Nekkhamma : Renunciation

Renunciation is a core concept in Buddhism as practiced in the Theravada tradition, and an idea that gets very little traction in the modern world. I suppose it wouldn’t be unfair to say that it probably wasn’t a particularly popular idea even in the time of the Buddha… but it seems that the culture was at least amenable to the idea, whereas those who practice renunciation today in anything but the most watered-down form are seen as backwards and looked down upon as vagrants.

In fact, on the one occasion when I have discussed this subject with a coworker, that coworker seemed to not even know the English word’s meaning…

The pali word, Nekkhamma, is the third of the dasa parami, the practice of renunciation. By my experience, this seems to entail (but is certainly not limited to)…

  • the intent to be harmless to living (breathing) beings of all kinds.
    More than just not killing, as per the first precept, but the intent to lay aside all motives of ill will. The practitioner works toward perfect compassion toward even the ants invading his pantry.
  • a wholesome desire to disband the Ego.
    Living in a manner which places emphasis on letting go of the idea of a “self,” and particularly the clinging to the five aggregates.
  • restraint in pleasures of the senses and, in particular, celibacy.
    Leaving behind worldly behaviors such as eating for the pleasure of the taste, watching (or listening to) entertainments, and sexual gratification.

The question could be asked whether I personally practice Nekkhamma in any meaningful way — and as far as a Buddhist householder in modern USA can, I think I do, but certainly no where near the ideal as expounded in the Suttas. It is something to strive for, and one can make a routine of practicing renunciation particularly on Uposatha days, the days of the Full, First Quarter, New, and Last Quarter phases of the moon. On these days, the Buddha seemed to place extra emphasis on the practice of laypeople, imploring them to adhere to eight precepts (as opposed to five, as described in the Sīla article), bringing them closer to the core of monastic practice.

The eight precepts add the following:

  1. The third precept is modified to a stronger form; abstention from all sexual activity.
  2. Refraining from eating after noon and before dawn the next morning.
  3. Abstaining from listening to music, watching shows, and indulging in other entertainments.
  4. Refraining from using large or high beds and seats.

Each of these additional training rules goes toward cutting out ego and the hindrances of sloth and sensual desire and can open up a lot of time for study and meditation.

Renunciation of worldly desires frees the practitioner from the constant need for more and more. Whether the “more” in a particular case is material or immaterial (things or sensations), the constant need to feed on the outside world in order to [try] to satisfy ourselves is a huge drain on the mind and is a cause of stress and suffering for ourselves and others.

This desire comes first from the sense of a self which wants, needs, or deserves to be satisfied. The final, unwavering renouncing and transcending of this conceit is, as far as I can understand, the main point of the Buddha’s teachings.

Renunciation ties into the previously discussed Perfections of Generosity and Virtue. Susan Elbaum Jootla makes the point in the article, The Practice of Giving, that “by [one’s] act of giving, he will strengthen within himself his own disposition to renunciation, and I can only imagine how difficult it would be to put aside the world in favor of the holy life if one’s morality is questionable…

The practice of Renunciation is expounded by certain verses in the canon as a sort of exchange — giving up worldly pleasure for the ultimate bliss.

I’ll make a trade:
aging for the Ageless,
burning for the Unbound:
the highest peace,
the unexcelled rest
from the yoke.
Theragatha 1.32

If, by forsaking a limited ease,
he would see an abundance of ease,
the enlightened man would forsake
the limited ease for the sake of the abundant.
Dhammapada 290

If by renouncing the world we free ourselves from bondage, isn’t that worth striving for? I urge you to consider the value of the things to which you cling. Try to lay them aside and find peace in so doing.

Please be well, my friends.



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