Thursday, September 22, 2011

Buddhist Relationships - A Few Comments on Attachment

I received an interesting question from a reader, and thought I'd share my answer here.

How does one enter into and maintain a relationship without forming attachments? It's just one of the concepts of Buddhism that just don't seem to fit for me personally, either because I consider attachments to be very important for me, or it could just be that I misunderstand that particular concept. What are your thoughts?

This is the answer I wrote back to her.

I think there are a few ways to look at attachment when it comes to Buddhism. Part of the challenge is that many of the teachers and teachings that were brought to the U.S. were from monastic-based Buddhist practice, where renunciation and celibacy are centralized. Which causes some trouble for most of us who are living "regular" lives "in the world."

The Buddha, though, actually taught different teachings and practices geared towards monastics, and others toward lay folks. And since the Buddha's time, plenty of additional teachings and even entire schools of Buddhism have been focused on supporting lay folks.

When it comes to relationships, the way I understand it is that loving y partner, or children, or parents, etc. is intimately tied to letting go of your stories about who that person is or isn't, and learning how to be completely with them everyday as they are. I also believe it's learning how to loosen up the grip you might have around any expectations - about your partner, yourself, and the relationship itself.

Now, that doesn't mean that anything goes, but more that you do your best to drop off any behaviors or thought patterns that are overly needy or controlling, and learn to do or say what you need to without attachment to specific results.

In addition to this, I wrote a post in May about sexual desire that takes up attachment from a different angle.

If anyone has any additional thoughts, or if you have a completely different view, feel free to leave a comment.


zendotstudio said...

Just relistened to a Tenzin Palmo talk at Tricycle last night in which she said something like, "if we are interested in the other person's happiness (lover, child, parent) then that is love, if we are mainly interested in our own happiness, then that is not love. It's an interesting way to look at relationships. Who's happiness am I interested in here (in this action, in this circumstance)?

Anonymous said...

I struggle with many Buddhist discussions about love because I feel as though they take “being in love” at least initially, as a given. So often I read being ‘awake’ compared to the first feelings of being ‘in love’ in its newness and excitement etc.

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Nathan said...


I agree with Palmo. And have been watching where the direction of interest turns within myself a lot more lately.


That's a really interesting point. And I think that actually, that "being in love" experience with a romantic lover is a really poor comparison with awakening. So often, "being in love" is riddled with distorted views of the other person, and the relationship - which seems almost the opposite of awakened mind.

I kind of wonder if part of the issue is that love isn't really spoken a lot about in Buddhist teachings. Or it's spoken of more indirectly. So, then people lay these romantic notions of love on top of Buddhist teachings, thinking that they'd be helpful to our understanding. But actually, those notions are probably just a hindrance.

Barbara O'Brien said...

My first Zen teacher, Daido Loori, had a wonderful way of explaining "attachment" that helped clarify it for me:

In order to have attachment, you need two things -- an "attacher," and an object to attach to. As long as we relate to others within this self-other dichotomy, we're attaching. When we thoroughly perceive that the dichotomy is a sham, it changes the way we "relate."

In other words, it's not the friendship, or love, that's the issue with attachment.

Nathan said...

Thanks Barbara for bringing Daido's teaching into the picture.

To others reading here, Daido's book Eight Gates of Zen is a great primer on Zen practice, if you haven't already read it.