8. Renunciation & Contentment

A. Renunciation

If the phenomena to which we cling are no more solid, lasting, or independent than sandcastles, then we might do well to renounce them. The Buddha’s path to enlightenment began with an act of renunciation. He left wife, child, palace, and princely prerogatives in search of a refuge from old age, sickness, and death. During his search, he practiced extreme asceticism for six years and was reduced to skin and bones as he subsisted on a few grains of rice a day. Only after giving up self-mortification and taking adequate nourishment did he attain enlightenment. In the Dhammapada, he warns against indiscriminate renunciation.

But as a blade of grass held awkwardly
May cut your hand,
So renunciation may lead you into the dark.[i]

The Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, reflected the Buddha’s “middle way” approach when he taught that:

Renunciation is not giving up things of this world but accepting that they go away.[ii]

Renunciation is not self-deprivation. The essential point is to let go of attachments, which is no easy task for most of us.

Renunciation takes many forms in Shakespeare. While his renunciates do not usually accept that everything goes away, they let go of harmful attachments.

At the Elizabethan court, extravagant and expensive clothes were the order of the day. In Sonnet 146, the speaker remembers his mortality and renounces costly apparel saying:

Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss.

The resources and attention that have gone into acquiring the latest fashions will now be devoted to the well being of his soul.

When he becomes King, in Henry IV Part 2, Prince Hal renounces his association with Falstaff and other dissolute companions:

Presume not that I am the thing I was; . . .
For God doth know—so shall the world perceive—
That I have turned away my former self.
So will I those that kept me company. (V.v.57-59)

In The Tempest,Prospero renounces the practice of magic and the control that comes with it:

But this rough magic
I here abjure, . . . 

I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book. (V.i.59-66)

King Lear lets go of attachment to royal power, privilege, and personal liberty when he goes to prison, saying:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. (V.iii.22-23)

Hamlet is the one character who may accept that everything goes away. He renounces attachment to a continued earthly existence when he says:

Since no man of aught he leaves knows,
what is’t to leaves betimes? Let be.  (V.ii.237-238)

We find renunciation in Shakespeare whenever a character willingly lets go of attachments. The ultimate renunciation is to let go of ego, a subject we will explore in our final chapter.


B. Contentment

Renunciation and contentment are closely related, as they both depend on acceptance. To be content is to be happy in the present moment, in the place where we are, and with whatever we happen to have or not have. The Buddha taught that there is no treasure like contentment, and we gain this treasure by learning to live without desires.

Shakespeare’s pious Henry VI is an ineffectual king but an excellent example of contentment. At the opening of Henry VI Part 3, the Lancastrian Henry flees after losing a battle to his Yorkist rivals. He is apprehended, and when he claims to be the King, his captors ask to see his crown. He responds:

My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen. My crown is called content;
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy. (III.i.62-65)

He is even content in prison, and when released, he thanks his jailor for making his imprisonment a pleasure. Henry is later re-arrested and confined in the Tower of London, where the future Richard III murders him, but he leaves us some of Shakespeare’s best lines on contentment.

Duke Senior in As You Like It is a happier example of contentment. Deposed by his brother, he is content to live a simple life with his friends in the Forest of Arden:

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
“This is no flattery. These are counselors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.” (II.i.1-11)

Duke Senior favors exposure to cold weather, the penalty of Adam, over exposure to flattery.  At least the cold is an honest counselor that reminds him of his mortality. The dispossessed Duke’s words match the advice given by the Buddha to the householder, Sigala, in The Sigalovada Sutta:

But he who does not regard cold or heat any more than a blade of grass and does his duties manfully, does not fall away from happiness.

These four . . . should be understood as foes in the guise of friends:

he who appropriates a friend’s possessions,
he who renders lip service,
he who flatters,
he who brings ruin.[iii]

Following a path like the one prescribed by the Buddha, the Duke knows how to make the best of his situation:

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything. (II.i.12-17)

From the toad of adversity, he plucks a jewel of contentment and finds that nature more than compensates for the lost pastimes of the court.

Nick Bottom, the Weaver, in A Midsummer Night’s Dreamis Shakespeare’s most enchanting (and enchanted) model of contentment. He is one of a group of rustics who go into a forest to rehearse the play of Pyramus and Thisbe.Unknowingly, they have entered the realm of Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, who are fighting over a changeling boy that Titania has stolen. Oberon seeks to get even with the help of the mischievous Puck.

As the amateur players begin their rehearsal, Puck changes Bottom’s head to that of an ass. On seeing him the others flee, but Bottom, thinking nothing amiss, supposes they are playing a trick. He sits down and happily sings a song that awakens Titania, whose eyes Puck has anointed with an herb that causes her to love the next thing she sees. Seeing Bottom, she dotes on him, even with his ass’s head. When she professes her love, Bottom replies:

Methinks, mistress, you should have little
reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason
and love keep little company together nowadays. (III.i.144-146)

As he meets the fairies that are to serve him, Bottom responds to each with affable good humor. Although Titania makes it clear that her services are at his command, he would be just as content with some hay and a nap.

Deciding that things have gone far enough, Oberon has Puck apply an antidote to Titania’s eyes and give Bottom back his head. When he awakens from sleep, Bottom says:

I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say
what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about
to expound this dream. Methought I was—there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was and
methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of
man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen,
man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to
conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this
dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because
it hath no bottom. (IV.i.214-225)

Bottom exemplifies contentment under extraordinary conditions. When his friends run away, he sits down to sing a song. When Titania professes her love, he plays along happily. When he wakes, he is not unhappy to have lost the services of a fairy queen and her attendants but feels he has had the most remarkable dream. When he finds himself unable to recall any details of the dream, he is fine with that too. If his dream has no bottom, Bottom is content to live with the mystery. Bottom’s words are disconnected and confused, but whatever occurs, he is happy where he is, with what he has, and with what he can or cannot remember. Bottom is that rare character who appears to have no attachments or aversions and nothing to renounce.

A proverb tells us, “A harvest of peace comes from a seed of contentment.” Peace will be the subject of our next chapter.



[i]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha(Boston & London: Shambhala, 1993), 83.

[ii]Quoted in Loy, David R. A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 209.

[iii]Thera, Piyadassi and Van Glasenapp, Helmuth, Collected Wheel Publications, (Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka, 2009), 335.


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