Daitetsu Hull has been living and training at an American Zen monastery for the last 12 years. Here he writes about giving up (renouncing) certain things and the effect that practice is having on his life.
The process of renunciation has been surprisingly joyful, as I’ve come to see that I don’t need what I thought I did to be happy. Our school of Japanese Zen Buddhism allows the priests to marry, so I didn’t have to renounce a romantic partner, and I’m happily married. All that said here are five things that I struggle with renouncing.
A cat – I feel a deep kindred with the feline race and take delight in their company. We have a No Pet policy at the monastery, the wisdom of which I don’t doubt, but I do miss having a cat in my life. I find a cat’s love supportive and comforting in part because it’s so fickle. I find their independence and self-assurance is inspirational and can’t help but take myself less seriously in a cat’s presence.
A car – I miss both the freedom a car brings and the visceral joy of driving. When I owned a car my spontaneity had no limits, and I could drop in on friends or go see a movie with little or no forethought. Living in a community is challenging, even though there are cars available. Here an individual’s use of a car is measured against the community’s needs, and often my trips are cut short, changed, or cancelled altogether. And then there’s the issue of missing keys…
All forms of entertainment – One of the reasons I decided to live in a monastery was that my life was beginning to revolve around entertainment and I wanted to spend my time directed towards a deeper purpose. I have succeeded and now I must admit I miss the very things that were beginning to dominate my life; movies, books, and music. All three of these exist at the monastery in a limited form, however there is very little time to experience them. And more to the point the purpose of the monastery is to learn to be satisfied with life as it is, and to see this life as our own novel unfolding, hear these sounds as our own private concert.
Down time – The monastery is a contemplative refuge from a busy world, it’s also a busy world itself. It takes a lot to run, and all of us in residence soon realize that the contemplative part is balanced by an enormous amount of activity. There is very little time when we’re not doing something, although often what we’re doing is sitting still and attending to our breath. That’s very different from down time, that sweet time when there’s really nothing to do, and so instead of doing nothing you do something unexpected. I miss that time and the surprising creativity that comes from it.
Control – The monastery is a community with a hierarchy. There are two abbots and then six ordained who are ranked by how long they have been ordained. Beyond that there’s the mere fact that when living in community the needs of the community must be balanced with our own personal, immediate desires. All these things compounded mean that I have a lot less control over what I do, where I go, when I sleep, and what I eat then I used to. This is most often a blessing and gets right at the root of what we’re trying to realize – that happiness comes from our ability to meet, accept and then respond to what is, rather than our ability to control or escape it.