This essay began as remarks on another site, concerning the principle of non-attachment *. Although there is something like this principle to be found in certain ancient Greek and Roman philosophies, and in Christianity, the conversation had to do with the principle as it it is understood in Eastern philosophies, primarily Taoism and Buddhism. My understanding of Taoism is admittedly somewhat sketchy – I’ve read the major texts, and am aware that there are problems in the history of Taoism little known in the West – for instance the enormous difference between Taoist philosophy (which is often stridently anti-supernatural) and Taoist religious practices, which largely derive from local supernaturalist practices in China from long ago. But I don’t know much about Taoism beyond generalities of this sort.
However, I do know a little something about Buddhism, having studied it for 25 years; so I thought some clarification from this perspective might be of some interest. The primary issue concerned the principle of non-attachment, a subject that, in the Modern era, makes many Westerners uncomfortable.
It is important not to make a common Western mistake in confusing certain Taoist ideas with certain Buddhist ideas. They are similar, but not the same. Taoist non-attachment, as I understand it, originates from taking life on its own terms. The way is the everyday way; we eat, work, live with our families, all without much thought or analysis, and that’s how it should be; if we need to analyze this, then something has gone amiss, possibly because we have already begun analyzing it. Thus non-attachment is simply living without thinking too much about it; if there is depth to living, that will reveal itself.
Non-attachment in Buddhism comes packed with considerable psychological insight, and there is more at stake. The ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is release from aggregates of self and desire, source of all suffering.
Buddhism is best realized in a monastic practice, and that makes some Westerners uncomfortable with it. But its fundamental principles can have a wide appeal, and a beneficial influence on quite practical lived experience. I find it strange that some still believe that a philosophy, in some cultures a (godless) religion, with hundreds of millions of adherents is somehow only of interest to ascetic freaks. The Japanese do not love? The Chinese do not weep? The Thai do not laugh? The Burmese do not feel outrage? There are no close knit families in Korea? Not everyone in these cultures are Buddhists; but Buddhists in these cultures share the same pains, the same joys, the same closeness, the same confusions, the same hopes as their neighbors. They do not find Buddhism ‘life-denying;’ why should we? Do we think that Buddhists are so concerned with some ineffable whatness that they have no feeling for their families or for others? There is a reason why we Buddhists speak about the compassion of the Buddha as his greatest gift.
Whenever we discuss older Western philosophies – Stoicism, Platonism, Medieval Scholasticism, whatever – it is clear from the kind of discussions we have that most of us understand these philosophies are integral to the history of philosophy that has brought us to where we are now, even where they have been displaced or replaced or simply left behind along the trail. We are comfortable thinking about them as traditions, having elaborated themselves through that history, and many still having adherents, and so we discuss their strengths and weaknesses within a culture where we recognize they still have a place.
But when we discuss Buddhism or Taoism or Confucianism, one often finds remarks that treat these philosophies as novelties coming out of some theoretical space, rather like Transcendental Meditation or Dianetics. Sometimes their cultural connections are remarked, but largely as something admittedly unknown and possibly ‘foreign,’ in the sense that these philosophies may be of value to other peoples to the East in a way we don’t understand or possibly cannot understand.
I think, on the contrary, that the people of the East are pretty much people like ourselves; and that consequently the philosophic and religious traditions they enjoy function pretty much for them as ours do for us. These traditions are very much a part of history; and included in that history are debates between various schools, syncretic mediations, open conflict, innovations, maneuvering for dominance, re-positioning, regression and revival, etc., etc., just as has happened in the West. Consequently, in approaching these philosophies, it might be a good idea to begin by asking what it is about these philosophies that millions of people, throughout history, have found beneficial, both at the level of theory among the scholars of these traditions, but also at the level of daily practice among people who are engaged in the same efforts to survive and live together as we are.
So, when approaching these philosophies, it is possibly not helpful to begin by taking an idea out of a philosophy’s theoretical space and asking, say, ‘is this idea life-denying?’ Because if it were truly life-denying, it would not survive long as part of a tradition of millions of people who find satisfaction in that tradition. Would it not be better to first recognize that these people have found something life-affirming in it, and ask after that?
As I noted, Buddhism has a somewhat different understanding of non-attachment than Taoism, although their understandings do overlap (and without that overlap, the history of Buddhism in China would be different.) Buddhist non-attachment is more open to the charge of ‘life-denying’ in the West because it is more radical and does implicate a monasticism in response. It also has an extensive and somewhat complicated literature of theoretical justification, and of narratives of practice, that make it more difficult to translate in Western terms, thus harder to defend. Yet if it were truly life-denying, again, Buddhism would never have expanded as it has, nor would it still be found of use to millions. So what about this non-attachment can be of beneficial use and why?
I was raised in an unhappy family. The notions of closeness, legacy, community were not available to me in any practice my family engaged. Instead, it was quite an effort to survive emotionally. As I grew up and away from my family, I carried the wounds I received there throughout encounters with others, and my social history is thus something of a trail of tears. Most of my cherished goals remained out of reach; and I really don’t have any memory of a fulfilled desire that is not laced with considerable pain from loss. My experience of being human has been tragedy played out as farce – Ed Wood’s version of Hamlet.
In a moment of crisis 25 years ago, I attained the liberating realization that this experience could only be lived through by accepting the Four Noble Truths. The pain was not inevitable, but a co-efficient of my own yearnings. The cherished goals and desires were functions of a self taking itself too seriously, in a world unable to be taken seriously. It took considerable time, effort, practice, to be able to suspend that self, release those goals and desires, and live through the consequences of a life poorly led. But what is this judgment, ‘poorly led’? Life just is. We want it to follow some narrative structure arriving at ‘happily ever after.’ But really it’s a drunken walk through a dark forest. Stuff happens. Some of this is ‘predictable,’ but only in hindsight. Some stuff just happens.
My family wasn’t close, but they were my family, after all. In the past decade, in a three year period, they all died from the result of poor health habits – untreated diabetes, drug use, failure to follow rehabilitation after a stroke, etc. Some people think they will live forever. They are always disappointed.
I am the last of my breed, I leave no progeny. It has been experience of the complete loss of my family that led me to realize the full value of what I have learned from the Four Noble Truths. The emotions are real, the loss is real; yet the attachment to them is simply more desperate clinging to the identity I developed as a child, and the unrealized desires that were bound up with that. Release from this clinging still requires practice; yet I am saner, with a greater sense of wholeness and engagement with the world, than was ever true when I was young.
We live in a fairly comfortable world. We forget that this was not always the case. When the Buddha first taught, the average life-expectancy was about 45 years; wars tore apart communities, droughts led to famine, diseases harvested hundreds of lives. Even among the well-to do, unhappiness was the order of the day. For instance, even for them, the infant mortality rate was remarkably high compared to any in our own day. Lacking anesthetics and precision surgical tools, even birth itself was a moment of high risk torture for the mother and child. The Buddha began his journey horrified at the bloody caesarian birth of his son. He found a way to let go of that.
In the India of Siddhartha Gautama’s day, the only way to avoid such pain, such risk such misery, was to become a ascetic hermit. The Buddha attempted to follow this path; but at last he realized that this was just another attachment to the self as object of extinction. Thus he found what Buddhists always know as the Middle Way. It offers release from attachment to self and desires, and the suffering that causes; but it is free of suicidal ascetic attachments as well. It may not work for everyone; but it has taught many how to live.
There is one more thing for me to remark here; and it is an important confession from me.
In my family, there was no love. Expressions of love were always obviously intended to get something from other family members. “I love you, so shut your mouth!” “You should love me, so do what I say!” Joy and celebration, caring and empathy, none of such could be learned in my family.
I spent many years trying hard, very hard, to feel positive emotions for others. This effort caused me many difficulties that led to much pain for myself and others.
Eventually I realized that such feelings were probably unattainable for me. Where there is no nurturing, nothing nurturing can grow.
It has been the way of the Buddha that has allowed me to develop a sense and a practice of compassion for others. This is not always easy, and not always sustainable. But it is surely more and better than what I had before. I can now recognize that others are often in pain similar to what I have experienced. I can now care when another suffers, and seek to help alleviate that suffering. I can now see myself as part and parcel of the community of fellow human beings.
I admit that I still don’t know that I ‘feel’ compassion for others. What I know now is that others are like myself, and that my responsibility is to enact compassion towards them. That I have learned from the Buddha.
As noted previously. the tendency toward monasticism in Buddhism usually causes discomfort among those in the West. That’s probably because they understand monasticism in Christian terms, as an attempt to escape from human community into a closed, thoroughly god-centered society.
That’s not the Buddhist way. Again, remember the India in which Siddhartha Gautama was born – in a period of chaos and social fracturing, compared to our own. Remember too that the Hindu response to this was ascetic hermitage for individuals. The Buddha, on the contrary, emphasized community; Buddhist monasticism developed as a means of forming communities, not by geographical chance, but according to shared purpose and principles. And these communities, although partially closed, were also partially open, communicating with the surrounding geographical communities for economic support, while providing aid and assistance to the suffering – medicinal aid, counseling, ritual care at moments of birth, sickness, and death. They gradually became integral to the communities in which they arose, which is how Buddhism swept through cultures across Asia.
Buddhists are not saints. They are people like any other. Some are tempted to corruption, some are overly rigid in their attempts at ideological purity and presumed ‘righteousness, some are, well, pretty much like the family next door – in whatever neighborhood one happens to live. We in the West often expect too much from Buddhism, and yet ask too little of it. It is not the cure-all for all our ills; but following its principle can provide needed guidance to many. A path can only lead one to a destination if one chooses to walk the paces needed along the path. And the destination is not any certain happiness or status or profound well-being. It is only something a little better than what has come before. The only certain destination is death – but that is pure void and teaches no lessons for living; other than:
Empty handed I entered the world.
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going-
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
– Kozan **
** Translator unknown.