Basic Questions on Detachment, Nonviolence, and Compassion
Revised excerpt from
Berzin, Alexander and Chodron, Thubten.
Glimpse of Reality.
Singapore: Amitabha Buddhist Centre, 1999.
Question: What is the meaning of detachment?
Answer: The Buddhist meaning of detachment is slightly
different from what the word normally means in English. Detachment in
Buddhism is connected with renunciation. The word renunciation
in English is also misleading, for it implies that we have to give up
everything and go live in a cave. Although there are examples of people
like Milarepa who did give up everything and live in a cave, what they
did is referred to by a different word, not the word that is translated
as "renunciation" or "detachment". The word that has been translated as
"renunciation" actually means "the determination to be free". We have a
strong determination: "I must get out of my own problems and
difficulties. My mind
is totally firm on that goal." We want to give up our ego games because
we are determined to be free from all the problems they cause.
This does not mean that we have to give up a comfortable house or the
things that we enjoy. Rather, we are trying to stop the problems that we
have in relation to these objects. That leads us to detachment.
Being detached does not mean that we cannot enjoy anything or enjoy
being with anyone. Rather, it refers to the fact that clinging very
strongly to anything or anyone causes us problems. We become dependent
on that object or person
and think, "If I lose it or cannot always have it, I am going to be
miserable." Detachment means, "If I get the food I like, very nice. If I
do not get it, okay. It is not the end of the world." There is no attachment or clinging to it.
In modern psychology, the word attachment
has a positive connotation in certain contexts. It refers to the
bonding that occurs between a child and parent. Psychologists say that
if a child does not have the initial attachment to the parents, there
will be difficulties in the child's development. Again, it is
problematic to find the appropriate English word to convey the Buddhist
meaning, for the Buddhist connotation of attachment is quite specific.
When the Buddhist teachings instruct that we need to develop detachment,
it does not mean that we do not want to develop the child-parent bond.
What is meant by "detachment" is ridding ourselves of clinging and craving for something or someone.
Question: Is there a difference between a detached action and a morally positive action?
Answer: Before I address that, just as an aside, I prefer the word constructive rather than virtuous.
"Virtuous" and "nonvirtuous" imply a moral judgment, which is not what
is meant in Buddhism. There is no moral judgment. Nor is there reward or
punishment. Rather, certain actions are constructive and others are destructive.
If someone shoots people, that is destructive. If someone beats the
other members of the family, that is destructive. Everybody agrees on
this. There is no moral judgment involved. If we are kind and helpful to
others, that is very constructive or positive.
When we help others, we can do it out of attachment or detachment.
Helping someone out of attachment would be, for example, "I will help
you because I want you to love me. I want to feel needed." We would say that this action of helping is still positive, but the motivation is not the best.
In the discussion of karma,
we differentiate between the motivation and the action. We can do a
positive action with a very poor motivation. The positive action will
result in some happiness,
while the poor motivation will result in some suffering. The opposite
could also be true: the action is negative - for example, we hit our
child - but the motivation was positive: it was in order to save his or
her life. For example, if our little boy is about to run out onto the
road and we just say sweetly, "Oh dear, don't run into the road." that
will not stop him. If we grab our son and give him a whack on the
bottom, he could resent it and cry, so there is a little negative result
of that action. Nevertheless, the motivation was positive and the
positive result is much larger than the negative one, because the boy
was saved. Also, our son appreciates the fact that we care for him.
The same may be true of a constructive action: it may be motivated by
detachment, which is always better, but it may also be done with
Question: Does compassion imply that we must always be passive and complying, or are forceful methods sometimes permitted?
Answer: Compassion must not be "idiot compassion" with which
we give everybody anything he or she wants. If a drunkard wants whiskey
or if a murderer wants a gun, it certainly is not compassion to fulfill
his or her wishes. Our compassion and generosity must be coupled with discrimination and wisdom.
Sometimes, it is necessary to act in a forceful way - to discipline a
child or to prevent a horrible situation from occurring. Whenever
possible, it is better to act in a nonviolent manner to prevent or
correct a dangerous situation. However, if that does not work and we see
that the only way to end the danger right away is to act forcefully,
then it would be considered as unwillingness to help if we did not use
this method. Nevertheless, we need to act in a way that does not cause
great harm to others.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked a similar question in an
interview and he gave an example: a man goes to a river that is
extremely difficult and dangerous to cross and is going to swim across
it. Two people are watching nearby and they both know that if this
person goes in the river, he will drown in the current. One looks on
placidly and does nothing - he thinks he must be nonviolent and that
this means he must not interfere. The second person shouts out to the
swimmer and tells him not to go into the water. The current is
dangerous. The swimmer says, "I don't care. I'm going in anyway." They
argue and finally, in order to stop the swimmer from killing himself,
the person on shore hits him and knocks him unconscious. In that
situation, the person who just sits by and is willing to watch the man
go in the water and drown is the one who commits an act of violence. The
nonviolent person is the one who actually stops the man from killing
himself, even if he had to resort to a forceful method.