(There is a Sanskrit term, tanha, that is translated as thirst or craving; this term points to a regular human experience which is right at the center of why we suffer or have difficulty in life. This tanha, or thirst, is characterized by never being wholly satisfied. With regular thirst, we feel the need for water, we drink, we don’t want any more water: we are satisfied. With tanha, even though we get the object of our desire, it does not satisfy: we want more.
Tanha has two more characteristics, grasping and confusion. The confusion is mistakenly thinking that getting the thing that we thirst for will satisfy a basic feeling of lack or disquiet. The grasping is what we do out of that disquiet and has varying degrees of desperation; the grasping produces distortion.
Tanha isn’t an esoteric feeling and we encounter it in mild or greater ways in our regular life. Think of the last time you went into the rabbit hole of web surfing only to emerge feeling vaguely ill at ease and wondering where the time went? Tanha is said to have three types: craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence and craving for non-existence. While we can all easily imagine what craving for sensual pleasure is about, it might be less apparent what the craving for existence or non-existence is about. Like many things, thirst for existence or non-existence have aspects of greater or lesser significance. Recently, during an early morning rumination session, I found myself considering a vexing thing that someone had done: did so-and-so really do that? does it mean …? I wish that hadn’t happened! If they they did that, I would say…! etc. etc. My mind endlessly spinning with the alternating wish for it to “be something” (that I could really fight against) or “not be” at all (so I could just go back to sleep). Tanha, this unquenchable thirst, is said to be the main cause of suffering.
The slippery thing about tanha is that we can aim it at anything, even things that we actually need, like food or shelter or whatever. (I have a friend who told me that she would have the thought arise in her mind, as she traveled around her city, “if I had a house like that, my troubles would be solved,” even though she had a perfectly adequate house. When she finally got the house of her dreams, she was not satisfied)
So, how do we practice with tanha? When I hear the description: craving for sensual pleasure, craving for existence or craving for non-existence, the first place my mind goes is to the basic teaching of our sitting meditation. We neither hold on to nor push away anything; just sit still and let go of whatever arises. Meditation develops the clarity to see and be aware of our pursuit of this thirst and the strength to let it go. So, meditation is our most potent tool in working with this affliction.
But there are other things we can do as well. These things fall into the area of practice that we might call renunciation. About this time of year, at least in the Mahayana Buddhist world (China, Korea, Japan etc.), the Buddha’s renunciation is remembered with a the Festival Ceremony for the Buddha’s Renunciation. The Buddha set aside the comforts of his privileged life, became a monk and set out to find the truth. While I certainly do not think that any particular person should or should not become a monk, in grappling with what the Buddha taught, we can all benefit from considering what renunciation means. We can all benefit from practicing at least a little bit of renunciation, a little bit of the “setting aside the comforts of a privileged life.”
When talking about renunciation, I want to be very clear that I am not advocating anything like pursuing a bleak and ascetic life in which we shun all that is pleasant, nor am I suggesting a way to cut ourselves off from what is difficult and what we need to be responsible for. In some sense, the starting place of Buddhism might be “be responsible” or “take responsibility for your life as it is.” Sometimes I have encountered people who have a thought like “my life is difficult and a mess, wouldn’t it be nice to chuck it all and go live in a monastery.” But then, when they try it, instead of escaping from their difficulty, they find that the purpose of the life of the monastery is to help us to learn how to face and deal with our mess of a life; they realize that the life of the monastery puts them face to face with the mess and its creator.
Also, when I talk about renunciation, I am not making any comment on the value of any particular thing or activity or mode of life. I am in no position to make such an evaluation. What I want to focus on with renunciation is the grasping and its attendant distortion.
So, what do I mean by practicing a little bit of renunciation? For whatever reason, I have, since as long as I can remember, been interested in good food. As I grew into adulthood, my interest in food became a refined interest in eating and preparing fine food: I made myself into a foodie. Since I worked in food service when I first started practicing the Dharma (as it turns out, it was a good fit for the foodie me), it was natural for me to try to allow the practice to inform and influence my work in this area of my life.
Of course, as time and practice went along, I began to recognize that I had a whole bunch of attachments to things and ideas around food (including the attachment to the pleasure of eating; the attachment to pursuing tanha in the realm of food). Since I was both sincere and prone to the limiting mental characteristic of seeing the various aspects of life in black or white terms, these attachments have presented various problems.
The sincere part of me presents the problem that if I am going to be serious about practice, I would at least eventually have to do something about the attachments I encountered. The “limited mind” part of me presents the problem of tending to get stuck in a black or white, either/or way of thinking about these attachments. I mean, I would get the advice to let go of my clinging to my opinions about food, and my limited mind would conclude that the only possible solution would be to quit the work I was doing. Of course, it would have been hard and impractical to just walk away from the means I had been given to make a living, so, while it seemed I had to do the work, I also had to find a way to let go of my attachments about the work. Of course eating is more difficult still: if I just stopped eating, I would die (which is unsatisfactory in various ways).
So it was eat, and let go of tanha as it appears in eating; be as good a cook as I could (it doesn’t pay to be a bad cook), and let go of what I need to around cooking.
Sometimes in my continuing effort to find my way in this, I will give up some concrete thing, like I stopped eating meat. I did this mostly out of compassion for animals but also, in part, as a way of training or restraining the impulse to pursue the best tasting food (one of the ways that tanha manifests for me). While I have chosen to continue to refrain from eating meat – being a vegetarian works pretty well for me – other things I have given up and then, after awhile, picked up again with a changed relationship to it. Because I would tend to lose myself in fiction, I stopped reading novels for a period of time and now, since it isn’t contrary to the precepts or against the rules of my monastic life, I have begun reading them again.
There is an endless variety of concrete steps we might take in our effort to let go of this tanha – endless because there are an endless number of us, each with our own variation on tanha – and these concrete steps are clarified for each of us in our own meditation. You know, sometimes we could eat a little bit less; choose the second best of the lot; choose to live in a slightly smaller dwelling; choose to keep our house cooler or warmer, etc. (Interestingly, in addition to training our craving, it is often the case that a little bit of renunciation also has a positive effect on the people and environment that surrounds us.)
This choosing to set a thing aside in order to restrain that never-ending grasping for satisfaction, is what we might called finding and practicing renunciation by changing external circumstances. Becoming a monk is a radical example of what we might call finding and practicing renunciation by stepping outside of, or changing, external circumstances.
But sometimes it is a matter of being still and aware and letting go of the impulses of the mind. Like for me, there is this craving for perfection, which is different than the need to do the best job that I can. This craving for perfection, as far as I can see, is unquenchable and unattainable; it may have some side effects that can be of use (I tend to get good at what I set my mind to) but over all, pursuing it binds me to the cycle of suffering. I do my best to be aware of and let go of (renounce) the impulse to perfection within my day-to-day life.
This inward work of coming to recognize our own inward tendencies toward indulging tanha and to let them go, is what we might call practicing renunciation within the circumstances of our own mind. While one or the other of these ways of practice might predominate for any particular individual, at any particular time, they are both worth considering and applying to our own lives.
Whether we are renouncing something inwardly or outwardly, what we are renouncing, in Buddhist practice, at its root, is the pursuit of greed, hatred and delusion. We are in essence renouncing the endless pursuit of tanha, and we can do this in a stepwise fashion. An old Dharma friend of mine used to get sort of psyched out by Dogen’s bold advice: “give up everything.” She would say “oh, I couldn’t do that!” and it would distress her, since she wanted to and thought she should in an outward way. Honestly, few of us can give up everything all at once. What I think Dogen is pointing out, and this is also what a monk in robes points out to us, is that everything can be given up, and it will be ok: there is nothing that we can encounter in body or mind or existence that cannot be let go of. And remember that while we may truly let a thing go, it, or at least its consequences, may well persist for perhaps longer than we would like.
And I want to again make the point that in giving a thing up or letting go of it, I am not necessarily talking about getting rid of it. People who practice this letting go, just appear to be regular people. It is like when I walk up a flight of stairs, there is usually a banister to hold onto if necessary. If I grip the banister tightly, I won’t get up the stairs (and I will look pretty strange, standing there holding tightly to the banister). But, I can rest my hand lightly on the banister while I climb, ready to use it as necessary, and when I get to the top I can leave the banister behind. Gripping the banister tightly, distorts the trip up the stairs.
What we are doing in practice has a profound purpose. We can practice Zen in order to become more efficient or peaceful or to control our blood pressure or whatever (do we pursue these things motivated by tanha?) but the practice is much more significant than that. When we wake up to the reality of impermanence, practice points us toward a way of living that gives us a purpose beyond the seemingly meaningless and endless pursuit of desire in our day-to-day life. Paying attention to and training this endless thirst in a stepwise fashion, gives us an ordinary and concrete entryway into discovering that profound purpose for ourself.