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Non Attachment

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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by Ven. Thich Thien An

One of the most important teachings of Zen Buddhism is non-attachment. The teaching of non-attachment may be easy to understand, but it is not easy to practice. Nevertheless, it is very essential to cultivate non-attachment if we are to live a serene and happy life in a world of constant change ; for this reason it is introduced here.
Our world is a world of desire. Every living being comes forth from desire and endures as a combination of desires. We are born from the desire between of our father and mother. Then, when we emerge into this world, we become infatuated with many things, and become ourselves well-springs of desire. Through desire we give rise to attachments. For every desire there is a corresponding attachment, namely, to the object of desire. For example, we are most conspicuously attached to our bodies. When someone threatens the body, we grow anxious and try to protect it. We relish physical comforts and the enjoyment of the senses. Thus, we are strongly attached to the body. But if we consider this attachment, we will see that it is a potential source of suffering. For the body is constantly changing. We wish we could remain alive forever, but moment after moment the body is passing from youth to old age, from life to death. We may be happy when we are young and strong, but we contemplate sickness, old age and the ever present threat of death, anxiety overwhelms us. Thus, we seek to elude the inevitable by evading the thought of it. The lust for life and fear of death are forms of attachment.
We are attached not only to our bodies but also to our possessions. We continually weave a net of clinging around our clothes, or car, our house and our wealth. We loath to part with these things and always try to accumulate more of them. We are also attached to memories concerning the past or anticipations of the future. Many people write diaries because they cannot part with their experiences, but wish to preserve them in such a form that they can always recollect them. When explorer climb a high mountain peak, what do they do ? They leave their name on a rock trees. When the astronauts landed on the moon, they left their footprints ant the American flag. These attachments are based on the egocentric point of view, with its offspring, the notions of 'me' and 'mine'.


Even spiritual experiences may become objects of attachment. Through meditation we may gain some unusual experience or even satori ; then we become attached to these attainments. This is another form of attachment. Zen Buddhism teaches us ti extinguish attachment in order that we may discover the state of absolute freedom which is rightfully ours. The path to freedom is difficult to follow, but if we have sufficient determination, we can do it.
The Zen teaching of non-attachment is very similar to the teaching of Taoism. The Tao Te Ching an ancient Taoist classic, says : "When the sage walks, he leaves no footprints behind." What does this mean ? It does not mean that when the Taoist sage goes for a walk one would never be able to find the imprints of his feet on the ground. The sage is human like us, and so he has footprints. What the statement means is that in his journey through life the sage leaves no traces of desire and attachment clinging to him as he lives from moment to moment. Life is following, always changing, and the sage never looks back to the moment which has sped by, nor does he look forward to the moment which lies ahead. Rather, he lives in the present, flowing along in harmony with the rhythm of life, appreciating each moment for what it is worth and allowing it to pass on quickly to be replaced by the next.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that nobody can step into the same river twice. We may think that the river we step into tomorrow is the same river we stepped into today, but this is just an illusion. The river is always flowing along, so we can never stp into the same water twice. Another saying famous in the West holds :"Nobody can say that today I live, and tomorrow I will live."In our minds we may have plans not only for tomorrow but for next year, and for ten years in the future, but no one can be certain that he will even live through the night. Recognizing the radical impermanence of life, Zen Buddhism suggests that we should not be too strongly attached to life, for if we are, we will find ourselves buffeted against the sharp rocks of change. Instead of living in the past and future, we should learn to live in the present as fully as possible. This moment, at least, we are alive, while we cannot be sure we will be alive tomorrow.
The secret of non-attachment is revealed in the philosophy of Chuang-Tzu, the great Taoist sage. According to Chuang-Tzu, life and death are two sides of the same coin, so there is no reason to be attached to life and afraid of death. As Chuang-Tzu says in a poem :


There is the globe,
The foundation of my bodily existence.
It wears me out with work and duties,
It gives me rest in old age,
It gives me peace in death.
For the one who supplied me with what I needed in life,
Will also give me what I need in death.
When Zhuang-Tzu's wife died, his friend the philosopher Hui Shih went to his house to console him and found him not weeping and wailing as one might aspect, but laughing and singing. Asked how he could be so ungrateful to his wife, the sage replied :"When she has just died, I could not help being affected. Soon, however, I examined the matter from the very beginning. At the very beginning, she was not living, having no form, not even substance. But somehow or rather, there was then her substance, then her form and then her life. Now by a further change, she has died. The whole process is like the sequence of the four seasons - spring, summer, autumn and winter. While she is thus lying in the great mansion of the universe, for me to go about weeping and wailing would be to proclaim myself ignorant of the natural laws. Therefore I stop." From this story we learn that the key to happiness is non-attachment, and the secret of ono-attachment is right understanding.
If we cling to the desire for things to be permanent, then we will develop strong attachments, an because of attachment we will suffer. This is the second of the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha in the first sermon after his Enlightenment : "All suffering arises from desire."As a consequence, if we recognize rightly that all phenomena are subject to change and transformation, then there will be no room in our hearts for fear and worry. We can accept anything, even death, with a peaceful, cheerful mind. The accomplished Zen man and woman can face all the vicissitudes of life and death without fear.
There are some Zen masters who know the time of their death several days in advance. When their time for departure comes, they gather their disciples together, give them final instructions and a gatha embodying the essence of their teaching and then quietly pass away, often sitting in the lotus posture. One Vietnamese Zen master named Tran-Nhan-Ton left the following gatha for his disciples at the time of his death :

Lord buddha (24).jpg

All things have no beginning;
All things are without cessation;
If you understand this,
All the Buddhas are there.
So how can there be any coming and going ?
The spirit of non-attachment is beautifully illustrated by the life of the life of the Buddha. When he was still a prince, married to a lovely wife and the heir to his father's throne, what did he do ? He renounced his family, wealth and power and fled to the mountains to meditate upon the way of truth. After his Enlightenment, the Buddha continued to exhibit the attitude of non-attachment.
Whereas most of the founders of other religions have claimed themselves to be the way, the light and the truth, the Buddha claimed to be the man who points the way. The Buddha is the wayfarer, the supremely enlightened guide along the path leading to the truth, but he does not claim to be himself the path of the truth. This is a very humble attitude, is it not ? Since it is a man who shows the way, there can be many ways which men may follow. Therefore we find a great deal of freedom and tolerance in Buddhism. The path which is right for one man may not be right for another.
There are 84,000 Dharma-doors that lead into the inner chambers of the Awakened Mind, and every Buddhist is free to practice those Dharma-doors he feels are best suited to himself. We find in the same spirit that Buddhists are not too attached to their own particular beliefs, even when they accept them with deep faith. In this respect, they follow the advice of the Buddha, who urged his disciples not to become angry when others spoke critically of his teachings and not to become elated when others spoke in praise of it, but to maintain an equal, open mind in the face of both criticism and praise. For forty-nine years the Buddha wandered over India preaching his doctrine and instructing disciples, yet on the last day of his life he could say : "In these forty-nine years I have not said a single word."


Why did he say this ? Because he did not want his disciples to become attached to his teaching. He wanted them to practice the teaching and realize the truth for themselves rather than grasp upon his own verbal and conceptual formulations of the truth. He compared his doctrine to a raft which is used to cross from his shore of ignorance and suffering to the other shore of Enlightenment and Nirvana. The raft is to be used rather than carried around on the head, just as the Dharma is to be practiced and realized rather than merely studied.
In Japanese Buddhism a Buddhist monk is usually called un shui. Un means cloud and shui means water, so a monk is a 'cloud and water' man. Why is he called so ? Clouds are fleeting and insubstantial, and water is constantly flowing. So the Buddhist monk is to be like clouds and water, wandering from place to place to help and to teach people without abiding anywhere permanently. He has no attachment to anything and to no property. In Theravada Buddhism a monk owns just three robes, a bowl, a razor and some small utensils. The purpose of this is to eliminate attachment. The Buddhist sits loose and travels light. While we may feel that it is possible to own many things without being attached to them, still it is easier to be unattached with few possessions. Therefore, a Buddhist monk is not supposed to own more that what he needs. He is supposed to rise above all attachments, not only to his personal possessions, but to nation and family as well. A Buddhist monk does not think that only a particular group of people related to him by blood is his family or that a particular country is his nation. He regards all sentient beings as his family and every place as his home. He is a universal man devoted to the welfare and the happiness of the whole world.
The role of non-attachment in Zen Buddhism is very far-reaching. In fact, it may be said that the aim of Zen is to root out each and every point of attachment until there is not even a speck of dust left for the mind to grasp. This means that not only such coarse forms of attachment as the passions and desires must be left behind, but also the more subtle threads of intellectual attachment. Even such notions as Buddhahood, Nirvana and Enlightenment must be pulverized and scattered to the winds until only the Void remains, and even that must be cast away.


This is the meaning of the Middle Way - the Way that rises above the duality of 'this' and 'that'. As long as one bears the concept of Nirvana or Enlightenment in mind, that concept is a barrier to his meditation. For this reason some Zen masters teach their students :"When you meditate do not wish to become a Buddha."Why do they say this? Because if one wishes to become a Buddha, then he is attached to the notion of Buddhahood. He makes Buddhahood an object and himself a subject, thereby constructing a false dualism once again. We must let go of everything, high and low, exalted and debased, pure and Impure, existent and non-existent, and the mind will become calm and pure by itself. From this calm, pure mind we can begin to cultivate the wisdom that will grow into Buddhahood. When we cease to discriminate between subject and object, the two become one and we find that from the beginning our very mind is the Buddha.
All men seek happiness. It is a universal trait of human nature. But men differ very much in their views about how happiness is to be achieved. One Vietnamese Buddhist writer compares happiness to a butterfly. He says : "Happiness is something very beautiful, just like a butterfly. On warm summer days the butterfly darts back and forth above the green grass and the colorful flowers, looking very beautiful. But one must not try to catch it, for when the butterfly is caught in the hand, it becomes no more than an insect."This means that we should let happiness come and go just like a butterfly. When it comes, we should just enjoy it and not try to grasp after it. And when it goes, we should watch it go calmly and peacefully ; then it will come back again. If we try to grasp happiness and hold on to it forever, it will die in our hands. We must let its beauty come and go and enjoy it while it lasts. That is the way of life and the meaning of life too. This is the way of non-attachment.
This concept of non-attachment in Zen Buddhism is revealed in a short poem by a Vietnamese Zen master :
Swallows fly in the sky,
The water reflects their images.
The swallows leave no traces,
Nor does the water retain their images.

A common method to help the student lessen his attachment is the koan method of Rinzai Zen. The koan is a philosophical topic given to a Zen student for meditation by the Zen master. It may consist of a single word, a phrase, a sentence or a short passage. A most famous koan is called "the sound of one hand clapping." Everybody knows what the sound of two hands clapping is like, but what it the sound of one hand clapping ? That is the koan. The student meditates on it until he can hear the sound of one hand clapping. Many of us have heard the sound of silence. If we can hear that sound, then we can hear the sound of one hand clapping also. This koan does not stop with hearing of not hearing, but goes further. If we can hear the sound of one hand, why can we hear it, and how can we hear it ?
If not, why not ? Where does the sound come from, and where does it go ? What is the nature of the sound, and what is the nature of the sound, and what is the nature of hearing ? If their koan is solved, the meditator may consider that he has experienced kensho.

Source : Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, Dharma Publishing, College of Oriental Studies, 1975, PP104-112.