Dragon's Gate Temple Library

The Nature Of Attachment

The Question

One of the questions that seems most troubling to people studying Buddhism is: "If I give up all attachments, do I have to give up my spouse, children, and parents? That would be unfair to them."

The Answer

No. You don't have to.

The Explanation

Let me explain just what "attachment" is in Buddhism, then I'll rephrase the question so you can see that there's no problem.
The key is this: We are not attached to things. We are attached to our ideas about things.
This can lead to seeing and believing that things are the way we want them to be, but it also can cause us to see what we are afraid of (as in paranoia), or just what we have gotten in the habit of seeing. Any textbook on psychology will have examples. Look under "cognitive dissonance".
This lack of contact with reality is what Buddhism means by "ignorance". It is a problem because reality feels no obligation to live up to our ideas about it. If we are emotionally attached to the idea of things being permanent, even though we know better intellectually, then when things break, in addition to the natural regret, we feel betrayed and offended! It wasn't "supposed to" do that!
 Once we get attached to an idea, we impose it on whatever we see or hear, so it's very difficult to overcome wrong ideas by our own self-power. You have always heard Scotsmen are thrrrifty. Are they? "Sure!" you say, "Look at that tightwad over there!" How do you know he's Scottish? "Well, he sure looks Scottish." What about that guy last week who was throwing money around? "Nah, he looked more Irish to me." It may have been the same guy. And he's Lithuanian. But if he fits your idea of a Scotsman, you look at him and see plaid.
So often we deal only with our ideas about our children, spouses, co-workers, family or friends. We keep our noses buried in our road map and don't see the scenery.
Even when we feel affection or kindness, we're like some generous people I know. No matter how thirsty they are, they are always willing to share their last glass of water with a drowning man.
You can be unselfish, and still be self-centered.
This attachment to our own preconceptions blinds us to the real people out there who need us. Instead of dealing with them, we deal with concepts and judgments, usually designed to prop up some cherished idea of who and what we are. Remember the Greek philosophers who were trying to figure out how many teeth a horse has? It was attachment to their ideas of a "self" that made them feel offended when someone suggested that such serious scholars should demean themselves by actually looking in a horse's mouth.
Isolating ourselves in our own little world this way allows us to form unrealistic expectations that are guaranteed not only to lead to disappointment, but also to decrease our ability to do anything to effectively help others.
So you can see, giving up attachment doesn't mean giving up the thing you are attached to.
With this understanding of attachment, let's look at the original question again.

The New, Improved Question

If I give up the barriers that separate me from my parents, spouse, and children, so that I can be more aware of them and more responsive to them, is that fair to them?

The Real Question

Would it be fair to them NOT to?


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