Renunciation And Fragility

While reading Chan master Sheng Yen’s Shattering the Great Doubt: The Chan Practice of Huatou, I was reminded of Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life.

Sheng Yen’s understanding of renunciation chimes well with Sloterdijk’s notion of secession. A Chan monk begins by renouncing samsara; an agile practitioner of the Sloterdijkian mold does something similar.

For Sloterdijk, periagoge, a fundamental act of turning, initiates the process of self-transformation:

The concern of the most resolute secessionaries is not simply a fascinated retreat from a reality that no longer invites participation, but rather a complete reversal–a turn away from the superficially manifest, which means a turn towards something that is better, true and real on a higher level.

For a Buddhist, similarly, what must be felt in one’s bones is the fragility of life. Renunciation refers to wanting, henceforth, to put an end to samsaric suffering. And renunciation comes from insight into fragility. Sheng Yen urges his students thus:

To practice huatou [akin to a koan] well, you should be convinced of the fragility of life. You may have experienced the fragility of life if yo have ever been at the threshold of death. You may also have witnessed the death of someone close to you, or even witnessed the death of strangers. These events make you realize how fragile your own life really is, and you come to understand that there must be something more than this fleeting life. If that understanding leads you to practice, then you have taken a step toward finding meaningfulness in your life.

We can also observe the fleeting nature of life in the stream of illusory thoughts passing constantly through our mind. Does the real self exist in the gaps between these thoughts? The more you understand the transient nature of your thoughts, the more will be the urgency to find something not so transient: you say to yourself that there must be something more, and thus you come to the practice. (my emphases)

For years, I’ve said to myself and others: “Since this is not enough, there must be more than this.” What is this “more”? That is the deep intuition, the open doubt, one needs to begin to set foot on the path.

Yet what prevents this punch-in-the-gut realization? Three things. First, the third poison: ignorance or delusion. One is so mired in one’s afflictions that what is veiled is the very possibility of the Unborn. Second, the constant seeking after temporary forms of relief. Mind-created problems desire mind-created solutions that themselves do not last. And so, the whole cycle of adjusting, of seeking comfort, of trying to diminish pain, of trying to find ways of coping with one’s suffering continues on. Third, owing to delusion and to striving after temporary relief, one does not see the larger pattern of endless ups and downs; one simply deludes oneself into believing that one was, say, living in the wrong place, with the wrong person, in the wrong line of work, and so on.

I end with a koan from The Gateless Barrier. Two monks, looking up at a flag, are involved in heated, interminable debate. One says that the flag is moving while the other says that the wind is moving. Who is right? Huineng, who will become the sixth patriarch in Chan, steps forward and says, “It’s neither the flag nor the wind that is moving. It is the mind that is moving.”

Is Huineng right? Is your mind moving? What’s here for you?