Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Email

Expand your perspective with thought-provoking insights, quotes, and videos hand-picked by our editors—along with the occasional update about the world of EnlightenNext.

Privacy statement

Your email address is kept confidential, and will never be published, sold or given away without your explicit consent. Thank you for joining our mailing list!


What Does It Mean to Renounce the World?

Featuring Interviews with Father William McNamara and H.H. Penor Rinpoche
by Carter Phipps

section introduction

Throughout human history there have been individuals who have heard in their own hearts and minds a call to give up the world, felt a yearning, an inner demand to cast off the roles and concerns of secular society and leave behind the dictates and expectations of a worldly life. Those individuals have taken one of the most radical steps a human being can take—they have renounced the world completely and walked away in search of an unknown possibility. Whether they have been yogis, monks, fakirs, hermits, shamans, or sadhus; whether they have gone to the mountains, the desert, the forest, the cave, or the monastery; and whether they have gone alone or, like Jesus and the Buddha, created a revolution in their wake; these individuals left the concerns of the everyday far behind for a way of life that they considered to be more real, more authentic, closer to the heart of what it means to be a human being. Indeed, as we began to look into the question "What does it mean to be in the world but not of it?" for this issue of What Is Enlightenment? we knew that we would have to come to terms with the inspiring yet austere example of the world-renouncers and the great traditions of monasticism that have prospered and endured for so much of human history. Although in our modern Western culture the ideal of renunciation is often derided as a dispensable remnant of a less enlightened past, and the popularity of the monastic life has dramatically waned as a result, for most of recorded history monastic institutions have been at the forefront of humanity's spiritual aspirations. Within their hallowed halls, cloistered cells, and solitary sanctuaries, much of our modern spiritual heritage has been shaped and formed, and the great saints and mystics who have emblazoned their names on the pages of our spiritual canon have more often than not been products of these world-renouncing traditions.

What inner compulsion moves these men and women to take such a bold and unconventional step? Indeed, what inspired the young Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, to kiss his wife and child goodbye and set out for the homeless life—a momentous decision which eventually sparked a monastic tradition that would spread across the entire Asian subcontinent, transforming lives and reshaping societies throughout half the world? What inspired Jesus to courageously step beyond the boundaries of his own spiritual heritage and passionately call on others to do the same—to leave behind everything and follow him into a life of poverty and simplicity, rejecting the Jewish conventions of the day? What made the young St. Benedict—the man who years later literally wrote the book on how to be a monk, The Rule of St. Benedict—look into the grand delights and pleasures of fifth-century Rome and see in them only a descent into spiritual degradation, causing him to abandon it all for the delights and pleasures of solitude, silence, and prayer? Their words, and the words of those who have followed them in succeeding generations, bear unequivocal witness to one deep and profound desire: the desire for simplicity, for purity of heart, for the opportunity to devote oneself wholeheartedly to the spiritual life. "Let us live happily possessing nothing," the Buddha told his monks. "Let us feed on joy like the radiant Gods." Indeed, it was the promise of this simplicity that led the Christian Desert Fathers in the fourth century to see that Christendom, in its newfound acceptance into the mainstream of the Mediterranean world, was growing lax, bourgeois, worldly. En masse, they followed the great St. Anthony into the Egyptian wilderness to strengthen their faith and soften their pride in the rugged desert life. Living as solitary hermits loosely linked in the bond of spiritual brotherhood, they single-handedly initiated the entire tradition of Christian monasticism. Perhaps they were thinking of the words of Jesus, who himself endured many trials beneath the desert sun and later warned his disciples that "No one can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve both the world and God."

What is "the world," this enemy of the spiritual path which so many religious traditions have vilified in their scriptures? For them the word "world" is merely a metaphor for the unwanted attachments and unwritten rules of society that can too often cater to the lower common denominators of the human condition. It is the world of the material, the world of fear and craving, the world that promises fulfillment and yet inevitably brings disappointment and suffering. It is that ever-present refrain just beneath the surface of our society that says, "have more, consume more, become more, enjoy the comforts and pleasures of the senses without worrying about the needs of the soul." "Come look at this world glittering like a royal chariot," the Buddha said to his followers. "The foolish are immersed in it but the wise do not touch it." It was no doubt that same glitter that Thomas Merton, the great Catholic contemplative, referred to when he wrote, "We must be saved from immersion in the sea of lies and passions which is called 'the world.' And we must be saved above all from that abyss of confusion and absurdity which is our own worldly self. . . . The free son of God must be rescued from the conformist slave of fantasy, passion and convention."

Of course, few have ever been interested in renouncing the world, and in this day and age there are fewer still. Yet, if we step back for a moment, it is not hard to get in touch with the attractive simplicity and extraordinary depth that is possible in a life lived free from the ever-pressing concerns of modern society. In fact, in today's world, where it can seem a great renunciation just to turn off the cell phone for a few hours, there does seem to be a growing desire for at least a temporary respite from the frenzy of the information age. Spiritual retreats are rapidly growing in popularity, and monasteries report a significant surge in requests from the laity to spend extended time within their sheltered walls. Could it be that the call to renounce the world, in some form or fashion, is simply intrinsic to the spiritual path? Historians tells us that the fires of renunciation have, in fact, been burning in spiritual men and women almost since the dawning of human civilization, beginning at least as early as the second millennium B.C.E. when the solitary Hindu ascetics were called sramanas, the Sanskrit name for recluse. Indeed, it does seem that the inner spiritual calling has almost always contained within it some innate seed of renunciation. Perhaps today that impulse is more hidden, perhaps it has been softened by the values of our world-embracing culture, and perhaps it has too long been associated with the most maligned aspects of our religious traditions—the patriarchy, a restrictive rigidity, and the false split between body and spirit. But nonetheless, in these early days of the new millennium, there are still those, like the two monks whom we interviewed for this section, whose lives express a great yearning for the simplicity of purpose and purity of being that inspired humanity's greatest sages and saints to walk away from the world with empty hands and an unburdened heart. History would seem to tell us that there always will be.

Father William McNamara experienced the calling of the renunciate life at an early age, leaving his family behind to take up monastic training when he was just thirteen. Five years later he officially ordained as a monk in the Carmelite tradition, a monastic order that received its name from the ascetic hermits who lived on the slopes of Mt. Carmel in twelfth-century Palestine, and which has included such revered figures as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. Inspired by the example of the Christian Desert Fathers and St. Anthony in particular, Father McNamara soon headed for the remote reaches of the Arizona desert, where he pursued the contemplative life in solitude. His passion for the eremitical life would not remain a secret for long, however, and men and women soon began to seek him out for inspiration and guidance on the spiritual path. In 1960 he cofounded a new branch of the Carmelite order, the Spiritual Life Institute, with his student Mother Tessa Bielecki, and together they established several hermitages in the U.S., Canada, and Ireland. Author of numerous books on spiritual life and a leader in the movement to renew the mystical and contemplative tradition of Catholicism, Father McNamara is an articulate and passionate modern defender of the monastic and renunciate life.

His Holiness Penor Rinpoche was born in Kham, in the wilds of Eastern Tibet in 1932. Recognized at a very young age to be a tulku, the incarnation of a recently deceased enlightened master, he formally took refuge in the Buddhist teachings when he was only four years old. Receiving his training at the famous Palyul monastery, the young Penor Rinpoche was eventually installed as the eleventh throne holder in the Palyul lineage, making him the head of over 400 branch monasteries and directly responsible for thousands of monks. In 1958, at the age of twenty-six, the political circumstances caused by the Chinese invasion of Tibet forced him to flee his homeland for the safe refuge of India. Setting out on a long and perilous journey across the Himalayas, it took him three years to arrive at the northeastern Indian border, and the cost was high. Of the 300 monks and lay students who had begun the trip, only thirty survived.

Since that time Penor Rinpoche has worked tirelessly to preserve and reinvigorate the Palyul tradition, earning an extraordinary reputation as one of the most respected and honored teachers in Tibetan Buddhism. Now sixty-seven, and widely revered as a living Buddha, he is also the Supreme Head of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, the oldest of the four schools in this ancient tradition. He travels around the world giving sacred teachings, empowerments, and retreats to his Tibetan and Western students, including the thousands of monks and nuns in his monasteries whom he guides on the Buddhist path of renunciation.


Subscribe to What Is Enlightenment? magazine today and get 40% off the cover price.

Subscribe Give a gift Renew