determined to be free

What is renunciation & how does it make sense in modern life?

September 8th, 2003. I find myself talking with a swami, a monk and a Buddhist nun. I want to find some humour in this, thereís got to be a joke you could tell, but really, I feel a little unsettled. Good unsettled. Unsettled in that way you feel when you are maybe a little dejected but then hope creeps in Ö

Here are three real people, who have committed their lives to paths of renunciation. Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron, an unassuming, clear and curious Buddhist nun, Swami Radhananda, our soft-spoken powerhouse of a columnist, and Brother Wayne Teasdale, an interesting mix of Christian monk/sanyasi making his way as an urban mystic.

I gather them together to dispel some of the myths around renunciation, to redefine renunciation for modern practitioners. Who isnít curious about the lifestyle of a monk? Who hasnít wanted to ask, What is it like for them? and How can we, who arenít quite ready for life as a swami, still practise renunciation?

The renunciates are from three very different traditions, but they share an essential truth. Their words circle around each other, overlap and weave together a vision of spiritual commitment. What strikes me is how much they have been inspired by their own teachers, and how the commitment to spiritual life becomes a service to others, a way of giving back. Renunciates have a role beyond their own evolution; they act as symbols of the possibility in spiritual aspiration and intent. Their renunciation does not mean that they have turned away from life but that they fully engage in their true responsibilities to the world.

I have always wanted to do the total renunciation thing, and listening to them talk I feel moved by what they describe, but a little sad that I am where I am on this path. At the beginning.

September 8th happens to be an auspicious day for me. Itís the anniversary of the mantra initiation my guru gave me eight years ago, my first real step on this path. But this day is always one of questioning. How do I really live a spiritual life in the world today? How do I release my attachments? I have to admit to sometimes indulging in despair about the state of modern practice and spirituality. Is there hope for us? Is there hope for me? Talking to these three inspiring individuals today seems like a little message from the Divine to keep on, and even if I take little steps, there is hope.

I start off by jumping right in and asking, What is this thing we call renunciation? Ė Clea McDougall

Brother Wayne Teasdale† Itís really the renunciation of, or freedom from, what we would call in the Christian tradition the false self, the egoic consciousness, or the self-cherishing attitude. Leading up to that, as a monastic, there is renunciation of some of the usual joys and pleasures of this life, including owning property and having a family and things of that nature. But thatís just the beginning of renunciation.

Swami Radhananda† For me, renunciation is going toward something. As a renunciate, I have made a choice where I want to put my energy and how I want to live my life. Itís knowing the teachings and then having the opportunity to share them with other people. The clearer I become on this path, the more that drops away. Also, I only take what I need. I let go, but at the same time other things come to me. So itís a real contradiction in some ways.

Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron† Renunciation is a determination to be free from cyclic existence with all of its unsatisfactory conditions, and an aspiration to attain to liberation or full enlightenment. From a Buddhist perspective, weíre renouncing suffering and the causes of suffering. I would suggest in a Buddhist way, instead of using the term ďrenunciation,Ē we call it a determination to be free. ďRenunciationĒ often has such a negative connotation, but it is actually a very joyful spiritual aspiration.

Clea McDougall† People often do react negatively to the idea of renunciation, and equate renunciation with selfishness. Is it a selfish choice?

WT†† †Of course it looks selfish to the world because people are conditioned by this culture where the basic focus is the nuclear family. In the Hindu tradition, and also in Buddhism, itís very common for someone to have an awakening and leave their wife or husband and children. And that, to Western sensibilities, is outrageous and looks incredibly selfish. This culture looks for a sense of permanency in life, but everything is impermanent. Renunciation is not negative; itís not a withdrawal from the world. Itís withdrawal from the worldís illusions, and from the whole selfish way of life, which is the basis of suffering.

And what Iíve come to is that renunciation is the condition for the possibility of entering the kingdom of heaven here. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is in your midst. What does that possibly mean? The kingdom of heaven is the realization of the primacy of compassion, the primacy of charity, and that the whole of the world and all our relationships with all sentient beings is governed by this sense of caring, of concern, of kindness. To be able to realize that in each moment is being in the kingdom of heaven.

BTC† We are renouncing suffering and its causes, and selfishness is included in the causes of suffering. Renunciation is going toward freedom from selfishness, so I find it very interesting that people see it as a selfish thing when our whole motivation is to free our mind from selfishness.

Where can we go in the world where we are not in relationship to others? Even if we live a more private life or more like a hermit, we still live in constant relationship to all living beings. And these contemplatives are more aware of the plight of all living beings. Many people who live in the city block everything out because they have too much on their plate. Renunciation isnít leaving our relationships with others, itís a way of transforming them.

From a spiritual viewpoint, our consumer society looks very selfish. People talk so much about my family, my career, my vacation. Even though those people are very busy and theyíre living in the world, that appears selfish.

SR†† †The other thing, too, about selfishness is that a lot of people will take time out of their lives with a busy job, or to do a Ph.D., for example, and that takes a lot of time away from their families and focuses on something that is totally theirs. They forget about their families instead of drawing them in or making a more meaningful relationship with them.

CM†† †So how can we turn around our definition of renunciation into something positive?

WT†† †We could say itís embracing a fuller life. Thereís a wonderful aphorism by Saint Erenaeus that says, ďThe glory of God is the human being fully alive.Ē Fully alive to love and compassion and selflessness and kindness. Freedom from grasping of self and trying to fulfill oneís individual pride and egoic notions of happiness and manipulating reality and others. Being free of all of that because youíre embracing a larger reality of love and compassion, kindness. So I think that renunciation is really an initiation into a process of sensitivity, greater and greater sensitivity. Itís a letting go of one thing in order to be, develop, cultivate something much, much more expansive and of benefit to all.

BTC† Itís a renunciation, as I said at the beginning, of suffering. Weíre also renouncing distractions, so that we will have the mental time and space to turn toward whatís meaningful and whatís important in life.

SR†† †For me, I just know that with renunciation my life has expanded and so has my vision. Itís a dynamic process of evolving consciousness. When I took sanyas, I began to understand that there was a lot more to renunciation than letting things go. Itís a commitment to facing life and moving forward.

CM†† †Not all of us can take vows or dedicate our lives to renunciation. What are some practical ways that everyday people can practise renunciation?

BTC† The first thing is to simplify oneís lifestyle. Even though renunciation is an inner attitude, it should be displayed in how we live. When we renounce suffering and its causes, when we renounce selfishness, how do we express that in our lifestyle? Living more simply and not consuming more than our fair share of the worldís resources. Seeing our impact on the environment and other beings, we become more mindful and reduce our consumption, reuse what we have, and recycle.

SR†† †On a more subtle level, people can also renounce the images they hold of people who are close to them or people as they meet them, by suspending judgement. This allows people to change and for their fullness to come forward. A lot of times, people are attached to their ideas and concepts. Here in BC this past summer, with the forest fires, people have had to ask, ďWhat am I going to take with me?Ē as they were evacuated from their homes. The community has become really strong in helping each other. Things arenít as important. Compassion and caring become the focus. Sometimes life and Mother Nature will demand that of people.

WT†† †We can also have a very, very committed, disciplined, regular practice. Like meditation. A practice of mindfulness in each moment. I think renunciation is a practice in meeting people. Itís just to accept them. You may not accept their actions, but you accept them as a person. By constantly evaluating people, itís a diminishment of the other. So instead of engaging in diminishing the other, you just accept them as like yourself and donít make any judgement about where theyíre at and just be there, present for them. And you know, if they need something in terms of insight or encouragement or love and acceptance, then they will ask for that. So I think thatís a positive way to practise renunciation in human relationships.

CM†† †All three of you have made commitments to the path of renunciation. When you did that, how did your lives change?

BTC† I became much clearer. I gained clarity during the process of deciding that I wanted to make a commitment and take Buddhist monastic vows. I had more direction in life and clear ethical discipline. I didnít justify and rationalize my harmful actions and had less distraction from practising the path. So, mentally, it had a big impact on me at the beginning. As Iíve practised over time, the commitment has transformed into an opportunity to serve, a commitment to carrying these teachings on to future generations.

CM†† †Brother Wayne, what happened in your life?

WT†† †Well, you know, itís still happening! Let me tell you a short little story. When I was a novice many years ago, one of the professors, Father Damon, who was quite a mystic in his own right, was teaching us a course in spirituality. He said to us, ďDonít give yourself to God in one great act of self-donation, of youthful idealism, because youíll end up taking yourself back bit by bit. Be sure of what youíre surrendering; be sure that youíre fully ready in your generosity to let something go.Ē I think transformation is a lifetimeís work or perhaps many lifetimesí work. Thatís one thing.

More and more as Iíve gone along, I realize Iím not here for me. Itís not a question of Brother Wayne as Brother Wayne. By living the commitment, I am helping others in their struggles. The three of us, along with all others who have chosen this monastic life of renunciation, are signs of the ultimate quest. Of the urgency of that ultimate way of life and that everyone has to come to it sooner or later. So, in that sense, weíre ambassadors of the spiritual life. By living it, we are evaluated and judged and criticized and praised, all of which is irrelevant, but itís serving a larger social function, in the sangha, in the Christian community, in the Hindu community, for the whole world. And furthermore, I feel that renunciation is a way in which I can become more fully available to what the Christian tradition calls agathic love, selfless love, not selfish love. So in those ways Iíve noticed the changes.

CM†† †And Swami Radhananda, how has your life changed?

SR†† †The initiation into sanyas is just a beginning. Iím trying to establish the Light deeply and to be generous with it, with what Iíve gained from my personal experience and from these teachings. Renunciation is like a signpost for others, because once a commitment is made, other people either turn toward it or against it. Itís like the commitment is so strong, they can see it in action, through the teaching and through living it.

I feel that Iím just beginning to understand this path. So Iím always thinking and giving from that place of learning. Then I take another step. Itís just such a joy that everything I do could be taken as worship. Then I have something to give thatís really worthwhile.

CM†† †A friend and I were recently discussing how the word ďrenunciationĒ is very similar to the words ďenunciationĒ and ďpronunciation.Ē Listening to you, it does seem as though renouncing is almost like a declaration, an act of speech in some way. Would you agree with that?

BTC† Yes, it is a declaration. In one way, itís a declaration to myself, saying to myself that now living in ethical discipline, developing compassion and love, and opening my heart are most important in my life. Itís a declaration to others in many ways. For example, I wear robes, I shave my head. It declares to men that if they want to relate to me, they canít do it in a sexual way. So it completely transforms my relationships with the opposite sex.

In addition, monastic life is a symbol of hope in a society thatís so torn by war and poverty. Just knowing that there are people trying to transform their hearts and minds, and people who are consciously developing a kind heart and wisdom Ė just knowing that gives people in this society a sense of hope and inspiration.

SR†† †Especially in receiving a spiritual name, itís saying that weíre on a different path. To me itís a constant reminder and support that I have changed and Iím making it public. So the spiritual work can only come out through my actions. The promise in the name that Iíve been given is that I keep the teachings visible.

WT†† †Iím more and more struck by how conversion or transformation is such a long process. In a sense, it could be achieved in a second, but the foundation necessary takes time. I have to say that I think in our day and age what weíre doing is very necessary because Radhananda and Chodron and I and you live in a culture that is very, very unsupportive of really serious spiritual life. In some sense, itís an uphill struggle and more and more reminders are needed. Iím very conscious that, yes, we serve a public function and weíre not in that position for ourselves.

CM †† †So you renounce societyís ideas of joy and pleasure, you are a public symbol of spiritual intent. Can I ask then, is it a good life?

BTC† Yes, definitely. Iím actually much happier now than I was before. My mind is much more peaceful and much more open. Weíre not renouncing happiness; weíre cultivating a type of joy that comes from within and doesnít depend on having things, attaining status or position, or being praised. There is an internal sense of well-being and a wish to share that with others.

SR†† †Itís a joy! To be in the company of the wise, to be with people who are also trying to bring the Light into the world; itís so engaging and real.

CM†† †Brother Wayne, is it a good life?

WT†† †I think so. I would agree with that Ė itís a joy, but sometimes itís a tough joy!

BTC† Yes!

SR†† †Thatís true!

WT†† †Itís not very easy. There is incredible happiness and one knows that this is the way. But there are so many distractions in the culture, and temptations come up and then you kind of go, ďWell, am I crazy or something?Ē Itís a tough joy, but I know in the depths of my being, to put it in Christian terms, this is the will of God for me. Iíve always felt this sense of call. That in the long run we may think we have a choice, but itís truly decided by the reality of the Divine.

The participants

Brother Wayne Teasdaleis a lay monk, author and teacher. In 1986 he responded to a call from his close friend and teacher, Father Bede Griffiths, the English Benedictine monk who pioneered interreligious thought and practice. Brother Wayne traveled to Griffith's ashram in India and was initiated as a Christian sanyasi. Following the initiation he expressed a wish to stay at the ashram, but Griffiths encouraged him to return home. "You're needed in America, not here in India," Griffiths said. "The real challenge for you is to be a monk in the world, a sanyasi who lives in the midst of society, at the very heart of things."
Brother Wayne has carried out the counsel of his teacher by pursuing a mystic path while making a living and working for social justice. Actively seeking the common ground between spiritual traditions, Brother Wayne is a trustee of the Parliament of the World's Religions and a member of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. He teaches throughout the world and currently lives at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
Brother Wayne's books include The Mystic Heart (2001), A Monk in the World: Finding the Sacred in Daily Life (2002), and Bede Griffiths: An Introduction to His Interspiritual Thought (2003).

Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron spent most of her early life near Los Angeles where she studied and worked as a school teacher before devoting her life to Buddhist teachings. Her initial contact with Buddhism inspired her to face the challenges of her daily life. "The more I investigated what the Buddha said," she says, "the more I found that it corresponded to my life experiences." After many years of study, Chodron received full ordination as a nun in l986.
Having lived and taught in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Israel, Chodron is now based in Idaho while she searches for a location for a future study center, Sravasti Abbey. The abbey will be a spiritual community where monastics and those preparing for ordination, male and female, can practice according to Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Chodron is a great supporter of monasticism as a path of liberation and selfless service. "There is much joy in ordained life," she explains, "and it comes from looking honestly at our own condition as well as at our potential. We have to commit to going deeper and peeling away the many layers of hypocrisy, clinging and fear inside ourselves. We are challenged to jump into empty space and to live our faith and aspiration."
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron's books include Open Heart, Clear Mind (1990), Buddhism for Beginners (2001), and Working with Anger (2001). For information on her teachings, publications, and projects visit these websites: and

Swami Radhananda is a yogini, ascent columnist and spiritual director of Yasodhara Ashram in Kootenay Bay, BC. She met her spiritual teacher, Swami Sivananda Radha, in 1977. "At the time," she says, "I was struggling with an underlying feeling of absence in my life. I was married, had two children and a career but something was still missing." Swami Radha's teachings touched her immediately. "She spoke about the purpose of life and how to live life fully. She spoke about bringing quality and Light into every aspect of our lives."
For many years Radhananda lived as a householder yogi, integrating the philosophy and practices of yoga into her work as mother, teacher and education consultant. She became president of Yasodhara Ashram in 1993 and was initiated into the order of sanyas soon after. As a swami, her main concern has been making the teachings of yoga accessible to everyday practitioners, especially youth.
Today Radhananda devotes her time to writing, teaching and supporting a widespread community of students and teachers in reaching their potential through self-reflection and the study of yoga. Radhananda most recently published a video and CD that instructs students in a standing meditation, The Divine Light Invocation (2003). To find out more about Swami Radhananda and Yasodhara Ashram, visit the website at

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