The Eightfold Path, part 2
This article is the second in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're going to take a look at the second aspect of the path: right intention. The Pali term here is samma sankappa - the Sanskrit equivalent of the second word is sankalpa, which readers with a yoga practice may recognise.
Intention is critically important in a meditation practice. Meditation can be used for many different purposes - calming the mind, opening the heart, developing insight, promoting health and vitality - and often the techniques involved can seem very similar. For example, a very common form of meditation is to place one's attention on the breathing, coming back each time the mind wanders away. If that technique is practised with the intention of developing exclusive focus on the breath, it tends to have the effect of calming and concentrating the mind. If it's practised with an emphasis on noticing the moment-to-moment arising and passing of the sensations which make up our experience of the breath, it becomes an insight practice. If we imagine ourselves drawing in the suffering of the world with an in-breath and sending out peace and compassion on the out-breath, it becomes a heart-opening practice. If we emphasise the exhalation and our contact with the earth, it becomes energetically grounding. And so on.
So it's quite natural to find intention as one of the aspects of the Eightfold Path. In particular, the early Buddhist teachings suggest certain intentions which are thought to be supportive for anyone who is interested in the stated goal of early Buddhism - liberation from suffering. Those three are the intention of renunciation, the intention of non-ill will, and the intention of harmlessness.
In today's article, we'll be focusing on the first of these, the intention of renunciation. The second one, the intention of non-ill will, has a bit of a confusing name as it's given in the quotation above, but this kind of negation often indicates that the opposite of the named quality is what's to be practised. So what's meant here is the opposite of non-ill will, which is good will, also known as loving kindness, or metta. I've written about loving kindness a couple of times before (here and here), so check out those articles if you're interested. As for the third, the intention of harmlessness, that intention is really the principle underlying sila, the ethical dimension of the early Buddhist path. The Eightfold Path breaks sila down into three aspects - right speech, right action and right livelihood - so we'll be exploring the intention of harmlessness in much more detail over the next three articles in this series.
So without further ado, let's get into the thorny topic of renunciation!
Renunciation, asceticism and the Buddha
Renunciation is a bit of a Marmite concept - you either love it or hate it. For many modern readers it has connotations of self-denial, perhaps even self-punishment. And it can sometimes be used as a justification for why the monastic life is the best way to practise Buddhism - because people in lay life are inextricably entangled in the pesky, icky things of the world, while monastic communities live at one remove. I'm going to suggest a different way of looking at renunciation which is more compatible with a life in the world, both because that's how I live myself and how I assume the vast majority of my readers live too.
First of all, it's worth noting that the Buddha himself actually rejected extreme asceticism. According to the discourses in the Pali canon, he came to the realisation that a life of material luxury and sensual indulgence was ultimately hollow and unsatisfying, and so set off in search of a better way. He tried all of the ascetic practices that were popular at the time, including (but by no means limited to) holding his breath for as long as possible (which apparently results in terrible headaches), and eating as little as possible - eventually, down to a single grain of rice per day, at which point he became so weak that he collapsed and had to be nursed back to health by a compassionate woman named Sujata. After that particular incident, he realised that he'd taken the path of self-denial to the very brink of death and it still hadn't brought him what he was looking for.
Then he remembered a time when, as a boy, he had spontaneously entered a deep meditation state known as jhana. The jhana states are pleasant, but it's a form of pleasure that comes from within, rather than a pleasure that's dependent on external factors like fine wines or chocolates. He noticed that material pleasures typically have an addictive quality - no sooner have you finished one chocolate than you're reaching for another - whereas practising jhana leads toward contentment, desirelessness and peace of mind. This seemed like a much better approach than either stuffing his face with food or starving himself to death - and so meditation, and this idea of spiritual happiness, became central to the Buddha's path of enlightenment. (We'll come back to jhana when we get to the end of the Eightfold Path - so stay tuned!)
What should we renounce, and why?
The Buddha's story can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. We could say: 'Aha, so material pleasures are evil, while spiritual pleasures are good. Renunciation therefore means to cut off all material pleasures and practise only spiritual pleasures.' That's certainly the approach taken by many monastic communities, which aim to cut off as much worldly pleasure as possible, resulting in a pretty hard life which nevertheless frees up space for spiritual practice.
With my Zen hat on, however, I'm a little sceptical of making hard dualities between 'good pleasures' and 'evil pleasures'. Echoing last week's article and the discussion of fetters arising in response to sense contacts, I think we can take a more nuanced approach, and ask whether a particular source of pleasure (be it material, spiritual or something else entirely) is actually a problem or not.
For example, from time to time I drink alcohol. I know that many people suffer terribly with alcohol addiction, but it's never been a problem for me. Sometimes I go a few months without drinking, just because it doesn't occur to me to drink. Sometimes I'll be a bit more socially active and have a bit more. It just doesn't make that much difference to me. On the other hand, when I drink a single Coke or Pepsi, the next day I will experience a very strong urge to have another Coke or Pepsi at about the same time, and before you know it I'll be drinking two a day, then three, then four. Then the headaches will start, and my teeth will get sensitive, and my sleep gets messed up, and it's clear that something has to be done. So then I'll go through the long, painful process of detox, experiencing withdrawal headaches and all sorts. Then I'll be clean for a while - generally, until I go on a business trip or have some other kind of stress spike, when I'm called on to be alert and sharp at a time when I'm totally exhausted, and I'll grab a Coke or Pepsi to perk myself up, and the cycle begins again. For me, drinking Coke or Pepsi leads to an addictive cycle of suffering in a way that drinking alcohol simply doesn't.
So when it comes to the renunciation aspect of right intention, it's perhaps more interesting not to look at it in terms of a blanket rule to cut off all material pleasures, but rather as an investigation of our attachments, fixations and dependencies. There are some things we're clearly better off without - addiction to crack cocaine, for instance - but many of the things in our lives are not so clear-cut, like the Coke/Pepsi example above. A rule of thumb that I've found to be useful is to ask myself 'Do I need this? Or could I be without it?' If the answer is 'hell yes, I need it!' then, if nothing else, that's a setup for suffering - because life is impermanent, and in the long run we're separated from everything dear and delightful to us. But if the answer is 'no, it's not that big a deal' then we probably don't need to worry too much about it, at least right now - we almost certainly have bigger spiritual fish to fry.
If we're living the life of a householder, it isn't really practical to observe the kind of self-denial practised by monastic communities. We have family, friends, colleagues, jobs, obligations. We typically won't be able to cut ourselves off from the world of sense pleasures, and so it isn't really useful to think of renunciation in those terms. But if we can instead look at it as a way of exploring our lives, identifying problematic relationships that lead to a lot of suffering, and finding ways to hold those relationships differently - which might mean avoiding something entirely, but doesn't necessarily have to - then renunciation suddenly becomes a more relevant concept.
Living with the intention of renunciation
It's important to say that renunciation isn't a 'once and done' kind of exercise - scan through your life, identify the trouble spots, cut those off and that's it, you're good forever. Life is a dynamic process in which the only constant is change. What's completely fine today might not always be that way, and what's a really big deal requiring a great deal of care today might not always be like that. For example, I go through cycles (pretty well correlated with my stress levels) where I start to overeat chocolate compulsively and have to be very careful, then things calm down and a bit of chocolate now and then is no big deal, and actually quite enjoyable.
Personally, I would suggest that we're looking for balance - steering clear of addictions where possible, but at the same time allowing ourselves to relax and have fun from time to time. (One of the drawbacks with taking the ascetic approach to renunciation is that no sooner have you cut off your sources of evil worldly pleasure, thereby 'purifying' yourself, than you start to notice smaller, previously unnoticed sources of worldly pleasure, which must then be cut off, only to reveal even smaller, subtler sources of pleasure, and on and on it goes. We're really good at finding faults in things - especially ourselves - when it's our intention to do so.)
Seen in this way, renunciation becomes both an on-going practice of inquiry, and a kind of guard-rail for our lives. We learn to see the warning signs when a healthy interest is becoming an unhealthy obsession, and adjust accordingly - steering away from known danger spots, but also allowing our lives to flex and breathe as necessary, rather than cramming ourselves into a straitjacket.
It's also important to say that living with this intention doesn't somehow make us better than other people. We all have our sticking points - and we tend to be able to see the sticking points of other people much more easily than we can see our own! Furthermore, just because something is a problem for me doesn't mean it's automatically a problem for someone else - I have no real grounds to pass judgement on others just because I've adopted a lofty Buddhist lifestyle. If anything, as we start to become more sensitive to our own sticking points as well as those of others, we start to see the incredible diversity of life - each person's individual way of making their way through the world, sometimes so different to our own that we struggle even to imagine how their life could possibly work, and yet it does.
So please give renunciation some consideration - not as a stick to beat yourself or others with, but as a way of exploring our relationships with the people and things in our lives, identifying potentially troublesome spots, and figuring out how we can live in such a way that we suffer a little less.
May all beings be happy.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!