A young American disciple of Buddhism went to his master one day with a question. “Master, you are always telling us that we suffer because of our attachments. So I have been striving in my daily life to not become so attached to things, or to my feelings, or even to people. But now my girlfriend says that she is not happy because I am aloof, that I do not seem to care about her. But I do love her. What must I do?” The question of this young Buddhist novice is a more common one than you might think.
The beginning premise of Buddhism is that life is suffering. And the reason given for our suffering is our attachments to the things of this life. The more we are attached, the more we suffer. And the solution Buddhism offers, or at least a big part of the solution, is the quieting of our monkey mind, this constant preoccupation with obtaining things, always being held in high regard by others, and forever seeking to secure and advance our station in life – all the things that the ego attaches itself to. This quieting of the monkey mind can’t be done by force of will. It requires training and discipline through the act of meditation.
As soon as Buddhism mentions nonattachment, or letting go, a great many people start heading for the exits. Who would want to go through life without being able to have and to hold, to love, to feel a sense of accomplishment, to live a life of passion for the good things of this worldly existence? I must say that I too have found the idea of renunciation one encounters in Buddhism a bit of a put off. My experience has been “Its better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” as Tennyson said. So was the Buddha wrong in teaching that the suffering we will inevitably experience in this life is so great that we should discipline ourselves to forego all of its joys and pleasures?
Before one of the Buddhist practitioners out here in the congregation decides to stand up and straighten me out, let me emphasize that the Buddha was not wrong. He was a very astute psychologist and understood the machinations of the human psyche perhaps better than anyone in the last 3000 years. He compared the human mind to an elephant – a creature which crashes about and acts on instinct to preserve itself and the things it values, and is constantly on the alert for threats to these things that are out there in the jungle of life. In this comparison, Buddha presaged the teachings of modern psychology – that we are endowed with an intricate system of automatic reactions and unconscious processes which were critical at one stage of our biological and evolutionary development. However, like modern psychology, he also realized that these tendencies do not always serve us well in our more developed state as human beings who must learn to cooperate rather than compete, and who seek after values such as happiness and joy which are beyond the plane of mere survival.
The teachings of Buddhism are clearly not anti-relationships, anti-love, or anti-passion. Nor does nonattachment mean indifference to these things. The Buddha clearly had sources of enjoyment, including relationships. Buddhism even has a word for lovingkindness, metta, and compassion, karuna, and these things were considered an essential part of the goal of the enlightened state of being. Nonattachment in the Buddhist sense is not the purposeful suppression of compassion or love or sex or dance or music or anything else that brings joy to life. Rather the teaching is meant to guide us away from the great drama of the ego around these things.
It is not the desire itself that causes us discontent and discomfort. It is the clinging to the object or person so strongly that thoughts of it dominate our sense of well being so much that we think we can’t live without it and we fail to recognize that it, like all things, is impermanent.
This is what the Buddha meant by attachment, and it is in this sense that he urged his followers to cultivate nonattachment. It is not the things of this world that cause problems, it is the way our ego relates to these things. To keep a proper perspective is the key to enlightenment. The Judaeo-Christian teaching is not so different in this regard as regarding money. That teaching being: “Money is not the root of all evil. It’s the love of money that is the root of all evil.”
This story serves to illustrate the idea well, I think:
In Southeast Asia, hunters have an ingenious way of trapping monkeys. They take a coconut, and carve a hole in the top a certain size, and take out the insides of the coconut. Then, they place a tasty, sweet morsel, such as a piece of fruit, inside the coconut. Then they fasten this coconut securely to a tree. A monkey comes along, sees the tasty morsel, and reaches its hand in through the small hole. The hole is big enough to admit the monkey’s hand, but not large enough for him to remove it once he has grabbed the food and made a fist. So he can’t get his hand out of the coconut. The monkey is not willing to let go of the sweet thing, and the hunter catches him.
With monkey mind, and our habitual ways of attaching ourselves to objects and people, we are the monkeys, and so we can’t let go of them and we are trapped. Even when we are stuck, we continue to cling to them. Even though we may see how it causes us to suffer and lose our freedom, we refuse to let go.
Much of the misunderstanding of the Buddhist concept of nonattachment is due to language. In Buddhism, the idea of attachment would probably be better translated “clinging.” Conversely, in English the word attachment can simply mean connection. In fact, modern psychology uses the word attachment in a positive sense as in “attachment theory,” which has to do with the formation of healthy relationships such as the bonding between parent and child. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that the word has caused confusion.
Even research psychologists such as Johnathan Haidt, who wrote “The Happiness Hypothesis” and seems to have a genuine admiration for the precepts of Buddhism, has difficulty with the concept because of the way he understands the word nonattachment. He wonders if the Buddha was in error, and writes that cutting off all attachments is a mistake. Then he says, based on the thesis of his work, that “attachments bring pain, but they also bring our greatest joys.” He goes on to say that the “calm nonstriving advocated by Buddha” leads to “lives designed to avoid passion, and a life without passion is not a human life.”
Haidt’s criticism of Buddhist philosophy is shared by many who have this misunderstanding of the concept of nonattachment. If Haidt had rather substituted the word “clinging” for attachment then we could rephrase his statement to say “Clinging brings pain, but attachments, when we keep proper perspective on them, bring our greatest joys.”
A life designed to avoid passion would be an empty life, devoid of all the things that give it zest and verve. Buddha taught a Middle Way, somewhere between indifference to the things of this world and wild, irrational clinging to them. How can we find this middle way?
Another story from the Buddhist tradition serves to illustrate:
There is a fire burning in front of us. It’s beautiful. With red, yellow, white. And it’s warm. We like it, so we reach out to hold it. And what happens? It burns us. We pull our hands away, because when we reached out to hold it, it burned us. Does this mean we hate the fire and want to put it out? No. Instead, we desire to behold its beauty and feel its warmth, and so we must learn to sit back and enjoy its colors and its radiance from a distance. We can appreciate and love the fire without holding on to it.
Yes, “passion,” in the best sense of that word, can give “fire” to life—a sense of exuberance and joy. Yes, to live is to risk being burned by the passions. Probably all of us have been burned at one time or another by our own or other people’s appetites and needs and wants. Basically the teaching of the Buddha in regard to attachment is to teach us how to live with passion in the best sense of the word, and not in a way that might lead to us being burned or consumed by the fire. Love and appreciation for the good things of this life requires that they be held – but not too close. The fire of passion is good, when we discipline ourselves to get close enough to feel its heat, but maintain the proper psychological and spiritual distance so that we are not consumed.
This distance may vary between persons and even in the same person at different times. There is a season for the red-hot heat of passionate love, just as there is also a season for the glowing, comfortable warmth of long time companionship. Besides these fires, there are also the beauty and warmth given off by the glowing embers of friends and family. Though my grandkids are not perfect, (they are hopelessly spoiled,) I would not want to dis-attach myself from them. And though they get into trouble and get hurt and experience disappointments that I feel even more than they do, in no way would I want to give up the sweet aches of being a grandparent and watching them grow up. Jut to have one of them take pleasure in sitting in my lap and engage me in conversation can sustain me for days.
Neither would I want to disengage from the sensual pleasures of the body? Yes, they are fleeting, and may give no lasting benefit, but what would life be without the taste of strawberries, the tender touch of my spouse, the smell of the earth after a rain, the sight of a new baby, or the sound of a violin concerto? Who can possibly believe it would be worth giving up all the preciousness of what life has to offer just to avoid suffering? That is not Buddhism as I understand it. The insight of Buddhism is that we are not separate from this world. That our perception of being so is an illusion, and that we can enjoy every good and natural thing if we can only come to grasp that what we love is not truly ours, but belongs to life itself; that what we achieve is not of our ego but is a part of the whole, and is but is a part of the process of the betterment of life unfolding. If, rather than striving to gain things we can learn to find satisfaction in losing ourselves in them, then we might could say that we have understood the idea of nonattachment.
How should the Master have answered the young novice who asked about his girlfriend who was not happy because of his misguided efforts at nonattachment? Perhaps the Master would have told the young grasshopper that he was too attached to his ideas of nonattachment. But in the end, I think he would have chastened the young disciple, and told him to go and do what he must do to get the girl back.
I will give the last word to the poet, who always find ways to say things in ways that speak beyond the words. Mary Oliver says what I have been trying to say in a remarkabley succinct way. She ends her poem “In Blackwater Woods” with these lines that to me speak the essence of nonattachment:
To live in this world you must do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
So may we find the courage and grace to make it so. Amen.