Why Do Buddhists Avoid Attachment?

"Attachment" May Not Mean What You Think It Does

Buddha With Birds
Birds perch on a Buddha in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. © Cyrille Gibot / Getty Images

The principle of nonattachment is key to understanding and practicing Buddhist religious philosophy, but like so many concepts in Buddhism, it can confuse and even discourage many newcomers to the philosophy.

Such a reaction is common to people, especially from the West, as they begin to explore Buddhism. If this philosophy that is supposed to be about joy, they wonder, why does it spend so much time saying that life in inherently full of suffering (dukkha), that nonattachment is a goal, and that a recognition of emptiness (shunyata) is a step toward enlightenment?

All those things sound discouraging, even depressing at first glance.

But Buddhism is indeed a philosophy of joy, and the confusion among newcomers is partly because the words from the Sanskrit language do not have exact translations in English, and partly because the personal frame of reference for Westerners is much, much different than that of Eastern cultures.

So let’s explore the concept of non-attachment as used in Buddhist philosophy. To understand it, though, you’ll need to understand its place within the overall structure of basic 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 is full of suffering, the closest English translation of the word dukkha. The word has many connotations, including “unsatisfactoriness,” which is perhaps the translation that might be better suited.

So to say that life is suffering means, really, that there is a vague feeling that things are not entirely satisfactory, not quite right. A recognition of this vague dissatisfaction and suffering is what constitutes what Buddhism called 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 is most often translated as ignorance, or avidya, 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 phenomenon. This is perhaps the central misconception identified by Buddhism, and it leads to the next two reasons for dukkha, or 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/grasping/clinging on the one hand, or aversion/hatred on the other hand. It’s important to know that the Sankrit 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 a recognition of them forms the Second Noble Truth.

Now, perhaps, you can begin to see where non-attachment may come into the picture, since we will later see that it is an antidote to one of the Three Poisons.

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 to dukkha is possible. The essence of this cessation is nothing more than to relinquish the delusion and ignorance that fuel both the attachment/clinging and the aversion/hatred that makes 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 those methods is the famous Eight-Fold Path, a set of practical advisory 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 nonattachment is a condition conducive to satisfaction with life, a condition of nirvana.

It is important to note, though, that the advice is not to detach or unattach from 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 that will allow us to experience the essential Buddahood that is within us all. 

When we simply relax the illusion that we have a “self” that exists separately and independently from other people and phenomenon, we suddenly recognize that there is no need to detach or unattach, because we have always been interconnected with all things at all times. Much the way it is an illusion to call the various oceans separate bodies of water when in fact they are part of one large ocean, it is similarly an illusion to imagine that we exist in a distinct separateness from the rest of the world. 

Zen teacher John Daido Loori said,

"[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 position of joyfulness.