Attachment and Desire in Buddhism

[In a long discussion thread on atheism, Buddhism and who atheists should be critiquing in response to the article on karma and Sharon Stone’s comments at Talking Philosophy the subject of attachment and desire came up.  While I have this little series on Buddhism I may as well look at it as it is one of the points of the Buddhist teachings that is least well understood (judging by the questions that I have seen asked to Buddhist teachers).  Here is a lightly edited record of my reponses to Eric MacDonald.]

Eric MacDonald said:

It is true. The fact that we are transient beings means that to love is to give a hostage to fortune. It does not follow, however, that forgoing love and attachment will preserve us from suffering. It may just mean that we live lives of a semi-detached loneliness instead. I have never been convinced by the Buddha’s message. It has always seemed to me that the way of non-attachment is an invitation to pointlessness. Desire may be the root of suffering, but non-attachment is not the cure. Is there one? Should we be looking for it?

You would be quite right to be sceptical of such a philosophy, but it is subtly different from the Buddhist teachings, at least as I have understood them. […]

William Blake’s lines are often quoted here:

He who binds himself to a Joy,
Does the winged life destroy;
He who kisses the Joy as it flies,
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

The point is to live life more joyfully and not to crush the joy, the aim of Buddhism being to live life more skilfully so that you get more of the good things. The issue is that of determining the best way of getting those good things. The Dalai Lama is fond of saying that if you want to be selfish then don’t be foolishly selfish but wisely selfish, Buddhism agreeing with the Socratic idea that people will do the ethically right thing that also always in their best long term interest when they realise that these are the same. Now of course most atheists will say that is all fairy stories, but the logical point is that Buddhism is (ironically) preaching an egoistic ethics: do whatever maximise your long term happiness as it will not conflict with other people’s needs (in the ultimate view).

Now whether minimising attachment really does increase happiness is something for each person to investigate and decide, but if your investigation concludes that attachment brings you happiness then you should certainly increase your attachments.

By the way Buddhism doesn’t say that you should give up any hedonistic pleasures: it just says being attached to them isn’t smart.

[At this point in the discussion thread Eric responded with a quotation from the Dalai Lama’s talk at Harvard where he said that desire should be eliminated.]

To a Buddhist way of thinking, desire has attachment running through it. I have repeatedly heard teachers say that some attachment/desire can be beneficial, the type that motivates you to follow the teachings and so on (and if my memory serves me, the Dalai Lama reiterated this in the recent Nottingham teachings). However, the endpoint that we are looking for (as I understand it) is a place where things are accomplished effortlessly, without desire or attachment and in my experience people that operate without attachment are lively, vital and great fun to be with. It is just that they aren’t squeezing themselves or others to fixed agendas but dealing skilfully with things as they arise.

The Buddhist approach to attachment/desire is more subtle and interesting than it may appear at first.


3 responses to “Attachment and Desire in Buddhism

  1. Be on guard..In England you may be regulated by law as Buddhism has no central deity. Take a read:

  2. Yes indeed. As Matthew Parris’s article says, it is worrying when this kind of confusion starts making its way into law.

  3. “He who binds himself to a Joy,
    Does the winged life destroy;
    He who kisses the Joy as it flies,
    Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.”

    Simply fantastic!

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