Alexander Berzin on Renunciation—Determination To Be Free

The following article is from the Summer, 2002 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


A talk given by ALEX BERZIN in Morelia, Mexico October 10, 2001

Definition and Implications

Renunciation (nges-'byung) is the determination to be free from not only some form of suffering, but also from its causes. It entails the willingness to give up that suffering and its causes. Thus, it requires great courage. It is not just aiming to get something nice without paying a price.

Renunciation also implies belief in the fact that it is possible to be free from that suffering and its causes. It is not just wishful thinking. It is belief in a fact to be true (dad-pa) in all three ways.

(1) Clearheadedly believing it (dvangs-ba'i dad-pa), clears the mind of disturbing emotions and attitudes about the object. Thus, correct renunciation clears the mind of indecisiveness, self-pity, and resentment about having to give up something desirable.

(2) Believing a fact to be true based on reason (yid-ches-pa). We need to understand how liberation from suffering and its causes is possible.

(3) Believing a fact with an aspiration toward it (mngon-dad-kyi dad-pa). As with the two stages of bodhichitta (the wishing and the involved stages), we need not merely to wish or to be willing to give up some level of suffering and its causes. We need actually to give them both up, as much as we presently are able, and to involve ourselves in the practices that will enable us eventually to gain freedom from them forever.

Moreover, correct renunciation is not the same as short-lived all-excited renunciation (sna-thung spu-sud-kyi nges-'byung): the enthusiastic and fanatic renunciation of everything, based 011 blind faith that an external source will save us. It entails a realistic attitude about the hard work involved. We may gain inspiration from others, but we have to work hard ourselves.

Further, we need a realistic attitude about how progress occurs. Becoming free from samsara is never a linear process, with things getting better each day. Until we are free forever, samsara will continue to go up and down. When viewed from the perspective of a long period of time, we can see progress, but on a day-today basis, our moods will continue to go up and down.

Thus, we need discipline and patience to endure the difficulties of following the Buddhist path, and armor-like joyful perseverance (go- cha'i brtson-'grus) to press on despite the ups and downs. With clearheaded belief backing our determination to be free, we will not become frustrated or dismayed.

Two Stages of Renunciation According to Tsongkhapa

In The Three Principal Paths (Lam- gtso rnam-gsum), Tsongkhapa differentiates:

(1) the initial scope renunciation with which we turn our primary concern from benefitting this life to benefitting future lives,

(2) the intermediate scope renunciation with which we turn our primary interest from benefitting future lives to gaining liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth in samsara.

The first is a level of renunciation developed in common with non-Buddhists who aim to go to heaven. The second is emphasized in Buddhism.

Dharma Lite Renunciation

We can implement this differentiation by adding a preliminary stage, the "Dharma Lite" version (like CocaCola Lite). Dharma Lite renunciation is turning our primary interest from gratifying the moment to benefiting later periods in this life or later generations.

Dharma Lite renunciation, however, is only valid as part of the Buddhist path when we view it merely as a stepping stone for reaching the two "hard-core" Dharma levels. To reach the hard-core levels, we need to understand the Buddhist teachings on rebirth correctly and believe them to be fact, based on reason. Otherwise, how can we sincerely work to benefit our future lives or to gain liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth?

With Dharma Lite renunciation, then, we look at the everyday problems we have in life—in our relationships, in our dealing with difficulties, and so on. We also look at the causes and we are willing to give up both, in order to improve the quality of this life—and not just immediately, but also later in life. This is renunciation on a level in common with psychotherapy.

Parallel to this level, we can have a Dharma Lite version of putting safe direction in life (taking refuge). We put the safe direction in our lives of working to live with our neuroses so that they cause us only minimal problems. We look to those who have achieved this, in full and in part, as indicating the way.


...we need to recognize as sources of our suffering our selfishness, laziness, attachment, anger, and so on; give them up as much as possible now and strive as soon as possible to rid ourselves of them forever.

Provisional Renunciation and Safe Direction

Lam-rim (the graded stages of the path) presents the topic of taking safe direction first in terms of initial scope renunciation. There, it is based on dread of worse rebirths and belief in the fact that the Three Gems can lead to better rebirth. Like the Dharma Lite versions, this level of renunciation and safe direction is also only provisional. They are also not the full, definitional forms.

The Dharma Gem is true stoppings of suffering and its causes, and true paths leading to them. On the initial level, however, the Dharma Gem is not an actual Dharma gem. The suffering we aim to stop is only gross suffering; its cause is only unawareness of behavioral cause and effect; the stopping is only temporary; and the path is restraining from destructive behavior.

Moreover, those who have attained this so-called Dharma Gem are those in the best states of rebirth—human and gods, not Buddhas and not necessarily the arya sangha community of those with nonconceptual cognition of voidness.

Definitional Renunciation and Safe Direction

Only on the intermediate lam-rim level do we find full, definitional renunciation and full, definitional safe direction. True sufferings, here, are of all three types (pain, change, and all-encompassing), true causes are unawareness of voidness, true stopping is forever—not just temporary like going to higher realm rebirths or meditative states—and true paths are nonconceptual cognitions of voidness.

Correspondingly, here, we put the definitional safe direction in our lives and aim for the actual Dharma Gem of true stoppings and true paths, as exist in full on the mental continuums of Buddhas and exist in part on the mental continuums of the arya sangha.

Bodhisattva Level of Renunciation and Safe Direction

On the advanced lam-rim level of a bodhichitta motivation, renunciation aims for the freedom of all others from samsaric suffering and its causes—not just their suffering of pain, and not just the suffering of some beings. This wish for all others to be totally liberated from suffering and its causes, with conviction that it is possible, is called "compassion." Compassion is one aspect of the bodhisattva level of renunciation.

To bring about the ability to help liberate all others, we need the other aspect of bodhisattva renunciation. We need to renounce not only the obscurations preventing our liberation (nyon-sgrib), but also the obscurations preventing our omniscience (shes-sgrib). Again, this implies understanding omniscience, the obscurations that prevent it, and firm belief that it is possible to rid ourselves forever of those obscurations. It also implies firm belief that it is possible for everyone to rid themselves forever of these obscurations.

Concluding Remarks

All along the Buddhist path, then, we need the willingness to give up suffering and the causes of suffering. Thus, we need to recognize as sources of our suffering our selfishness, laziness, attachment, anger, and so on; give them up as much as possible now; and strive as soon as possible to rid ourselves of them forever.

In tantra, we need even deeper renunciation. We need to be willing to give up and then actually let go, as much as we can, our ordinary self-images and our identifying with them. Renunciation is indeed a deep and far-reaching practice, from Dharma Lite all the way to highest tantra.

© 2002 by Alexander Berzin. All rights reserved.

For further information on Alex's online teachings, see

Books by Alex Berzin published by Snow Lion:

Relating to a Spiritual Teacher Taking the Kalachakra Initiation The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Malm mudra

Developing Balanced Sensitivity Kalachakra and other Six-session Yoga Texts

For more information on Alex and his books see: There is a link on the home page.

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