Editor’s Note: The following is the fifth in a series of posts by Nora Murphy about the “10 paramis,” or qualities of heart-mind. With these posts, she’ll take an informal, personal approach to each of the paramis, in an effort to reveal the simple, everyday lesson in each.
“Stop talking so much!”
The admonishment arrived after dusk from a kind German monk who surprised even himself with his strong words.
We were both spending time in a monastery in southern Thailand in the late 1980s. The monk had been in residence for a year and I was staying on for a few weeks after my virgin ten-day retreat. There were just a handful of us farangs, Westerners, and in the evenings we would gather informally to listen to dharma tapes.
One night, I asked, “My concentration is gone. What happened?” The German monk didn’t answer me right away. But the next night, he offered this advice.
“Stop talking so much!”
It didn’t take long to discover that he was right. By quieting my outer life, or practicing renunciation in speech, I rekindled concentration on the cushion.
Renunciation is the third of the ten paramis. It follows generosity and morality, making a kind of 1-2-3 waltz step of conscious action.
In generosity, we practice letting go and sharing. In morality, we practice living a life of non-violence toward ourselves and others. In renunciation, we practice self-restraint.
This time of year mirrors the restraint of renunciation. By 4:30 in the afternoon, the darkness invites us inside into the quiet. In this quiet, we can see and experience the mind and body in a different way. Rather than seeing with the brilliance of sunlight, we can see into the spacious shadows that are hidden much of the rest of the year.
What’s inside this vast shadow land of renunciation?
The Buddha shares some of his own exploration of renunciation in the Anguttara Nikaya, an ancient Pali text. In one story, a householder named Tapussa confesses to the Buddha and Ananda that he doesn’t ‘leap for joy’ over renouncing sensual pleasures. What an honest and brave man that Tapussa! Can you imagine have the courage to tell the Buddha that you’d really rather flirt with a cute guy or girl than meditate?
The Buddha doesn’t judge Tapussa. Instead, he shares his own struggles to explore renunciation. The Buddha tells Tapussa and Ananda that before he became enlightened, he understood that renunciation seemed like a good thing, at least in theory. But he, too, wasn’t convinced. It wasn’t until he really explored sensuality for himself—both when he engaged in it and when he gave it up—that his heart ‘leapt with joy’ with the practice of renunciation.
The Buddha is instructing Tapussa, and the rest of us, to undertake our own investigation into sensuality and renunciation.
In the darkness of December, I’ve been trying to practice a little more renunciation in my daily life. I’ve tried to sit more, and to drink, flirt, and, of course, talk less. This has resulted in greater ease, both on and off the cushion. But as the holiday party season got underway, I’ve seen once again how less restraint leads to a decrease in concentration and ease.
What did the Buddha discover during his investigation than 2,500 years ago?
Concentration—very deep states of concentration, such as the jhanas.
In fact, the Buddha says, “quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities, I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation” (AN 9.41).
We’ve just past the winter solstice mark here in Minnesota, but the holiday parties are winding up and spring is still a long way off. What brilliance can you discover within this quiet time of the year?
Then Ven. Ananda, together with Tapussa the householder, went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: “Tapussa the householder, here, has said to me, ‘Venerable Ananda, sir, we are householders who indulge in sensuality, delight in sensuality, enjoy sensuality, rejoice in sensuality. For us — indulging in sensuality, delighting in sensuality, enjoying sensuality, rejoicing in sensuality — renunciation seems like a sheer drop-off. Yet I’ve heard that in this doctrine & discipline the hearts of the very young monks leap up at renunciation, grow confident, steadfast, & firm, seeing it as peace. So right here is where this doctrine & discipline is contrary to the great mass of people: i.e., [this issue of] renunciation.'”
“So it is, Ananda. So it is. Even I myself, before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened Bodhisatta, thought: ‘Renunciation is good. Seclusion is good.’ But my heart didn’t leap up at renunciation, didn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace. The thought occurred to me: ‘What is the cause, what is the reason, why my heart doesn’t leap up at renunciation, doesn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace?’ Then the thought occurred to me: ‘I haven’t seen the drawback of sensual pleasures; I haven’t pursued [that theme]. I haven’t understood the reward of renunciation; I haven’t familiarized myself with it. That’s why my heart doesn’t leap up at renunciation, doesn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace.’
“Then the thought occurred to me: ‘If, having seen the drawback of sensual pleasures, I were to pursue that theme; and if, having understood the reward of renunciation, I were to familiarize myself with it, there’s the possibility that my heart would leap up at renunciation, grow confident, steadfast, & firm, seeing it as peace.’
“So at a later time, having seen the drawback of sensual pleasures, I pursued that theme; having understood the reward of renunciation, I familiarized myself with it. My heart leaped up at renunciation, grew confident, steadfast, & firm, seeing it as peace. Then, quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities, I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation…”