi once defined renunciation as accepting that things pass away, that things change. This definition points to two things. First, sometimes renunciation takes the form of wise surrender to what is unavoidable. Second, at its heart, the practice of renunciation requires an inner change that may or may not require external renunciation. If the heart is still contracted, if the mind is still tight or hot, then the renunciation is incomplete. In fact, external renunciation without a corresponding inner release may strengthen clinging. Many people have been surprised by the strength of their desire after a period of deprivation.

One of the primary functions of monastic renunciation of so many aspects of ordinary life is to facilitate an inner transformation. Realizing that what one assumed was necessary for happiness is, in fact, not necessary (may not even be a cause of happiness after all) can bring a marvelous sense of ease.

For lay people, meditation retreats are a form of temporary monastic renunciation. On retreat we give up speech, entertainment, reading, writing, sexual activity, and much of our control over our food. In surrendering to the retreat schedule, we give up our preferences for what we do and when. If these limitations are difficult, then this difficulty becomes an opportunity for spiritual practice. When we see renunciation not as limitation but as unburdening, we can take great delight in feeling free from desire and compulsion.

Both within and outside of retreat, renunciation is a practice worth experimenting with. What happens when you let go of your opinions? Of self-preoccupation? Of a strong desire? In what areas in your life would letting go bring greater benefits than continuing to hold on tightly? When letting go is difficult, what does your clinging indicate about your beliefs in what will make you happy?

Are there things or activities that would be good to do without or to limit? For example, watching television, shopping, complaining, gossiping, or surfing the web. For some, an important area for letting go is in being overly busy. There are many worthwhile pursuits; trying to do too many is harmful. Sometimes it is necessary to choose which is most important to us and then let the rest go.

To sacrifice is to make sacred. To release is to find freedom. And to find freedom is to know a happiness that is not dependent on anything-especially not on having our wishes fulfilled.