Living Renunciation

I wrote the following piece as a personal message to the students in my Practice Discussion groups last month (February 2019). It was a way to reflect on my own practice at the moment, and as such, it was an invitation for others to reflect on their own lives and practice. I hope it will serve as a similar invitation and prompt in your life.

“The formal announcement that someone no longer owns, supports, believes in, or has a connection with something.” (Cambridge Dictionary)

“Renunciation is not giving up things of this world, but simply realizing that they all go away.” (Suzuki Roshi)

This series of images are a contact sheet from images taken during my priest ordination ceremony in April of 2001. Cassy Weyandt, the photographer and one of my longest students, later gave me a copy of these unedited photos. This particular sheet contains images of the private head shaving ceremony done is advance the formal public ceremony. At this stage in the process a very small bit of hair, about the size of a dime, is left on the back of the crown of the head. This is the shira, and is only shaved off by the Ordination Teacher during the formal part of the public ceremony. These acts of shaving the head, taking a new name (a Dharma name), and new clothes (the robes), are supposed to represent renunciation, ritual acts which “announce” that a person has severed their previous relationship with something (or, in this case, everything).

During the Tokudo ceremony (priest ordination; literally “leaving home and following the way”), there is a line that is chanted as the shira is taken off. This happens twice during the ceremony, one half of the shira removed each time until no hair remains. Here are the lines:

“Only the mind of a bodhisattva can cut through this drifting-wandering life and take the path of nirvana. This virtue cannot be defiled. Within our past, present, and future karma, the bonds of attachment are hard to break.”

The bonds of attachment are certainly hard to break. We all know this to be true, and if we live long enough we also come to know quite powerfully, and sometimes painfully, what the Buddha taught:

Everything coming together falls apart. Everything rising up collapses. Every meeting ends in parting. Every life ends in death. [Buddhist Scripture: Udanavarga 1.22]

In David Chadwick’s biography of Suzuki Roshi he recounts a night in the zendo at Tassajara after a lecture when David asked the old teacher, “Can’t you just put the whole of the teachings in a nutshell.” Unexpectedly and shockingly, Suzuki responded to the question: “Everything changes.”

But the lines from the ceremony point to much more that simple change. “Only the mind of a bodhisattva can cut through this drifting-wandering life and take the path of nirvana.” In other words, it is not enough to simply understand what the Buddha taught. Impermanence is actually not difficult to understand. These lines from the ceremony suggest that it only by living the Bodhisattva Vow is one then able to cut through the enchanting and entangling attachments of everyday life and take the path of freedom. Our karmic bonds are indeed hard to break.

In the midst of this chant there is a curious line: "This virtue cannot be defiled." Renunciation is not as act of virtue in itself. We have often been told that it is virtuous to renounce certain things (chocolate, alcohol, sex, money, TV, etc.). However, this unusual line of the head-shaving verse says that the Bodhisattva’s commitment to mutual awakening is full of virtue which cannot be defiled. In other words, we don’t create this virtue, but neither can we destroy it. You can turn away from this virtue and try to ignore it, but you also have the choice to enact and practice it for the remainder of your life. This is the practice of renunciation, the commitment to practice for the benefit of all beings, renouncing the “self-centered dream” as the unconscious organizing principle of this “drifting-wandering life.” You have the opportunity to bring forward and express this virtue.

By sitting zazen we enact renunciation. We take the posture of a Buddha and relinquish all other activities as we sit. We express what we can’t even conceive of, our nature as a Buddha, and it is said that the virtue of even one person’s zazen cannot be comprehended. In Bendowa (The Wholehearted Way), written by Dogen Zenji, he says: “…the zazen of even one person at one moment imperceptibly accords with all things and fully resonates through all time.” This is the virtue which cannot be defiled. I know some of this may sound strange or difficult to understand, but I am hoping that this helps you begin to ask yourself some important practice questions.

Where do I cling habitually? What are the bonds which are hardest to break.
What am I willing to let go of and what am I not?
How does my clinging get in my way or cause suffering for me or others around me?
Do I really have the faith that the Way of the Bodhisattva makes a difference in any way whatsoever?
Can I imagine that some virtue is my deepest and most enduring quality which cannot be defiled?
Do I really believe I will die? Not know intellectually, but know!

I, like many of you, have had to deal with the recent death of Mary Oliver. I find it hard to comprehend that she is no longer living. Aren’t her poems ample evidence of her existence? At the end of one of her classic poems, In Blackwater Woods, she writes:

Every year, everything
I have ever learned in my lifetime
leads back to this:

the fires and the black river of loss
whose other side is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.

To live in this world you must be able
to do three things:

to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

“Everything leads back to this.” Love what you love as deeply as you can, down to the bone. This is an embodied, everyday vow of a bodhisattva. Realize that your life depends of all other life. This is why you must dedicate your life to others. This is the understanding of renunciation and impermanence.

I am facing these practice challenges now. I left Austin and I lost a lot in doing so. I thought I knew something about renunciation when I was ordained, in the images you see here, but I didn’t know it in my bones in the ways I do now. And I know that there is more to come. My parents and friends are moving toward death. I am moving toward death. I am aging and I am having to make hard choices about what I can do and want to do, and more importantly, what I can no longer do. It feels like one long string of losses, “whose other side is salvation” as Mary Oliver assures me. Continually turning toward these realities will save me/us from unnecessary suffering, but there is a cost.

In the midst of his poem The Layers, Stanley Kunitz writes:

When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

“How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses”? Sometimes it is tough to look back, as I am compelled to do from my hillside here in Hawaii. I am happy to be here. That is not the issue, but do you ever wince as you reflect on your past, feeling the sting of regret, the broken heartedness of loss, the indescribable beauty of special moments, the overwhelming gratitude and grace of real love, or the tangle of loves and losses which are inevitable? I have to take a very deep breath and “gather my strength to proceed on my journey.” Practice helps. Friendships help more. Things I worked so hard to accomplish all my life are now fading in the rear-view mirror. “I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon.” Things which used to be calling me forward are now fading in the distance, and the places and people which were central, like a campfire is central to a campsite, seem abandoned now, and that exquisitely beautiful line, so gorgeous and hard to bear, “over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings.” I created a self, a life, an identity, a story, a reality, and attached to it as we all seem to do. My “affections,” my attachments, evolved as my “life,” are now scattered. What I thought was permanent, or at least solid, has been shown to be impermanent and flimsy. “How shall the hart be reconciled to its feast of losses?” This is our question.

Did you notice the grease pencil markings on a few of the images on the contact sheet? Cassy could see something interesting or important in some of the frames once she had printed them. Focusing on a more narrow portion of the whole suggested a new perspective — a fresh story or a better story, or somehow revealing the real story to her. I love seeing those marks. Some of us write poetry, some photograph, some journal, or paint, or sing. There are so many ways in which we take what life gives us and then shape it into a life's journey that we imagine is going to be good and real and satisfying. Practice shapes our lives over time and focuses our imagination in ways which reveal our true virtue. Without renunciation real life is not possible.

Empty handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going –
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

(Kozan Ichigyo, 14th century Zen monk)