Engage with life, but don’t cling

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Spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, said, “Our journey is about being more deeply involved in life and yet less attached to it.”

This is a very important teaching of Ram Dass. It sounds like a paradox. How can one be more engaged with life and yet less attached to it? Isn’t it a contradiction? To understand this is to understand the Middle Way that Buddha taught. It is also to truly understand the Zen art of non-attachment. Non-attachment is not the same as to reject or abandon the world or to stay away from people and relationships. There are two extremes: One is to become a reclusive monk and leave the secular world. The other extreme is to become a materialist and/or a hedonist. Neither is being “deeply involved in life.”

The practice of the Middle Way is to be involved in the world in a non-attached manner. Real renunciation is to accept that all things change. There is no permanence. Realizing this, we neither cling nor grasp. Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, said, “Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away.” Similarly, true silence is not about escaping to a world where there is no sound or noise. Rather, it is to be at peace with the world of sounds and embrace what is. My most favorite Mahayanist Sutra is the Vimalakirti Sutra, in which the protagonist is Vimalakirti, who is a householder and not a monastic. The first chapter of this sutra features Amrapali, a famous courtesan during Buddha’s time who is famous for her beauty. Yet, she is also known to be an active promoter of the Dharma. According to the Buddhist tradition, it is said that the Buddha declined the invitations of various royalties, just so that that he could accept Amrapali’s invitation to have dinner at her house. Vimalakirti himself is also an antinomian character. He is said to be a powerful bodhisattva who frequents brothels, drinking and gambling places to help and enlighten others. The Theravada tradition emphasizes the need to rid of impurities and defilements. But in the Vimalakirti Sutra, when the youths ask how the Buddha field can be purified, Buddha’s answer is that the Buddha field is pure if the mind is pure. Thus, the practice of non-attachment is not about escaping into some otherworldly realm or practicing asceticism.

The other extreme is to immerse oneself in consumerism and hedonism. To be deeply involved in life is not about worshiping money, power and sensual pleasure either. People who do this are engaging in another form of escapism. They try to drown out the anxiety and discomfort of the world by single-mindedly seeking pleasure and security. In the meantime, while busily seeking wealth and personal gains, one loses one’s ability to experience the beauty of nature and the pleasure of a simple life. One also loses the ability to live in the moment. If we are always seeking the “Next Big Thing,” when we get what we have been pursuing, we won’t be satisfied. There will always be the next object of desire. The satisfaction from worldly pleasures does not last. The law of impermanence applies to the hedonist life also. There is no pleasure that lasts forever. Soon, one comes to see the futility of making transient things permanent.

I have been involved in the modernization of Buddhism in the past 30 years. One of the biggest challenges of modernization has to do with the Buddhist attitude towards desire. In the West, some philosophers, including Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, have criticized Buddhism as being pessimistic, nihilistic and life-negating. I grew up in Hong Kong. Based on my observation of Chinese Buddhism, there is an element of truth in this. Many Chinese Buddhists regard desire as the cause of suffering. Some Buddhist couples even give up sex, thinking that it is an obstacle to their spiritual practice. For them, the goal of the Buddhist practice is to become desireless. But is the Buddhist ideal to become an emotionless stone Buddha? Where is life in such a state? If there is a pill you can take to kill all emotions, would you take it? And if you would, isn’t it a kind of suicide? It does kill your humanity, doesn’t it? Indeed, the fear of desire is prominent in the Buddhist world. The Theravada monk, Henepola Gunaratana, a famous teacher of Vipassana meditation wrote in the Fall 2012 issue of Tricycle the following:

The truth is, we don’t really want to be free from desire or to admit that clinging to the pleasures of the senses — the taste of delicious food; the sound of music, gossip, or a joke; the touch of a sexual embrace — ends unavoidably in disappointment and suffering. We don’t have to deny that pleasant feelings are pleasurable. But we must remember that like every other feeling, pleasure is impermanent. Wishing to keep any person, place, possession, or experience with us forever is hopeless!

Gunaratana is referring to all kind of sensual pleasure — good food, good music, passion and sex. We have to interpret this carefully here. He did not say that sensual pleasure itself which leads unavoidably to disappointment and suffering. Rather, it is the clinging to sensual pleasure and desire. This should be obvious if we look closely at the Twelve Links of Causation. Two of the key links are “thirst” and “grasping.” The problem is not the sensation itself. Rather, it is our tendency to cling to things which are pleasant and our refusal to accept that there is no permanence in our world. Everything changes. Even if two lovers are perfect for each other, even if there is no interpersonal conflicts, the truth is that at some point aging, illness and death come it. There will be partings. Many of us do not take such partings well.

Is there any pleasure without pain? Gunaratana’s advice for us is to seek deep concentration. According to him, only the bliss of deep concentration does not come with suffering. But isn’t this another pursuit of permanent pleasure? Isn’t this still a hedonist approach to life? Isn’t this still the ego talking?

My observation is that many orthodox Buddhists are very negative on pleasure. They are anti-pleasure, anti-sex and anti-nature. The rationale, again, is that they believe, erroneously, that pleasure and suffering are intrinsically linked. They have ignored the fact that in order for pleasure to lead to suffering, clinging and grasping are needed. What is wrong with accepting that life flows? What is wrong with surrendering to and embracing the natural law of impermanence? Ajahn Chah taught about the wisdom of proper expectation. He once had a beautiful glass that he cherished. But he did not have any unreasonable expectation of permanence. He said, “I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.”

It is not wise if we avoid life and its pleasures, just so that we can avoid pain and sufferings. There is a place for social bonds. Such bonds are not necessarily attachments. We have bonds between lovers, between parent and child, between teacher and student, between friends, between members of the same community. It would be wrong to say that such social bonds lead to suffering. Social bonds are necessary for social stability. The pair-bonding between husband and wife is the basic foundation for raising children and for a strong family. Social bonds are also important for social well-being. A healthy society needs social bonding and a sense of common purpose. The Buddha himself did not reject secular life and social bonds. This can clearly be seen in the Sigalovada Sutta.

Are we so afraid of suffering that we forget to live? I would like to conclude by sharing the lyrics of a Carpenters’s song, titled The Rose:

It’s the heart afraid of breaking
that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking
that never takes the chance

It’s the one who won’t be taken
who cannot seem to give
and the soul afraid of dyin’
that never learns to live

The truth is that we make ourselves vulnerable whenever we love someone. Our love object can be our parents, our children or our mate. Yes, due to the law of impermanence, there is a time for meeting and there is a time for parting. But loving does not have to be ego-driven. It can be a generous giving of oneself and it can be a service to others. It can be a co-celebration of life. Yes, life is transient and all wonderful times come to an end. But isn’t the very transient nature of life that makes us cherish the moments? Every Spring, we celebrate the blossoming of the cherry trees. We have Sakura festivals. Cherry blossoms last at most two weeks. If they were to last forever, then we would not feel the urgency to celebrate them. Perhaps the blossoms would even be ignored. I’d say that it is the impermanence that adds to, not detracts from, the rich meaning of life.

Don’t let the fear of suffering prevent you to love and to live. Be engaged with life, just don’t cling.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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