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I've found that it is pleasant and exciting to work towards a goal, for example: wanting to run a 21km race, imagining the crowds, imagining the personal accomplishment. This requires a certain amount of dissatisfaction with your current situation (I can only run 5km, I need to train more).

However, what I understand from Buddhism is that this attachment to an end result in the future causes suffering. Does one live with some attachment and accept it, or is it something to be avoided entirely?

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12 Answers 12

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I guess this is four questions:

  1. Is it 'wrong' to really want something?
  2. Is it 'wrong' to really work towards something?
  3. Is it 'wrong' to imagine a desired outcome?
  4. Is it 'wrong' to be attached to the goal?

Is it 'wrong' to really want something?

There's a tanha (desire) mentioned in the Second Noble Truth. This is also translated as "thirst"; I imagine it as some blind urge or drive or dissatisfaction. This article, Three Kinds of Desire, describes three kinds of tanha. The example you gave, of running, of being able to run 21 km instead of 5 km, might be an example of bhava tanha, the desire to become, specifically the desire to become a runner -- and maybe kamma tanha, a craving for a pleasant feeling.

Not all desire is 'bad' though: for example Right Intention might be a form of desire (or at least of deciding to do something because of reasons). Part of what makes it 'Right' though is that it's informed by Right View -- which you might think of as being similar to a 'knowledge of Good and Evil' except that Buddhist often instead categorize things into 'skillful' (which might mean enlightened, enlightening, or helpful towards enlightenment) and 'unskillful' (which might mean the reverse i.e. the increase of suffering etc.).

Even so, relatively speaking 'running' doesn't seem to be desiring something that's especially wicked. There are for example five precepts for laypeople (which are to avoid killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants), and running doesn't break any of these, so what's the problem? The worst you could say of it is that it may not be satisfying, and could be an occasion for defilements such as pride or envy ... but if you benefit from it somehow and don't hurt others then perhaps people ought to feel mudita i.e. be pleased for your success.


Is it 'wrong' to really work towards something?

Really working towards something isn't obviously and necessarily wrong.

One of the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right Effort.

I suppose that, again, one of the ways to judge whether it's right or 'wrong' is to assess, not whether you're striving, but what you're striving for.

You might be interested in reading a description of the technique of Right Effort: it appears to be, not concentrating on or being attached to the goal, but making sue that the present conditions are right -- for example that you have positive factors such as 'energy' and 'concentration' and don't have corresponding negative factors.

Perhaps it's like driving a car i.e. if you want to get somewhere, you don't do that by concentrating on the destination.


Is it 'wrong' to imagine a desired outcome?

I don't know how to answer this from a Buddhist POV. I've read that it's one of the technique used in sports psychology (another technique is described in this The Pursuit of Happiness article).

It is a standard part of e.g. planning to build a house: i.e. to pre-plan the desired result.

Buddhism warns though that house-building is a metaphor for 'mental fabrication' in general, and I think that one of the goals of Buddhism is to cease (or at least develop insight into) 'fabrications'.


Is it 'wrong' to be attached to the goal?

Maybe there's a difference between aiming and attaching; e.g. it would be normal to aim an arrow, but a cause of suffering if you're so attached to the result that you're hurt if you're half an inch off-centre.

Furthermore some Buddhist meditation is about experiencing reality (e.g. sensations) as they actually (are) are, without confusing them with past and future hopes and fears.

Maybe this Zen story, Publishing the Sutras, illustrates combining striving with non-attachment.

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Thank you for the detailed answer, much appreciated! :) – willem Mar 8 at 7:45

In one perspective, buddhism shows something you likely already know: if your goal is not accomplished, and if you created expectations (to win, to see a crowd, to have personal accomplishment, etc), you have invited suffering. And because you don't have full control of the outcome, it's always possible the goal may not be reached.

It also shows that, depending on nuances of the "dissatisfaction with current situation", that dissatisfaction might denote a suffering in and on itself.

But it's quite possible for one to formulate goals without clinging to their outcome -- so that reaching or not the goal is not a source of suffering. And it's possible that the dissatisfaction is not an impediment in one's life, but something useful (e.g. a source of motivation for reaching a goal).

However, what I understand from Buddhism is that this attachment to an end result in the future causes suffering.

Generally (and ultimately) speaking, any attachment is a source of suffering because it presupposes the object of attachment can be obtained, and if it is obtained, that it is stable and persists through time. Because we can't guarantee we can have what we want, nor we can guarantee what we "have" won't change or be separated from us, craving and attachment are ultimately bogus from the point of view of happiness.

Does one live with some attachment and accept it, or is it something to be avoided entirely?

Attachment of any kind, from the buddhist point of view, is something to be done away with. But not everyone (buddhist or not) feels the urgency or will to go through the process of doing that. So it's up to you. Generally, the choice to remove an attachment comes from seeing the "bug" in it and develop enough dissatisfaction to do something about it.

So, just like the amount of race training you do is up to you -- ranging from training a few hours per week to full dedication under an olympic training --, the amount of buddhist training is also up to you -- ranging from a a few hours per week to full dedication as a monk.

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4  
Is attainment of nonattachment something one can become attached to? – Steven Gubkin Mar 4 at 17:17
1  
@StevenGubkin There might be a few different ways to answer that. Maybe creating a new Question on the site? – Thiago Silva Mar 5 at 5:44

i think in the worldly life the quality of the set goals is what counts, meaning that the results from achievement of that goal and accomplishments must be wholesome and beneficial objectively and not only gratifying one's ego

if the goal is striven for, for the sake of self-satisfaction only, as normally is the case with sensual pleasures, it's not noble

please consider

These are the four other things that lead to obtaining the four things that are wished for, desired, agreeable, and rarely gained in the world.

“With wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of his arms, earned by the sweat of his brow, righteous wealth righteously gained, the noble disciple undertakes four worthy deeds. What four?

(1) “Here, householder, with wealth acquired by energetic striving … righteously gained, the noble disciple makes himself happy and pleased and properly maintains himself in happiness; he makes his parents happy and pleased and properly maintains them in happiness; he makes his wife and children, his slaves, workers, and servants happy and pleased and properly maintains them in happiness; he makes his friends and companions happy and pleased and properly maintains them in happiness. This is the first case of wealth that has gone to good use, that has been properly utilized and used for a worthy cause.

(2) “Again, with wealth acquired by energetic striving … righteously gained, the noble disciple makes provisions against the losses that might arise from fire, floods, kings, thieves, or displeasing heirs; he makes himself secure against them. This is the second case of wealth that has gone to good use … for a worthy cause.

(3) “Again, with wealth acquired by energetic striving … righteously gained, the noble disciple makes the five oblations: to relatives, guests, ancestors, the king, and the deities. This is the third case of wealth that has gone to good use … for a worthy cause.

(4) “Again, with wealth acquired by energetic striving … righteously gained, the noble disciple establishes an uplifting offering of alms—an offering that is heavenly, resulting in happiness, conducive to heaven—to those ascetics and brahmins who refrain from intoxication and heedlessness, who are settled in patience and mildness, who tame themselves, calm themselves, and train themselves for nibbāna. This is the fourth case of wealth that has gone to good use, that has been properly employed and used for a worthy cause.

“These, householder, are the four worthy deeds that the noble disciple undertakes with wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of his arms, earned by the sweat of his brow, righteous wealth righteously gained. When anyone exhausts wealth on anything apart from these four worthy deeds, that wealth is said to have gone to waste, to have been squandered, to have been used frivolously.

Pattakamma sutta (AN 4.61)

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I've haven't read this before. Very nice, thank you. – willem Mar 4 at 11:10

Setting goals is fine as long as there is no attachment to the outcome. Attachment to outcome is what causes you to suffer.

You perceive the outcome is within your control when it is not entirely in your control.

So train hard and accept the outcome whatever it is gracefully.

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Attachment to anything causes suffering. Not just the end result. But lay people are not expected to give up worldly goals as long as they don't break the 5 precepts, don't get into wrong livelihoods etc. Such conflicts occur when one tries to implement aspects of monk life while still staying in lay life.

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I would think Buddhism is against overly sticky to your goal. Without a goal is also kind of a goal in that sense.

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If you love running run like hell. I believe you do not love it. 21 is a figure someone gave it you. It is goal somebody else is setting for you. Somebody is challenging your ego. If you love something or someone do you set goals. do you tell your wife if you love me you have to do following ten things to show it? Get out of this goal/success business and run. If you are a natural runner there will be a joy abound. This joy can take you to nirvana. Meditation in action is the real thing not sitting in some posture with closed eyes.

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It's not at all opposed to striving. The philosophy arose partially out of the lack of agency the local population of India/Nepal displayed in their spiritual and temporal endeavors. The philosophy posits that individual action through careful thought, emotional control, physical control and positive spiritual connection is the "correct" way of life as opposed to relying on a deity to initiate an action. Read about the life of Tzu Chi founder Cheng Yen to see how she strove for a result.

Even dissatisfaction/attachment arising from failure is not necessarily something to be avoided. Dissatisfaction can be a catalyst for positive action/thoughts, and it's up to you to put Buddhist practices into place to rationally dissect the reasons to achieve a positive outcome.

Additionally, theistic Buddhism would say that God gave you an intellect, a body, emotions and a soul for a reason - you better use them!

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I found it a very nice description of which is the main virtue of someone who wants to proceed. One evening, the eminent monks met at Sariputta's place to listen to the dharma. It must have been a very sweet evening/night this day and Sariputta gave one after the other the question: "Friend, the Gosinga Sālatree Wood is delightful, the night is moonlit, the sāla trees are all in blossom, and heavenly scents seem to be floating in the air. What kind of bhikkhu, friend, could illuminate the Gosinga Sāla-tree Wood ?” Each one answered as well as he could/understood his own practice, and even Maha Mogallana took then the role as asker and asked Sariputta too for his interpretation of the question.

After that they wanted to know: how would the Buddha, their master, judge their different answers. So they went to the Buddha, told him what each one had said. The Buddha answered that each of them (!) has spoken well - and then took himself part of the quiz and gave them his answer to Sariputta's question. This is his answer (as reported in the Palicanon Sutta MN32):

When this was said, the venerable Sāriputta asked the Blessed One: “Venerable sir, which of us has spoken well?”
“You have all spoken well, Sāriputta, each in his own way.
Hear also from me what kind of bhikkhu could illuminate this Gosinga Sāla-tree Wood.
Here, Sāriputta, when a bhikkhu has returned from his almsround, after his meal, he sits down, folds his legs crosswise, sets his body erect, and establishing mindfulness in front of him, resolves:
‘I shall not break this sitting position until through not clinging my mind is liberated from the taints.’
That kind of bhikkhu could illuminate this Gosinga Sālatree Wood.”

I think it shows very nicely the role which the simple virtue of determined-ness for the goal of liberation from the clinging plays.

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I found your question reveals a Western leaning in understanding. If you really want something that is in itself expectation that leads to suffering. What if you fail? What if you win? Do those concepts have the same meaning you think they do? You should work towards a goal and accept what comes of it. Life is an illusion. You are merely passing your time until the void.

Consider the Eightfold Path https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_Eightfold_Path

Not sure what your interpretation of working means although not all action is running.

Right Action is allowed: You can act in an ethical way.

Right Livelihood is allowed: if you are working at a job you "want" that is OK so long as its not weapons etc.

Right Intention is allowed: you can train for a run but it's wise to accept your time as it is.

Right Effort is allowed: but be mindful / abandon all the wrong and harmful thoughts, words, and deeds.

All of these are guided by the rest: right concentration, right speech, right mindfulness and right view are what guides you to live the other four.

In Western mindset, right means "winning", American exceptionalism, better than the rest, second place is first loser, and so on. But take out the superiority concepts from the implication and you are left with reality. On some days, the world's best teams lose to a "worse" team. But this has as much to do with stochastics as personal factors. It's a meaningless determination.

These concepts are the poison that makes people ill; makes them disappointed at what would otherwise be a serious accomplishment.

There is no such sin as pride, you can take a moment to reflect on a goal that is accomplished. SO LONG as you are not celebrating at the expense of the vanquished, etc. That would not be right intention, right speech, right view and so on. Don't "achieve" the Western way and you are fine.

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Nichiren's Buddhism, based on the historical Buddha's final teaching, The Lotus Sutra, is pro desire. This philosophy holds that by striving maximally, one becomes skillful at helping oneself and others, ultimately causing harmony globally.

"At all times I think to myself:
How can I cause living beings
to gain entry into the unsurpassed way
and quickly acquire the body of a Buddha?"

(From the Lotus Sutra)

This practice of Buddhism differs markedly from others in this respect, and other respects.

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That quote is from the end of The Lifespan of the Tathāgata chapter of The Lotus Sutra (e.g. page 247 or 231 of this PDF). – ChrisW Mar 4 at 17:22
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I deleted the link to sgi-usa.org -- when you post a link, please post a link to a specific article or page which helps to answer the question. In general if you post a link then you should also quote from that page in your answer, and the quote (in the answer) should be relevant to the question. For example I found this which seems to be an SGI-authored page about "desire" that could be relevant to the question (but I don't know whether that's what you would want to include in your answer). – ChrisW Mar 4 at 17:32

The Buddha was not opposed to working towards goals, he was opposed to things that lead away from arahantship.

Arahantship or enlightenment comes from the destruction of the Âsavas, usually translated as cankers, pains, taints, or fermentations, not from merely giving up desires or wishes.

In many Suttas The Buddha refers to arahants having "wants" or "wishes", though obviously not the same as ordinary humans having wants.

There is the Akankheyya Sutta (MN 6) where The Buddha encouraged monks to fulfill their desires (through proper means):

'If a Bhikkhu (monk) should desire, Brethren, to become beloved, popular, respected among his fellow-disciples, let him then fulfil all righteousness, let him be devoted to that quietude of heart which springs from within, let him not drive back the ecstasy of contemplation, let him look through things, let him be much alone!'

....continued on with different desires until...

'If a Bhikkhu should desire, Brethren, by the destruction of the great evils (Âsavas), by himself, and even in this very world, to know and realise and attain to Arahatship, to emancipation of heart, and emancipation of mind, let him then fulfil all righteousness, let him be devoted to that quietude of heart which springs from within, let him not drive back the ecstasy of contemplation, let him look through things, let him be much alone!' - Akankheyya Sutta (MN 6)

The point is not to focus on whether or not you should have desires but to focus on what leads towards the final goal.

Also in many Suttas The Buddha refers to monks doing things "if he wants".

There is also the case where The Buddha was questioned on who has more pleasure the King or The Buddha:

"'But, friend Gotama, it's not the case that pleasure is to be attained through pleasure. Pleasure is to be attained through pain. For if pleasure were to be attained through pleasure, then King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha would attain pleasure, for he lives in greater pleasure than you, friend Gotama.'

"'Surely the venerable Niganthas said that rashly and without reflecting... for instead, I should be asked, "Who lives in greater pleasure: King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha or venerable Gotama?"'

"'Yes, friend Gotama, we said that rashly and without reflecting... but let that be. We now ask you, venerable Gotama: Who lives in greater pleasure: King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha or venerable Gotama?'

"'In that case, Niganthas, I will question you in return. Answer as you like. What do you think: Can King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha — without moving his body, without uttering a word — dwell sensitive to unalloyed pleasure for seven days & nights?'

"'No, friend."

"'... for six days & nights... for five days & nights... for a day & a night?'

"'No, friend."

"'Now, I — without moving my body, without uttering a word — can dwell sensitive to unalloyed pleasure for a day and a night... for two days & nights... for three... four... five... six... seven days & nights. So what do you think: That being the case, who dwells in greater pleasure: King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha or me?'

"'That being the case, venerable Gotama dwells in greater pleasure than King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha.'"

That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, Mahanama the Sakyan delighted in the Blessed One's words. - Cula-dukkhakkhandha Sutta, MN 14

Thus we see that The Buddha claims that he experiences more pleasure than the King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha.

There is also the case where The Buddha explained the fruits (or benefits) or a contemplative life in the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2).

Arahants and The Buddha himself had "wishes" or "wants", they live freely and do whatever they desire, though not in the same way as ordinary people.

It is possible to have wishes or desires but no attachment to them.

My suggestion to you would be to keep your desires in accordance to the goal and not to be attached to the end result.

There are certain cases where forcing someone to give up a desire would create mental agony in an individual and throw them away from achieving arahantship, and also other cases where individuals give up wishes or desires but do not achieve arahantship.

So in my opinion it is better for you to keep certain desires while striving towards the final goal (enlightenment, arahantship).

You should think:

  • It would be easier for me to achieve my goal if I was not attached to the end result
  • It would be easier for me to achieve my goal if I had a better concentrated mind
  • It would be easier for me to achieve my goal if I had achieved higher states

Being attached to the end result makes it much harder to achieve your goal. If you really want to achieve your goal you should focus on achieving it without attachment, and in ways in accordance to the goal.

Just imagine how extraordinarily easy achieving a goal like this would be for someone who really was an arahant.

Thus you should train yourself towards achieving the final goal.

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