What does Buddhism mean by non-attachment? Many people think the idea of detachment, non-attachment, or non-clinging is very cold. This is because they confuse attachment with love. But attachment isn’t genuine love — it’s just self-love.
When I was eighteen, I told my mother I was going to India. I remember I met her on the street as she was coming home from work and said, “Oh, Mum, guess what? I’m going to India!”
And she replied, “Oh yes, dear. When are you leaving?”
She said that not because she didn’t love me, but because she did love me. She loved me so much that she wanted me to be happy. Her happiness lay in my happiness, and not in what I could do to make her happy.
Do We Own Our Possessions or Do They Own Us?
Non-attachment doesn’t have anything to do with what we own or don’t own. It’s just the difference between whether the possessions own us or whether we own the possessions.
There is a story of a king in ancient India. He had a palace, concubines, gold, silver, jewels, silks, and all the nice things that kings have. He also had a brahmin guru, who was extremely ascetic. All that this brahmin owned was a clay bowl, which he used as a begging bowl.
One day, the king and his guru were sitting under a tree in the garden when the servants came running up and cried, “Oh Maharaja, Your Majesty, come quickly, the whole palace is in flames! Please come quickly!”
The king replied, “Don’t bother me now — I’m studying the Dharma with my guru. You go and deal with the fire.”
But the guru jumped up and cried, “What do you mean? I left my bowl in the palace!”
Possessions Are Innocent: Attachment Is the Problem
What we’re talking about is the mind. We’re not talking about possessions. Possessions and things are innocent; they are not the problem. It doesn’t matter how much we own or what we don’t own: it’s our attachment to what we own which is the problem. If we lose everything tomorrow and say, “Oh there we are, easy come and easy go,” there’s no problem; we’re not caught. But if we are distressed, that is a problem.
Clinging to things and to people reveals our fear of losing them. And when we do lose them, we grieve. Instead of holding things so tightly, we can hold them more lightly. Then while we have these things, while we have these relationships, we enjoy them. We treasure them. But if they go, well, that’s the flow of things. When there is no hope or fear in the mind, the mind is free. It’s our greedy, grasping mind that is the problem.
Holding On to Attachment: Monkey See, Monkey Do?
There’s a story about a kind of monkey trap which they use in Asia. It’s a hollowed-out coconut which is nailed to a tree or a stake. This coconut has a little hole in it just big enough for a monkey to put his hand in, and inside the coconut they put something sweet. And so the monkey comes along, smells the bait, puts his hand into the hole, and grasps the sweet. So now he has a fist holding the sweet. But when he tries to withdraw his fist through the hole, he can’t. So he’s caught. And then the hunters come and just pick him up.
Nothing is holding that monkey to the coconut. He could just let go of the sweet and be out and away. But the greed in his mind, even with his fear of the hunters, will not let him let go. He wants to go, but he also wants to have the sweet. And that’s our predicament. Nothing but our insecure and grasping mind is holding us to our hopes and fears.
Is Satisfying Our Desires the Way to Happiness?
We are trained to think that satisfying our desires is the way to happiness. Actually, to go beyond desire is the way to happiness. Even in relationships, if we’re not holding on, if we’re not clinging, if we are thinking more of how we can give joy to the other rather than how they can give joy to us, then that also makes our relationships much more open and spacious, much more free. All that jealousy and fear are gone.
If we think less about how we can make ourselves happy, and more about how we can make others happy, somehow we end up being happy ourselves. People who are genuinely concerned with others have a much happier and more peaceful state of mind than those who are continually trying to manufacture their own joys and satisfactions.
We are basically very selfish people. When anything happens, our very first thought is, “How will this affect me?” Think about it. “What’s in it for me?” If it doesn’t negatively affect oneself, then it’s all right, and we don’t care.
This very self-centered way of viewing the world is one of the principal causes of our unrest, because the world is the way it is; the world is never going to fit into all our expectations and our unrealistic hopes.
The only true happiness lies within us. That's where it is.
©2011 Tenzin Palmo. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Snow Lion Publications. http://www.snowlionpub.com
Into the Heart of Life
by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo.
Down-to-earth, approachable, and deeply informative, this collection of talks and dialogues covers a wide range of topics, always returning to practical reflections on how we can enhance the quality of our lives and develop more sanity, fulfillment, wisdom, and compassion. Into the Heart of Life is addressed to a general audience and presents practical advice that can be applied whether or not one is a Buddhist.
About the Author
Venerable Tenzin Palmo was born and raised in London. She traveled to India when she was 20, met her teacher, H.E. the 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche, and in 1964 was one of the first western women to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. Tenzin Palmo travels each year to give teachings and to raise funds for Tibetan nuns. For information on Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo's teaching schedule, her work, and Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, visit http://www.tenzinpalmo.com