Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Relationships are not "Attachments"

Many times when our temple receives requests to have “a monk” visit someone in the hospital who was identified as Buddhist, I end up referring them to other temples more in line with the patient’s nationality or the caller’s expectations. The other day I received such a request – the caller said she didn’t belong to a local temple but went occasionally to the Vipassana center near Rockford. She was suggesting to her mother to look into Buddhism now that her mother was being placed in palliative care at a nursing home after release from the hospital. When I heard that her mother had weakening kidneys, I agreed to see her, thinking of my own mother who kept refusing dialysis and finally had to go into hospice care.

For my first visit the daughter met me at her mother’s room. When her mother, Diane, said she’s an avid reader of the New York Times and the New Yorker and the daughter said she gave her mother a book on meditation and psychology with a long, technical title, I apologized for bringing a “lightweight” book – Rev. Gyomay Kubose’s The Center Within. Since our temple’s bookstore items were packed away to make room for the summer festival, it was the only book I could wrench out of the storage box. Although I’ve joked about that book being for people with ADHD (i.e. articles are too short and underdeveloped), I thought the final article “Every Day is the Last Day” was a nice presentation of the Buddhist attitude towards death and dying.

A couple weeks later when I was in the neighborhood of the nursing home, I went to visit Diane. She had read Rev. Kubose’s book thoroughly and observed how dated it was, written before our temple had much diversity (dozens of European Americans among the hundreds of ethnic Japanese) and before gay and women’s liberation would challenge Rev. Kubose’s old-fashioned outlook on gender and marriage. Maybe not so much in Rev. Kubose’s book, but in some materials Diane had read about Buddhism from time to time, she found exhortations to cut “the ties that bind” while most advice she’s received on health and aging encourages people to develop social networks.

I explained to Diane that the big misunderstanding about Buddhism is that it is against “attachment” to other people (see my Oct. 18, 2011 entry “The word ‘love’ - the negative connotation in Buddhism”). The “attachment” Buddhist teachers disparage is the attitude of possessiveness towards other beings, treating them as objects to control. In my reading and experience I’ve seen that those who are spiritually awakened cultivate their connections to people. They recognize that our relationships with others is the concrete manifestation of the truth of interdependency, the truth that there is no separate self because each life is part of the interactive network of all lives.

So I told Diane she is already living the truth of interdependency – in her close relation with her daughter, in her phone conversations with her brother on the West Coast and with her local friends (she mentioned a good friend just called to tell her about attending the Pride Parade the day before). During our conversation I wondered if she was expecting me to say something wise but instead I’d ask more questions about her personal life.

The way she breathed with difficulty and occasionally fell into light sleep in mid-sentence reminded me so much of my mother in the last few weeks she was alive. After I left Diane, I thought that in a way any dying mother is my mother, any ailing sister is my sister, any father in chemotherapy is my father. Maybe that is the only empathy I can muster for others – to relive with them my recent experience of losing the three family members. Buddhism says we should be careful not to project our past experience onto judgments of the present, but I can’t help feeling if my grief is worth anything to others it’s to let them know I have been and will be the witness to the transient moments of a precious human life.


  1. I appreciated that you're trying hard to help Buddhism and people in your community. It's a noble desires. However, I feel very bad for you that you don't know what you're talking about and this entire article is wrong. I state this in plain words because you're hurting Buddhism. It's better to not teach than to teach something that's wrong and hurt people's stream-of-consciousness for countless lifetimes. In all honesty, you don't understand the most basic concepts of Buddhism and are misleading people. You have good intentions and want to make people "feel good" and give a "caring" message, but it's dead wrong. You state that the "big misunderstanding about Buddhism is that it's against 'attachment' to other people ." Buddhism IS against attachment. It's against all attachment - to everything and anything - even to Buddhism itself. That's the point of the story where the dharma is a boat used only to get the traveler across the river of samsara and it should be left on the shore after it's not needed anymore. Cutting your attachments is FUNDAMENTAL to concept of enlightenment and NOT cutting attachment is the KEY reason for the creation of karma and being stuck in samsara. Attachment to people, specifically, causes you to seek rebirths in this human existence and therefore blocks you from reaching nirvana during the bardo process. It also leads to emotions, desires, actions, and craving, and the entire cycle of the 12 links of dependent origination. In fact, the lesson of the 12 links is usually explaned in artwork by depicting what happens when one has attachment to a person in a loving relationship. Only with a mind free from attachment (to people, places, feelings, emotions, thoughts, desires, matter, the past, the future, your own body, death, life, everything) can one approach emptiness and understand the true nature of the mind as taught in the Heart, Diamond and Surangama Sutras. You live in the form realm as a human, and in this realm the biggest fundamental block to enlightenment is attachments to forms. Forms are presented to the consciousness through the six gates (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind) and if any attachments are created to the sensations entering through these gates you will be reborn in the form realm again. Please reconsider teaching Buddhism until you understand this. Even the biography of the Buddha himself shows that he had to leave his home, all of hid friends, his family and his wife behind in order to practice alone until he was enlightened. Only then after he had cut all attachments and achieved was he able to return to them without the risk of attachment and teach them the Dharma. Jesus' life had a similar story. When you tell someone that they are "already living the truth of interdependency" when they have had little training in mediation and do not understand the concept of emptiness, you are cutting off their practice at the legs. Would you tell an athlete that they've already won the olympics to make them feel better? Would you tell an elementary school student that they already have a PhD to make the pain of bith, old age, sickness, and death more bearable? You're in fact being selfish by trying to act like you're offering comfort to someone when it's really an extremely harmful lie that you're offering - a lie which will distract them from the true meaning of Buddhism and prevent them from ever improving. Please stop.

  2. I respect Mr. Krause's comment from his Southern Tradition (so-called Theravada) view. It shows total unfamiliarity with the Pure Land and other significant traditions of Mahayana Buddhism. For us "nirvana" is not a special prize like an Olympic medal or PhD degree - given only to those who deserve it through their own hard work. In the Sukhavativyuha Sutra, the historical Buddha is conveying that the only attachment to be cut in order to experience nirvana is the attachment to the ego-self. Doing hard work like continually disciplining one's thoughts and actions can act like a fuel to the flames of the ego-self, making it feel more deserving and superior over others. I'm grateful to Mr. Krause's comment in that it helps me identify with Shinran's comment - even if my teachers have misled me into hell, my ego-self was taking me there anyways. Better to go to hell with the awakening to Oneness than to go there blindly trapped in the shell of ego-self.

  3. Bottom line: no one is doing or not doing anything because THERE IS NO ONE THERE (or here). The point is just the realization of that, and then all the dichotomies disappear.