Although I am not a Buddhist I think the Buddha is one the greatest teachers the world has ever known. And one of the Buddhist authors I recommend to better understand Buddhism is Brad Warner. In the excerpt below he clarifies the usually misunderstood concept of non-attachment. I think it is worth your time.
Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Attached to Non-Attachment
“There is an idea within Zen Buddhist philosophy that’s sometimes expressed with the word “non-attachment.” But it has nothing to do with the weird belief that we should all be completely aloof from everything in life. Dogen, the 13th century monk who wrote extensively about Zen, talks some about not being attached to self and not being attached to views. But this is a completely different thing from cultivating an attitude where a person strives to be an island unto him or herself, loving nothing, caring about nothing and generally just not giving a shit about much at all.
The notion that we should cultivate such an attitude is extremely dangerous. It’s one of those beliefs that cult leaders use to dominate a community. We all form attachments to those close to us. When we’re told to cut ties with family and friends and with the mainstream society, we’ll naturally form ties with the community and its leader. That’s a very slippery slope. Even when the community and its leader start off relatively cool, that kind of power corrupts quickly and thoroughly.
The don’t-give-a-shit attitude cultivated by far too many who proudly label themselves Buddhists is one of those things that people who dislike Buddhism always use to trash it. And rightly so, because it’s a crap idea! Unfortunately for them, the idea isn’t Buddhism at all. It’s a kind of psychosis — what the psychiatric community calls sociopathy. That’s not what Buddhist practice is intended to bring about.
In fact, this bizarre idea of “non-attachment” runs completely counter to the Buddhist worldview. It’s utterly impossible for anyone ever to be unattached in that way. What we call self and what we call non-self are one and the same. Our real attachments to everyone and everything we encounter run so deep and strong we couldn’t possibly break them no matter how hard we tried. We are fundamentally attached to everything. And of course you’re going to form even deeper attachments to those people and things that are more closely related to you, like your family, friends and home. Don’t sweat it.
Non-attachment to self and views is something entirely different. It means not trying to force yourself to be one single solid unchangeable thing forever and ever world without end amen. What you call your “self” is constantly in a state of flux, mutating and metamorphosing at every moment. But most of us fight against that. We try to establish a fixed personality — a “self.” We waste all kinds of energy defining and defending this fiction we’ve worked hard to create. Stop doing that and you’re free to use all that energy in far more constructive and beneficial ways. Personally, I don’t think the word “non-attachment” is a very good way of describing this so I don’t use it (FYI, even in the passages I referred to, Dogen never actually used the word “non-attachment” since he didn’t write in English).
As far as your attachment to the things you ought to be attached to is concerned, the worst that Buddhist practice is going to do is to make you a little less emotionally frantic about that stuff. When my mom died last year, I didn’t sit around all glassy eyed going, “I have no grief for, lo, I am not attached.” I cried. Hard. But at the same time I didn’t hang on to my grief as tightly as I might have.
Let’s take grief as a case in point that’s applicable to the rest of what we might call emotional attachments. The initial wave of grief you feel at the loss of someone you love just happens. No need to dwell on how or why. It’s just there. And you react; you cry or feel sullen or act in whatever way your cultural upbringing has conditioned you to respond. After that, though, is where things get complicated. The habit of latching onto emotions and incorporating them into the sense of self is so strong that we’ll grab on hard to even the most unpleasant feelings that come along. We hang on for dear life lest our sense of who we are should collapse if we let go. We very literally feel like we’ll die if we don’t. Habits like this have us abusing our bodies and minds in ways that lead to all kinds of trouble. But they’re not necessary. You won’t vanish if you stop reinforcing your image of who you are at every moment.
You can’t undo habits this deep instantly. You shouldn’t even try. But once you become aware of them you find that you always have a clear choice whether to respond habitually or not. Not responding habitually doesn’t mean you become cold, robotic and “non-attached” in the sense a lot of people seem to envision non-attachment. It just means you don’t push your body/mind more than it needs to be pushed.
You still love all the people you loved before. You may even hate the same people you hated before. Even hate doesn’t have to be a terrible thing when you don’t latch onto it and call it your self. It arises and fades away like any other emotion and there’s no need to act upon it. But that’s a topic too big to go into here. In any case, the kind of “attachments” the guy who wrote me that letter remain fully intact. You still love your family and your friends and your kitty cat too.
So don’t get all attached to the idea of non-attachment. OK?”
Brad Warner is the author of Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up! He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff and a My Space Page too. If you’re in Southern California and you want to try some Zazen for yourself, he has a group that meets every Saturday in Santa Monica.
His blog: www.hardcorezen.blogspot.com