Attachment and Buddhists

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.

Gautama the Ascetic

Gautama the Ascetic

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.

Categories: Buddhism and life | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Attachment and Buddhists

  1. Cant really think of anything to say that would add anything vital to this post. Really really well put and true Jason. Well, I guess there is one thing that also is about attachments.

    I have found it to be true with myself too. And I think it is truly universal. The stuff you spoke about, the 4 noble truths.

    One of my biggest obstacles has been dealing with mortality/death. Here is a old blog (Buddhism in Traditonal japanese tattooing) post I wrote and it still rings true

    “For me Buddhism means bettering yourself and the lives of others around you. One of the most important factors for me has that how you shouldn’t think about your future too much. Because then you start to create possibilities. And that is what they most likely are. Possible outcomes, but not something that will necessarily happen. For example I used worry a lot about my mom. I had this idea deep in my psyche that I could still save her.

    There really isn’t anything vital wrong with her, but I had learned to do so because as far as I can remember she was ill in someways for working too much. Also because I didn’t have a father, I myself took the role of the so called “protector”. It took my years and years to finally accept that one day she will die. As all of us. Nothing can be done to stop that. So enjoy the now. I think that Buddhism helped me alot in that aspect. So I have started trying to think in the now more. Or not think, but just live in it. Not past, how things were, or the future, how things might be. But just now.”

    The thing with my mom has made my mind to go to that point, where I in my head create scenarios where I save her. Walking down the street, a drunk tries shit with her, I hit the drunk in the eye with a screwdriwer. I do it because

    1.) I have that need to create a situation where I save her because in real life I really cant.

    2.) Im scared because I see my own mortality. How I will cope with out my mother and so on.

    3.) I do these “violent mental games” because It gives me a sence of “having power”, because in reality I might feel I dont. So my psyche creates there situation that I just follow and act out in my head. But I realise that it is all do fear and I do it because im scared. And because I know it, I will eventually take it further, and not create these situations. And to get back to point 1, it doesnt matter if I cant save her, because we all die. As Capt. Spears said in Band of Brothers “Once you acsept the fact that you are allready dead, you can function like a real soldier”. I cherish the life we have even more when I have realised this.

    Other death practice I had just now was because my own health. (warning, personal shit coming up!). Sometime ago, I found blood in my sperm. I remember when it happened, I panicked for a minute (because at worst it could mean cancer). But then I started to breat and feel the breath in a certain point in my nose (as Noah Levine teaches). I collected my thougs and remembered that we all die, so I really dont have to be scared, because death is inevitable. I thought that why the idea if death frigthens me. One part was that all the things I have wanted to do, I wont get to do. But when I thought about it, it really didnt matter that much. Because if it was time for me to die, then it was time. I didnt cling on myself and start asking “why me, why me!” and many people do. Just accepted it and moved forward. I went to the hospital. When I said what was wrong with me, they immediately said that it doesnt have to be antyhing serious. I said that I wasnt scared, she said good. I was a little proud of myself. Well, tests were and nothing was found. Still the blood kept cuming (hahah: pun intended). So, next step ws a special doctor who speciales in this kinda shit.

    Today I had a special doctors appointment. In the wating room I tried to breath and then thought about tattoos and who should I feature in my blog the next. I tend to rely in tattoing as a thing that gives me strenght. All this time when I thought that the worst might happen, tattooing and thinking about it gave me strenght. So, anywaythe doctor said that there really isnt a slight possibility of cancer or anything vital. This shit just happens.

    Well, im clad that Im well and that the buddhism that I have tried to read and put in good use in real life really works 🙂

  2. regina_dementes


    i find it so hard to put my finger on just what attachment is….when it stops being natural and when it starts being unhealthy….

    i like your definition. another angle to contemplate

  3. abuddhistintherustbelt

    Interesting view on attachment. Certainly one worth considering.

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