The Biggest Buddhist Misunderstanding
I became fascinated by meditation and Buddhism when I was in high school. I felt my way around, chasing one idea or tradition or teacher after another until I had the good fortune to encounter my 11th grade creative writing teacher, who happened also to be a Buddhist monk. Thanks to him I began studying Thich Nhat Hanh's work and was able to join Thầy on a meditation retreat in the mountains outside of Santa Barbara that same year. (Thầy is how Vietnamese buddhist teachers are often addressed.)
As much as I was (and still am) enamored with Thầy and the teachings generally of Buddhism, I just couldn't get over the idea that the end goal seemed to be a total detachment from life. And the image of wearing robes of saffron and living in a cave or a forest monastery for the rest of my life just wasn't that appealing to me. I got that suffering was a good thing to be able to detach from but what about all the good stuff in life? I had my whole life ahead of me and I wanted to soak in the pleasures that awaited. I had mountains to scale, relationships to discover, family and friends to spend time with, food and books and countries and art and music and jobs and on and on that I wanted to experience. I wanted to be attached, to be fully immersed in the sensual pleasures, the intellectual pleasures, the emotional pleasures. Everything.
And even the bad stuff seemed not so smart to disengage from. I thought if I have a child and that child dies, don't I want to feel something? If I saw my (future) wife tortured, shouldn't I feel enraged and sickened and act to prevent it? How can not feeling something, good or bad, be the pinnacle of human development?! Why would anyone want to strive to reach that place, let alone devote their life to it?! I didn't see any answer to these questions at that stage. So I left the path, I gave up meditation and followed what could be described as more of a Nietzschean path. Which is to say I believed that I should throw myself in to life and make the most of it, experience its riches, maximize my potential and my control; work as hard as I possibly could to achieve the highest heights that my efforts could produce. That worked out until I hit a bit of an emotional and physical brick wall in my thirties. But that is another story that I have told elsewhere.
What I want to articulate today is the realization I had some years later that helped return me to the practice of meditation. It is the realization that when the Buddha spoke of non-attachment (and the variations on this concept articulated by mystics from Islam, Judaism, Christianity and many indigenous and pre-historic spiritual traditions as well), he wasn't talking about DE-tachment. Now that I am sensitized to it, I hear this confusion between DE-tachment and NON-Attachment all the time. And the difference is essential.
Detachment I have just described when I talked about my reservations with Thich Nhat Hahn and Buddhism in my teens. Non-attachment is completely different. It means that we understand two essential features of our existence. The first is that we are not who we think we are and the second is that we are not the doer. Paradoxically, the great masters (far greater than Nietzsche, as extraordinary and brilliant as he was) taught that training our brains the habits of non-attachment, acceptance, letting go and figuring out how to embrace these two truths causes a higher degree of engagement and compassion and love and richness in the experience of life than anything else we can do. Let me explain.
1) We think we are our brains and our bodies and the self that they embody. We think we are the thoughts and emotions and memories that are stored therein. In fact this is not us. I think I am Zebediah. But I'm not. Zebediah is always changing. Zebediah was a baby, then grew up and now is growing old. And even now my atoms and cells are changing out constantly. It's like that old story of Grandpa's axe (where the handle rotted and was replaced and then the metal rusted and was replaced. So is it the same axe?) I am told that our skin changes all its cells every month, all the cells in our liver are replaced every six weeks, and that the lining of our stomach lasts only five days before it’s replaced. So, obviously, who we are is none of those things. We are not our bodies or anything that manifests within it. We are that which doesn't change and that which is connected universally. The old masters might have said that I am light or spirit or the absence of the absence of the idea called Zebediah.
Kind of leaves you wanting more, doesn't it? Unfortunately that is the nature of this particular truth. I have explored this topic in much more detail in a number of my podcasts and other blog posts so I won't go further in attempting to explain this question of who we really are now. The point here is that everything that is who we think we are changes. So to attach to one of these things is a recipe for suffering or dissatisfaction. No sooner have we attached to it, then it changes. Or no sooner have we started wanting one thing or resisting another than we don't get the thing we want or we end up with more of the thing we don't want. We might think wonderful emotions are great, something to pursue and embrace, but this is a grave misunderstanding. Emotions are E-motions, Energy to Move the body. They are not things to possess or states to remain in. Nor are they barometers of reality. The higher we go in consciousness, the more we see that these are just a phenomenon of lower dimensions of our self, useful at that level but nothing more.
But the great masters teach us that something interesting happens as we go up in consciousness. The sensibility at the higher levels is one of pure, universal love. Jesus embodied and expressed this teaching better than any other human to have lived that I am aware of (note in particular the various passages on the so-called "Greatest Commandment"). Love of the kind that he is talking about is a sensibility that doesn't change, that has no opposite. And like light, it is a universal truth, a universal constant. And also like light, which is its physical manifestation, love is the axis around which matter and energy and time pivot. So by learning to become "non-attached" we are simply remembering who we are; remembering that who we truly are is a universal, non-dual, love. This is hardly the detached indifference that so many people seem to think is involved. This is why the saints and the sages and the great masters of old spoke so passionately and assuredly of the benefit and worth of pursuing this remembrance. We are told that experiencing this kind of love is to experience a constant sense of union with others, union with universal love, union with truth and perfection and peace and abundance and joy.
2) Now the second key realization is the old Taoist idea that we are not the doer. In the Tao Te Ching we read words such as "The sage does nothing, yet nothing is left undone." In the Bhagavad Gita we read ideas such as “Self, confused by the idea of an ‘I’, thus thinks, ‘I am the doer’". We can do all the doing we want but that won't change what is done. It may look like all our doing is having an effect, but Lao Tzu and Krishna and Moses and Jesus would say that we are mistaking correlation for causation (to use modern phrasing). There is a universal flow and we can either try pointlessly to swim against the current or we can go with it.
Or, from a Muslim perspective, we see that the medieval Islamic mystics talked about ideas such as Divine Will and Divine Wish, where everything that happens, this universal flow, is God's Will. Again, we may think our doing leads to the outcomes of our life but according to these old masters, this is not the cause and effect it appears to be.
Once again, there is no reason to DE-tach from life. We can enjoy the ride and focus our energies on aligning ourselves with this universal flow (or God's Will, if you're a religious person). The idea is not to be attached to any particular outcome. Just because we work hard, doesn't mean we deserve to make a lot of money or receive a lot of recognition. Just because we are good citizens and follow the rules doesn't mean we are going to avoid getting in to trouble. Just because we play it safe and are careful with our actions and our health doesn't mean violence or sickness or pain won't visit us time and again. There are much larger forces at work in our lives and we are not the doer so the great masters tell us again and again that we should not be attached to what is happening around us. Rather, they tell us, we are meant to have faith in the universal good that is working all the time for the benefit of everyone and every thing.
Something may appear bad in the moment, may appear really, really bad. But we are told that there are larger forces at work and a very, very long game being played. If what they say is true, each of us has probably lived hundreds or thousands of lifetimes. The suffering we or our loved ones or whoever might experience in this life is something that connects back through these complex and ancient lines of cause and effect, action and reaction, between us and others, between matter and energy over the millennia the human species' existence, over the ages of this universe and the other universes that perhaps our bubble universe emerged from or expanded out of or alongside. And often what appears to be suffering isn't suffering at all when reframed. (As the classic example of this point, I think of the story of the Prophet Mohammed's boot being stolen by an eagle in the desert and his anger and frustration in response until he saw the deadly snake drop out of the boot as the eagle rose into the air.)
And just because we are "non-attached" doesn't mean we don't act. Just because we are practicing "non-doing" doesn't mean we don't move. Rather it is inspired action that occurs. This action may involve anger or overwhelming fear, for example, since that is often going to be the fastest and best way to harness the body to deploy the appropriate movement. But in that moment, the movement is in line with the flow of the universe, in line with "God's Will" to use Ibn 'Arabi's terminology. Staying with Ibn 'Arabi, if we can just figure out "God's Wish" or what his advice is, and act in accordance with that, then the suffering will disappear. Or if we can just figure out which direction the universe is moving and align ourselves with that flow, then the current will be at our backs. If we aren't paying enough attention, suffering will arise to help push as back in line with this flow.
To quote Jesus (from the Gospel of Thomas), "When the fruit was ripe, he came quickly with his sickle in his hand, (and) he harvested it." We didn't make the earth. We didn't grow tree. We didn't ripen the fruit. Our job was to await its ripening and pay close enough attention to the "signs from God" to know the moment of action had arrived. If we aren't paying attention, the fruit will rot and we will go hungry. Or if we pick it too soon and try to eat it we might become sick. God is showing us through the ripeness when the moment to act has arrived and makes it easy for us by how delicious the fruit is. Said simply, and less religiously, our job is to pay enough attention to notice that "the fruit" is ripe and enjoy it once it is.
This idea of how to do without doing is a subtle topic that is also often misunderstood so I will revisit it again and again. The various blog posts on free will that I have already posted explore this and several of the podcast episodes also attempt to provide an explanation for this so I won't belabor this point further here.
So when you hear someone dismiss all these ancient teachers scornfully, even when the someone doing the dismissing is as extraordinary and brilliant as Nietzsche, or are tempted to do so yourself, on the basis that detachment doesn't seem like a very good strategy for a good life, I would ask that you think twice. Investigate these truths within yourself first. Try out the concept that you are not who you think you are. Explore what it means when you observe your life through the lens of non-self. Assume that life is meant to be great, that there is the master plan, and explore what information is embedded in the apparent hardships that arise in your life. Rather than using needless suffering or violence as an excuse to dismiss what every single wisdom teacher of great merit that I can think of has taught, investigate the possibility that they might be right. You just might find, as these ancient teachers did themselves, the secret of secrets unveil themselves to you. You might just find a life of love, peace, joy, abundance, creativity, spontaneity, comfort, safety and compassion is yours to enjoy.