Love is Not Attachment

The Difference Between Attachment and Love

– Buddhist nun Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo explains a difficult distinction.

What does Buddhism mean by non-attachment? Many people think the idea of detachment, non-attachment, or non-clinging is very cold. This is because they confuse attachment with love. But attachment isn’t genuine love.

We’d all like to be happy. And we expend a great deal of effort trying to make ourselves happy. Through the centuries people have pondered this dilemma of how to be happy and stay happy. So how is it that most people are so unhappy? Not only are they miserable, but they make the people around them miserable, too. Many people have a great deal of pain in their lives, which they try to alleviate in whatever way they can. Others, however, on the surface at least, feel quite content with their lot. The issue of contentment is a very important one.

After his enlightenment, the Buddha started teaching from exactly where we are. He said, “Life the way we lead it is not satisfying. There is an inner lack, an inner emptiness, an inner sense of meaninglessness which we can’t fill with things or people. What is the cause of this inherent unrest, this inherent sense of dissatisfaction which eats at us?”

The Buddha taught that the essential reason for this dis-ease within us is our grasping, desiring mind, which is based on our essential ignorance. Ignorance of what? Basically, the ignorance of understanding the way things really are. That can be explored on many levels, but we’ll deal with it first of all from the point of view that not only do we not recognize impermanence, we also don’t recognize our genuine nature. Therefore, we’re always grasping outwards. We don’t realize our inner interconnection, and we identify always with this sense of self and other.

Now, as soon as we have the idea of self and other, we therefore have the idea of wanting to acquire that which is attractive and to push away that which we want to avoid. Then this sense of inner emptiness has to be filled up, and we give in to grasping, clinging, and attachment. And of course we think in our delusion that our grasping, clinging mind, our attachment to things and to people, is what will bring us happiness. We do it all the time. We’re attached to our possessions; we’re attached to the people we love; we’re attached to our position in the world, and to our career and to what we have attained. We think that holding on to these things and to these people tightly will give us security, and that security will give us happiness. That is our fundamental delusion, because it’s the very clinging which makes us insecure, and that insecurity which gives us this sense of dis-ease, this unease.

Nobody binds us with chains to this wheel. We clasp it; we grip it with all our might. The way to get off the wheel is to let go. Do you understand? That grasping, clinging mind is the cause of our suffering, but we’re very deluded because we think that our greed and our lusts and our desires point toward the sources of happiness. However much we deny it, we really believe that somehow or other, if all our wants are fulfilled, we will be happy. But the fact is that our wants can never all be fulfilled. Wants are endless. The Buddha said that it was like drinking salty water—we just get more and more thirsty.

What does Buddhism mean by non-attachment? Many people think the idea of detachment, non-attachment, or non-clinging is very cold. This is because they confuse attachment with love. But attachment isn’t genuine love.

“Any kind of relationship which imagines that we can fulfill ourselves through another is bound to be very tricky. Ideally people would come together already feeling fulfilled within themselves and just therefore appreciating that in the other, rather than expecting the other to supply that sense of well-being.”


In my native land waves of attachment to friends and kin surge,

Hatred for enemies rages like fire,

The darkness of stupidity, 

not caring what to adopt or avoid, thickens—

To abandon my native land is the practice of a bodhisattva.

This second verse [in The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, written in the fourteenth century C.E. by a monk named Gyalse Thogme Sangpo,] does not just refer to our outer native land. It doesn’t just mean that we all have to go across the world in order to practice, because we take our mind with us and it is our mind that has all this attachment and hatred and the darkness of our unknowing.

On the one hand, people get locked into habitual relationships. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche put it this way:

The meaning of leaving behind your native land is to leave behind the emotions of attachment, hatred, and the obscuring ignorance that permeates both. These three poisons, generally speaking, are most active in the relationships you establish with family and friends in your own homeland.

How often people react to each other out of old habits, without even really thinking about it anymore. So many negativities come up because of the way people habitually act and talk to others with whom they are familiar. Maybe the patterns started in childhood, and they continue on and on.

On the other hand, it is good to be able to get away and maybe get some new perspective through being in a different environment where we can try to incorporate better ways of dealing with people. But the problem really is that “native land” means our ordinary habitual responses; these are what we have to leave behind. And the way to leave them behind is first to be conscious of them.

The waves of attachment surge within and around us. We are lost floundering in this huge ocean caring about people and worrying about them and fearing they are going to leave us and then becoming happy again when they tell us that they love us. Parents with their children, couples in relationships, all of this; there’s so much going on that it is rare to be able to relax in calm quiet waters. Mostly the waves of our hopes and fears send us surging up and down. It is all our attachment. 

Attachment doesn’t mean love; there’s a huge difference between love and attachment. The Buddha said the cause of our suffering, of our dukkha (Skt. duhkha), is attachment, clinging, and grasping.

But love and compassion, which are essential qualities on the path, are quite different. They are actually the opposite of attachment and grasping. This is one of the most difficult distinctions for us as ordinary sentient beings to really understand because in our society we believe that the more we are attached, the more loving we are. But it is simply not true. Attachment is tricky, but basically it means “I want you to make me happy and to make me feel good. Conversely, love says, “I want you to be happy and to make you feel good.” It doesn’t say anything about me. If being with me makes you feel happy and good, wonderful; if not, then so be it. The important thing is that love allows us to hold things gently instead of grasping tightly. It is an important difference.

Everything is flowing. And this flow isn’t made up only of external things. It includes relationships, too. Some relationships last for a long time, and some don’t—that’s the way of things. Some people stay here for some time; some people leave very quickly. It’s the way of things.

Every year millions and millions of people are born and die. In the West, our lack of acceptance is quite amazing. We deny that anyone we love could ever be lost to us. So often we are unable to say to someone who is dying, “We’re so happy to have had you with us. But now, please have a very happy and safe journey onwards.” It’s this denial which brings us grief.

Impermanence is not just of philosophical interest. It’s very personal. Until we accept and deeply understand in our very being that things change from moment to moment, and never stop even for one instant, only then can we let go. And when we really let go inside, the relief is enormous. Ironically this gives release to a whole new dimension of love. People think that if someone is unattached, they are cold. But this isn’t true. Anyone who has met very great spiritual masters who are really unattached is immediately struck by their warmth to all beings, not just to the ones they happen to like or are related to. Non-attachment releases something very profound inside us, because it releases that level of fear. We all have so much fear: fear of losing, fear of change, an inability to just accept. 

It’s like a dance. And we have to give each being space to dance their dance. Everything is dancing; even the molecules inside the cells are dancing. But we make our lives so heavy. We have these incredibly heavy burdens we carry with us like rocks in a big rucksack. We think that carrying this big heavy rucksack is our security; we think it grounds us. We don’t realize the freedom, the lightness of just dropping it off, letting it go. That doesn’t mean giving up relationships; it doesn’t mean giving up one’s profession, or one’s family,or one’s home. It has nothing to do with that; it’s not an external change. It’s an internal change. It’s a change from holding on tightly to holding very lightly.

 Q&A With Tenzin Palmo

Q: Your teachings are so clear and understandable to me. Thank you so very much for them! I suffer the most from my anticipation of loss…particularly the loss of my partner/spouse who is 14 yrs. older than I am. I know cognitively that what I am doing is causing me great suffering. I know I “ought” to let go of the anticipatory fear of losing her, but it’s the continuous turning of the wheel of suffering anyhow. Is there a secret practice in the “how to” of letting go? I guess I would like to know how you worked with attachment/aversion on your own path. 

A: Actually I don’t think there is a ‘secret’ to letting go of our attachment, (apart from a deep realization of non-self or emptiness). The problem is we do not face and accept impermanence. We are hoping that who and what we love will always remain the same. But that is impossible. All meetings end in parting. That is just the way things are—at all times and everywhere. So in the meantime it makes sense to enjoy the present time. How sad to waste one’s life in fears for the future! Please concentrate on having a loving and happy relationship here and now and allow whatever comes to unfold in its own time. Perhaps you should cultivate mindfulness of the present moment and watch your feelings of anxiety just arise and fall without identifying with them.

Q: On an intellectual level I understand that grasping and clinging and trying to make things the way we want is not possible but it is incredibly difficult when someone you love is suffering and you want their suffering to end. I find that my days are good days when my son is not suffering but when he is then it feels like everything falls apart as I want to make things better for him and all my energy goes into trying to sort out his problems. On one level I know I cannot sort his life out for him but on another I cant help but try. How do I let go of this anxiety and suffering. How do I simply let go?

A: We have to accept that however much we care for our loved ones, in the end they are the heirs of their own karma. We do what we can for them with loving kindness and compassion, but indeed wisdom says that we cannot lead another’s life for them. In this case you have to allow your son to make his own mistakes and experience his own suffering because that is his journey. You cannot always be hoping to solve all his problems—he has to be allowed to fall and then learn how to pick himself up again whether in this lifetime or later. However let him know that whatever he does you will always love him. There is nothing he could ever do that could cause you to stop loving him. He can trust that you will always be there for him.

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