Let it Go, Let it Go! Understanding Attachment in Buddhism


What is attachment in Buddhism, and what does it have to do with you?

If the goal of Buddhism is to realize “Nirvana“, your natural peaceful state, you can’t progress until you recognize that you are “attached” to stuff.  In fact, this was the first thing the Buddha said after he attained enlightenment.

Marvelous, marvelous! All sentient beings have the Tathagata’s (the Buddha’s) wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments.   ~ Shakyamuni Buddha

So important is this concept, you find it mentioned right in the “second Noble Truth“, and the way to free yourself from attachment in the “fourth Noble Truth” which says that the way to freedom is from following the “Noble Eightfold Path“.

The root of suffering is attachment ~ Shakyamuni Buddha

Wow, this must be pretty important!  And it is important is if you ever want to break free of the self-imposed prison of “Samsara”.

Whenever I talk about attachment in Buddhism, it reminds me of the Disney movie “Frozen” in the scene where Elsa’s secret powers were just revealed, and she sheds the past and attachments and becomes free.  Well OK, maybe not exactly (for anyone who has a kid and saw this movie a million times, there is more to the story), but it is a good lead in to talking about “attachment” in Buddhism.  Go ahead and play it for some background music while you read this article 😉

Freeing yourself from attachment is a crucial part of the journey in Buddhism, and in life.

This article is part of a series on the basics of Buddhism.  Click here to view more.  

What is Attachment?  And Where’s the Fire?!

Statue in Kyoto Japan (Photo by Jordy Meow on Pixabay – CC0 License)

Attachment to views is the greatest impediment to the spiritual path. ~ Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

In Buddhism, we often talk about “attachment” (“Upādāna”, translated as “fuel” to keep a process going) as the reason we are trapped in this endless cycle of birth and death (rebirth).  In fact, the Buddha said so (see quote at top of this article), so it is crucial to understand and overcome if we are truly practicing Buddhists.  But what is Attachment and where does it come from?

The Buddha said in his “Fire Sermon” (“Āditta-pariyāya”) that all things are “burning”.  What he meant is that things like our five senses, consciousness, etc., are all burning with delusions, desire, and hatred (which are known as the “Three Poisons”).  For these things to be “burning” they need continuous fuel, and that fuel is Attachment.  As you can imagine, the cycle is (seemingly) without end and the fires constantly raging.

Bhikkhus, all is burning.  ~ Shakyamuni Buddha

The “Three Poisons” (sometimes called the “Three Fires”, a term which I prefer), along with the two other “poisons”, make up our craving (“Taṇhā”).  This “craving” is looking for fuel, which is “attachment”.  They are called “poisons” because they are making you sick (the first Noble Truth / “Dukkha” or “suffering”).  Who wants that?  Apparently, everyone because we are oblivious of what is actually occurring because all this seems “normal” to us.

The Three Poisons

The Three Poisons are:

  1. Ignorance / Delusions (“Moha”)
  2. Greed / Desire (“Rāga”)
  3. Anger / Hatred (“Dveṣa”)

These poisons are wrong views which cause us to have craving, which then causes us to have wrong actions (karma), which finally causes us to be “attached” to samsara and thus have rebirth.  It is important to remember that our karma causes us to have rebirth and nothing (and nobody) else.  This is the first and second Noble Truths as explained by the Buddha.

If you think of “Attachment” (“Upādāna”) as “fuel”, then then Craving (caused by the Three Poisons) is what ignites Attachment.  Craving is like the spark or flame that ignites that fuel.  To keep these ‘fires’ raging, they need more fuel…and you willingly help through attachments.  Therefore I like to call the Three Poisons the “Three Fires”, because everything in our world is on fire thanks to our senses.  And we know what fire does, it burns you.  This is not some fire that you are using to keep warm on a chilly night while camping.  This fire is something that engulfs you.  There is nothing good about the fire at all.

As Buddhists, we do not want to create wrong actions and want to eventually be liberated from the prison of “Samsara” (the cycle of birth and death/rebirth).  If we can explain this in a non-Buddhist way, understand that the Three Poisons make you unhappy and cause difficulties in your life because you need things (attachment) to fuel them.  Seriously, who wants that?  Once again, apparently pretty much everyone.  But why?

Wheel of Life

In the Buddhist “Wheel of Life” (popular in Tibetan Buddhism), you can find at the very center of the wheel three animals, and is a good analogy of the Three Poisons:

  • The boar (pig) is ignorance/delusions and represents our belief of the world that things exist independently (including ourselves!), and that we are able to have lasting happiness.
  • Because of our ignorance/delusions, it leads us to the cock (rooster) which represents desire/greed/attachment.  We believe we can achieve this lasting happiness when we get something (attachment).  That can be money, a person, family, power, etc.  But we all know how this story ends…we are never satisfied with what we have (plenty of rich and powerful people show us that every day).
  • Because we do not truly get this lasting happiness, because we are never truly 100% satisfied, we are led to anger/hatred, represented by the snake.  We want more, even if someone else has it.  We also believe that we are independent of others (in contrast to Dependent Origination and Nonself taught in Buddhism), so we care about “me, myself, and I” above anyone else.  But we can’t get everything we want which causes hatred/anger.  For any of us who have ever had hatred or anger, we know that it leads right back to square one…the boar.  We can’t change our wrong perceptions, and thus we have delusions/ignorance.  The cycle continues endlessly.

It’s not that people truly want to be unhappy or want to have dissatisfaction and suffering in their lives (Dukkha), but instead, they are like a person wearing a blindfold in the world…unable to see what the world truly looks like.  The solution, in Buddhism, is to know you can remove that blindfold (awakening/enlightenment) so you can finally understand what your true nature is (nirvana).  This all sounds extremely simplistic, and it is, but the Three Poisons are remarkably effective in hindering our progress to “removing” that blindfold.  We think we love attachment, but we really don’t.  It is not our true nature.

But thankfully the Buddha provided us a way to take off that blindfold so we can stop suffering through his teachings, and especially the Noble Eightfold Path.

Yet there will be people who say that they love attachment.  They “love” things like money, sex, power, beauty,…you name it, people are “attached” to many things (and often not just one thing).  The problem is that anything you are “attached” to is not permanent, which we call “impermanence” in Buddhism.  No matter what, beauty fades, money is lost (especially at death!), power can be taken away, or even to throw fuel on the fire…you want more of all this stuff (take a look at those three animals represented in the Wheel of Life).  It is impossible to be truly satisfied with attachments.

Let It Go!  (And Can Someone Please Put That Fire Out?!)

Photo of novice monks by Sasint on Pixabay(cc0 License)

To give an example of how bad attachment is for us, and how it really is not something to love, we can watch monkeys.

Random thought:  I am always reminded when I hear about this of the Buddhist analogy (especially in Zen/Chan) that we have “monkey minds”.  No, not like a real monkey, but that our minds are constantly restless, random, grasping, and incoherent.  We “think” we got a rather good bead on ourselves, but boy are we wrong.

Back to the monkey, there is a certain way that people have been catching them for an long time now…and it is by craving and attachment (sound familiar?).  The following video shows how a monkey’s craving and attachment becomes its undoing.  It wants that sweet thing in the hole…and won’t let go.  Even when it knows it is going to be captured, it won’t let loose its grip (which all it must do to be free and escape).  Just like the monkey, we firmly grasp (attachment) to this “Saha world” which is a self-imposed prison of life and death (rebirth).  Why?  We want that sweet stuff in the hold and cling on tight (thanks in no small part to the Three Poisons) even though we know we are trapped and await a bad fate.

Our attachments keep the flames raging, which keeps us from realizing our true nature (Nirvana), which in turn keeps us in this endless cycle of rebirth (prison).  Yuck.

Those Three Fires (Three Poisons) are important, and its why I like to refer to them as “fires”.  Just like the Buddha said, everything is on fire.  But what he was referring to more specifically is that you are creating this fire.  But how are you doing this, and how do you put out this fire?

Our mind, which has the Three Fires (Three Poisons) needs fuel.  Where does it get this fuel?  From attachment.  How do you help it find attachment?  Through all your senses and resulting mental formations.  Therefore the Buddha was so adamant that we need to ‘guard the gates of our senses’ so we do not let in the fuel that causes these fires.  When you can guard your senses, you smother these harmful flames (Three Poisons) by depriving them of fuel (Attachment), and achieve your natural state: Nirvana This is also why nirvana, which means “blowing out” or “extinguish”, is referring to these “fires” of delusions, desires, and hatred.  Those are always good fires to be rid of!

To truly be free of these fires, and the fuel of attachment, we need to utterly understand nonself.  Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained why understanding nonself is important in extinguishing these fires:

The reason Buddhists emphasize the lack of an independent self is to help each one of us get past the narcissistic devotion we normally feel toward our body and the deluded belief that the body “proves” that there is some absolute “self”.  Attachment to the self is the root source of all delusion.  It produces anger and greed, and keeps us bound firmly to ignorance.  Contemplation of the second Dharma seal will teach us how to break the bonds of self-love.

Chan Master Huangbo Xiyun explained how the Chan (i.e., “Zen”) practitioners use “non-thought” in their practice towards non-attachment and enlightenment.  Whenever they are faced with anything, they do not cling to it nor reject it.  Instead, they follow the conditions naturally so that they can enjoy freedom and liberation.  He said:

If practitioners want to attain Buddhahood, they do not need to learn all teachings.  They only need to learn not to seek and not to attach.  Without seeking, the mind does not arise.  Without attaching, the mind does not cease.  Non-arising and non-ceasing is the Buddha.  We must understand that all phenomena are created in the mind.  Today, learn no-mind, eliminate all conditions, do not give rise to delusions and distinctions, eliminate the distinction between self and others, be without greed or anger, be without hatred or love, be without winning or losing, and eliminate as many delusions as possible.  Intrinsic nature is pure.  This is the way of cultivating bodhi.  If you do not understand this and do not know the original mind, even if you widely study, diligently cultivate, and even if you eat rough food and wear coarse clothing, you are on the wrong path.

To add to this commentary, Ven. Master Hsing Yung explained:

When you can attain the state without seeking and attachments, and the state in which all delusions are eliminated, you will see your own nature and become a Buddha.

Now that is something to not only look forward to but work towards!

How Do We Live Without Attachment?

CC0 Photo by Suc on Pixabay

 When the Buddha became enlightened he didn’t give up things like eating; he did not reject the world.  ~ Ven. Master Hsing Yun (Four Insights for Finding Fulfillment)

When we are first exploring what not being attached to things means, we may think the opposite.  We love our family, friends, pets, car, house…you name it.  Are these bad things to be attached to may be the question you are asking .

We don’t want any “attachment”, but that does not mean you don’t have a love for people and things.  For example, “love” that derives from attachment causes suffering.  However, love that comes from genuine understanding, compassion, and nonself, is true love.  This is also why Bodhisattva’s has love and compassion for all sentient beings.  This is not saying you should treat your parents as strangers, or ignore people, or throw your trash in your neighbor’s lawn (hey, why are they so attached to things right?!).  What is being said is that when you have true non-attachment, your love and understanding is true, real, and expansive to all sentient beings.  Please do not mistake this as saying your love for your parents, spouse, friends, etc., is not love.  In-fact, Buddhism practiced in Mahayana places “filial piety” (respect and support for parents, grandparents, etc.) is extraordinarily strong (where in China it became integral and spread).

Even attachment to “things” is bad and is becoming the #1 biggest fuel for people in our modern world.  And we are talking about things more than what you truly need to live and be safe.  Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh stated it clearly when he said that “Happiness does not come from the consumption of things”.  Why?  Because it is essentially “junk” that is filling some sort of hole in ourselves and our lives (thanks once again to not understanding nonself), and thus helps fuel these fires.

So, what do we truly “have”?  Once again, Thich Nhat Hanh puts it simply and clearly by saying “My actions are my only true belongings.”  And in Buddhism, that is fundamentally true.  Our actions, “Karma”, are what we truly “have” and continue after our death in our Alayavijnana (Store Consciousness).

This kid is really suffering for sweets (and wondering why it’s in a bubble). Photo by h.koppdelaney on Flickr

Living without attachment is true liberation because nothing is on fire.  Like the cool embers after a fire, you walk peacefully, calmly, and (truly) happily.  Because attachment is so pervasive in our “perception” of our world, it is very (very!) difficult for us to understand life without it.  We know it burns, but…”eh”, we are used to it.  Psychologists have a medical condition for that!  Because this is so pervasive, we don’t recognize it as self-harm.  Thus, it is easy to look at living without attachment as a scary thing.  It isn’t.

The Yogacarabhumi Sastra stated that our view and perception of “attachment” is not even real:

Greed is without essence. All attachment is illusion.

To help with living without attachment, Mahayana Buddhism has a popular scripture (sutra) that focuses on non-attachment and non-abidance is known as the “Diamond Sutra”.  Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Diamond Sutra as the “The Diamond that cuts through illusion”.  This sutra is a sort of ‘guidebook’ that helps one learn to ‘cut through’ any illusion and obstacle on the way to enlightenment, and attachment is always a big illusion we need to cut through.  This extremely popular sutra is read and recited/chanted by millions of Buddhists daily.  You can find a booklet explaining it here, and the entire sutra here from Ven. Master Hsing Yun, and a version of the sutra with commentary here by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh..

But what if you are attached to “good” things?  Remember when we were talking about family earlier on?  What if it was something, we, as Buddhists, consider a good thing to be attached to?  Specifically, “Buddhism”.  Barbara O’Brien had a notable example and story about it:

Occasionally when Buddhist talk about the problem of attachment, someone will raise a hand and say, “Is it bad to be attached to Buddhism?” Yes, it is unskillful, in fact.  Then, often, the next comment is, “Well, then, I’ll stay away from dharma centers and not get attached!” Um, “staying away” also is attachment, sorry.

Barbara’s example still makes me laugh because it is spot on.  When we become “clingy” (for lack of a better term) to Buddhism, we are becoming attached.  But going cold turkey and not going to wholesome places of practice, like a temple or dharma center, is born out of ignorance.  The two are not the same thing.  We have seen entire cultures who cling to Buddhism as part of their national identity and religion and defend it vigorously.  The Buddha never demanded anything of the sort.  While Buddhism is wholesome, attachment to it is not.  The path to follow is the one the Buddha set regarding his teachings…’do not mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon’.  What the Buddha was saying is don’t mistake the finger (a representation of the Dharma), for the Moon (which is the truth/enlightenment / nirvana).  As the Buddha also said, you need to discard that ‘raft’ (‘Buddhism’) when you reach the other shore across the river (‘Nirvana’).

Basically, do not get attached.  Wholesome things come from non-attachment, no matter how much you think the opposite.

If you are still focusing on what you think are ‘good’ attachments, and not recognizing them for what they are…attachments…it seems like I need to get Bruce Lee to teach you a lesson 😉

Now that you have learned about Attachment in Buddhism, and probably want to get rid of it so you can realize your true nature of Nirvana!  Like Michael in this music video, who is telling these gang members that is essentially crazy to be fighting and in conflict because they are attached to hatred, delusions, and desires, and that they should say “beat it” to those fires!  Michael…a true Bodhisattva in song…sing us out, please. (Note the “fires in their eyes” lyric in the song)


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