Lately I’ve been reflecting on Siddhatta Gotama’s choice to leave behind his newborn son, wife, home, family, friends, wealth, status, community and usual comfort zones; to leave behind all these supports - both emotional and financial…
…And be someone who gave up all manner of certainty
…Including the type that went without knowing, for sure, where your next meal would come from.
I wonder at the kind of society that could have, not only supported such an act; but also did not vilify or punish him for it.
I wonder what would have happened if all those seekers and wanderers weren’t already an accepted part of the culture? I wonder what would have happened if he had been born into a context which widely denigrated the notion of reincarnation?
He abandoned his kid so he could find the meaning of life.
The context and the prevalent views (which, it’s worth noting, at that time in his life, were not views that he had yet verified for himself) are likely to have supported the launch of his initial pre-Awakening search. The idea that suffering extends beyond lives and that an ascetic life might lead to a solution to this, must have made his renunciation seem like an extreme, but rational option.
His post-Awakening teachings offer us his personal confirmation of many things. All of which he suggests we check out for ourselves. However, two things relate back to both the view on reincarnation, and the relevance of an ascetic, or rather, renunciate life.
The thing which relates back to rebirth, is the Dhamma itself. He goes beyond the general notion of reincarnation as a context for us to think and practise within and offers us something more specific and elegant to contemplate and aim for in terms of realisation. And at the heart of this elegant structure is, an even deeper form of renunciation: the letting go of our craving to exist in another life; the letting go of our delusion that we exist as a “fixed self”, and a few other core delusions which I’m sure we’re all familiar with.
He creates the Sangha. A support structure for anyone wishing to achieve this realisation and understand for themselves the very meaning of life. Crucially, at the heart of his teaching is letting go of, well, all things… Thus, at the heart of his monastic community was renunciation. He created something for those of us willing to let go of our immediate financial control and our 5 sense external sensuality.
And an interesting link between these two is time. His “gradual training” is famous; the adverb “gradual” has particular meaning when placed within the context of rebirth. One has both, all the time in the world, and no time at all - for the days and nights turn relentlessly (as he said). One has to cultivate patience and contentment and slow the movement of craving - slow down; but one also has to understand that one’s future lives are uncertain - being immersed as they are in ignorance and suffering, subject to one’s past kamma and the vagaries of whatever conditionings and world views one is born into or may be exposed to - thus one needs to Practise with a sense of urgency also. Bring these two contradictions together and one is encouraged to focus in on the correct Practise with as much ease and gentleness as possible, and with a commitment that is as whole hearted as it can be - right now, today, this moment.
Why would any reasonable person consider joining the Sangha? Moreover, why would they devote years and years and decades of their lives to it? Why not just hop in for a bit, get a bit of perspective and then hop out? What makes all those individuals who are currently part of the Sangha stick it out for so long and with such obvious love for it? I’m not talking about the bad monastics, the corrupt ones, I’m talking about the genuine, sincere ones. I’m not talking about those looking for power or taking advantage of the laity. I’m talking about real renunciates, those who are genuinely motivated by the Buddha’s teachings. Why not keep everything we enjoy in lay life and use our practise to make life bearable? EDIT: (with thanks to @JuanG and @ERose) I want to be clear here, these are rhetorical questions.
If I didn’t believe in rebirth, I think the visit to a monastery would just be more of a pleasant - perhaps even inspiring - day out. As it is, visiting a monastery became an act of supporting something rare and special.
Those who joined the Sangha were not to become financially independent and out of touch with those who still enjoyed greater/coarser sense pleasures. They were not to live in cloisters with extensive kitchen gardens and sources of revenue. They were not to live in places so remote, that those who sought to support their letting go, to support the existence of such an essentially uncertain lifestyle, could not reach them. The were not to be cut off. The symbiosis between the Sangha and the laity is crucial and the uncertainty at the heart of this is an essential aspect of renunciation.
As a real world example, my parents were planning to offer dana at a monastery some distance away from them. There was a bad storm forecast. I suggested they give it a miss; they’re old and I feel protective of them. They said that rainy days (never mind stormy days) tended to mean that there was less food on offer for the community of monastics and 8 precept keeping practitioners. Generosity (yet another aspect of renunciation/letting go) is a keystone of practise for my Mum and Dad. It gives them joy and underpins the “non 5 sense based” happiness which they try to create the causes for, as best they can - essential for correct meditation practise. Another practical example is when monastics waited patiently for someone to come and formally offer them the food that was stored in their freezer…and nobody came, so they went hungry that day. This is what happened to Ajahn Jagaro and Ajahn Brahm in the early days. As a lay person who has huge control over what I eat, I find this leap into uncertainty awe inspiring.
I’ve noticed that the opposite of trust is “holding on” (also the opposite of “letting go”) or having a sense that one is living inside a well defended fortress. One hasn’t enough ease to let down one’s guard or open one’s doors and windows freely, one is under siege by the world and its vagaries. I think a lot of the time this is how most of us function, to at least some small degree.
Going for refuge in the Triple Gem is about trusting these 3 external factors to provide a context within which I can, with reliable consistency, create trust and letting go (peace and ease). The notion of a “gradual” training, gives me some sense of ease about being this flawed, imperfect human being; still caught in something that, according to the Buddha, one can be freed from, not just in the tussle of daily life, but fully and forever - but only if, also according to the Buddha, one understands it correctly.
I don’t know if the following stanza is from an EBT text, or if it’s the word of the Buddha. It speaks to me on an emotional level and I’m grateful to whoever first constructed it. I imagine, it becomes truer and truer as one develops in a truly meaningful way that touches one’s life to the point where that “fortress” is barely there and then, eventually never there. I imagine it becomes, not just refuge, but reality, for an Awakened being.
Natti me saranam anyam
Buddho me saranam varam
Etena sacca vacena
Sotti te hotu sabbada
(Repeated for “Dhammo” and “Sangho”)
I think the correct translation may be:
For me there is no other refuge
The Buddha is my excellent refuge
By the truth in these words
May there be well being