by Nina van Gorkom | 1999 | 122,172 words

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Chapter 28 - Non-attachment


Non-attachment, alobha, is one of the three sobhana hetus, beautiful roots. A root (hetu or mula) gives a firm support to the citta and cetasikas it arises together with. All sobhana cittas are rooted in non-attachment, alobha, and non-aversion, adosa, and they may or may not be rooted in wisdom, panna. Thus, non-attachment has to accompany each sobhana citta.

We have many more moments with attachment than with non-attachment and we are so used to live with attachment that we hardly realize that it is akusala. A person who is leading the life of a layman takes it for granted to be attached to people and possessions. We may think that such kinds of attachment are not dangerous, provided we do not harm others, but all kinds of akusala lead to sorrow. There is attachment time and again and thus we accumulate it evermore. When we stand up, move around, reach for things, eat or go to sleep, we want most of the time something for ourselves and then there are cittas rooted in attachment.

We are almost all the time thinking of ourselves, we try to acquire pleasant things for ourselves and we expect other people to be agreeable to us. Even when we think that we apply ourselves to kusala, for example, when we listen to the Dhamma or speak about the kusala citta, there are likely to be many moments of attachment arising after the kusala cittas. We may be attached to "our kusala'', we tend to like the idea of ourselves being good and wise, we find ourselves important.

If We come to know more precisely the citta arising at the Present moment we will be able to notice that the moments of clinging are entirely different from the moments of unselfishness or detachment. There is non-attachment with each kusala citta, but it does not last. There are many more akusala cittas in our life than kusala cittas.

Non-attachment, alobha, has many shades and degrees. It can be described as unselfishness, liberality or generosity. There is alobha when there are thoughts of sacrifice and sharing, when there is renunciation and dispassion.[1]

The Atthasalini (I, Book I, Part IV, Chapter I, 127) gives the following definition of alobha:

... absence of greed (alobha) has the characteristic of the mind being free from cupidity for an object of thought, or of its being detached, like a drop of water on a lotus leaf. It has the function of not appropriating, like an emancipated monk, and the manifestation of detachment, like a man fallen into a foul place...

The Visuddhimagga (XIV, 143) gives a similar definition.[2]

When there is a moment of non-attachment there cannot be attachment at the same time. Non-attachment has the characteristic of non-adherence like a water drop on a lotus leaf. The lotus grows in the water but it is not wetted by the water, that is its nature. A drop of water glides off a lotus leaf without affecting it, So it is with non-attachment, alobha. It is not attached to the object which is experienced, it is unaffected by it. That is the nature of non-attachment. Sometimes there are conditions for non-attachment, but shortly afterwards we are affected again by objects, Through right understanding one will become less affected, We read in the Sutta Nipata (Khuddaka Nikaya, The Group of Discourses, vs. 811-813,):[3]

... Not being dependent upon anything, a sage holds nothing as being pleasant or unpleasant. Lamentation and avarice do not cling to him, as water does not cling to a (lotus-) leaf.

Just as a drop of water does not cling to a (lotus-) leaf as water does not cling to a lotus, so a sage does not cling to what is seen or heard or thought.

Therefore a purified one does not think that purity is by means of what is seen, heard, or thought, nor does he wish for purity by anything else.[4] He is neither impassioned nor dispassioned.

The function of non-attachment is, as we have seen, "not appropriating, like an emancipated monk". A monk who has attained arahatship does not hold on to any object which presents itself; he is not enslaved but completely detached and thus free, emancipated.

The Atthasalini states that non-attachment has the manifestation of detachment like someone who has fallen into a foul place. Someone who falls into a cesspool does not consider that a place of shelter where he could stay. He sees it as a danger, as something to be abhorred, and therefore he would get out of it as soon as possible. It is the same with non-attachment, it does not take refuge in what is actually a danger. Attachment to the objects which are experienced is dangerous, because attachment leads to all kinds of evil deeds which can produce an unhappy rebirth, Any form of attachment, even if it is more subtle, is dangerous, because so long as attachment has not been eradicated we are subject to rebirth and thus also to old age, sickness and death.

It is difficult to know the characteristic of non-attachment, since the moments of non-attachment are rare. We are often too lazy to do something for someone else; we are attached to our own comfort or to quiet. Or we may find some excuses: the weather is too cold or too hot to exert ourselves for someone else. However, when there are conditions for non-attachtment, we do not care about tiredness or discomfort, we do not think of ourselves but we see the usefulness of helping someone else, We can learn from experience that non-attachment is beneficial both for ourselves and for others.

At the moment of non-attachment we renounce our own pleasure and then there is peace of mind. It may seem that at a particular moment a choice between kusala and akusala can be made, but there is no self who makes a choice; each moment of citta is conditioned by many factors, It is not self but the cetasika alobha which performs the function of detachment. We cannot force ourselves to renounce sense-pleasures, but we can learn the difference between the characteristic of kusala and of akusala when they appear, Thus we will gradually see that kusala is beneficial and that akusala is not beneficial but harmful.

Whenever kusala citta arises there is non-attachment accompanying the kusala citta. Non-attachment can arise in the sense-door processes of citta as well as in the mind-door process. In each of these processes there are javana-cittas (translated as "impulsion"), which are, in the case of non-arahats, kusala cittas or akusala cittas. When kusala citta arises there is "wise attention" to the object which is experienced, there are no attachment, aversion and ignorance. Non-attachment which accompanies the kusala .citta may, for example, arise in the eye-door process of cittas which experience visible object. We usually ding to visible object but when there are conditions for kusala citta there is non-attachment to the object.

When we perform a good deed, there is non-attachment already, we do not have to try to be detached or to renounce something. When we perform dana we give up out selfish inclination and we think of the benefit of someone else, at least for that moment. When we refrain from harsh speech we give up something, we renounce evil speech by which we harm both ourselves and others. When there is loving kindness, which is the cetasika non-aversion, adosa, there must be non-attachment as well which renounces selfishness. When there is selfish affection for other people there cannot be loving kindness at the same time. When we are attached to someone, our attachment does not do him any good, we only cling to our own pleasant feeling we derive from his or her company.

It is essential to know our own different feelings. We should find out when pleasant feeling goes together with selfishness and when it is the joy which may accompany kusala citta. We are so attached to just having pleasant feeling that we do not notice when it is akusala and thus useless. At the moment loving kindness or compassion arises there is genuine concern for someone else and we forget for a few moments the "I" we often consider the centre of the world.

There are many degrees of non-attachment. Right understanding is the condition for higher degrees of non-attachment. If there is right understanding which knows when there is akusala citta and when kusala citta, there can be the development of calm. Calm can be developed with meditation subjects such as loving kindness, the contemplation of the Buddha's virtues, the foulness of the body or other subjects. The citta with calm is accompanied by non-attachment. When calm has been developed to the degree of jhana, defilements are temporarily subdued but they are not eradicated. Attachment to one's attainment of jhana may arise. Only the development of insight can eventually lead to complete detachment from all objects.

The direct understanding of nama and rupa will lead to detachment from them. So long as there is still the wrong view of self, attachment cannot be eradicated. We are attached to persons, to "self', and we may not be ready to accept the truth that in the ultimate sense no 'people" exist. If right understanding of realities is developed we will know that what we take for people are only citta, cetasika and rupa which do not last.

In the beginning it is difficult to persevere being mindful of seeing, visible object and the other realities, because we do not notice an immediate result and we sometimes doubt whether it is really useful. Is helping someone else not more useful than being aware of visible object which appears now? All degrees of kusala are useful and we should not neglect any one of them.

If we help someone else or listen to him with loving kindness and compassion there are moments of giving up out selfishness. But shortly after the kusala cittas have fallen away there tend to be akusala cittas with clinging to "our kusala" or with attachment to people. Also while we help others there can be mindfulness of realities such as seeing or visible object. In this way we will become truly convince that what is seen is not a person, only a reality which can be experienced through the eyes.

There is already a degree of detachment, although it is still weak, when there is mindfulness of visible object and understanding of it as "only a reality", not a person. In the beginning understanding is weak, but we should have confidence that it can be developed through mindfulness of whatever reality appears through one of the six doors. Thus clinging to "self" or to beings can decrease.

The sotapanna has eradicated all clinging to the concept of self, but he still clings to sensuous objects. The sakadagami has less clinging to sensuous objects but he still has not eradicated it. The anagami has eradicated clinging to sensuous objects but he still clings to rebirth and he still has cittas rooted in attachment which are accompanied by conceit. The arahat has eradicated all forms of clinging and this shows how hard it is to eradicate it. We may think that we cannot be happy without attachment, but complete detachment means the highest happiness, it is freedom from all sorrow.

We may have read in the scriptures that clinging is the root of sorrow, but we tend to forget this. We read, for example, in the Middle Length Sayings (II, no. 87, Discourse on "Born of Affection") that the Buddha explained to a householder who had lost his only son, that "grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair are born of affection, originate in affection". However, the householder did not accept this truth. We read that King Pasenadi spoke about this subject with Queen Mallika. When the Queen said that she agreed with the Buddha's words, the King was displeased. Further on we read that the Queen tried to explain the truth of the Buddha's words to the King with examples from his daily life. She said :

... "What do you think about this, sire? Is your daughter Vajiri dear to you?" "Yes, Mallika. My daughter Vajiri is dear to me."

"What do you think about this, sire? From an alteration and otherness in your daughter Vajiri would there arise in you grief sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair?'

"From an alteration and otherness, Mallika, in my daughter Vajiri there would be a change for me, even for life. How should there not arise in me grief sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair?"

"It was in reference to this, sire, that it was said by the Lord, who knows, who sees, perfected one, fully Self - Awakened One: 'Grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair are born of affection, originate in affection.'..."

The Queen then asked the same question with regard to the noble lady Vasabha, the King's consort, General Vidudabha, the son of the King and Vasabha, and the peoples of Kasi and Kosala. The King then understood the truth of the Buddha's words and he thereupon paid respect to the Buddha and uttered words of praise.

We often forget the truth that suffering is rooted in desire. There is most of the time clinging after seeing, hearing or the other experiences through the senses, We have to read and reread the scriptures many times and consider the Buddha's words. His teaching is like food for our mind. If we realize that clinging is the root of all sorrow and suffering we will develop right understanding at this moment so that, eventually, there will be detachment from all objects.


  1. Are all kinds of kusala helpful in order to be less selfish?
  2. Why can calm when it is developed in samatha not eradicate clinging?
  3. Why is the development of insight the only way to become detached from all objects?
  4. Why has only the arahat eradicated clinging completely?
June 30, 2001

Footnotes and references:


See The Roots of Good and EviI, p. 19, by Ven. Nyanaponika. The Wheel no. 251-253, B.P.S. Kandy.


See also Dhammasangani, 32.


I am using the P.T.S. translation by K.R. Norman.


By any other way than the Noble Eightfold Path, according to the commentary. See the Discourse Collection, Wheel Publication no. 82, B.P.S. kandy.

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