Why can't Buddhists vacuum the stairs?
Because they have no attachments!I recieved an email from a friend a few days ago asking about what he saw as a contradiction in Buddhist teachings. He's heard a lot about getting rid of your attachments, by which Buddhists usually mean psychological attachments to objects, particularly objects that give us sensual pleasure (a glass of red wine or a bar of chocolate) and objects which support our ideas about who we are. His question was "If we're supposed to get rid of all our attachments, how does that fit with having a commitment to a Sangha? Isn't that an attachment?
Both are true. In one sense it's great to loosen our attachment to the things around us. On the other hand commitment is essential to any spiritual practice, and any life well lived.
In Buddhism what we're supposed to be getting rid of attachments to are things that are lakshana. Lakshana is a Sanskrit word that means 'signpost'. In this context 'signpost to self'. Why? Because these are the things which cause us the most trouble in our lives.
The ideal Buddhist life is one in which we are able to let go into the stream of life. Lakshana are like rocks in the stream, that we cling to, imagining that clinging to the rock is a safer place to be than swimming freely in the flow of life.
I don't imagine that anyone's stream is free of rocks, but when we bump into them, we can choose to cling, scared, to them, or we can let go of them. Sometimes to let go we really need to encounter the rock first. To interrogate its crevasses, its hard edges, learn all we can, and move on. For example, someone criticises something I take great pride in, a piece of theatre I've created. That hits at something close to the core of my identity, and I feel the sting of it. Am I able to meet that person, and their criticism, completely honestly (and let myself be upset by it) or do I brood on their words for days and days? If I can let go then I can move back into the stream ready to meet the next thing and the next thing. A life well lived is one in which we are open to experience the world in all its glory.
The Buddhist ideal of living in the flow of life this way is to meet each rock with love, if one can. To meet everything in the world with compassion. And the more one lets go into the flow of life, the more naturally this love appears in ones life.
But we all get stuck to rocks, we all have lakshanas which are sticky. Things, objects, ideas, even people that we attach to in order to create a rigid identity in the world (This rigid identity, the one that clings to the rocks, is created as a defence against the chaos of the world). Given that we all have attachments, and how difficult it is to let go of them completely, it's better to transform those attachments in to things which will help us become better people, become more loving and open to the world.
So we change our attachments (to use an example from my own life), from a pint of beer at the end of a long day, to Buddhist practice. This is skilful means. Ordinary humans like me are attached to things. If we can't get rid of them (and I can't) let's choose worthwhile things to be attached to. If what you put at the centre of your life is selfish, your life will naturally be more selfish. If what you put at the centre of your life is loving and accepting, wise and compassionate those qualities will naturally become more manifest in your own life.
There is also an intrinsic value to any commitment. I'll explore that more next time.