Giving Up Everything?
Although Buddha did leave his entire kingdom, and family, when he renounced the world as an ascetic in search for enlightenment – he did not leave them all behind for good. After his enlightenment, both his wife and son joined the Sangha (Community) as a bhikkhuni (nun) and bhikkhu (monk), respectively – as did most of his family. In fact, Buddha’s son has his own short sutta, naturally called the Rahula Sutta. It was Buddha’s maternal aunt, Mahapajapati, who not only raised Buddha when his mother (Queen Mahamaya) died a week after his birth – but she also became the very first bhikkhuni.
Buddhism is a “gradual instruction” (anupubbi-katha) which utilizes “gradual training” (anupubbi-sikkha) on the path of enlightenment and Nirvana. Therefore, penetrating enlightenment doesn’t occur for the untrained and unprepared mind, but only after a long, gradual progression through many stages. In my post Smells Like Nirvana, I explained that the stage of “renunciation” is simply “giving up” or “letting go of” the more familiar, conditioned forms of happiness for a more noble, pure, unconditional and lasting form of happiness – that is, Nirvana. This release of sense-desire can be seen as “going against the stream” of our intrinsic cravings.
Therefore, “renunciation” is not necessarily about the “giving up of everything”; rather, it is about realizing that they will pass away. In fact, the Buddha’s last words are said to be, “All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness (presence of mindfulness)!” Therefore, Buddhism is really about realizing the true nature of all phenomena, and renouncing the conditioned forms of happiness for something even more noble and pure.
However, in the Tapussa Sutta, Ven. Ananda and Tapussa the householder went to the Buddha saying that since householders “indulge in sensuality, delight in sensuality, enjoy sensuality, rejoice in sensuality” that the path of renunciation seems like “a sheer drop-off” and is contrary to the popular opinion of most people. The Buddha goes on to explain meditative practice can only truly begin when one appreciates the value of true “renunciation”:
“So it is, Ananda. So it is. Even I myself, before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened Bodhisatta, thought: ‘Renunciation is good. Seclusion is good.’ But my heart didn’t leap up at renunciation, didn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace. The thought occurred to me: ‘What is the cause, what is the reason, why my heart doesn’t leap up at renunciation, doesn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace?’ Then the thought occurred to me: ‘I haven’t seen the drawback of sensual pleasures; I haven’t pursued [that theme]. I haven’t understood the reward of renunciation; I haven’t familiarized myself with it. That’s why my heart doesn’t leap up at renunciation, doesn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace.’
“Then the thought occurred to me: ‘If, having seen the drawback of sensual pleasures, I were to pursue that theme; and if, having understood the reward of renunciation, I were to familiarize myself with it, there’s the possibility that my heart would leap up at renunciation, grow confident, steadfast, & firm, seeing it as peace.’
“So at a later time, having seen the drawback of sensual pleasures, I pursued that theme; having understood the reward of renunciation, I familiarized myself with it. My heart leaped up at renunciation, grew confident, steadfast, & firm, seeing it as peace. Then, quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities, I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation…”
The Hatthaka Sutta compares the path of renunciation to getting a good night’s sleep:
“Always, always, he sleeps in ease: the brahman totally unbound, who doesn’t adhere to sensual pleasures, who’s without acquisitions & cooled. Having cut all ties & subdued fear in the heart, calmed, he sleeps in ease, having reached peace of awareness.”