Traditionally the main religions have advocated renunciation in one form or another. Whether it’s the fasting for Lent or the day time fast in Ramadan – lay people have been stimulated to restrain their appetites at one time in the year. For religious professionals – like monks, nuns and priests – renunciation was a full time duty. At least in ideal, if not always in practice. In many cases the ideal got lost so far that the religious class lived better than many of the lay people. In Tibet for instance the monasteries were not only the most powerful institutions, but also the best taken care of. Socially this wasn’t a bad situation, as they were accessible for people of all ranks as sanctuary as well.
Renunciation is a strange ideal. It’s the ideal of voluntary poverty. Voluntary poverty only means something when there is riches to begin with. One admires the Buddha for wandering through what’s now Nepal and Northern India, not so much because he was poor, but because he left behind riches. If he hadn’t been rich to begin with, he’d have merely been a vagrant.
The American dream is sort of the opposite. It starts with poverty, ideally after immigration, and ends in riches, after hard work.
Renunciation as an ideal is, in a religious context, contrary to the spirit of our times. But other forms of renunciation do have a high status. Those who manage to keep their bodies slim through diet and exercise are praised in our culture. The rigor of the regimen most women need to live up to this ideal, makes the end result even more prized. This too is an ideal born in riches. In poor cultures those who have enough to eat to become what we’d call overweight, have a high status. But in the West food is easy enough to come by, and fat making food is easiest to get. So being thin has become the ideal.
I wonder whether these things aren’t praised because they show an effort of will. My first hour in the morning is spent wandering around the house. Getting dressed, making tea, washing my face, setting the table for breakfast and starting up the PC – not necessarily in that order… And I’m liable to forget one or two of those as well. Life puts more constraints on most people of course. When there’s work to get to, the clock becomes important (*). When there are kids to feed and get to school or soccer, that too puts many constraints on things. However that may be, to add regular exercise to the morning ritual shows real will power and dedication. This sort of thing may get easier with practice, for those of us who DO NOT do all that, it still looks like a lot of effort.
Biologists have figured out, however, that regular exercise gives a reward in the form of hormones that make you feel better. Exercise literally makes one feel better. Perhaps renunciation in general does that – because fasting also gives a natural high, I’m told. It also makes it harder to attend to responsibilities, unlike exercise. Exercise gives physical energy, while fasting obviously takes it away.
In Theravada Buddhist countries there’s a strange cycle – monks start out as a renunciate: they live apart from other people off very little. But the better they succeed at renunciation, the more the people around them worship them. They become what’s called a ‘good dharma field’ – that is: giving to them is extra good karma. So they get a lot of gifts from the surrounding people. This obviously makes their renunciation less severe. If it goes on long enough, others will start being displeased with the lack of renunciation, and go off and start a new revolution. But the same dynamic ends up making that initiative too end in relative wealth.
What all this shows, I think, is that we have a strange relationship with that which sustains us. On the one hand a lot of things are taken for granted: food, a roof over our head, our social position. On the other hand, part of us knows that other ways are possible. The American dream reminds poor people that some do get out. It lulls rich people to sleep: some get out, so why not all… On the opposite end of the spectrum, renunciation is a reminder that riches too are a choice. The food we eat is a choice. And that which is rare gets admired: people stepping outside the box to be different.
*) I work at home and therefor get to set my own time.