You may have heard that Buddhists are supposed to be free of attachments. That sounds a bit grim. Does that mean we Buddhists have to abandon our friends and loved ones?
Thankfully, no, it doesn’t. In Buddhism, “attachment” doesn’t mean what you might think it means.
What Is Attachment?
In order for there to be attachment, you need two things — the attacher, and the thing to which the attacher is attached. In other words, “attachment” requires self-reference, and it requires seeing the object of attachment as separate from oneself.
The Buddha taught that seeing oneself and everything else this way is a delusion. Further, it is a delusion that is the deepest cause of our unhappiness. It is because we mistakenly see ourselves as separate from everything else that we “attach.”
Zen teacher John Daido Loori said, “[A]ccording to the Buddhist point of view, nonattachment is exactly the opposite of separation. You need two things in order to have attachment: the thing you’re attaching to, and the person who’s attaching. In nonattachment, on the other hand, there’s unity. There’s unity because there’s nothing to attach to. If you have unified with the whole universe, there’s nothing outside of you, so the notion of attachment becomes absurd. Who will attach to what?”
Because we think we have intrinsic existence within our skin, and what’s outside our skin is “everything else,” that we go through life grabbing for one thing after another to make us feel safe, or to make us happy.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Because people don’t take the time to understand Buddhism before they form opinions about it, much criticism of Buddhism misses the point. For example, in an interview, “positive” psychologist Jonathan Haidt claimed the Buddha taught that happiness requires disassociation from things in the external world. And Haidt disagrees with this: “Some things are worth striving for, and happiness comes in part from outside of yourself, if you know where to look.”
We “pursue” happiness because we think it comes outside of ourselves. But it’s also because we think things are outside of ourselves that we are stressed about them and worry about them. Whatever can be found can also be lost.
There’s nothing wrong with striving to accomplish something, or making friends, or loving your spouse and children. The Buddha himself, after all, spent his life after his enlightenment associating with people, and teaching them. Non-attachment does not require extreme asceticism or shunning human contact. Non-attachment comes from the wisdom that nothing is truly separate.
Yes, some Buddhists enter monastic life to concentrate on Buddhist practice without distraction. But monastics do not isolate themselves from human contact. The sangha itself is a human society in which people support each others’ practice.
The Four Noble Truths
The Buddha taught that this craving grows from ignorance of the self. Because we see ourselves as something separate from everything else, we go through life grabbing one thing after another to ease our stress. We attach not only to physical things, but also to ideas and opinions about ourselves and the world around us. But physical things can be lost, and we get frustrated when the world doesn’t conform to our ideas and opinions.
There is a way to get off the hamster wheel of chasing happiness. By practicing the Eightfold Path, we can realize the true nature of self-and-other, and put an end to craving. The Buddha also taught us that this realization releases our fears of death and enables deep compassion and loving kindness for others.
“Realize” is an important word. In Buddhism, just believing in some doctrine of no-separation is pointless. To become transformative, the truth of the Buddha’s teachings must be intimately experienced and realized for oneself. For this reason, Buddhism is more of a discipline than it is a belief system.
Pleasure and Pain
The Buddha said, “When the thirty six pleasure-bound streams of craving are strong in a man, then numerous desire-based thoughts pull the deluded man along.” People go through life running toward what they desire and away from what they dislike. In other words, we’re being jerked around by attraction and aversion.
Most of the time, we don’t see little personal freedom we really have. Our culture tells us that it’s good to acquire things like material possession and fame, so there’s nothing wrong with desiring and pursuing them. We don’t see how much of our lives are eaten up in a vain pursuit of things we think will make us happy. And when we acquire those things, we don’t stay happy for long before we start chasing something else.
And how much of our lives are eaten up with anxiety over the things we think we have to have to make us happy? Worrying about something you’ve lost is attachment. Disappointment is attachment. What we think will make us happy can also make us miserable.
Seeing through the delusion of separation means we no longer give “external things” the power to make us miserable. The ideal is equanimity, free from the compulsion to chase what we want and run from what we don’t want.
Realizing non-attachment is not easy. It’s not a matter of going to a weekend retreat and being released from anxiety the rest of your life. Buddhism is a life practice, not a quick fix. Ironically, it’s a practice that requires giving up ideas about goals and rewards, or escaping to a better place.
Buddhism teaches that the better place is right here, and the reward is already yours. Realizing this is non-attachment.