I taught Alphabet Sangha at East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California on April 13, 2021 on Zoom.
Meditation: Letting Go with Mindfulness of the Body
Dharma Talk: Cultural Practices for Safety: Renunciation as a Tool to ‘Walk with the Gods’
Today, I’m officially 2 weeks after my 2nd Pfizer COVID vaccine, which means I’m supposedly fully vaccinated. I understand that doesn’t mean I won’t get sick. But if I am exposed to COVID, my body will be more prepared to fight it off, so I won’t go to the hospital or get so sick that I’ll die.
My partner is also vaccinated, and asked me this morning, “Are we going to do something wild to mark this occasion?” And I said, “My day looks about the same as it has for the last year — a lot of Zoom meetings, time in the backyard to enjoy the sun.”
Queers have our particular history of learning how to survive pandemic, how to create cultures that value and celebrate safer practices. Of course, I’m talking about HIV/AIDS, and the culture of safer sex practices that has helped some of us survive.
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling how the surge in vaccinations is breaking up and changing the cultural norms around me. For much of the last year, I’ve gotten into a bit of a cultural routine — here’s what masks to wear, here’s where it’s safe to go, here’s who it’s safe to see in person at a distance, here’s how to wash my hands.
As friends get vaccinated, I feel both excited and very anxious about renegotiating the boundaries of what keeps us safe as a community. What information do I trust? Is my impulse to shift boundaries a reasonable one, or panic-driven by my exhaustion with safer COVID practices? I feel both my enthusiasm at connecting with more beloved people, and my overwhelm because I do not want to cause unintended harm to myself, beloveds, and the broader community. I don’t yet fully know what actions and inactions would be considered safer by my community.
How can Buddhism support us in these questions? We can apply our intention of practice, and explore our feelings related to this particular practice in Buddhism of renunciation.
As we enter this conversation, I want to recognize that people are in many communities here, where COVID safety practices are not all the same at a governmental level or what you’ve established in your home, family, friend group, workplace, or neighborhood. We are also in different places in terms of vaccination — it’s likely that not everyone here can safely take a vaccine, other people may be working through big questions about governmental vaccinations, and other people may be ready to be vaccinated and can’t wait for it to be their turn. While I will speak from my own experience, I hope I’ve left this talk open enough to apply to your internal questions as well, whether it’s related to COVID vaccines or other practices of renunciation and letting go.
I always laugh at myself when I want to teach about renunciation. I’ll be honest, when I first heard “renunciation” in Buddhist contexts — I hated it. I have been in many dharma spaces where renunciation is taught as if I must abandon this body that I have worked so hard to establish a connection with. Teachers also like to use examples of giving up food, and then overlay that with very direct fat shaming or really value renunciation as a method to control food so you can theoretically control the size and shape of your body.
It’s part of why I like to teach about renunciation, because in my own study, I’ve come to understand that the Buddha is not talking about dieting, he’s not talking about fat hatred, he’s not talking about abandoning the body. So, what is he talking about, and how might it help us continue to develop safer practices in our lives around COVID?
In Buddhism — the definitions of renunciation partly depends on the lineage you are relating to, well described by David Chapman’s blog Vividness, in an article “Renunciation in Buddhism”
Traditionalists: Renunciation of sense pleasure is at the heart of Buddhist practice – think monastic renunciation of sex. It’s the “engine” that builds energy toward freedom. It’s a parami, a wisdom practice to perfect. Training rules for monastics from Vinaya: living without an abundance of personal possessions, having only the robes that you’re wearing, not using money, and being celibate.
Modern revision: Meditation practice is put at the center. You can abandon attachment to pleasures instead of abandoning the pleasures themselves.
Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away. —S. T. Suzuki Roshi
Pema Chodron: What one is renouncing is closing down and shutting off from life. You could say that renunciation is the same thing as opening to the teachings of the present moment – excerpt from The Places that Scare You
For me, it’s not even that one of these lineages is the “correct” one, but that each can steer me in the right direction at different times.
Ajahn Chah story of the middle path.
Ajahn Amaro: “in English the word “renunciation” has the connotation of gritting one’s teeth and bearing a diminished situation for some sort of spiritual good. It’s going without something that you would really prefer to have. But within Buddhist practice, the quality of renunciation, or nekkhamma as it’s called in Pali, doesn’t have that sense of diminution; it has a whole different tone. The word bramacharya, which can be used as a synonym for the renunciant life and also for celibacy, literally means “divine conduct” or “walking with the gods. So rather than going without, one is actually choosing to walk with the divine instead of being caught up in ordinary worldly preoccupation.”
So what does this reflection on renunciation give us in our current daily practice of staying safer amidst COVID?
Whenever I feel like “there’s only way!” to do things — renunciation is a tool to help me open up choice and get mindful about where I’m stuck.
Earlier I mentioned that I feel a little unclear about my desire to shift boundaries, changing my practices about who I see and how we relate to each other when we see each other. Part of me wants to throw a big party and invite everyone I know who is vaccinated and then make out with everyone. Maybe we could try it with masks on for a semblance of safer COVID practices?
Realistically, I have no idea how to host a party anymore, and I couldn’t tolerate figuring out who could and could not get invited based on vaccine eligibility. Maybe start with a smaller example to ease in — inviting two friends over for dinner inside.
What happens when I slow this impulse down with the practice of renunciation?
- If I’m abandoning attachment to these sense pleasures … I know I’m excited about these possibilities, but what is it like to envision that it will not be deemed safe enough to hug these friends? Or share food? What if we decide we need to meet outside, or postpone our meeting until community conditions feel safer? What feelings and needs come up that I can be taking better care of, regardless of whether this dinner will happen? [For instance, if I’m not feeding myself my most top notch food because I haven’t had friends over for dinner for a year — maybe that’s something I could do for myself regardless of whether our potluck happens?]
- If I’m giving up sense pleasure to ‘walk with the gods’ … yes, I am anxious to see and love on my friends, but 5 years from now, how much will it impact me to wait another few weeks on this while we get more people vaccinated? I can see myself in the larger tapestry of community, and even though I’m vaccinated, I can still be a vector that spreads the virus. That matters when a lot of people are still sick and a lot of people are still unprotected. [Maybe this means I want to stick closer to small pods for a little bit, and have another phase where I open to a wider network of people]
I say all of this not to determine for *you* how to be safer during COVID. I’m still determining this myself and in my communities!
But I find that for myself, leaning into renunciation practice — this practice of saying no to my own desires — gives me more thoroughly caring choices about what I want to do, and how that impacts both me and my community. And if I have choice, I feel less likely to be just swept up by the winds of my individual emotions. This is how we build a community of care, and cultures that care about each other’s safety.
Renunciation should bring joy, or at least a lightness of being. – Gil Fronsdal
Consider an example in my life where I’m feeling really focused on “one right way” to do things — whether in COVID safety or something else. How might renunciation support me?
- If I’m abandoning attachment to these sense pleasures
- If I’m giving up sense pleasure to ‘walk with the gods’
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