Attachment

Attachment is the most important topic in Buddhism.  Why? Because it is difficult to understand the different approaches to it that are contradictory. Buddha said that this world was named the Desirous, not because it is so desirable, but because we have so much desire and attachment. In the tantric path desire is turned into a deity; in the sunyata path into a demon. But desire is natural. It feeds us, it clothes us; it leads us to pretty much all our actions. We get up in the morning because of it, and we go to sleep at night because of it. In the end, we do our practice because of it. It is what brings us all our pleasure. Indeed, these words: desire, pleasure, attachment are all bound up together, and we may need to make some sense of them in order to understand how they fit. More importantly to decide how to fit them into our practice, the very approach to life we take.

Because of the contradictory nature of the different approaches to attachment present in the Buddhist paths it is impossible to practise these separate approaches together. Thus, we have the abandoning of desire on one hand and the cultivation of desire on the other.

Abandoning desire comes from the path of renunciation or sunyata. Attachment is seen as pain, as it is impossible to maintain the pleasure of desire constantly. Therefore abandon it. The monk abandons everything in order to conquer desire, the root of all evils. The yogi abandons desire for certain things in order to find subtle pleasure or bliss.

So what is the difference between abandoning and cultivating? If we abandon, we are saying that pleasure is not the right way to spiritual paths; and if we cultivate, we are saying it is. These are opposing standpoints. Choose your path, but know why you are doing it. If I choose the path of abandoning, I am choosing all that goes with it: the end to the seeking of pleasure that is so natural to animals, humans, and gods. I choose the monks robes, celibacy, control of appetites, and guarded behaviour. If I choose the yogi’s path, it appears that I am giving up even more – I barely eat, I pay no attention to my clothing, appearance, or personal hygiene, but I seek inner bliss. Why do I seek inner bliss? Because it is more desirable than outer, or gross bliss. I give up outer gross bliss and find through yogic paths inner bliss. So, in the end I have accomplished the same, or more, than the outer monk, but inwardly I am more addicted. The difference here is that the inner yogic bliss is not harmful, or not harmful to a spiritual life. It is harmful to an ordinary existence, because the cost of finding that inner realization is the outer life of conformity, and the taking up of the yogic lifestyle with all its abandonment of social life, goals and norms in order to feed the inner fire of yogic pursuit.

How does yogic bliss work? It releases a natural part of the body that produces bliss. This bliss can only be released by yogic or meditative methods. Thus the pursuit of inner yogic methods naturally releases this bliss, and this bliss is a higher, natural virtue. Thus, a yogi abiding in the bliss is abiding in higher natural virtue. The inner subtle bliss can only be released by completion stage, mahamudras, and inner subtle generation stages. Outer gross practices of generation stage lead to inner bliss by cultivating an attitude that the normal sources of pleasure, such as eating etc., are actually gross outer bliss. They are naturally pure, and give rise to tantric bliss which is a gross, outer, naturally pure virtue. Thus through the practice of subsequent attainment, through gross generation stage, and actual accomplishment, through inner subtle generation stage, or completion stages, etc. the yogi attains the various levels of higher natural (or tantric) virtue. This virtue by definition is higher than that accomplished through the abiding in the natural virtue of sutra meditation and practice.

The important point to consider is what happens to us when we fall in love. Falling in love is seen as the highest form of human activity by most people. Yes, its pitfalls are known: the pains of attachment to that which you can’t have, or that returns love with hate. But what of the bliss of love? Are you going to give that up because there will be pain involved? So, the tantric path (and the Bodhisattva path) both explore the idea of cultivating love (and its bliss) in a pure form.

What then of the practice of abandoning? This occurs in the pre-Buddhist practices of India known as austerities. Why would you abandon pleasure? Because, it is unable to fulfil your desire for natural bliss. Pleasure is a corrupt form of bliss. Contaminated with inconsistency. Unable to fulfil your desire. Corruptible and changeable; subject to attenuation and acclimation. Addiction is ultimately doomed to failure, and the pursuit of happiness ends in an unwholesome lack of health, and the corruption of your own morals, the guardians of your natural happiness. That is why you must guard your discriminating alertness, and your morals with them.  For, not to do so will inexorably lead you into degeneration and unhappiness.

Is it possible to practice both? The early stages of practice cause you to drop your natural approach to desire. In the path of sunyata we say no to desire, and contemplate the inevitable miseries of its failure. In the beginning of the bodhisattva path we guard our moral discipline down to our thoughts and action, not wishing to harm anyone by projecting our desire onto them.

But later we acknowledge the power of love and desire. Love for another person, a partner, is so powerful that the energy must be able to be used. And it is. It is used in the tantric practise of generation and completion stage, where desire is the energy that completes and unites the power of tantric expression; and it is used in the higher reaches of the Bodhisattva Path where Love is found to be even more potent than Desire itself. This love of the heart is what finally takes a Bodhisattva to Buddhahood.

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10 Comments on “Attachment”

  1. Mystery Mann says:

    Is the path really so differentiated? Is it not just about cultivating skillful desires? The monk who appears to give everything up can still experience great bliss through meditation.

  2. tenpel says:

    Dear DharmaForum,
    please forgive me to add some brief notes (I lack time to go deeper at the moment) to your post. Maybe it is of help.

    We are studying here in Italy currently Je Tsongkhapa’s „Great Exposition of Secret Mantra“ and we studied the „GROUNDS AND PATHS OF SECRET MANTRA – Illumination of the Tantric Tradition,The Principles of the Grounds and Paths of the Four Great Secret Classes of Tantra“ by Ngawang Palden.

    Based on these texts I would like to contribute to your post.
    To use desire to transform it into the path is indeed the unique feature of Tantra. In Highest Yoga Tantra even sexual desire is transformed. But this transformation demands people of extraordinary capacity and intelligence. Those beings are rather rare. Tantra has been always the vehicle for the most gifted ones.

    Not attachment is transformed into the deity but the deity is the appearance of a mind that recognizes emptiness and this recognition of emptiness arises in the form of the deity, while the meditator has both: appearance of the deity and the recognition of the deity’s emptiness. Now dependent on the Tantra Class one uses desire to generate bliss, in order to manifest the clear light mind, the most subtle mind to meditate with that on emptiness. By this meditation on emptiness with the most subtle mind the root of attachment is being gradually destroyed.

    In the Sutra Path desire is seen as a demon or harmful force which has to be abandon. In the Tantras it is still seen as something to abandoned but it is used skilfully to overcome it finally. This transformation requires quite a lot from a trainee in virtue.

    Sutra approach and Tantra approach can go well together. Both offer just means and in situations where desire arises one just uses the method that works, be it a tantric or a sutra practice. If the desire is strong it cannot be transformed, it must be reduced by a sutra practice: seeing its fault, meditating on impermanence, dependent arising (these teachings are also existent in Tantra and form its very foundation), only if the desire is weak enough to be manageable one can transform it. So both paths, Sutra and Tantra, have to be skilfully combined. Actual, this is what Je Tsongkhapa is stressing himself so much. So, it not that there were a „cultivation of desire on the other.“

    I might add more in the next days if you would find this useful.
    Keeo your chin up! 🙂

    • DharmaForum says:

      What you describe, TenPel, is mother tantra. Contemplate desire. Why would you wish to abandon it? Where will you dwell without desire? In emptiness? There is no desire in emptiness? So, you used your desire to attain emptiness. And found no emptiness in desire. There is emptiness in Desire. And what drove you to this tantra? Desire. So, when you have accomplished, desire will be gone, and so will be your path? You will have accomplished, but where is your desire? Do you lack a wish to help, or have you found wisdom? What makes you bliss, or has your bliss gone too? You have destroyed the Path, but have found the fruit. Bliss and Wisdom. What then of your regard for Desire? Will you honour it like a new moon?

      • tenpel says:

        Are you saying that attachment is no object of abandoning on the path of seeing and the path of meditation? Do you think Bodhisattvas on the three pure grounds have (who are according to Madhyamika Prasangika) Foe Destroyers, have still attachment?

        To have a wish or a desire, like to absorb into emptiness or to help others, attain enlightenment is not necessarily attachement. Some refer to it to “virtuous desire” therefore it has not to be abandoned, but attachment has to be abandoned.

  3. tenpel says:

    sorry for my spelling and grammar errors. i am a bit in a hurry …

    • DharmaForum says:

      Yes, attachment is abandoned because it is pain. But attachment has use. A Bodhisattva has attachment for people. That attachment is turned into compassion. That compassion is turned into Bodhicitta, and Bodhicitta is the source of the completion stage path. Bodhicitta is bliss. The purpose of the Desire path in Tantra is to realise the closeness of Desire to Bliss.

      • tenpel says:

        Some text say that a BS has attachment for people but I think this is not to be taken literally. Attachment sees an attractive object and wishes to possess it. It comes from a selfish attitude and ego thinking. And although Bodhisattvas up to the 7th ground still have attachment, what BSs cultivate is compassion for people and not attachment. He can turn his attachement into compassion, that’s correct, and this compassion is the root of his Bodhicitta.

        After having attained the union of calm abiding and special insight via tantric generation stage, the bodhisattva enters the tantric completion stage, where he is aiming to bring the winds into the central channel. And from here onwards a tantric consort is needed sooner or later (though some say even earlier but there is a greater risk). The qualification for entering the completion stage is that he/she mastered the subtle generation stage, which means he/she meditates the entire supporting and supported mandala in the size of a mustard seed, and can focus on it without mental sinking or excitement for as long as one wishes. (the entire mandala means too: all the deities with all their implements + all the deities on the special places of the deities + their details.) All this is quite complex and needs also the mastery of the attachment of the desire realm because one cannot achieve calm abiding without overcoming the attachment to the attributes (sense objects) of the desire realm.

        Then attachment is used to generate bliss, to produce that attachment one wants to transform into bliss there are different methods according to the four classes of tantra. Because this is also secret maybe I should not say more here on the blog.

        My main point is that attachment is not cultivated, attachment is used, it is also generated at certain points, but only to finally overcome it. The example given is: like a woodworm is born in the wood and its up that wood. The great bliss is born from attachment and its up that very attachment.

  4. anchor 1 says:

    Very nice article, just what I needed.realm of the mad god pets guide


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