Pema Chödrön is an American nun in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and the director of Gampo Abbey, on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first monastery in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition in North America. After practicing for almost twenty years, she now represents one of the most respected examples of the transmission of Buddhist teachings to American disciples. Born Dierdre Blomfield-Brown, Pema graduated from the elite Miss Porter’s school and then attended Sarah Lawrence College and the University of California at Berkeley. At 21, she married and had two children. After a painful second divorce in 1972, she began looking for spiritual guidance, and soon became the student of the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1974, she received the nun’s novice ordination from His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa and, at his request, took the full nun’s ordination in Hong Kong in 1981. Like a Raven in the Wind was adapted from a talk given during a one-month practice period. A collection of Pema Chödrön’s talks, The Wisdom of No Escape, will be published this fall by Shambhala Publications.

Renunciation | Photo by Lynn Davis.
Photo by Lynn Davis.

When people take refuge in the formal ceremony of becoming a Buddhist, they receive a name that indicates how they should work. I’ve noticed that when people get the name “Renunciation,” they hate it. It makes them feel terrible; they feel as if someone gave them the name “Torture Chamber,” or perhaps “Torture Chamber of Enlightenment.” People usually don’t like the name “Discipline” either, but so much depends on how you look at these things. Renunciation does not have to be regarded as negative. I was taught that it has to do with letting go of holding back. 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.

It’s probably good to think of the ground of renunciation as being our good old selves, our basic decency and sense of humor. In Buddhist teachings, as well as in the teachings of many other contemplative or mystical traditions, the basic view is that people are fundamentally good and healthy. It’s as if everyone who has ever been born has the same birthright, which is enormous potential of warm heart and clear mind. The ground of renunciation is realizing that we already have exactly what we need, that what we have already is good. Every moment of time has enormous energy in it, and we could connect with that.

I was recently in a doctor’s office that had a poster on the wall of an old native American woman walking along the road, holding the hand of a little child. The caption read: “The seasons come and go, summer follows spring and fall follows summer and winter follows fall, and human beings are born and mature, have their middle age, begin to grow older and die, and everything has its cycles. Day follows night, night follows day. It is good to be part of all of this.”

Renunciation is realizing that our nostalgia for wanting to stay in a protected, limited, petty world is insane. Once you begin to get the feeling of how big the world is and how vast our potential for experiencing life is, then you really begin to understand renunciation. When we sit in meditation, we feel our breath as it goes out, and we have some sense of willingness just to be open to the present moment. Then our minds wander off into all kinds of stories and fabrications and manufactured realities, and we say to ourselves, “It’s thinking.” We say that with a lot of gentleness and a lot of precision. Every time we are willing to let the story line go, and every time we are willing to let go at the end of the out breath, that’s fundamental renunciation: learning how to let go of holding on and holding back.

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