In the comments of my previous blog PD wrote this:
when I was reading about you getting married (congrats man!). Many buddhists deny themself relationships. I have gathered it is because the fact, that by doing so you dont create yourself an attachment. I once asked a person who was into Buddhism the following (when he told me the 4 noble truths) “You have kids. Do you let go of them because they create an attachment and possibly make you hold onto things when you should let go?” Didnt get a answer.
Have you thought about all this Jason?
Its a good question and on the surface it makes sense. After all, we Buddhists are always going on and on about not being attached to this or that. If you are new to Buddhism it is easy to read this as an admonition not to “get stuff”, material stuff AND emotional stuff (like relationships). I used to believe this myself, I would see a book or jacket I wanted and then I would get mad at myself for wanting that object! How, I reasoned, was I ever going to “get enlightened” if i still craved material things!? As usual, it turned out that I had the entire question upside down. Fortunately, the longer one ‘does’ Buddhism the more these kind of logical fallacies work themselves out. In this case the actual story of the Buddha provides the first part of the answer.
Briefly, when Gautama left his life as a prince he began his journey to awakening using various methods that were already common in India, these included various focused/guided meditations, visualizations, philosophical pondering, and rituals, but finding that none of these satisfied his quest to end suffering he next tried Asceticism. He mortified his body with pain and starvation, he gave away all his clothes, didn’t bathe and ate less and less until ( in the legends) he existed on a single grain of rice per day. Statues of him from this period show a frightful picture of a man dying, his ribs protrude, his eyes are sunken and his veins in stark relief against his emaciated skin.
In an effort to transcend the suffering of the world he was killing himself. Gautama was denying himself everything, even the very basic sustenance that humans need to survive. He had achieved the “highest” level of asceticism short of death and yet he realized that he was no closer to ending suffering, that in denying himself he had, in fact, made it impossible to think or function at all. After this part of the story he decides to eat again and when a little healthier begins to meditate, a meditation that eventually lead to his awakening as the Buddha (Buddha meaning “the awakened one”).
The story of the ascetic Buddha isn’t just to show us how bad ass Gautama was or to add drama, whether it really occurred or not, the point is to show that the Buddhas path is the Middle Way. Neither clinging to things or rejecting everything will end suffering the tale tells us. When he was a well fed prince, Gautama suffered, when he was a starving holy-man he still suffered, it was only when he let go of both craving and renouncement that he could see the reality of the universe.
So to believe that being a Buddhist means to “avoid attachments” is really missing the real point, which is;
the objects (whether a new car or a wife and children) are not ‘attachments’, they simply are things that exist, the ‘attachment’ happens in YOU! (or me) Without you and me to desire that new car, it is simply a pile of metal, glass, and plastic, it has no inherent ‘attachment-ness’ until one of us came along and decided that we needed it so badly that we suffered.
Buddhism is not about changing the world outside of us to fit our ideals, its about living in the world as it really and truly is without getting so hung up on those ideals that we suffer. To deny ourselves things that we need to exist (and I believe that love is one of those things) is to become the Ascetic. Attachment also doesn’t have to be for an object, the Buddha suffered because he was attached to the idea of transcending his body even to the point that he nearly died of starvation, he was ‘attached’ to his ideal. It was not until he acknowledged that his body was not the source of his suffering that he could work on the real problem of suffering and its causes.
Buddhism is also not about denying reality. In fact, to the Chinese Chan Buddhists to be ‘enlightened’ was often described as “seeing with your original face”, that is, the mind that you had before we added all sorts of conditioning, ideals, and cravings to it. Your Natural Mind. Buddhists understand that part of a natural mind is the desire to mate and pass on your genetic line as children, that we naturally desire enough food, shelter, and company to feel safe. Once again the Middle way is the ideal. To crave too much food causes suffering, to deny enough food is suffering. We need to desire enough food to keep us sustained and healthy and that’s it. Food (or any other object of desire) is not the problem, our attitude toward it is the problem.
So what do we mean by ‘attachment’? Well, what it literally means, to hold onto something beyond a level that is natural and healthy. To cling to an object, person, or idea to the point where it becomes unnatural is “attachment” (and suffering). In practical terms this means that we can desire a new car so long as that desire doesn’t cause us to feel bad if dont get it, or as long as it doesn’t cause us to desire it so much that we steal in order to have it. In personal terms this means that I can and do love Cara, but not to the point where I become agitated if she is gone for an hour or want to fight every male she talks to besides me. On the other side of the coin if I were to decide that my natural desire for her was ‘bad’ and then If I began to try to crush that part of my mind would be the other suffering extreme (like some Catholic monks who whip themselves if they feel any sexual desire) It means to be aware that desires are natural without clinging to them or avoiding other things, it means The Middle way!
So some Buddhists (mainly monks) swear off romantic love because it is easier to focus on the moment without wanting to run off to the woods with your girlfriend all the time. But in many traditions (like Japanese Zen) monks and priests are free to marry. Being celibate is not mandated except in many monastic traditions. Buddhism is imminently practical, and to deny one of the basic human needs would not only be silly, but would lead to the kind of craziness we see in the more sexually conservative religions.
What Buddhism finally teaches us is that it isn’t the kids or the mate that are the attachment, its our very own grasping minds.