Detached Engagement

When I first began studying Buddhism I had a very difficult time understanding the concept of non-attachment.  I could easily see how attachment to wealth, power, status, etc. all lead to ultimate frustration because all things are impermanent.  There is nothing permanent in the world that we can latch onto. Our futile efforts to do so lead us to false views as we cling to that which will eventually be no more.  At the same time, however, it is equally clear that certain attachments bring us happiness.  Our family relationships.  Our interest in philosophy.  A scientific curiosity about how the world works.  Was the Buddha suggesting that we eschew *all* attachments; even our attachment to the very concepts of happiness or peace itself?

Over the past several years, due to my experience with lay Buddhist practitioners, speaking with various monks and nuns, and by participating in Buddhist services, I have come to realize that my understanding of attachment was deeply flawed.  The Buddha was not advocating a Sangha wherein monks, nuns, and laypersons purged all sense perceptions or feelings of happiness and sadness.  Nor did he teach that personal relationships be sterile and unfeeling.  Rather, the Buddha understood and acknowledged the reality of the human condition.  We feel.  We form relationships.  We ultimately pass on.  So detachment is not to eschew the very nature of the human condition — as if somehow this abject reality could be overcome.  Rather, detachment means to fully engage life pursuing wisdom as outlined in the Noble Eight-fold Path.  All the while understanding that all is impermanent.  That nothing we do can prevent the realities of misfortune, poverty, sickness, and death.

Such a view is not fatalistic.  It is liberating and reinforces the notion that today — this very moment — is an opportunity to experience the joys and sorrows of living.  We can do so unwillingly of course; kicking and screaming along the way in an attempt to make permanent that which ultimately fades away.  But, even our attempts to prolong moments of great joy will eventually prove futile; creating within us a sense of disappointment and frustration.  Rather than cling to that which cannot be held, grasped, or put under our control, we should engage the world in wisdom.  With an understanding that it is possible to embrace the realities of human experience — both good and bad — while remaining detached from any notion of control.