Starting in January our weekly study group will discuss the topic “Give up what?! The relevance of renunciation.” In the “Brief Introduction to Buddhism” course I teach at the temple a few times a year, we spend the last session reading Salon.com’s article “Boomer Buddhism,” where religious studies professor Stephen Prothero quotes Thannisaro Bhikkhu saying the key idea of renunciation has been largely ignored by Western Buddhists. In Jodo Shinshu we’re so used to “come as you are” that we have no inclination of giving up any pleasures, comforts or conveniences. But I wonder if there may be some lessons we can learn from those who significantly pared down their lifestyles.
Of course Manshi Kiyozawa comes to mind with his “minimum possible” way of life, but that was all an “experiment” that he gave up when his health failed and he claimed to find true reliance on Other-Power. A better example is Haya Akegarasu’s main student, Shuichi Maida who took the sudden step away from his middle-class family life as a college professor to live in poverty and devote himself entirely to the study of Buddhism. In the study class, I plan to share much of the autobiographical material Maida wrote which Dr. Haneda translated for us in his study class at the temple in the early 1980s.
But the one person who came more clearly to my mind as the embodiment of renunciation (until late in his life according to some stories) is the Catholic monk Thomas Merton. Somehow I came upon a book about him before I left Chicago to study in Japan in 1984 and it encouraged me to go ahead of with my renunciation – leaving my wild unfocussed life behind to start a new austere life of purpose (or so I thought at the time). I would like to revisit Merton’s life and how his account of his renunciation, The Seven Storey Mountain resonated with the American post-war generation.
(Wikipedia photo by Bryan Sherwood of Merton’s hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky)
From time to time I’ve stayed within the Higashi Honganji complex in Kyoto and experienced a few days of deprivation from my usual luxuries. This month I’ll be there for a minister continuing education session and the one luxury I’m worrying about losing is my access to the internet. Funny how we’ve come to be so dependent on the “information highway” when it wasn’t that long ago when it was just a rare source that we snuck a glimpse of at our workplaces, libraries or pay-computers. And it’s ironic that I’m worrying about losing that several times a day interaction on Facebook when actually among the fellow ministers I’ll be with in the session are my Facebook friends from Brazil.
Despite the grumbling and cursing I’ll be doing, I have to keep in mind that living like a monk is still a privileged activity. Too many people in the world and especially throughout the Chicago area are involuntarily dealing with deprivation – with little access to the material benefits of food and shelter, much less to the digital realm.