Nonattachment in Practice

Note: Let truth guide you, not us. Our humble disclaimer.

By Bhikkhu Buddhadasa

We already talked about the problem of language, and how it can make universal truth, dhamma, sound like many different religions. We now will talk about how to live this universal truth that is described so many ways. Buddhists call this nonattachment.

The Buddhist teaching on nonattachment is not unique. In fact, it can be found in every religion on the level of dhamma language. Its meaning is deep and profound, not easy to see and very often not understood correctly. Many religious people do not grasp their own tradition very deeply. For instance, we find in the New Testament that it is said, “Let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods.” This teaching is to be understood in the same way as our basic theme of nonattachment. That is, if you have a wife, do not be attached to her; if you incur sorrow or suffering, act as though it never happened and thereby overcome it.

Unfortunately, most people are dominated by their desires. They let themselves suffer intolerably over attachments and disappointments. As the biblical quotation points out, however, we should buy things as though we were getting nothing and had overcome a sense of possession. The passage “…buy as though they had no goods” has the same meaning as “Do work of all kinds with a mind that is void, and then to the voidness give all of the fruits.”

Ignorant people always have attachment in one form or another to everything that is or is not. As a result, desirable things are converted into causes of suffering. Good itself is transformed into suffering. Praise, fame, honor and the like are all turned into forms of suffering as soon as one tries to seize and hang on to them. Everything becomes unsatisfactory because of grasping and clinging. Whether good or evil, merit or sin, happiness or unhappiness, gain or loss–all dualistic concepts become causes of suffering whenever you are attached to one or the other.

When you are wise enough not to cling or be attached to any particular forms, you will no longer have to suffer because of these things. Good and evil, happiness and sufferings, merit and sin–all are an ordinary part of nature and naturally void. There is no suffering inherent in any of them.

Such a viewpoint results from not having an ego, of not being attached to “myself” of not conceiving relationships to anything in terms of “I.” The terms “I” and “my” exist only on a conventional level but not in the mind or heart, or as Paul said, “Let those who have wives live as though they had none, … those who mourn as though they were not mourning, … those who buy as though they had no goods.”

Externally we shall behave the same way as others–eat like they eat, work like they work, and speak like they speak, using such expressions as “That is my house” and “This is mine.” The mind, however, is void. Outside appearances are one thing, but a man’s heart may be quite another. For example, outwardly the man of dhamma may appear to have wealth, a family, honor and fame. Inside, however, there is nothing. In his mind he possesses nothing. A Thai saying refers to this as “The mouth is one way but the mind another,” or, in other words, outwardly one may be indistinguishable from the profane man, but inwardly one’s mind is void. Outwardly one may possess all the things that others possess, but the mind possesses nothing.

In a similar fashion, the Buddha taught us not to be ostentatious, and Jesus Christ emphasized humility. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about practicing piety in secret, for if it is something you want others to see, then it becomes a form of attachment. He advised his followers that while observing the Sabbath they should apply powder and perfumes as usual, so as not to let anyone know they were observing the Sabbath, although they should continue to keep the Sabbath strictly. Jesus also taught that if you wish to give alms or make a donation to charity, do so secretly, not letting others know who the giver is.

The basic theme of this teaching is nonattachment. Jesus wanted to point out that acting in a non-egoistic way helps to destroy impurities (kilesa). One should realize that to make an offering as a religious act without letting others know can wipe our pollutions (kilesa) from the mind of the giver, unlike giving in an ostentatious manner which only enhances grasping. There is a popular saying in Thailand about putting gold leaf on a statue’s back. On a conventional level, it is interpreted to mean that one should never do this, for by sticking gold leaf on the back of a statue of Buddha, one will not receive honor or merit. On the other hand, a wise man realizes that putting gold leaf on the back of a statue is a desirable thing to do. He does not want the recognition or acknowledgment of society. In such a manner he gains more honor than if he were to practice merit by sticking gold on the face of the statue. Therefore, sticking gold leaf on a statue’s back and practicing piety in secret have the same essential meaning: to destroy attachment without an eye to personal gain or praise, to keep uprooting attachments until at last you can say there is nothing–no “I,” no good or evil, no merit or sin, no happiness or suffering–until finally there is “no religion.”

Now let us turn our attention to the fact that nonattachment, which is the highest dhamma or truth, is something wonderful, valuable, and extraordinary. It is the heart of every religion. It is the essence of dhamma. If there is a God, he is to be found here.

The dhamma of nonattachment is wonderful precisely because whoever wishes to obtain it can do so without making an investment. No money is needed, not a single penny. According to ordinary language, nothing can be obtained without an investment. From a conventional perspective, if you wish to gain merit, you have to pay in coin or else invest labor. On the level of dhamma language, however, it is quite different. The Buddha said that nibbana is free of charge. The New Testament records a similar saying. Jesus said no less than three times to come and drink the water of life without paying a price. “Let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17). This New Testament passage is identical to the Buddha’s claims. The Buddha said that the Noble Path (magga), the Noble Fruit (phala) and nibbana are not gained by monetary investment or earned by labor. To live according to the Noble Eightfold Path means simply to give up everything and take nothing. It is not necessary to pay anything in order to partake of the Noble Path, the Noble Fruit, and nibbana. You cannot earn the taste of the flavor of nibbana. In fact, however, some people spend a lot of money trying to buy nibbana. Such people are thwarting themselves. It is like the Christian who invests money to reach heaven. How ridiculous! The two have nothing to do with each other. In fact, they are incompatible. If you want to give to charity, do so sincerely for the sake of others: We make donations to help our fellow human beings attain those things which necessitate some financial investment; therefore, we contribute money to build temples and schools in order to enable our fellow human beings to travel on the right path, to tread that path until finally they reach that which is obtained without payment–that which is called nibbana.

Those who plan to gain merit by the strength of their wealth are advised to change their minds, since they incur losses rather than profits. To act in such a way goes contrary to the words of the Buddha when he said, “Dhamma is free.” Jesus said the same, adding, “You received without pay, give without pay” (Matt. l0:8). If truth is obtained free, it must be passed on free, too. Do not be unwilling or reluctant. Do not expect gratitude or the gifts of a student to his teacher. Such is inappropriate. When you get something for free, give it away for free. Therefore, as the loftiest of all things, the dhamma of religion is something to be gained and given free. Once you have received it you are bound to pass it on to your fellow human beings also. Do not make a show about it and do not expect anything in return. Making a contribution to a religious cause is for a different purpose. It has no bearing on attaining nibbana. In effect, it will be instrumental in helping people who have been blind to the way to see the way and eventually arrive at that which is obtained free.

Looking carefully, you will see that this precious thing, this most wonderful of all wonderful things, this excellence which is obtained free, is that which is called nibbana–or, for that matter, whatever you prefer to call it. Jesus called it eternal life. This state that we exist in now is not to be regarded as living. Rather, it is dying. To follow the teachings of Jesus means one is born again. You must die first and then be born anew. When you are born anew you are born into eternal life which is true life (John 3:3-8).

The Buddha spoke in the same fashion. He said that one who does not know this existence is like dying, in a state of suffering. We must know clearly or be enlightened in order to awake to a new world. Then an end to suffering will come into being. But we must realize and understand our condition before we can be freed from it. What happened in the past was death, suffering and dying, because of the “I” and “mine.” Now we are born anew into eternal life, “nibbanic” life, the deathless life, the deathless state, the deathless–whatever you care to call it. “I” and “mine” cease. The word reborn comes to mean a life with no ego, no “I,” a life that cannot die. The five component processes (khandha) have now been purified and are called the pure component processes (visuddhi-khandha). The mind and body are no longer respondent to polluting desires and attachments. Prior to this realization, the five component processes were continually stained by the corrupt attachments centering around “I” and “my.” Death was always present. When the pollutions of desires and attachments are completely eradicated there is a rebirth in the world of the noble ones (ariya). “Rebirth in the world of the noble ones” is an ordinary language expression. In dhamma language it is “the extinction of ‘I.’” There remains only voidness, which is nibbana.

Nibbana literally means to become cooler. In India at the time of the Buddha, this word was spoken in the houses and the streets. It was a common everyday word. When something hot had cooled down, people used the word “nibbana” to describe it. If curry was very hot and then it “nibbaned,” they would say, “The curry is ‘nibbana,’ so let’s eat.” Nibbana, then, in its ordinary, everyday usage implies the cooling down of anything that is hot. When one is burning and boiling like a denizen in hell, we say that one is still hot and not yet “nibbana.” After we discover the way to apply dhamma to cool ourselves, we are “nibbanaing.” We then “nibbana” until we finally attain complete nibbana and are absolutely cool.

Even now there is nibbana in us to some extent. That is why you are able to sit and listen to such talks as the one today. Otherwise, if the flames were flaring up within you now, you would not be able to remain sitting here. Nibbana is related to us at all times like the air we breathe in and out. If this were not so, if nibbana were not present at all, we would be burned up and die because of its absence. Sometimes nibbana disappears temporarily, that is to say, whenever we give vent to lust or ill will in any form or whenever we are deluded. However, when lust, ill will and delusion are not present in our minds, we experience a small degree of nibbana. Because of these recurring glimpses of nibbana which we catch when not under the influence of lust, ill will and delusion, we are kept from dying. We live by virtue of the beneficial effects of nibbana. Therefore, we should be thankful and acknowledge our gratitude to nibbana by increasingly calming down and cooling down through the gradual destruction of “I.”

Rather than aggrandizing the self through pride, it must be reduced by developing self-discipline. Whenever you quarrel out of vanity or stubbornness, you have lost touch with nibbana. People who quarrel, who interfere with others or lose patience with others, lose their humanity. They are not really human beings and are depraved. Thus, people who argue that other religions are different and incompatible with their own, thereby causing hostility, persecution and mutual destruction, are the most stupid and ignorant of people.

When religions are regarded as in opposition and conflict, people become enemies as a result. Everyone thinks, “We are right; they are wrong,” until there is quarreling and fighting. Such people only display their foolishness. What they are quarreling about is only the outer form and not the inner essence. When people of intelligence and wisdom get together over essential matters concerning religions, they recognize that religions are all the same. Though outwardly they may be different, they know that the inner spirit must be the same in all cases. The inner essence is similar no matter how different the external forms, just as in the analogy of water. The essential nature of water is always the same no matter how filthy it appears on the outside. The water is not dirty. It is the other elements mixed in with the water that are dirty.

Whenever there is a quarrel, whether it is among lay people, monks or novices, it might be likened to people drinking polluted water. In this case the pollutant is prideful and egoistic self-assertion which must be purified, just as impure water must be distilled before it is consumed. Unfortunately, the older we get, the more full of ego we often become. Our attachments accumulate and our egoism reflects itself in regard to our children. We refer to “my son” or say, “How could he do that without ‘my’ permission?” It can be said that adults are more obsessed with “I” and “mine” than children. In the early years of childhood a small child has but very little sense of possessing a self. Immediately after birth it is very difficult to find any traces of ego, and the child in the womb has hardly any awareness in terms of “I am” or “I have.” However, as one grows into adulthood, a strong feeling of “my-self” develops. “I-my” becomes rooted in the feelings and modes of thought in many ways and forms, and it clings and sticks there with such tenacity that it is very difficult to remove.

We should be careful and alert and try to return to being children again. Such a process involves living in accordance with dhamma; it is a path that leads to the void; it is the path of nonattachment. Ideally, as one grows older, one should approach nearer to the Buddha.

It means to be closer to dhamma and to absorb more of it. In this realization, the heat of attachment subsides and the coolness of non-attachment spreads and envelops you. Ethically this state manifests itself in overcoming hatred, pride and delusion. It leads to the cessation of quarreling, bickering and backbiting. To exhibit such qualities is to cease to be a Buddhist in the true sense of the word. Just saying you are Buddhist means nothing. To regard yourself as Buddhist because of a birth certificate or as a result of signing the register in a temple is useless. To be genuine Buddhists in the true sense of the word means to weaken and reduce “I” and “mine” in order to become cool, to grow closer to nibbana.

In the higher grades of realization, there is no “I” and “mine.” Everything is void of self and there is no Buddhism, no Christianity, no Islam, for how can they exist since there is no “we,” no “they,” no “anybody”! There is nothing but dhamma or suddhadhamma pavattanti, just pure phenomena in constant flux. There is only nature (dhammajali), either in its conditioned (sahkhata-dhamma) or unconditioned (asahkhata-dhamma) form. The person who realizes this truth is freed from clinging, is enlightened and is Buddha.

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was an influential Buddhist monk from Thailand who lived in the 20th century and was best known for rejecting specific religious identification and considering all faiths as one. This essay first appeared in the book, Me and Mine, under the title, “No Religion.” Reprinted with the permission of Wat Suan Mokkh.

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