Attachment to Buddhism, and Why It’s a Problem

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.

Reviewing “attachment” — It’s understood in Buddhism that in order for there to be attachment, you need two things — someone to attach and an object to attach to.

When a thing becomes something you have to have, or something essential to your self-identity — whether it’s religion or political opinions or avoiding authority figures or having to have a chocolate chip cookie right now — this is attachment.

In short, attachment is you relating to an object in a needy way. And this is a problem because it reinforces the sense of “I,” or the ego. which the Buddha said is the primordial ignorance that leads us to suffering (see Four Noble Truths). 

For this reason, avoiding something because it makes you uncomfortable or pushes your ego buttons is attachment, too. It’s still you relating to an object in a way that is needy and  self-protecting. If you are non-attached, the avoidance issues disappear.  And note that non-attachment is different from detachment. Detachment in the standard sense of the word is still creating a self-other distinction.

Read More: Why Do Buddhists Avoid Attachment?

Non-attached Buddhism

Now that we’re clear what “attachment” means in Buddhism, let’s go back to the issue of attachment to Buddhism.

One of the first things I admired about Buddhism is its precaution against fanaticism. Dictionaries define fanaticism as single-minded, uncritical devotion or obsession. People become fanatics usually out of some kind of psychological need — they attach to something that they think makes them stronger or safer or, well, better. 

Eric Hoffer wrote in his book, The True Believer (1951):

“Only the individual who has come to terms with his self can have a dispassionate attitude toward the world. Once the harmony with the self is upset, he turns into a highly reactive entity. Like an unstable chemical radical he hungers to combine with whatever comes within his reach. He cannot stand apart, whole or self-sufficient, but has to attach himself whole-heartedly to one side or the other.”

And the more fanatically attached one becomes, the more the object of attachment takes up one’s entire view, the better to avoid coming to terms with the self. This is just the opposite of what the Buddha taught.

Beware of Bhava Tanha, the Craving to Become

Another common sticking point is the desire to become something you aren’t already, which the Buddha called out in the Second Noble Truth as one of the three kinds of craving that get us into trouble. This is bhava tanha, the craving to be or to become.

A common form of bhava tanha is wanting to be something other than what you are now — more famous, more popular, more successful, etc. This kind of craving can seem harmless, even virtuous, so watch out.

If, deep down, you are practicing to gain admiration or approval, or to become a holy person, this is an ego-attached practice.

No Idolatry

Very early I was particularly taken with Thich Nhat Hanh‘s Precepts of Engaged Buddhism, the first of which is:

“Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.”

The use of the word “idolatrous” is interesting. We normally think of idolatry as worship of a false god, but in a very broad sense it can be anything that distracts us from the truth. Thich Nhat Hanh is saying that relating to Buddhism in an attached or fanatical way can distract us from the truth of the dharma.

And that’s because the truth of the dharma is not about merely believing in doctrines. What the Buddha taught was a practice for understanding oneself and the world in a different way.

Read More: What Do Buddhists Believe?

It’s important to not get attached to theories or ideas about Buddhism. Of course, as you learn, your brain will form many theories and ideas, because that’s what human brains do. Hearts beat, stomachs digest, brains churn out thoughts. The problem is that if you embrace any theory as the final theory, the absolute last, best, no-need-to-keep-looking theory, you’ve just cut yourself off from enlightenment.  Certitude is a dead end.

The Middle Way

The opposite of fanatical attachment is indifference and detachment, and that’s not the path, either. The ideal is to study and practice diligently, but in a non-attached way.

How is that possible? First, always appreciate that your current understanding is provisional. There is always something more to realize. It’s said that the doctrines of Buddhism should not be grasped tightly and fanatically, but held in an open hand, so that understanding is always growing.

Second, whatever your practice — meditation, chanting, bowing, study — do it mindfully, do your best, and then let it go. Whatever you do, don’t let your ego get attached to your practice. Don’t flatter yourself that your chanting is better than so-and-so’s, for example.

And don’t fall into thinking that your practice isn’t as good as others. That’s just another form of ego-attachment. If you are doing your best, then your practice is fine. There is really no way for any of us to know “where we are” in our practice, never mind knowing where anyone else is.

In Zen, people often get wrapped up in doing all of the forms exactly right. Formal Zen really can be one little ritual after another, and it can take some work to master the forms. The trap is that when we think we’ve “mastered” something, we take pride in it, and then we’re attached. Again, just do your best, and let it go.

Many people “let go” by dedicating the merits of practice to others. Mahayana Buddhists also are encouraged to develop bodhicitta, which is the desire to practice for the benefit of all beings. Bodhicitta is a sure-fire antidote to bhava tanha, by the way.

In this and many other ways, we are always challenged to find the Middle Way in our practice. And that in itself takes practice.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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