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In the general view of "attachment" in Buddhism, is the quality of attachment considered to be the same across all possible types of attachments? Or are there different qualities or degrees of attachment?

Put another way, can one kind of attachment be considered "less bad" or "more bad" than another kind? Or is it all just "attachment" in a general sense, without distinction?

For example: Is clinging to the nostalgia of an old childhood friendship any different than clinging to money or cars?

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According to my first teacher, attachments to concrete worldly things are not as bad as attachments to abstract principles - which generate massive conceit and world-scale aversion.

Compare attachment to tasty food with attachment to religion - which one creates more suffering?

In my understanding, the way attachment works is via appropriation of a dharma (an object of mind) which then creates the duality of "this" vs "that" (and its special cases, "I" vs. "you" and "us" vs. "them"). There are four major quadrants here:

  1. Low contrast between "this" and "that" and small scale of identification.
  2. Strong contrast between "this" and "that" and small scale of identification.
  3. Low contrast between "this" and "that" and large scale of identification.
  4. Strong contrast between "this" and "that" and large scale of identification.

An example of the first kind is attachment to certain flavor, like the taste of some food cooked in a particular way. Even if one can't find this specific cooking style, one can find fairly similar kinds - and the resulting aversion to other flavors will not be that strong. In this case suffering generated by this attachment is both weak and small-scale (only applies to one small area of experience).

An example of the second kind is attachment to one's own life. Here the contrast between living and dying is very high, but the scale of identification is rather small. So even if one's fight for survival manifested as external violence it would unlikely create a world-scale conflict - so the suffering will be strong but not vast.

The third type can be explained on the example of attachment to gender identity. In this case the scale of attachment is massive - one identifies oneself with "I like men" or "I like women", but the contrast between the two is not polarized enough -- not black and white enough -- to create a major issue, like a war between genders. There are certainly some very common tensions between genders (can we call this "very weak but vast suffering"?), but very few women would say that men are harmful and should not exist - and vice versa.

Finally the fourth type is attachment to an abstract and highly polarized view or principle that is very prone to emergence of group identity - such attachment to religion. In this case the contrast between "good" and "bad" is very high - the carriers of the other view are considered harmful and evil. And the scale of identification is very large - all carriers of the same view are considered "us" and all carriers of the other view are "them". This results in a very explosive combination of "good us" vs. "evil them" - hence strong and vast suffering.

And then of course there are all kinds of intermediate qualities between "strong" and "weak" and between "small" and "large".

In your example, the difference is in the real object of attachment. If the reason you attach to an old childhood friendship is because it exemplifies some abstract quality that your old friend possessed that you now idealize (and on this basis cultivate aversion to those lacking such quality) - than that could be a fairly dangerous attachment. On the other hand, if attachment to old childhood friend is solely on the basis of her beautiful voice - then it's not such a big deal.

Similarly, if attachment to wealth is on the basis of simple idea that wealth gives one access to comfort and material pleasures - then it may be a medium-contrast/medium-scale problem. But if attachment to wealth is part an abstract view that all wealthy people are smart and hard-working and poor people are lazy and immoral, - then it could be feeding a global-scale conflict.

To summarize, whenever you want to evaluate an attachment you should - identify the real object of attachment, the root of attachment (aka the preconception) - assess the degree of polarization between the object of attachment and its opposite - assess the scale of identification and the size of the potential conflict

As a rule of thumb, watch out for abstract and highly polarizing attachments - they tend to create the strongest and largest-scale suffering.

  • Thank you so much for this incredibly thorough and helpful answer. I sincerely appreciate it! – newbold Nov 19 '15 at 4:20
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    Did you develop this 4 compartment model or was it taught to you or you found it, and if so, from where? Another point: It is possible for a liking to NOT be accompanied by a dislike of something else. You say: "(and on this basis cultivate aversion to those lacking such quality)" but there is no reason to be averse to, say, diet soda because I like coffee. Are not aversions things in themselves and not just the other end of a see-saw? Can't we have "monopoles" of like or dislike, in your view? Or does one inevitably bring about the other? Thank you. – user2341 Nov 20 '15 at 13:06
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    As for the four quadrants model, I "brought it out from the depths of meditative insight". As for the attachment/aversion - it ALWAYS comes in pairs just not always in crude/obvious ways. Liking (=enjoying/appreciating) coffee is not attachment, attachment is when you feel entitled to liking coffee and get frustrated when you travel to places where there is none. – Andrei Volkov Nov 20 '15 at 14:09
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This depends, of course and as always, on what we mean by "nature". If viewed from the side of ultimate truth, everything is of the same nature, namely empty of inherent exitence.

I've found it very useful to view all attachment and all the afflictions as dependent arisings, imputed by mind and hence empty of inherent existence. In this sense it's easier to work on myself from the perspective "how does these afflictions and my attacment arise in me? What are their mode of arising and being?" As they are all equally empty of inherent nature/existence they are in this way equal.

That does not mean that they are experienced as equal from the relative perspective of my experience, but knowing that they are of the same nature helps getting less attached to the 8 worldly concerns.

I asked a teacher about this. Since I am very keen on reading and thinking about emptiness, I wondered "isn't this "wrong" somehow?" To be very attached to studies? But his answer was that "no, it is not "wrong", it is enthusiasm for virtue. So, being captivated is not necessarily a bad thing, especially insofar as one finds it helpful in daily life and not contrary to the moral precepts.

I guess "helpful in your daily life" and "enthusiasm for virtue" are central here. Maybe we can use that as a "measure". If an old childhood friendship or cars are "helpful in your daily life" and don't make you more attached to the 8 worldly concerns, neither are necessarily "bad" attachment.

I think like this. As long as I uphold the moral precepsts, then whatever decreases attachment to the 8 worldly concerns is "good" - whatever increases attachment to the 8 worldly concerns is "bad".

But they are all - the attachment and the car and the friend and your thoughts about the car and about the friend - by nature empty of inherent existence and so equal in nature.

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