A common criticism – and misunderstanding – of Buddhism is that it promotes disengagement. If striving is bad then why do anything? But then we’d still be living in caves.
But obviously Buddhists haven’t been disengaged. They’ve built temples, written books, and promoted loving kindness and nonviolence.
There’s a difference between non-attachment and detachment. The latter is apathy and indifference – being comfortably numb, to steal a phrase from Pink Floyd. But non-attachment is about knowing when to let go.
Part of the problem has to do with translating Pali words into English and inadvertently tripping on English connotations not present in Pali. Nekkhamma can be translated various ways, and non-attachment is one. Renunciation is another, but that word too has connotations that can create a false impression.
Nekkhamma has to do with right intention, that aspect of the Eightfold Path associated with wisdom. Doing something that seems good can still have harmful results if you’re doing it for the wrong reason. That’s why awareness and honesty about what really motivates us, instead of the lies we tell ourselves, is so important.
Someone who lies to others begins by lying to herself or himself. And the lies we tell ourselves are based on illusions we cling to. Buddhism is about letting go of our illusions, but this is hard because we all have strong attachments to our narratives about ourselves and others.
Buddhism also teaches that all things are impermanent, so while it’s good to enjoy something in the moment we must also be willing to let go of it when the time comes. This includes even our own lives because no one can escape death.
This sounds nice, but it’s really hard to actually live like that. I cling to all sorts of things: my money, my job, my health, past relationships that have failed and which I wish I could go back in time and change, and so on. Each one has a story attached to it, a story I’ve constructed in my head where ultimately I’m the good guy.
Clinging as the cause of suffering is what it’s all about. That’s why many Buddhists talk about non-clinginess rather than non-attachment. The English connotations of non-clinginess convey the concept of nekkhamma much better.
The Buddha focused on four big things we cling to: material possessions, experiences, beliefs, and egotism.
One of my favourite movies is The Big Lebowski. At the end, the lead character says the famous line, “The Dude abides,” and the film’s narrator, a cowboy called the Stranger, says that “It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin ‘er easy for all us sinners.”
But the movie is about the Dude not takin ‘er easy.
The Big Lebowski is about an aging hippy named Jeffrey Lebowski, known as the Dude, who likes to go bowling and does Tai Chi while drinking white Russians. He’s mistaken for a millionaire with the same name. Everyone is after the Big Lebowski’s money, including Lebowski himself because it turns out that he inherited his fortune, which is tied up in a charitable trust.
At the start of the film a couple of thugs rough up the Dude, and then realizing they have the wrong man they pee on his area rug. The Dude complains about it to his bowling buddies but doesn’t plan to do anything about it. He’s the Dude, man, and once he’s done venting he’s going to forget about the rug.
But his friend Walter stirs him up with a narrative about the injustice of it all, and how he should confront the millionaire Lebowski and demand a replacement rug. The Big Lebowski realizes that he can manipulate the Dude’s attachment to his rug and even expand upon it: Mr. Lebowski offers the Dude a large sum of money for delivering a ransom for the millionaire’s kidnapped trophy wife. The Dude goes for it even though he suspects that Mr. Lebowski’s wife kidnapped herself and plans to take off with the ransom. That is, the Dude knows he’s being set up (Mr. Lebowski plans to keep the money and claim the Dude stole it), but Walter convinces the Dude that they can outwit Lebowski.
Needless to say, nothing goes as planned. In the end the Big Lebowski’s scheme is revealed, and not only does the Dude get no money, he doesn’t even get a new rug. But when all is said and done the Dude is happy because he’s forgotten about the rug. Still, he could have avoided the hassle by forgetting about the rug from the get go.
I think the Dude’s rug is a great parable for the difference between non-attachment and detachment. The Dude wasn’t detached – he enjoyed his rug and missed it when it was gone. But eventually he moved on. He realized that he would have lost the rug at some point anyway – the years would have made it threadbare. But the Dude’s clinginess – his failure to abide – caused every bit of suffering he experienced.
So perhaps abiding is another translation of nekkhamma we can add to the list. And abiding has the advantage that it’s a positive word, unlike non-attachment or non-clinginess. Just go with the flow, man.