Renounce and Enjoy

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Dear Still Water Friends,

In Gandhi the Man Eknath Easwaran, a Hindu meditation teacher who knew Mahatma Gandhi, tells this pithy story:

One American journalist who had been following Gandhi’s work for years with mounting admiration finally asked him with the terseness of a newsman: “Can you tell me the secret of your life in three words?”

“Yes!” chuckled Gandhi, who could never resist a challenge. “Renounce and enjoy!”

Gandhi’s response came to mind this week as I was pondering several comments by Thich Nhat Hanh about the Fifth Mindfulness Training, on mindful consumption:

Many of us think that happiness comes from consuming something, from bringing something from outside into us, but in fact, happiness comes from inside. When we can remove the materials of anger, violence, hatred, and despair from our souls, then happiness will open like a lotus flower, or like a rose. The happiness of a flower does not come from outside, the happiness of a flower comes from inside the flower, and our happiness is the same. …

It’s not because we eat a lot that we feel happy, especially when we eat poisonous things that make our body heavier and heavier every day. Our souls are the same: it’s not because we digest many films, many books, many magazines that we feel happy, it’s because we are able to remove the poisons from our souls. That is what listening to a Dharma talk is for. Listening to a Dharma talk is to take the misunderstanding out of us, to take the ignorance out of us, to take the craving out of us, to take the anger and hatred out of us. The more we take out of us, the more our hearts will feel light and free, and happiness will be possible. (From a Dharma Talk on August 2, 1998, in Plum Village, France.)

There are three distinctions that help me understand and appreciate both Gandhi’s and Thay’s teachings.

First, it is useful to distinguish between ordinary "happiness," the pleasure or happiness of having our physical and emotional cravings fulfilled, and a deeper, more stable happiness. Pema Chodron (in The Places That Scare You) calls it "The joy of happiness without a hangover" It is "a happiness that’s completely devoid of clinging and craving." Thich Nhat Hanh (in Thundering Silence) calls it "the joy and happiness that arise from a peaceful mind."

Second, although I can trace out many benefits that come to myself and the environment when I consume mindfully (such as when I eat organic greens, or reduce my carbon footprint), it is not these outcomes alone that nourish my deep, stable happiness. Rather, the deeper happiness arises primarily from the positive intentions and mind-states I nourish in myself, such as generosity, compassion, and love. “Happiness comes from inside.”

Third, it is hard to let go of the culturally induced illusions of consumerism. Many of us continue to cling to our desires for something from outside that we believe will bring us lasting happiness, such as an ideal partner, a better job, an inexhaustible movie collection, or better fitting clothes. Or we become accustomed to the comforts we already have and are afraid of losing them. The problem is not necessarily the things we desire, but rather our implicit expectation that these things will bring us “happiness without a hangover.”

A radical change occurs when we are clear about the roots of deep happiness. We give less energy to our personal material and psychic cravings and give more energy to nourishing our positive intentions and mind-states. Easwaran says of Gandhi:

While he was pursuing his own career Gandhi had no access to the immense storehouse of creativity which lies within. It was only when he began to live for others that he found himself bursting with almost unharnessable power.

When we lack clarity, we wobble and act half-heartedly. Like the Hungry Ghosts of Asian folklore, we may feel restless and lost, never quite satisfied.

This Thursday evening , after our meditation period, we will recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings and explore the interconnections between renunciation, joy, and the Fifth Mindfulness Training:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products that contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing, and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society, and the Earth.

We will begin our Dharma Sharing with two questions: Does mindful consumption bring me joy? Could renouncing something bring me more joy?

You are invited to be with us.

A related teaching by Tenzin Palmo is below.

Many blessings,


Tenzin Palmo On Sacrifice

From "No Excuses" Tricycle, Winter 2009

The Buddha said that it’s greed, not anger, that keeps us on the wheel. Nobody’s chaining us down: we’re clinging on with both hands. Many people come to me saying that they want to eradicate anger; it’s not difficult to see that anger makes us suffer. But very rarely do people ask me how to be rid of desire.

We have to cultivate contentment with what we have. We really don’t need much. When you know this, the mind settles down. Cultivate generosity. Delight in giving. Learn to live lightly. In this way, we can begin to transform what is negative into what is positive. This is how we start to grow up.

. . .

We need to give up something. We can’t have it all. We can’t try to layer wisdom on top of confusion. The spiritual path is about what we give up, not what we get. We seem to always want to get something—spiritual insights or experiences—as a kind of commodity. We sign up for a retreat and expect that we’ll have this or that wonderful experience or this or that special teaching. But don’t these wisdom traditions teach us that, in essence, there’s nothing to get? We need to give up what obscures the abiding wisdom and the abiding reality—the wisdom and reality that is already here. That’s the gospel of the Buddha, but I wonder if we’re listening to it.