The Path of Non-Attachment by Peter Morrell
The Path of Non-Attachment
by Peter Morrell
Trying to be a good Buddhist in the modern world is not easy; there is much that conspires against one on every side. Out of all the various concepts of the Buddhist faith, only two or three really stand out as central and dominant. In this respect, I suppose impermanence, bliss and compassion stand out to me as being really central ideas, about which much else revolves peripherally. Karma and rebirth are both concepts Buddhism has taken from Hinduism.
It is hard to find one axiom within Buddhism that illustrates this fact so well, as that of non-attachment. It sums up the whole religion in so many ways and serves to illustrate the theme of how hard it is to be a good Buddhist. In recent days I have found myself increasingly contemplating how central and important non-attachment is, and have therefore chosen to write about it quite spontaneously as an abiding theme, which acts much like a key to many other aspects of Buddhist philosophy and its application to life.
The starting point can be how difficult it is to be a good Buddhist. It is difficult for many reasons, but chief among them is the way most people view this world. To me, it is a fleeting thing, ever-changing and I am aware every day of its transient nature. Every day I think of death in general, danger and uncertainty, like that very day I could die, it could be my last. These are not idle dreams; they occur as serious thoughts all the time. I check my life for danger as I wake up; check myself over for symptoms of impending illness; check my mind for bad thoughts and review critically all my recent interests and activities to see if everything is OK. I check my motives for doing or saying things. I correct my wrongs and right any errors if I can. In this way I have become deeply habituated over many years now in following a certain inner path, a certain practice, if you like. It is a certain way of engaging with the world.
This daily practice of mine is entirely rooted in Buddhist principles. I would have it no other way. It is what passes for my religion and has been for over thirty years. I have no problem with it, have resolved myself to it and commit myself to it wholeheartedly. It has given me great pleasure and I have learned all I know about life, people and the world from its teachings. I feel as though I am firmly embedded in it, enveloped comfortably in it as a world view and would fey adopt any other set of ideas to live by.
It is difficult to be a Buddhist, chiefly because the rest of humanity does not approach life like this. Two overwhelming internal forces largely drive the rest of humanity: desire and hatred. Everything people do - virtually - can be reduced to these two strong impulses. Almost everything they say and do, most of the interests they pursue and most of their speech and activity are motivated by and absorbed into whom they like, what they like, and what they hate. Thus, they are strongly pulled towards what they like and repelled from what they hate. We are all like this. I include myself in this stream of people I am talking about. I do not exclude myself or raise myself up onto some morally superior holier-than-thou dais. I am much of the time just as absorbed by this as anyone else. Nevertheless, it is useful to know this and to carry this idea around with one inside every day. It leads to many insights almost on a daily basis and can lead one to moderate the excesses of one’s attractions and repulsions. It allows one to understand what one is looking at in the world.
We look at people and lament their selfishness, without realising that we are just the same. We lament their hating this and wanting that, without realising that we are just the same. Therefore, compassion and love arise from this awareness, as it pulls us all together as human beings. We are all selfish and hate this and want that; this is our nature. Knowing this gives us a great basis for forgiveness, love and compassion for just about anyone. Any ‘wrong’ people do is based upon desire or hate, and thus knowing that we all share these passions, make it easier to accept and forgive such ‘wrongs’. They can be distinguished only in their degree of wrongness, but they all share the same basis; thus no-one is more deserving of forgiveness, than anyone else. No ‘sin’ is worse than any other is: they all derive from the same desire and hate.
- ‘...it is said that as long as one is in cyclic existence, one is in the grip of some form of suffering.’ 
To know that we are all based in desire and hatred is to know humanity in all its strengths and weaknesses. It is true to say that you do not know someone very well until you know what they really like, what they most earnestly desire or hate. Moreover, it is true. For the most part, people are simple beings, driven mostly by these two forces. We want this and we don’t want that. That is how we move through life drifting towards one desire after another and away from one hatred to another. In this way, our life evolves [or stands still] and then we die. We experience pleasure and pain continuously in varying degrees and in varying forms, some coarse and some subtle, but that is the pattern of our lives, of everyone’s life. It is observably so and how things actually are. Buddhism is a religion based upon a profound view of how people actually are.
Yet to be a Buddhist is to cultivate detachment, a separation from all this, to view the world as less enticing and less permanent, to be detached from its pains as much as its pleasures. This is the fundamental essence of how a Buddhist lives, tasting the pleasures and pains infrequently, cultivating a sort of detachment as if you are holding the world at arms length slightly and looking askance at it. Buddhists can apprehend the general unsatisfactoriness of life. We can see that much work needs to be done on ourselves. The nature of the world cannot be changed, but the nature of ourselves can. That is where the work sits.
Like so many aspects of Buddhism, the view of non-attachment arises to some extent from the core experience of Buddha’s enlightenment. Like impermanence and bliss, non-attachment is a basic aspect of his experience. It can be seen as a part either of the fruit or a part of the path; or indeed, both. It is an aspect of both. It is an aspect of the Buddhist path to gaining enlightenment, and it is at the same time an aspect of the behaviour of a Buddha. It arises from the enlightenment experience, primarily as a reaction towards the nature of impermanence. Because things are impermanent, so it behoves one to deal with this fact. It is the way things are. Inescapably, this is how life is: nothing is permanent, everything changes and will disappear. Knowing this changes our perception of the world and the priorities we find in being here. One reaction, therefore, is to view the world somewhat sceptically, in a nonchalant and detached manner. Knowing that someone you love is going to die, changes your love for them somewhat. Knowing you will pass from this world, and never be seen again, inevitably changes your love for it; your attachment to it is correspondingly diminished by this knowledge. This forms one basis for non-attachment.
- ‘...when you have attachment to, for instance, material things, it is best to desist from that activity. It is taught that one should have few desires and have satisfaction - detachment - with respect to material things...’
Every day we see things we like, people we like, foods we like, and attractive things we would like to buy or share our lives with. To fill our lives with these things we love seems natural, but in truth, it is path to pain, and not to peace. If given complete freedom, we would most certainly get rid of certain things in our lives that we dislike, certain objects and certain people. We would shoo them all out of our lives, if we could, if we had the choice, because we do not like them. In addition, we would fill our lives with pleasant things, nice people, beautiful persons who we enjoy and who we like the look and feel of. This is what we would all do if only we could, if we had the chance and freedom. Instead, we suppress some of our great desires to remain socially acceptable and decent, and suppress also some of our aversions. In this way, we manage to remain in a socially acceptable bandwidth of normality and accepted conduct.
Those who do not accept these norms become deviants and criminals and come to occupy a subculture that has rejected the norms of society. >From a purely Buddhist perspective, that is a painful and unhappy path to follow, as it leads to misery and friction with others almost daily. If the aim of life is to become content and happy, then there are certain rules we must follow, one of them being to acknowledge the fundamental social nature of all human beings. Therefore, to turn your back on society inevitably leads to great pain and loneliness. This increases one’s suffering and that cannot be a good path to follow.
One attitude towards life is therefore to keep active desires and hatreds dampened down like fires, which could at any moment, and with only a few puffs, be suddenly set blazing up again. That is the nature of mind. This is how we are. It is how we behave. The Buddhist view is slightly different, as it is to work through this manifestly unsatisfactory way of living - of being little more than a slave to these impulses - and to try and become more detached, more neutral, less engaged with those alluring things we want, and less averse and enraged by the things we dislike.
- ‘...the sense of an object as being attractive, unattractive, or neutral...feelings of pleasure, pain, or neutrality arise. Due to such feelings, attachment develops, this being the attachment of not wanting to separate from pleasure and the attachment of wanting to separate from suffering...’
Non-attachment gives us the much-needed space to contemplate what we want and what we hate so as to more fully reflect upon whether these things we love or loathe will truly bring us the pain or pleasure we believe they contain. By reflecting in this way we can choose what to do and what not to do - it puts the brakes on to some degree. It is a path of abstention most of the time because it recognises the fundamental unattractiveness of most things. Excess pleasure leads to pain and thus on reflection there is little that is worth enjoying to excess. This is the dominant theme. Non-attachment can therefore be seen as the general antidote for all excesses and indulgences. It attempts to wake us up to the actual state of things and provides us with a kind of barrier to place between ourselves and the world we engage with. It dampens our drives and cools our passions in order to reflect on what is or is not a good path to follow. It forces us to contemplate the probable consequences inherent in every action we are considering. Overall, Buddhists wish to choose actions that will increase happiness for all and reduce suffering for all. Actions, words and thoughts can therefore be graded into those that increase happiness and those that do not. Those that do not are either neutral or they are harmful to self or others.
The Buddhist view is to try to dampen and work through our innate urges. It is to build a more peaceful inner world, that does not indulge these selfish impulses, but which constructs a more compassionate viewpoint, a still centre. Over the last ten or 15 years I have become accustomed to this approach and it amazes me some days how successful I have become in cultivating this detachment and I have set up sort of internal alarm systems to stop me going beyond certain limits with food, drink and the alluring things of the world. It is hard work and boring work, but it is a task I have set myself, which has now become entrenched. What alternative is there? There is no other method of restraining these impulses and restrained they must be, if we wish to achieve some modicum of spirituality.
It is useful work and hard work, but one must be ever watchful in the hope that one dies a better person, that one can look back at ones life and remind oneself how there have been certain improvements and that one has become a better person, a more detached, more controlled and more compassionate person. My aim is to die peacefully and to truly regard my life in its entire vicissitudes, and see it as successful in this sense of it being better than it was and that I die a more rested and more contented person than I was before. I hope that is the case and wish it to be so. I take daily action to build that type of future for myself. I call that a Buddhist path and so I would call myself a Buddhist, one who tries constantly to be kind and happy, to be restful and contented as far as is possible, and also to look back at the many positive things I have done and to truly know that I have improved and become a better person. A better person with fewer desires, with less hatred and filled with more compassion, more peace, more love and more contentment than I had before.
If I can measure my life at all, this is how I would choose to measure it. Moreover, what progress there has been, if any, I would measure precisely in those terms. If I am less desirous, more contented, less hateful, more loving, more peaceful, more contented, then I can die happy. That is the nature of non-attachment, a path worth cultivating. In terms of being selfish or being kind, I would say I am kinder. In terms of being more loving, I would say I have moved a long way. I am much more compassionate than I ever was. In terms of anger, I have done much work, and can truthfully say that I rarely get angry and try to remove the poison of anger from my mind and my life. In terms of hatred, I have worked hard to purge it from my life. I feel lucky to never have been a very hateful person; unforgiving at times, but not hateful. In terms of desire, I have made some limited progress, though I would be a liar if I said I desire nothing. Much work needs to be done on this, but some discernible progress has been made. Thus, in all these ways, I do consider myself to be a good Buddhist, and to have successfully cultivated a form of non-attachment in my life, which works for me.
In all these ways, I therefore do view this world with little real interest. I am detached much of the time. I do know that I will one day die, and though I do not wish it, I have come to accept it. I try to see every day as my last. Every day I try to be kinder and more compassionate and to play down the negative forces within me. Every day I try to be a better person and to be less desiring, less hating, less judging of others and to feel myself closer to humanity as a whole, and all living things. This is the way I have chosen to live. I do consider it to be a religious life, a good life and a life worth living. In small ways, I do believe it has been successful.
- The Dalai Lama at Harvard, 1988, Snow Lion USA, p.37
- ibid., p.48
- ibid., p.76
- ibid., p.153
- ibid., pp.86-7
- Geshe Lhundup Sopa & Jeffrey Hopkins, Cutting through Appearances: Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism, 1989, Snow Lion, USA, p.188