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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > Basic Questions on Detachment, Nonviolence, and Compassion

Basic Questions on Detachment, Nonviolence, and Compassion

Singapore, August 10, 1988

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 attachment.

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.