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Renunciation Doesn't (Mainly) Mean Renouncing

In English-language dharma teachings, we often encounter the key term “renunciation.” We sometimes hear that renunciation is the indispensable foundation of our path of awakening, the quality without which no genuine progress can be made. It’s often described as the starting point, where the rubber really hits the road.

But if the principle or attitude that this word points to is so crucially important, have we been using the right word to talk about it? For some time now, many teachers and translators have expressed concerns that the way we speak about “renunciation” in English might not always be leaving students with the impression that was originally intended by the Buddhist teachings.

In Pali, the source term for our discussion here is nissaraṇa. The Sanskrit equivalent is niḥsaraṇa, which was rendered into Tibetan as ngejung (transliterated as nges ’byung or nges par ’byung ba). All three of these terms carry a basic meaning of “emerging from,” and the Pali and Sanskrit terms in particular denote a literal sense of “going out” or “egress.” The first syllable of the Tibetan translation, nge, means “certainty,” while the second, jung, can mean both “to arise” and “to emerge from.”

I can’t speak to the ways in which this term has been used in the Indian source languages, but when ngejung is discussed in Tibetan, its connotations are often quite positive and affirming: yes, we must take a close look at our habits and the ways in which we create a network of suffering for ourselves and others. And we may very well find what we see to be somewhat saddening. But what we also find is that the causes of our suffering are actually adjustable into other shapes: there’s no rule saying that this ignorance and clinging have to remain in charge all day, every day. We can free ourselves, and emerge, from conditioned and limited ways of thinking.

When I have translated for Tibetan teachers who have spoken about ngejung, the feelings their descriptions inspired have made me think of words such as “freedom,” “determination,” “longing,” “confidence,” and “conviction.” With ngejung, there is a sense of inspiration informed by certainty. In English, my teacher, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, uses phrases such as “the heartfelt longing for freedom” when teaching on this foundational stage of practice.

This longing for freedom, in combination with an insight that the old way of doing things just isn’t working and never has, is not immediately equated with a “renouncing” of anything per se. One may well naturally lose interest in holding onto attitudes and actions one has found not to produce any true ease or contentment. But that part comes a little bit after the heart of ngejung has arisen. We first have to see our situation clearly, and in a first-hand way, and then we can feel a sense of possibility of becoming free. And then we might decide to work on letting go of particular habits.

As is often the case in translation, there just doesn’t seem to be a single word or term in English that captures this sense of sadness, certainty, and determination, all at once. For this reason, even though it doesn’t seem to be ideal, most teachers and translators still use “renunciation” to refer to the heartfelt determination to become free from suffering, having gained certainty that seeking happiness solely from the outside world leads to constant disappointment.

Does this mean that we have to resign ourselves to being continually misled by terms in translation? I don’t think so. We may still be in a certain phase of the Buddhadharma’s transmission into the English language in which it is necessary to refer back frequently to source language terms in order to develop a clear understanding of certain concepts. But eventually, the concepts we are clarifying together through our discussions and contemplations will give the same old English words new levels of meaning. English, after all, is a very malleable language. There may not be an entry for the Buddhist usage of the word “renunciation” in the Oxford English Dictionary at present, but as Buddhists refine their usage and understanding of the principles represented by this and other translation terms, such as “emptiness,” gradually the word will become imbued with a new level of meaning in our common lexicon.

So in sum, renunciation doesn’t mainly point to giving anything up. It points to connecting with a genuine understanding of our present situation and our potential in relation to that.

In closing, please enjoy this performance by the great Nina Simone. I think that, in many of its lines, this song (written by Billy Taylor) beautifully links with Buddhism’s teachings on the true heart of renunciation.


Tyler Dewar is a Mitra or senior teacher in the Nalandabodhi Buddhist community. He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter, and at his new blog, Parijata Press.

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