Zen Self Inquiry

Attachment/Detachment: A self creating problem

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Throughout Buddhism and Eastern thought in general is the idea that our attachment to physical things and our desires is the cause of our ignorance and suffering.  In the story of the historical Buddha it talks about him first leading a life of hedonism, fulfilling his every desire, yet having no relief from suffering. No matter how much you aggrandize your desires it does not bring about fulfillment. The second part of Gotama’s life is spent as an ascetic, depriving himself and meditating, and that too, did not solve his suffering.   In an attempt to rid our self of our attachments the adherent sheds their self of worldly possessions, adornments and hair.  From here it is supposed that being free of these things leads you to a state where you can go after the goal more accurately.  Perhaps, but it’s like dressing like an angel and thinking you are going to sprout wings or wearing doctor’s scrubs and thinking you’ll become a surgeon. Once again in the story of the historical Buddha he sheds all things worldly, becomes an ascetic, meditates constantly, starves himself and still suffers.  So neither the hedonistic state nor the ascetic state is the way.  The ascetic or detached state creates its own dilemma of becoming attached to all things ‘Zen’, clinging to your spiritual poverty . And, of course, there is now the creation of the identity as a monk or committed follower. There are many stories throughout the Zen monastic world of monks competing to show who is more austere and detached by tearing holes in their clothes and going through great deprivations.  Why isn’t this just as attached as anything the common person does?  I actually think it can be worst because it is a bit disingenuous.   The common person isn’t fooling their self about their state of mind while the adherent may well be.  If these non-trappings/trappings are supposed to somehow make you closer to the dharma think about what effect a collar has on a Catholic priest.  Does it really change anything at all?  Is there any transformation of self triggered by the attire of a religion?

Once in a monastery a monk chastised me for my long hair saying, “You will never be awakened as long as  you don’t shave your head, you are attached to your hair”.  I replied , “well you might be right but you are just as attached to your baldness”.  He walked away.  For many people you have to look the part of the zen person to actually be a zen person. It’s an odd rationale. This idea of attachment expresses itself in another form and that is the form of Zen practice.  On more than one occasion I’ve witnessed a Zen or Buddhist leader talking about the lotus position and how it must be mastered for awakening, stating that if you do not master this position and the breathing you cannot become awakened. I once asked, ” what if a person is an amputee, does that exclude them from awakening, from Buddha nature”?  To my surprise the Roshi replied , “Yes”.  On another occasion I was listening to a lecture from another Zen Roshi who was talking about breathing and quite sternly said, “If you do not master the breathing techniques you cannot become awakened”.  I asked, “If someone has COPD or emphysema does this mean they cannot awaken?”  He did not reply.  All of this flies in the face of ‘awakening mind and body fallen off”. It is clearly a sign of attachment to Zen ritual and practice.  It is its own sense of false mind/body identity.

When one of my teachers, Masao Abe, left his home and family to enter a Zen monastery the first thing he saw as he entered the monastery was written on the gate and it said ‘ to seek awakening itself is its own hell creating karma’.  In other words the attachment to seeking awakening is itself a problem. This struck at the root of his attachment to becoming awakened and threw him into crisis.  He told me this was a great turning point for him and his practice.

I would like to approach this from a different angle and it is from the view of attachment to self identity ao opposed to accoutrements.  We become  attached to and identify with our concept of self, physical body, and desires; what will or will not fulfill us.  If we identify as a Catholic or Muslim we will not be able to see outside of that paradigm because our consciousness is filtered through the lens of that self identification and maintaining it.  Whatever idea we hold of self will prevent us from seeing clearly whether it’s a religious, tribal, national or political position.  That is real attachment, including to the attachment to being a monk or priest.  When the root of our happiness is attached to a concept it will always be in a defensive position to hold that concept.  To say ‘I am something’ immediately puts it into opposition to those thing ‘I am not’.   I am not saying we won’t have our cultural or ethnic identities at all but they will not bind us.  We cannot escape out biology or genes but we can be freed with being defined or grounded to them.  We are influenced by habit and taste but they should not bind us and anchor us.

There is the story of the two monks in the forest.  One comes upon the other sitting on a rock in meditation.  One comes off the rock and starts conversing with the other. Suddenly there is a crash in the forest and the walking monk is startled.  The one who was seated chides him saying, “See, you are still attached to your concepts thinking it was a tiger!”  When the seated monk is not looking the other monk takes a stone and writes the character for Buddha on the stone.  When they finish their conversation the monk goes to sit back down and then sees the Buddha character and jumps off the rock so he would not sit on it.  The walking monk says, “See we are all influenced by conditioning.”

The sitting monk was attached, even if lightly , to his respect for the word Buddha and didn’t want to sit on it.  It doesn’t mean he was defined by it or rooted to it.  If he had sat on it and then done severe practices of contrition then he totally misses the boat. It was just a habit he had formed and a reaction.

There is a famous Zen story where a village woman is caring for a young monk who lives in a hut on her property.  She would give him food every day and one day asked her beautiful young daughter to take it to him.  She told the daughter she wanted her to seduce the monk, throw her arms around him and kiss him and then come back and tell her what happened.  So the daughter did this and came back and told her mother, “ he pushed me away and said, dry like wood, cold like stone’. With that the mother stormed down to the hut and threw the monk out calling him a fraud.  Why?  This is not Zen; it’s a state of cold, detached egotism. It is not that he should have embraced the woman but to deny that he has any reaction or feelings toward her or anything else is wrong.  Rinzai used to call the monks roaming in the forests ‘shave pate shit sticks’ and ‘dead wood, mindless monkeys’. The great 12th century Zen master Dahui Zonggao had this to say:

 “Students in recent times often abandon the fundamental
and pursue trivia; turning their backs on truth, they plunge
into falsehood. They only consider learning in terms of
career and reputation. All they have as their definitive doctrine
is to take riches and status and expand their schools.
Therefore their mental state is not correct, and they are affected
by things.”

Buddhism is about overcoming the ego, the subject object duality of human consciousness, the attachment of our ignorant minds, to open up to see ‘things as they are’ and not as we see them as self interested egos.  It is not about becoming a rock, blunt, emotionless and detached from life nor is it about ‘not thinking’ as a correct way of thinking.  That is its own way of thinking regardless of how ‘quiet’.

Why is it that humans have to isolate their selves from living to become awakened?  Does a deer need to do anything other than to be a deer?  What is it that separates us from our own nature yet does not separate other creatures from their nature? Awakening is about being immersed in life, not removed from it.  What is it that separates you from the world? What separates you from awakening?


Unfortunately I must address this here because it is so prevalent. Like all things the human mind touches there is corruption and self deception.  On many occasions with ‘religious/spiritual’ leaders I’ve noticed their great displays of wealth be it a $2000 pair of glasses, a Rolls Royce or their mansions. When they are approached about this they all reply the same, ” I am not attached to these things, I could leave them in a heartbeat with no effect, I happen to like quality things and I can afford them”.  Well, what defines these things as quality?  Would you actually know if your glasses were surrounded with gold or a fake?  Why do you want the ostentatious glasses?  Does the $200 bottle of wine actually taste better than the $20 one?  Does it taste better in the crystal glass than the glass jar?  All of these things only arise as attachment to what society says is quality and well worth it. It is clearly a form of self identity and ‘things of quality’. Not unlike the monks using their worn robes as a symbol of their sincerity these folks are doing the same thing in a different manner. I cannot understand why these folks love this stuff, it really confounds me.  Though they will say these things don’t define them then why do they buy them? How many people could you feed or educate with your extra money? When someone like Warren Buffet , one of the richest men in the world, still lives in the house he bought in 1957 for $31,000  and clips coupons and buys used cars, how can one of these so called enlightened religious gurus who live in a mansion surrounded by riches claim they are not attached to it and that’s it’s not a display of their self identity?  It’s sheer nonsense.

So we come full circle back to the adherent displaying their non-attachment by their robes and shaved heads.  Unfortunately they are just a prone to self deception as the rich spiritual leaders.

When our self identity is tied to our goals and desires this attachment blinds us to our true nature.  Dr DeMartino used to say “when awakened if carrying the boat to the river you succeed, fulfilled, if you fail, fulfilled”. For most people failing at something means sadness and unfulfilled because they are grounded to that goal. Even if you succeed at your goals, financially or whatever, does this actually fulfill you?  If it did rock stars, famous actors and the rich would not fall into drugs and suicide as they do.  Thinking things will fulfill you is futile. Depriving yourself of all things natural is futile. No matter what you gain it will be taken from you by time.  If your self identity is no longer rooted in these things you have nothing to lose and nothing to gain.

Practice without anticipation.




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