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I've recently started to research Buddhism, and one of the first area's I've been looking into is that of attachment. I found this quote -

"Seeing through the delusion of separation means we no longer give "external things" the power to make us miserable."

So does this mean we are supposed to feel emotionless to everything around us, only relying on ourselves for our emotions?

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This seems to be a rather common misunderstanding, that Buddhism is a doctrine of emotionlessness or aloofness. Instead, (Mahayana) Buddhism is a doctrine of emotional maturity, emotional intelligence, mental agility, and robust practical excellence.

In (Mahayana) Buddhism we don't avoid attachments-as-connections, we still form relationships with people, make commitments, pursue long-term goals -- but we learn to let go quickly when situation changes, this saves us tremendous amounts of energy. That's why in English we call them "attachments", not "connections". Connections are alright.

Attachment is a much more broad notion than mere fondness of something good. It could be attachment to self-image, attachment to fairness, attachment to skills and intelligence, attachment to higher values, attachment to security, attachment to a certain perspective and so on. Every time we let go of attachment we let go of a button that "external" world may push to trigger an automatic reaction in us.

This is what that quote says, that when we ("I") consider ourselves a separate entity, we think we are entitled to our pathologies and neuroses. But when we understand that this is an ocean of information riding on top of various media, including the media of the primate brains, we can take ownership of our reactions, and choose not to get pushed around by the fluctuations of the signal.

This does not mean we are frozen cold -- this means we can be positive, energetic, and happy all the time, because we now operate our own electrical generator that works both low tide and high tide, which makes us pretty independent and free.

Another metaphor I can offer is that of a sailboat -- once we learn to balance away the environmental influences, we are free to choose our course regardless of wind. It does not mean we lower our sails and stay in place, which is a metaphor for avoiding relationships altogether, and it does not mean aberrating randomly, which is a metaphor for avoiding long-time commitments, it just means we are not attached to one wind and one current, especially after it's gone.

Plus, "seeing through the delusion of separation" we no longer consider ourselves the center of the world. Once we stop obsessing about our own grief, it magically subsides, our eyes open, and we notice others stuck in all kinds of horror worlds. This is when it feels natural to go and help them out, but of course we must learn to float our own boat first.

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I present the perspective of Zen through the eyes of Dogen to show a different shade of meaning of attachment and the universality of attachment and non-attachment as a precept of Buddhism

http://sped2work.tripod.com/dogen_pool.html

Often one becomes attached to form and cannot realize the ultimate reality of emptiness. One loathes to see a flower wilt because one is attached to the idea that the flower should be beautiful and eternal. One separates the flower from the ultimate reality of impermanence and interconnectedness. This separation and attachment to "what ought to be," causes suffering and blindness to the true reality. The reality is that the flower, like all else, grows and dies.

In this way, attachment is trying to make something or someone permanent, when they are only temporal. The struggle to keep something in our orbit is the basis of suffering because all things go from form to dissolution. Trying to make the laws of the universe different is the ultimate suffering because it is impossible to do. Accepting people, things, and activities in our lives in this moment without trying to create permanence also allows us to be more spontaneous and present in this moment.

Dogen takes this one step further (same link as above) his words are in quotation marks.

Recognizing the pervasive emptiness through the attachments constitutes Dogen's idea of Awakening. This underlying emptiness liberates the practitioner and allows one to see things as they are--to see the dual facets of all things in the discursive world. Awakening culminates in wanting "to know things as they are. If we know things as they are, there is nothing to point at; there is no way to grasp anything; there is no thing to grasp."11

The greatest attachment that any human experiences is to their own sense of identity. That is why the path seems so long. It is easy to give up candy and coffee and physical intimacy, but giving up my treasured concepts of myself. Oh not that! But the world acts to take away through events of suffering that gradually make our personal identity less and less a treasure.

In a poem that came to me after meditating for many years, there was an aha moment that speaks to this place of growing non-attachment. "just to be... that's enough for me... not some silly human drama... just one taste of reality!"

The awakening to non-attachment is to realize that the one who is grasping, trying to make things or people or activities permanent, is not who I really am. Buddhism has many ways of saying who we are not. Only by seeing without the grasping mind can we see clearly what is here before us now.

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I'm not sure where your quote is from but when I Google for that phrase, the next sentence recommends "equanimity":

Seeing through the delusion of separation means we no longer give "external things" the power to make us miserable. The ideal is equanimity, free from the compulsion to chase what we want and run from what we don't want.

You can read more about Buddhist 'equanimity' e.g. in these Wikipedia articles:

That last sentence ("chase what we want and run from what we don't want") also implies what Buddhism calls "The Three Poisons":

The reason for equanimity, defined as "a steady conscious realization of reality's transience", is:

  • That's how or what reality is: it's transient
  • The desire for reality to be other than what it is (e.g. feeling an attachment to what it used to be, or to what you would want it to be in future, or wanting it to stay as it is now) leads to suffering: that is the definition of the 2nd noble truth
  • Given that reality is transient, not becoming attached to it and feeling dispassionate about it is what leads to the cessation of suffering: that's the definition of the 3rd noble truth

In summary the 'aim of avoiding attachment' is the aim of Buddhism. There's more than one form of Buddhism. In one form called Hinayana, the aim is to rid ourselves of suffering.

Also, feeling "emotionless" isn't what's recommended. This article describing the four immeasurables says that,

... They provide, in fact, the answer to all situations arising from social contact. They are the great removers of tension, the great peace-makers in social conflict, and the great healers of wounds suffered in the struggle of existence. They level social barriers, build harmonious communities, awaken slumbering magnanimity long forgotten, revive joy and hope long abandoned, and promote human brotherhood against the forces of egotism.

The Brahma-viharas are incompatible with a hating state of mind, ...

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First thing I want to note is that non-attachment, which is the antidote to the poison of attachment, is not avoiding attachment. Avoiding attachment implies an extreme. Buddhists seek to operate in the middle. Aversion is actually another of the three poisons, which was well articulated by another answer. So avoiding attachment is actually as "bad" as attachment.

Now the second thing I want to bring up is that though we talk about the three poisons in a way that implies they exist in an equilateral sense, in fact the poison of ignorance actually causes the other two poisons to manifest. We innately ascribe inherent existence to things, which is our fundamental ignorance. This innate ascription leads to attachment and aversion. By seeking to understand the nature of reality, we minimize the two A's naturally.

However, that doesn't mean that the antidotes to the two A's aren't important. You definitely want to practice all three antidotes (loving-kindness/compassion, non-attachment/generosity, and wisdom). This is because the poisons work in a feedback cycle. Ignorance causes attachment and aversion, but aversion and attachment strengthen and perpetuate fundamental ignorance. The bit about delusion you've quoted in your question is talking about fundamental ignorance.

The aim of all of this is liberation from suffering. That's why I am a believer that the idea of the three poisons is the best Buddhism in a nutshell idea. To me it encapsulates the point very succinctly. Hope this helps you understand the role that attachment plays in Buddhism.

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One point which other answers haven't addressed yet is "the delusion of separation" from 'external things'.

I understand that as meaning, for example, "I want a chocolate bar!" (or "I want money", or whatever it is).

And as meaning, "I have no chocolate bar! And I will not be happy, unless/until I get a chocolate bar!"

I might be wrong but I don't think that "delusion of separation" is a normal/standard Buddhist phrase, so maybe I need to guess at what it's talking about.

I guess what it means is that you're thinking, "I am here, and the chocolate is over there, and we are separated." But that separation is a delusion, because what's actually happening is:

  • I am here
  • I am entertaining a desire for chocolate
  • My desire for chocolate is consuming me
  • There does exist chocolate and other stuff (and other beings) in the world

The key point is that I and my desire for chocolate are both here in me, not over there in a shop. The chocolate is what it is (e.g. sugary, expensive, wrapped in paper, digestible, etc.). My desire for it (which is what makes it special) is within me, is not from separate me.

Also my desire for it is a property of me, not a property of the chocolate: my desire for chocolate exists because I have indulged in chocolate in the past -- it's not (or is not only) a property inherent in the chocolate. The chocolate isn't thinking, "I am desirable", the desire is yours not of the chocolate. Thinking that the object of the desire is separate is a delusion, partly because the desire is internal, and partly because it may not be a desire that you can satisfy: if you had the chocolate, would you then be satisfied? Or would you need more chocolate?

Wouldn't it be more satisfying to not want chocolate?

So one (of many) techniques of Buddhism would be to think, "OK, I'm thinking of chocolate. But this craving for chocolate isn't much fun. I have better things to do than crave chocolate. I don't want this craving for chocolate. This craving for chocolate is unsatisfactory. I experience distaste for this craving."

And so you decide you don't like the desire. Don't want the desire. And that without the desire you also no longer want the chocolate.

"Chocolate? No thanks! It isn't good for me, it doesn't do anything for me."

I'm going to try to claim that this has introduced two other key Buddhist concepts: i.e. "Anicca" (the pleasure of chocolate would be transient at best), and "Anatta" (I am not a desire for chocolate).

I mention this because it too is not exactly "emotionless". Seeing various desire and saying that the desire are unsatisfactory might be called 'Right view' which is the first step of "Noble eightfold path". The next step, which follows from that view, is 'Right intention' a.k.a. 'Right resolve' which includes 'renunciation'.

And that, 'renunciation', finally provides a way to answer your question: which is about "avoiding attachment". It answers the question because you can use it to begin to look-up reference articles about the corresponding word, e.g. Nekkhamma on Wikipedia, or by searching for 'renunciation' on Access to Insight (press the 'Search' button), which returns many articles such as:

The 'Access to Insight' site, which I referenced immediately above, is a "Theravada Buddhism" site. So its views (the perspectives of the authors of its articles) about the "aim of Buddhism" aren't completely the same as those of other schools of Buddhism, hich are given in e.g. some other answers to this question.

There are several Schools of Buddhism, so when you ask about it or when you "research Buddhism" you might want to be clear about which school you're researching; but see also Basic points unifying Theravāda and Mahāyāna.

  • "The delusion of separation" is a way of expressing the root delusion i.e. things have inherent existence. The phrasing here might make more sense to you if you think of dependent origination and that nothing anywhere is separate because everything is inter-dependent. – Joe McDonagh Oct 28 '14 at 13:36
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Many Buddhists have practices that are aimed to bring them to a point of their existence where they realize (not just know, but know and feel) that there is not anything more important in the universe than any other.

The word that is usually translated as "suffering" is "dukha" which is closer in meaning to "disquietude".

This means that we don't consider anything more or less important than ourselves, and that we ourselves are no more or less important than anything else. And when we can see that we're actually all made from the same stuff, we are easily able to understand that seeing anything as more or less important than anything else is a form of arrogance.

This in itself is a form of suffering, and the basis on which we create the "three toxins".

When we realize--which means to have a real and significant experience--that we actually are the same as everything and everyone and every part and particle and the whole of the universe, then we have achieved Buddhahood.

That's the purpose of non-attachment (which is not "avoiding attachment", which I consider a mistranslation).

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