7. Renunciation & Contentment

Renunciation

If phenomena are impermanent and illusory and death inevitable, then we might do well to renounce the things of this world? The Buddha’s path to enlightenment begins with an act of renunciation, as he leaves wife, child, palace, and princely prerogatives in search of a true refuge from the suffering of old age sickness and death. During his search he practices extreme asceticism for six years and is reduced to skin and bones as he subsists on a few grains of rice a day. Only after he moderates the extent of his self-denial and begins to accept adequate nourishment does he attain enlightenment. In the Dhammapada he warns against the dangers of indiscriminate renunciation.

But as a blade of grass held awkwardly
May cut your hand,
So renunciation may lead you into the dark.[1]

He finds that too much of anything, even renunciation, can be counterproductive. The Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, reflected the Buddha’s “middle way” philosophy when he taught that, ”Renunciation is not giving up things of this world but accepting that they go away.”  So renunciation can be a matter of acceptance that things go away rather than a matter of self-deprivation. The essential point is to let go of attachments. 

While Shakespeare’s renunciates do not usually give up all the things of this world, they do let go of some serious attachments. In Sonnet 146 the speaker renounces attachment to costly apparel for his mortal body 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
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more.

In Henry IV Part 2, Prince Hal, having become king, renounces his association with Falstaff and other dissolute companions:

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester.
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awaked, I do despise my dream. (V.v.47-51)
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:

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 renounces the world when he lets go of attachment to royal power and accepts imprisonment, saying:

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

Hamlet even 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 major attachments. The ultimate renunciation is letting go of ego, a subject we will explore in our final chapter.

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 simply without desires.

Shakespeare’s pious Henry VI is an ineffectual king but a good 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. Unfortunately he is later re-arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he is  murdered by the future Richard III, but he leaves us some of Shakespeare’s greatest lines on the subject of contentment.

A happier example of contentment is Duke Senior in As You Like It. Deposed by his brother, he is content to live a primitive 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 is echoing, almost exactly, the following 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.[2]

Duke Senior is happy to follow this pattern in making the best of a simple existence, exposed to the elements and away from false friends. He goes on to say:

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 the Duke plucks a jewel of contentment and finds that nature more than compensates for the lost pastimes of the court.

Of all Shakespeare’s characters, Nick Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is my favorite example of contentment. He is one of a group of simple workingmen who gather to prepare the play of Pyramus and Thisbe, which they hope to perform for the local ruler, Duke Theseus, and his bride, Hippolyta. To rehearse, the group goes into a forest ruled by Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, who are engaged in a fight over possession of a changeling boy taken by Titania. Oberon seeks to get even with the help of the impish Puck.

As the amateur players begin their rehearsal, Puck mischievously changes Bottom’s head into that of an ass. On seeing him the others flee, but Bottom, thinking nothing is amiss, supposes they are playing a trick. He sits down and happily sings a song that awakens Titania, whose eyes Puck has anointed with the juice of a flower 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 also change Bottom’s head back to that of a man. 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 from him, he sits down to sing a song. When Titania professes her love, he plays along agreeably. When he wakes up he is not at all unhappy to have lost the services of a fairy queen and her attendants, but does feel that he has had the most remarkable dream. When he finds himself unable to recall or express any details of the dream, he is fine with that too. If his dream has no bottom, Bottom himself is content to live with the mystery. Bottom is a comic character. He may sometimes seem obtuse, his words may be disconnected and confused, but whatever befalls, he is happy in the moment, with where he is, with what he has, and with what he can or can’t remember. Bottom is that rare character who appears to have no real attachments or aversions and nothing to renounce. A proverb tells us that “a harvest of peace is produced from a seed of contentment.” Peace will be the subject of our next chapter.

 

 

 


  1. Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1993), 83. 
  2. Thera, Piyadassi and Van Glasenapp, Helmuth, Collected Wheel Publications, (Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka, 2009), 335. 
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