Jane Roos recalls the lyrics of “Rhinestone Cowboy” to shine a light on the Sravasti Abbey Friends Education distance learning program’s unit on renunciation—the determination to be free from the star-spangled attractions of samsara:

On the very first LP I ever bought was the song “Rhinestone Cowboy”, by Glen Campbell. Over and over again, that track got played, not only on the record player, but also in my head. The conditioning was so effective that “Rhinestone Cowboy” still runs as a mental soundtrack from time to time, which it did right in the middle of the SAFE renunciation studies:

“I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long
Singin’ the same old song
I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway
Where hustle’s the name of the game
And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain”

What a poignant metaphor for the unawakened life. What a description of my own life, of the endless repetition of behavior leading to the same unsatisfactory outcome. How many lifetimes have culminated in this staleness? And the hustle. Hasn’t life involved a continuous ‘working of the system’ to try and tease out something better for me and those close to me?

For me the above verse encapsulates the aspect of renunciation involving a turning away from, or a relinquishing. What is being renounced? The three types of suffering encountered in cyclic existence and the actions which result in them. I like Alexander Berzin’s terms for them: the suffering of unhappiness, the suffering of happiness, and the suffering of conditioning. Here, it would seem that the third type of suffering, that of conditioning, is emphasized.

More reading on the subject turned up two main approaches to the renunciation of suffering and its causes. The first insisted on the avoidance of sensory objects in order to circumvent the arising of the grasping which leads to the planting of karmic imprints. Sensory objects themselves were to be taken out of the picture where possible, something which I could see as helpful at certain points in spiritual development, for example during retreat. The second approach spoke of letting go of the attachment to phenomena, rather than distancing oneself from the phenomena themselves.

This second understanding accords better with my own. For a start, avoiding sensory objects isn’t generally practical for the ordinary person. Secondly, this suggests a duality, a separation between self and object which may end up being unproductive.

Thirdly, the old story of the two Zen monks who meet a young woman trying to cross a river brings up the idea of equanimity. Surely one can only claim to have truly let go of something when the response to it is genuine equanimity, and how can that claim be made if it can’t be tested in the presence of the object? Without the scholarship to know exactly what the sutras and commentaries have to say, I lean towards this second way.

“There’s been a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon”

Samsaric life entails the constant juggling act of trying to maximize the desired aspects while minimizing those experienced as unpleasant. Renunciation, until perfected, involves compromise too. Having formed some idea of how far and how deep attachment may extend, I realise that renunciation will, at least initially, be a matter of doing the best possible depending on the current circumstances, a gradual process rather than a one-time act.

“But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me
Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Like a rhinestone cowboy
Getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know
And offers comin’ over the phone”

If the first aspect of renunciation is a turning away from suffering and its causes, the second aspect is a turning towards liberation from suffering and its causes. So renunciation contains both a powerful disgust and an all-consuming yearning. The aims of the verse above are worldly, and I would view them in terms of initial scope practice, i.e. a wish for better conditions in this current lifetime. True renunciation implies the longing to be free of all the concerns and delusions of cyclic existence.

“Well, I really don’t mind the rain
And a smile can hide all the pain
But you’re down when you’re ridin’ the train
That’s takin’ the long way
And I dream of the things I’ll do
With a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe
There’ll be a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me”

By making adjustments within samsara in order to make it more pleasant or more tolerable, we are only ensuring our seats on the train that’s taking the long way, and unless the process is interrupted, the “long way” is going to be measureless time.

While “Rhinestone Cowboy” captures the problem of cyclic existence, it fails to identify the root cause of it or the engine driving it: “And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain” ignores the role of cause and effect. The song serves as a good metaphor for the turning away aspect of renunciation, but falls short when it comes to the turning towards aspect.

The thought of spending eternity lurching from one state of suffering and confusion to another is horrific. Renunciation is key, the first step towards ending the process definitively and forever. Renunciation is also a very energetic practice, involving identification of the three kinds of suffering and a conscious turning away from their causes. A clear understanding of what constitutes suffering reveals the universality of suffering, and thus leads to the development of bodhicitta.

Understanding how our mental relationship with phenomena gives rise to an experience of suffering provides an insight into the true mode of existence of those phenomena, contributing to an understanding of emptiness. This interconnectedness of the facets of the path is the brilliance of the lamrim – once the mind has set a course, depending on the scope of the practitioner, all elements of the practice work together towards the goal.

“And I dream of the things I’ll do”

May my dream be nothing less than Buddhahood.