Why Do Buddhists Avoid Attachment?

'Attachment' May Not Mean What You Think It Means

Birds perch on a Buddha in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka.

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The principle of non-attachment is key to understanding and practicing Buddhism, but like so many concepts in this religious philosophy, it can confuse and even discourage newcomers.

Such a reaction is common among people, especially in the West, as they begin to explore Buddhism. If this philosophy is supposed to be about joy, they wonder, then why does it spend so much time saying that life if full of suffering (dukkha), that non-attachment is a goal, and that a recognition of emptiness (shunyata) is a step toward enlightenment? All of these ideas can sound discouraging, even depressing.

But Buddhism is indeed a philosophy of joy. One reason for the confusion among newcomers is the fact that Buddhist concepts originated in the Sanskrit language, whose words are not always easily translated into English. Another is the fact that the personal frame of reference for Westerners is much, much different from that of Eastern cultures.

To understand the concept of non-attachment, you'll need to understand its place within the overall structure of Buddhist philosophy and practice. The basic premises of Buddhism are known as the Four Noble Truths. 

The Basics of Buddhism

The First Noble Truth: Life Is “Suffering.”

The Buddha taught that life as we currently know it is full of suffering, the closest English translation of the word dukkha. This word has many connotations, including “unsatisfactoriness,” which is perhaps an even better translation than "suffering." To say that life is suffering is to say that wherever we go, we are followed by a vague feeling that things are not entirely satisfactory, not quite right. The recognition of this dissatisfaction is what Buddhists call the First Noble Truth.

It is possible to know the reason for this “suffering” or dissatisfaction, though, and it comes from three sources. First, we are dissatisfied because we don’t really understand the true nature of things. This confusion (avidya) is most often translated as ignorance, and its principle feature is that we aren’t aware of the interconnectedness of all things. We imagine, for example, that there is a “self” or “I” that exists independently and separately from all other phenomena. This is perhaps the central misconception identified by Buddhism, and it is responsible for the next two reasons for suffering.

The Second Noble Truth: Here Are the Reasons for Our Suffering
Our reaction to this misunderstanding about our separateness in the world leads to either attachment/clinging or aversion/hatred on the other hand. It’s important to know that the Sanskrit word for the first concept, upadana, does not have an exact translation in English; its literal meaning is “fuel,” though it is often translated to mean “attachment.” Similarly, the Sanskrit word for aversion/hatred, devesha, also does not have a literal English translation. Together, these three problems—ignorance, clinging/attachment and aversion—are known as the Three Poisons, and the recognition of them constitutes the Second Noble Truth.

The Third Noble Truth: It Is Possible to End the Suffering
The Buddha also taught that it is possible not to suffer. This is central to the joyful optimism of Buddhism—the recognition that a cessation of dukkha is possible. This is achieved by relinquishing the delusion and ignorance that fuel the attachment/clinging and the aversion/hatred that make life so unsatisfying. The cessation of that suffering has a name that is quite well known to almost everyone: nirvana.

The Fourth Noble Truth: Here Is the Path to Ending the Suffering
Finally, the Buddha taught a series of practical rules and methods for moving from a condition of ignorance/attachment/aversion (dukkha) to a permanent state of joy/satisfaction (nirvana). Among the methods is the famous Eight-Fold Path, a set of practical recommendations for living, designed to move practitioners along the route to nirvana.

The Principle of Non-Attachment 

Non-attachment, then, is really an antidote to the attachment/clinging problem described in the Second Noble Truth. For if attachment/clinging is a condition of finding life unsatisfactory, it stands to reason that non-attachment is a condition conducive to satisfaction with life, a condition of nirvana.

It is important to note, though, that the Buddhist advice is not to detach from the people in your life or from your experiences, but rather to simply recognize the non-attachment that is inherent to begin with. This is a rather key difference between Buddhist and other religious philosophies. While other religions seek to achieve some state of grace through hard work and active repudiation, Buddhism teaches that we are inherently joyful and that it is really a matter of simply surrendering and relinquishing our misguided habits and preconceptions so that we can experience the essential Buddahood that is within us all.

When we reject the illusion that we have a “self” that exists separately and independently from other people and phenomena, we suddenly recognize that there is no need to detach, because we have always been interconnected with all things at all times.

Zen teacher John Daido Loori says that non-attachment should be understood as unity with all things:

"[A]ccording to the Buddhist point of view, non-attachment 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 non-attachment, 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?"

To live in non-attachment means that we recognize there was never anything to attach or cling to in the first place. And for those who can truly recognize this, it is indeed a state of joyfulness.