Transience, clinging, non-attachment

Attachments cartoon


In 2001 Joseph Goldstein wrote an article, entitled, One Dharma, for Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine. Goldstein argued that the Buddha’s teaching could be summed up in these words: “Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as ‘I’ or ‘mine’.” Why does the Buddha say this? What is so important about not-clinging or letting-go? I’ll explore these questions with reference to Goldstein’s article. The Buddhist terms, tanha (Pali) and trishna (Sanskit) are usually translated as craving or clinging.

It is useful to begin, as so often, with impermanence. Everything in the universe is subject to change, decay, birth and death – therefore to cling to something is to cling in vain, for it will change and dissolve and slip through our fingers. In a sense to grasp and cling in this way is to believe that some things are unchanging. But to cling to an illusion of permanence is to invite dissatisfaction, loss, regret and to perpetuate a cycle of more clinging and desire, and more dissatisfaction. And so we get caught on a treadmill that goes nowhere, a wheel of desire and frustration that only generates more of the same.

Goldstein points out that there are three main kinds of clinging or desire. The first is that we cling to pleasant experiences, “pleasant sights and sounds and tastes, pleasant sensations in the body… pleasant meditative states.” In itself, this liking is not a problem – indeed it is a joy – but sadly we are not content with this transient experience, we want it to last longer and longer, and we are disappointed and frustrated when it doesn’t. So we look for another such experience, and another. We spend much time and energy trying to repeat and prolong temporary enjoyments and our desire is insatiable and habitual. The desire to have and prolong pleasant experiences becomes a deeply-rooted force that propels us from one frustration and dissatisfaction to another. We can think of this as a having mode of existence – a desire to have endless pleasures, a desire which can never be fulfilled.

To observe this cycle of desire, loss and dissatisfaction, and to recognise it for what it is, is the first step in finding a remedy. For there is a remedy, we can learn to let go of this grasping habit and return to the passing enjoyment of passing experiences. We can practice mindful meditation, observing our embodied mind without commentary or judgment, welcoming and saying goodbye to each experience as it arises and fades. By not hanging on to each pleasant sensation, thought or memory, we enjoy it for what it is, free of the compulsion to want it to be more than it is. Relinquishing the pursuit of what are passing pleasant experiences is as important to a life of freedom and peace, as letting go of the need to try to repress, reject or ignore unpleasant experiences – for these are integral to life and will also pass.

Goldstein describes the second kind of clinging as “the attachment we have to our views and opinions” – our attachment to our own point of view and to being right. We’re attached to our opinions as if they were definitive, correct and true, even though our opinions change with changing circumstances, and even though there are many, equally valid, other opinions in the world. We often voice our opinions with certainty, as if they are uncontestable facts, rather than provisional statements. And we often go further, trying to impose our opinions, beliefs and judgments on others – as if our limited perspective on things had universal validity. But how can we have certain, enduring, universally valid knowledge about any aspect of a world that is impermanent and ever-changing? Letting go of, or setting aside, our attachment to our opinions, is to recognise that they are not certain, absolute or universally valid. It also leaves us free of the burden and frustration such attachment imposes on us – for for we will feel dissatisfaction and frustration that our opinions are not the same as those of others. If we can accept that our view is one amongst many – none of which have universal or absolute validity – then we are likely to become open to change and revision, to welcome the views of others as adding to our picture of the world. In this way we feel unburdened by our need to maintain and enforce our view – letting us be more open, flexible, tolerant and at peace with the world. This state of openess to the views of others and not clinging to a belief that we have the ‘right’ opinion, is sometimes called by Buddhist teachers, ‘don’t know mind’ or beginner’s mind’. The Japanese Zen teacher, Bankei, used to say to his students: “Don’t side with yourself.”

Goldstein’s third kind of clinging is the one that is most deep-rooted and persistant: “the attachment we have to the concept of, or belief in, self.” He gives as an analogy the image of the self as a rainbow. The rainbow exists, but only as a manifestation of particular fleeting relationships between air, light and water droplets – it is an appearance without a fixed essence or substance. It is not a thing, but a process that happens when certain environmental conditions arise together. Similarly, the self is a fluid, changing process that we somehow think of as an object, the kernal of our identity. We cling to a belief that it is a noun rather than a verb, that we have a ‘self’ rather than that we are ‘selfing’ – for we make and remake the self moment-by-moment. Hanging on to one moment of selfhood is as pointless as trying to hang on to a rainbow, yet this is what we seem to want to do – we cling to a notion of self that is misguided and delusory. A Sri Lankan monk went so far as to say: “no self, no problem” – given the rise of dogmatic extremism (political, religious and cultural) we can see how a belief in an essential self certain of its own opinions and desiring to impose these on others leads to so much strife and conflict.

Freedom arises when we relax our attachments to pleasant experiences, to our own opinions and to our belief in the self as something independent and substantial. We are more likely to experience freedom and peace of mind if we let go rather than hang on, be open rather than closed, be caring rather than clinging, be compassionate rather than judgmental and feel kinship rather than separateness.