Monday, January 16, 2012

Attachment, Non-attachment, Nonabiding

Elihu Genmyo Smith

“Caught in self-centered dream, only suffering; holding to self-centered thoughts exactly the dream.” These practice principles enable us to live the life we are, to chew-up the life we are. In the midst of arising-passing circumstances and conditions, not holding to attachment is fundamental life practice, Zen practice. To be at peace and free is not being caught by the varying conditions and circumstances of life. The Sixth Ancestor spoke of straightforward mind without attachment (upadana) , of nonabiding (wuzhu) as original nature. Baizhang spoke of three levels of practice accomplishment: non-attachment, not abiding in non-attachment, and no trace or self-awareness of “being free” of attachment.

Attachment is a most natural human functioning. There are all sorts of attachments: to beliefs, to identity of various sorts, to groups. Most of all, there is attachment to body-mind condition and to people. Of course, these are all intertwined. Here I will focus on attachment to others, which is built into our DNA, our biological and social nature. Look at animals of all sorts, especially at social animals such as elephants, domesticated animals such as dogs and our biologically close cousins, the primates. We see attachment, we see grieving. Look at humans in many varied societies. Hakuin writes, "Your debt to your parents is deeper than the sea. If you forget it you are lower than a dog or a cat… Parents are a field of fortune in an unsure world." Dogen writes "When you handle water, rice or anything else, you must have the affectionate and caring concern of a parent raising a child."

Once Joko said to me, “When biological ties are touched, especially mother-child, it is hard not to get caught.” I know this was true in her life and something she worked with regarding her own adult children. Working with this has been and continues to be an important practice realm for me. “Ties are touched” in all sorts of relations, biological, familial and others - whether it is concern and fear when someone is sick, grieving with a death, celebration with accomplishments, upset with behavior that is not what we want and so forth. Do we believe we can control the behavior of others? In the midst of ongoing change, the impermanence that is this life, there are always opportunities to see where we hold to attachments about what is happening to us or those to whom we are “attached.” What is non-attachment? Not being attached is not the same as non-attachment.

“Non-abiding” clarifies this, “caught” clarifies this. It is not the arising of the human attachment that is the fundamental issue but rather what we do when attachment arises. It is the rare individual for whom there is no object, no person, no thing in the world with which they identify, by which they are caught. Most of us, much of the time, do identify, do get caught. How do we react or respond when attachment arises? Often, it is only in the midst of anxiety, fear, sadness or anger - if we are lucky - that we notice that we are caught up, that we notice how we are and what we are doing, the reactive habits in the midst of the attachment. Do we notice the stress and suffering appearing and being created - whether “our own” or that of “others?” When things occur for us or for others, especially those we are “attached to,” events that are other than what we “want,” there may be an almost immediate reaction of stress, suffering, fear. Sometimes we can viscerally feel the tugging of attachment to parents, children, partners and others close to us. Other times, the strength of the reactiveness, the fear, stress, anxiety or anger, is what is most evident, if not overwhelming. And the reactions seem natural, a continuation of the seemingly natural connection and attachment. Merely “knowing” about the consequences of being caught in attachment is often of little use since the strength of the habitual reaction is visceral and immediate.

When my adult children lived abroad and I heard of their injury from accidents or illness, visceral reactions were almost immediate, palpable, despite the distance and the fact that there was little I could do from the distance. Visceral reactions can lead us to think that anxiety and stress are natural and appropriate. Our ongoing practice is to see and do what is called for specifically out of the moment that we are, out of this moment body-mind-world. What is skillful and appropriate? When my mother faced major illness at a great distance from me, ongoing practice was being listening and responding to her call, speaking to others near her who could do what might be needed; this was most of what I “could do” – in addition to travelling to visit and including her well being as part of my practice.

All sorts of doing across space is possible - by virtual connections, phone and so forth, and yet there is also lots we cannot do at any distance, no matter how close or far; lots we cannot change in the midst of the impermanence of life (whether in terms of “our life” or “others”). Life practice is in the midst of this changing condition, our opportunity of functioning is right here in this ongoing change – doing straightforward mind without attachment. It is always just this moment being, this moment effort that is needed. And of course, this moment effort manifests in cause and effect consequences. This is where our practice intentions and ongoing effort are to be exerted.

Joko encouraged developing the observer capacity so that one could be present – especially when in the midst of visceral reactions to circumstances. All sorts of practice supports, we can even call them practice “tricks,” can be used to enable us to do this. Of course, the most fundamental is ongoing sitting practice, ongoing formal practice. Bodily experiencing and noticing reactions is always the guideline, though it is our specific way of doing this, of supporting this right now, being right in the midst of the visceral reaction to “him” saying such and such or to “her” doing such and such, to “my” feeling such and such, that is most important – and that paradoxically enables and supports being present. If we miss this, and miss seeing the attachment and clinging, then we will go round and round in judgment of and upset about self and others. Being this moment is being present as we are doing, feeling, or believing, right now. This is embracing life - and seeing and working with what may be hindering and obscuring life.

There are many specific ways that we can work. It is the specifics that we can clarify with a guide or teacher. The way we work, this effort, is to enable us to be present right now, to be beyond the reactive habit. And when we do not know this, if we miss this, misunderstand it, then it is possible to get caught up in particular methods of working with clinging and emotional reactions.

The fundamental form of practice is zazen; the activities of a Zen Center are to support practicing together with others. Though Joko used all sorts of practice devices to shake up attachments, she also said to me, “Don’t be attached to any form,” in regard to the Bodhisattva precept “not begrudging the Dharma Treasure” (Being Generous/Not Being Greedy).

Of course, working with a teacher, a guide, is only a small piece of our life. The rest of the “time’ it is up to us to enlist and use the support of life to be practice, to be present, to be our “guide,” our “teacher.” And all of us “students” tend to hide some aspects of our life from our self and from others, including our “teacher(s).” Family relations, jobs, emotions and upsets are not separate from “Zen practice” - intelligent practice and our Bodhisattva life do not allow us to avoid these.

It is up to each of us to use our life practice supports to fully live this life that we are, this nonabiding in the midst of attachments naturally arising - arising of being born, having relations and connections; to not being caught by these relations, not being caught by birth, changing circumstances of impermanence, ageing, sickness, death. Please see what helps you to notice when you are “caught” and what is skillful practice for you right here. Always, in the midst of ongoing zazen, ongoing practice, please live your life well and appreciate this wonderful moment now. Be at peace.

(c) 2012 Elihu Genmyo Smith