Why Do Buddhists Avoid Attachment?

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“Attachment” May Not Mean What You Think It Does

Buddha With Birds


 Birds perch on a Buddha in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. © Cyrille Gibot / Getty Images

The principle of non-attachment is key to understanding and practicing Buddhist religious philosophy, but like so many concepts in Buddhism, it can confuse and even discourage many newcomers to the philosophy.

Such a reaction is common to people, especially from the West, as they begin to explore Buddhism. If this philosophy that is supposed to be about joy, they wonder, why does it spend so much time saying that life is inherently full of suffering (dukkha), that non-attachment is a goal, and that a recognition of emptiness (​shunyata) is a step toward enlightenment?

All those things sound discouraging, even depressing at first glance.

But Buddhism is indeed a philosophy of joy, and the confusion among newcomers is partly because the words from the Sanskrit language do not have exact translations in English, and partly because the personal frame of reference for Westerners is much, much different than that of Eastern cultures.

So let’s explore the concept of non-attachment as used in Buddhist philosophy. To understand it, though, you’ll need to understand its place within the overall structure of basic Buddhist philosophy and practice. The basic premises of Buddhism are known as the Four Noble Truths. 


The First Noble Truth: Life is “Suffering.”
The Buddha taught that life as we currently know is full of suffering, the closest English translation of the word dukkha. The word has many connotations, including “unsatisfactoriness,” which is perhaps the translation that might be better suited.

So to say that life is suffering means, really, that there is a vague feeling that things are not entirely satisfactory, not quite right. A recognition of this vague dissatisfaction and suffering is what constitutes what Buddhism called the First Noble Truth.

It is possible to know the reason for this “suffering” or dissatisfaction, though, and it comes from three sources.

First, we are dissatisfied because we don’t really understand the true nature of things. This confusion is most often translated as ignorance or avidya, and its principle feature is that we aren’t aware of the interconnectedness of all things. We imagine, for example, that there is a “self” or “I” that exists independently and separately from all other phenomena. This is perhaps the central misconception identified by Buddhism, and it leads to the next two reasons for dukkha or suffering.

The Second Noble Truth: Here Are the Reasons for Our Suffering
Our reaction to this misunderstanding about our separateness in the world leads to either attachment/grasping/clinging on the one hand, or aversion/hatred on the other hand. It’s important to know that the Sanskrit word for the first concept, Upadana, does not have an exact translation in English; its literal meaning is “fuel,” though it is often translated to mean “attachment.” Similarly, the Sanskrit word for aversion/hatred, devesha, also does not have a literal English translation. Together, these three problems—ignorance, clinging/attachment and aversion—are known as the Three Poisons, and a recognition of them forms the Second Noble Truth.

Now, perhaps, you can begin to see where non-attachment may come into the picture since we will later see that it is an antidote to one of the Three Poisons.

The Third Noble Truth: It Is Possible to End the Suffering
The Buddha also taught that it is possible NOT to suffer. This is central to the joyful optimism of Buddhism—the recognition that a cessation to dukkha is possible. The essence of this cessation is nothing more than to relinquish the delusion and ignorance that fuel both the attachment/clinging and the aversion/hatred that makes life so unsatisfying. The cessation of that suffering has a name that is quite well known to almost everyone: Nirvana.

The Fourth Noble Truth: Here Is the Path to Ending the Suffering
Finally, the Buddha taught a series of practical rules and methods for moving from a condition of ignorance/attachment/aversion (dukkha) to a permanent state of joy/satisfaction (nirvana).

Among those methods is the famous Eight-Fold Path, a set of practical advisory recommendations for living, designed to move practitioners along the route to nirvana.


Non-attachment, then, is really an antidote to the attachment/clinging problem described in the Second Noble Truth. For if attachment/clinging is a condition of finding life unsatisfactory, it stands to reason that nonattachment is a condition conducive to satisfaction with life, a condition of nirvana.

It is important to note, though, that the advice is not to detach or un-attach from people in your life or from your experiences, but rather to simply recognize the non-attachment that is inherent to begin with. This is a rather key difference between Buddhist and other religious philosophies. While other religions seek to achieve some state of grace through hard work and active repudiation, Buddhism teaches that we are inherently joyful and that it is really a matter of simply surrendering and relinquishing our misguided habits and preconceptions that will allow us to experience the essential Buddahood that is within us all.

When we simply relax the illusion that we have a “self” that exists separately and independently from other people and phenomenon, we suddenly recognize that there is no need to detach or un-attach, because we have always been interconnected with all things at all times. Much the way it is an illusion to call the various oceans separate bodies of water when in fact they are part of one large ocean, it is similarly an illusion to imagine that we exist in a distinct separateness from the rest of the world.

Zen teacher John Daido Loori said,

“[A]ccording to the Buddhist point of view, non-attachment is exactly the opposite of separation. You need two things in order to have attachment: the thing you’re attaching to, and the person who’s attaching. In non-attachment, on the other hand, there’s unity. There’s unity because there’s nothing to attach to. If you have unified with the whole universe, there’s nothing outside of you, so the notion of attachment becomes absurd. Who will attach to what?”

To live in non-attachment means that we recognize there was never anything to attach or cling to in the first place. And for those who can truly recognize this, it is indeed a position of joyfulness.

Right Mindfulness: A Foundation of Buddhist Practice

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Baby Owls


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Right Mindfulness traditionally is the seventh part of the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, but that doesn’t mean it is seventh in importance. Each part of the path supports the other seven parts, and so they should be thought of as connected in a circle or woven into a web rather than stacked in an order of progression.

Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says that Right Mindfulness is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching.

“When Right Mindfulness is present, the Four Noble Truths and the other seven elements of the Eightfold Path are also present.” (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, p. 59)


The Pali word for “mindfulness” is sati (in Sanskrit, smriti). Sati can also mean “retention,” “recollection,” or “alertness.” Mindfulness is a whole-body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. To be mindful is to be fully present, not lost in daydreams, anticipation, indulgences, or worry.

Mindfulness also means observing and releasing habits of mind that maintain the illusion of a separate self. This includes dropping the mental habit of judging everything according to whether we like it or not. Being fully mindful means being fully attentive to everything as-it-is, not filtering everything through our subjective opinions.


It’s important to understand Buddhism as a discipline or process rather than as a belief system.

The Buddha did not teach doctrines about enlightenment, but rather taught people how to realize enlightenment themselves. And the way we realize enlightenment is through direct experience. It is through mindfulness that we experience directly, with no mental filters or psychological barriers between us and what is experienced.

The Ven. Henepola Gunaratana, a Theravada Buddhist monk and teacher, explains in the book Voices of Insight (edited by Sharon Salzberg) that mindfulness is essential to help us see beyond symbols and concepts. “Mindfulness is pre-symbolic. It is not shackled to logic,” he says. “The actual experience lies beyond the words and above the symbols.”


The sixth, seventh and eighth parts of the Eightfold Path — Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration — together are the mental development needed to release us from suffering.

Meditation is practiced in many schools of Buddhism as part of mental development. The Sanskrit word for meditation, bhavana, means “mental culture,” and all forms of Buddhist meditation involve mindfulness. In particular, shamatha (“peaceful dwelling”) meditation develops mindfulness; people sitting in shamatha train themselves to stay alert to the present moment, observing and then releasing thoughts instead of chasing them. Satipatthana vipassana meditation is a similar practice found in Theravada Buddhism that is primarily about developing mindfulness.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in mindfulness meditation as part of psychotherapy.

Some psychotherapists find that mindfulness meditation as an adjunct to counseling and other treatments can help troubled people learn to release negative emotions and thought habits.

However, mindfulness-as-psychotherapy is not without critics. See “The Mindfulness Controversy: Mindfulness as Therapy.”


The Buddha said there are four frames of reference in mindfulness:

  1. Mindfulness of body (kayasati).
  2. Mindfulness of feelings or sensations (vedanasati).
  3. Mindfulness of mind or mental processes (cittasati).
  4. Mindfulness of mental objects or qualities (dhammasati).

Have you ever suddenly just noticed that you had a headache, or that your hands were cold, and realized you’d been feeling these things for a while but weren’t paying attention? Mindfulness of body is just the opposite of that; being fully aware of your body, your extremities, your bones, your muscles.

And the same thing goes for the other frames of reference — being fully aware of sensations, aware of your mental processes, aware of the phenomena all around you.

The teachings of the Five Skandhas are related to this, and are worth reviewing as you begin to work with mindfulness.


The Venerable Gunaratana says mindfulness comprises three fundamental activities.

1. Mindfulness reminds us of what we are supposed to be doing. If we are sitting in meditation, it brings us back to the focus of meditation. If we are washing dishes, it reminds us to pay full attention to washing the dishes.

2. In mindfulness, we see things as they really are. The Venerable Gunaratana writes that our thoughts have a way of pasting over reality, and concepts and ideas distort what we experience.

3. Mindfulness sees the true nature of phenomena. In particular, through mindfulness we directly see the three characteristics or marks of existence — it is imperfect, temporary and egoless.


Changing the mental habits and conditioning of a lifetime is not easy. And this training is not something that only happens during meditation, but throughout the day.

If you have a daily chanting practice, chanting in a focused, fully attentive way is mindfulness training. It can also be helpful to choose a particular activity such as preparing a meal, cleaning the floors, or taking a walk, and make an effort to be fully mindful of the task as you perform it. In time you will find yourself paying more attention to everything.

Zen teachers say that if you miss the moment, you miss your life. How much of our lives have we missed? Be mindful!

Buddhism and Equanimity

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Why Equanimity Is an Essential Buddhist Virtue



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The English word equanimity refers to a state of being calm and balanced, especially in the midst of difficulty. In Buddhism, equanimity (in Pali, upekkha; in Sanskrit, upeksha) is one of the Four Immeasurables or four great virtues (along with compassion, loving kindness, and sympathetic joy) that the Buddha taught his disciples to cultivate.

But is being calm and balanced all there is to equanimity?

And how does one develop equanimity?


Although translated as “equanimity,” the precise meaning of upekkha seems hard to pin down. According to Gil Fronsdal, who teaches at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California, the word upekkha literally means “to look over.” However, a Pali/Sanskrit glossary I consulted says it means “not taking notice; to disregard.”

According to Theravadin monk and scholar, Bhikkhu Bodhi, the word upekkha in the past has been mistranslated as “indifference,” which has caused many in the West to believe, mistakenly, that Buddhists are supposed to be detached and unconcerned with other beings. What it really means is to not be ruled by passions, desires, likes, and dislikes. The Bhikkhu continues,

“It is evenness of mind, unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. Upekkha is freedom from all points of self-reference; it is indifference only to the demands of the ego-self with its craving for pleasure and position, not to the well-being of one’s fellow human beings.”

Gil Fronsdal says the Buddha described upekkha as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.” Not the same thing as “indifference,” is it?

Thich Nhat Hanh says (in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, p. 161) that the Sanskrit word upeksha means “equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go.

Upa means ‘over,’ and iksh means ‘to look.’ You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other.”

We also can look to the life of the Buddha for guidance. After his enlightenment, he certainly did not live in a state of indifference. Instead, he spent 45 years actively teaching the dharma to others. For more on this subject, see Why Do Buddhists Avoid Attachment?” and “Why Detachment Is the Wrong Word


Another Pali word that is usually translated into English as “equanimity” is tatramajjhattata, which means “to stand in the middle.” Gil Fronsdal says this “standing in the middle” refers to a balance that comes from inner stability–remaining centered when surrounded by turmoil.

The Buddha taught that we are constantly being pulled in one direction or another by things or conditions we either want or hope to avoid. These include praise and blame, pleasure and pain, success and failure, gain and loss. The wise person, the Buddha said, accepts all without approval or disapproval. This forms the core of the ” The Middle Way that forms the core of Buddhist practice.


In her book Comfortable with Uncertainty, Tibetan Kagyu teacher Pema Chodron said, “To cultivate equanimity we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion before it hardens into grasping or negativity.”

This, of course, connects to mindfulness. The Buddha taught that there are four frames of reference in mindfulness. These are also called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These are:

  1. Mindfulness of body (kayasati).
  2. Mindfulness of feelings or sensations (vedanasati).
  3. Mindfulness of mind or mental processes (cittasati).
  4. Mindfulness of mental objects or qualities; or, mindfulness of dharma (dhammasati).

Here, we have a very good example of working with mindfulness of feelings and mental processes. People who are not mindful are perpetually being jerked around by their emotions and biases. But with mindfulness, you recognize and acknowledge feelings without letting them control you.

Pema Chodron says that when feelings of attraction or aversion arise, we can “use our biases as stepping-stones for connecting with the confusion of others.” When we become intimate with and accepting of our own feelings, we see more clearly how everyone gets hooked by their hopes and fears.

From this, “a bigger perspective can emerge.”

Thich Nhat Hanh says that Buddhist equanimity includes the ability to see everyone as equal. “We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others,” he writes. “In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides.” [The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, p. 162].