Non-Attachment, a Zen Imperative
- By Fa Gong, OHY
- Feb 22
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As our Zen practice deepens, we can observe ourselves as we shift in and out between our "small" and conditioned self, and that unconditioned SELF that cannot be described. And in this shifting we can see, if we look closely, the arising and the "evaporation" of attachment. And in this seeing, we might see the greatest wisdom - that it is attachment itself that creates the distinction of samsara and nirvana. Attachment is simply the catalog of all our conditioning, the description of our own personal ego.
In South-East Asia, hunters have long used an ingenious method to trap monkeys. First, they drill a hole in a coconut, place inside it a small morsel of food, and then tie the coconut to a tree. Along comes the monkey, smells the food, and quickly realises she can get her hand in the hole. Success! She grabs the food. Alas! The hole is too small to extract her hand and the food. And there she remains, until the hunter returns. Unwilling, to the end, to release her grasp from that which she desires so greatly …
In Buddhism, typical of all mainstream religious thought, the concept of "attachment" is a central and recurring theme. As one might expect with so nebulous a term used by so many traditions in so many different contexts, it holds a multitude of meanings for many people. Yet it is its antithesis that holds to key to Zen.
In the West, the exhortation to reduce "attachments" and to cultivate "non-attachment" is often met with a sullen resistance. Often, this resistance comes from a rejection of religious practice and attitudes that have sought to suppress and deny the natural human instinct for pleasure and sense gratification. Images of self-flagellation, enforced fasting, hair shirts and the like make concepts such as "non-attachment" appear the perverse concern of the senselessly masochistic. Non-attachment is also typically associated with self-denial and all its attendant miseries.
So, for Buddhists, how can we approach this issue of attachment? What does it mean? The concept of attachment, or upadana, applies on many levels. In this essay, we will examine some of the ways in which attachment, our blind and unmindful clinging, puts us in as tragic a position as our poor monkey …
"You look very insecure, sitting up there in your tree", said one highly-ranked Chinese official to a Ch'an master who enjoyed his life perched in the treetops. "Oh ho, good sir, YOU look very insecure to ME, down there on the ground!" replied the delighted master.
This often referenced Chan story contains a message which, we are told, the official was wise enough to understand. It was the official, whose life and fortune depended upon external favour and considerations, who was insecure. The foundation of his life was built, as Jesus might have said, on "shifting sands". It was his attachment to these external conditions that created his insecurity, his instability.
It has always been thus. Many centuries earlier, when people began flocking around the Buddha to hear his teachings (the first Buddhist sangha), he knew what to do; he would to train his followers to look away from the promise of gratification and sensual pleasure, and to focus their energy in a different direction. Monks and priests from ancient times were told that they were only able to own their robe and begging bowl. Monastics and devotees of all mainstream religious traditions have similarly embraced "Sister Poverty, the fairest bride in the whole world", as Francis of Assisi once said.
One day, the Buddha and his monks were walking down a road and were confronted by a frantic and miserable farmer racing down the road. He stopped them, saying "Good monks, I have lost my oxen, they were travelling this way. Did you see them?" The Buddha sadly replied, "No, we have not seen them. Perhaps they took the fork in the road back there." At this, the farmer wailed and continued his complaint. "Only this summer, locusts ate all my crops? What will I do?" and he ran crying down the road. The Buddha watched him go, and turned to his friends, saying "Dear monks, do you know how lucky you are? You never have to worry about your oxen or crops."
These stories express, in a simple way, the problem of attachment. Simply, that where our desires lie, so does our focus. What we value is where we put our attention. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says "what man, who when presented with a greater pleasure, does not forsake the lesser?" This wisdom can relate to many concerns, but primarily, it reminds us that the joys of samsara are of lesser value than the total bliss of nirvana.
And, importantly, we are required to choose. Which do we wish to attain? We cannot follow the path of samsaric promise and achieve nirvana. We cannot attain nirvana while still believing that samsara and its pleasures hold the key to the release of our suffering.
The First Noble Truth of Buddhism relates to the truth of suffering, or dukkha. The Second Noble Truth highlights the role of craving, greed and attachment in the arising of this suffering. Attachment is the the root of suffering. It is the cause of suffering.
Along with Anger and Ignorance, Greed (lobha) is also defilement according to Buddhist wisdom. Through these three, all suffering arises. Greed causes attachment, and clinging. Greed creates the mindset that decrees that with the pursuit and attainment of wealth, of fame, of pleasure, we can find the final peace and joy for which we all strive.
But this view is wrong. Observing our own lives, much less the lives of the rich and famous, makes this apparent. All our attachments lead us down, this metaphysical cul-de-sac. We obtain that which we pursued, and we find our dissatisfaction remains. Indeed, in obtaining our desire and finding we still suffer, our dissatisfaction only grows. We dig a hole, and in trying to get out, we dig deeper!
Yet such wisdom is basic, and not the exclusive domain of the Buddha. From popstar Madonna who wrote "Poor is the man whose pleasures depend upon the permission of another" to Plato who said something very similar - "The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depend upon himself, and not other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily."
Wisdom is universal.
A life based on desire and craving, on attachment for what the world may offer, will always be a life enslaved to the vicissitudes and capriciousness of that world, and those who dole out its rewards.
Buddha promised more than that. He promised an existence free of suffering. And such a world is not one where we simply parade our sour grapes, endlessly quoting the mantra of "I don't really desire that." It is a world where we are free to observe the reality of our life, and the dharma of the world around us, without feeling the need to own any of it: to be able to walk lightly upon the earth, and to take none of it with us; to see the world clearly without being beholden to it, or making demands upon it.
Being free of attachment is simply being free. We love, not because of what we get, but because of what we feel. We share generously, without needing to receive in return. This is non-attachment. This is true freedom.
Let's go further. How does non-attachment relate to wakefulness? Enlightenment? How does non-attachment relate to the generic principals of Buddhism?
Zen Buddhism pertains to becoming fully aware, fully mindful. The Buddha himself once said that he couldn't be described as a god, as a man, or as a diva. He said he was simply "awake". To be fully mindful of all that we do, of all that we think, of all that we experience is the essence of Buddhahood, the very expression of being "awake".
Yet our lives often move far away from this. Another famous Ch'an story describes the encounter of young seeker with a Chan Master. He asks the master: "What is the secret path to enlightenment?" The Master responds simply: "When I eat, I just eat. When I sit, I just sit. When I walk, I just walk."
This is a quintessential Chan story and variations on it abound. "What joy is this?! I carry water! I chop wood!" - the ubiquitous paean of the newly enlightened. In simply doing what we must do at each moment, this is being awake.
Perhaps that part of the Noble Eightfold Path called Right Livelihood relates to more than just what we do for a living. Perhaps it relates to how we do it. When we go to work, do we work for its own sake, or for the rewards we see it providing us? Thich Nhat Hanh, an inspiring advocate of mindfulness in daily life, suggests that when we do the dishes, we should do the dishes simply for its own sake. Not to clean the kitchen, not for any result, but just to do the dishes. Our mind should not be on other things - wishing we were somewhere else, thinking about a car we wish we could buy, mulling over the insult that was dished out to us at work … it should be purely on the activity of washing dishes. Yet how can we attain this simple state of awareness unless we are detached from everything? It is attachment itself that sabotages awareness.
"The awakened sages call a person wise when all his undertakings are free from anxiety about results", says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Jesus too said that the Kingdom of Heaven was here and now. Of course, the problem is, we are not. We are in the future, we are in the past, we are in our memories, we are in our anxieties, we are in our fantasies! Why? Because we are attached to our story; our personal narrative. We play it inside our head constantly. As we cook, we daydream. As we drive, we fantasize. As we work, we consider what better job there is for us out there. And as we love, we all too often do the same thing. So rarely are we simply aware of what we do, simply mindful. We are obsessed and lost in our image of our self. Call it "self-doctrine clinging".
In writing this essay, I have reflected deeply upon the nature of attachment, and observed how it manifests in meditation. Consider your own experiences in meditation, and the wealth of obstructions the mind throws up. Aren't the greatest obstacles those that take us from the here and now, and lead us onto paths of analysis, fantasy, memory, hope and anxiety? And how do they do that? They take us from the pure awareness of SELF, and lead us to identify the Self with that limited ego perception we recognize as our everyday "small" self. That "small" self is like velcro, and its nature is to attach to any desire or aversion, perception or perspective, that enters our mind.
Hsu Yun used to give students the hua tou of "who am I", or "who is … (doing this action)". With practice, one realises that there simply is no "who" that can be identified. Yes, with practice and insight we experience a centre, or nexus, of pure awareness - but no identifiable "who" that can be found. This "centre of awareness" cannot be associated with any thing, any desire, any aversion.
In the Semitic traditions God in the form of Eheieh represents this idea simply as "I AM THAT I AM". To the uninitiated it seems a nonsense sentence. It is not "I AM … this", or "I AM … that". It is simply "I AM THAT I AM." In deep and still meditation, we find this state. We Buddhists refer to it as Buddha-nature, or "our face before our parents were born". This state is not conditioned, and it cannot be described.
As our Zen practice deepens, we can observe ourselves as we shift in and out between our "small" and conditioned self, and that unconditioned SELF that cannot be described. And in this shifting we can see, if we look closely, the arising and the "evaporation" of attachment. And in this seeing, we might see the greatest wisdom - that it is attachment itself that creates the distinction of samsara and nirvana. Attachment is simply the catalog of all our conditioning, the description of our own personal ego. Every thought, every action, every hope, every feeling, every aversion, every pleasure - we recognize them all as the result of a conditioned association with, and perception of, the world.
In that place of unconditioned and pure awareness, we are devoid of personal ego. And our ego arises again when I AM becomes "I AM … happy", or "I AM … uncomfortable", or "I AM … whatever". As we see that, we also see that "ego" isn't even a persona, it isn't a thing at all. It is simply a process. "Ego" is nothing more than the mental tendency to attach a feeling, sensation or thought to that unconditioned centre of awareness. When I AM is conditioned, it becomes constrained to the experience of a limited perspective, a limited perception. Attachment is the mechanism of this constraint, this limitation.
In the final analysis, attachment is simply ego, the genesis of samsara.
Non-attachment is Buddha Nature. Nirvana.