"The one I call holy
even here knows the end of suffering,
has laid down one's burden, and is detached."
- The Dhammapada, 'The Holy One'
Detachment in Buddhism is an oft-misunderstood teaching in the West, partially because of the difficulties in translating Buddhist texts. In translations of early Buddhist writings, the Pali word 'nekkhamma' is often translated as detachment or renunciation. Both words emphasize the giving up of cravings or desires, which has led to the misunderstanding that Buddhists are required to abstain from pleasure, and lead serious, joyless, contemplative lives.
Sometimes the word 'non-attachment' is used instead, but this can also lead to misunderstandings, because the word attachment is often used in psychology to refer to healthy bonding between individuals, particularly young children and their parents or caretakers. So 'non-attachment' can be read as a lack of healthy attachment, with a negative connotation.
In fact, Buddhist teachings on detachment are not centered on our relationships (familial or otherwise) or pleasures, but instead on our relationship with our own thoughts and emotions. We are not asked to give up our emotions and thoughts, but instead to not be ruled exclusively by them. Practicing detachment involves finding the observer in our own mind – the part of our awareness that can pull back and see that the mental busyness or emotional swings that we often experience are only one part of our awareness, and therefore only part of who we are. By developing detachment, we can begin to recognize the transience of this level of our awareness – that each of our thoughts and emotions have a beginning and an end, and that our attachment to them is the root of our suffering.
Practicing detachment does involve actual renunciation in some Buddhist schools, but the renunciation is itself a tool for realizing inner detachment. A famous story is often told to illustrate this teaching, involving two monks who come across a young woman who needs help crossing a river. The younger of the two monks refuses to carry her across, citing his monastic vows to renounce relations with women. The older monk quietly carries her across, much to the other's dismay. After continuing along their way for awhile, the first monk finally explodes, "How could you violate your vows like that, and carry that woman across?" to which the older monk calmly responds, "There is no problem. I put her down at the edge of the river, but you are still carrying her."
Understanding detachment goes hand in hand with understanding both mindfulness and compassion. Mindfulness and meditation are the tools we use to develop detachment. By paying attention to all that arises within our awareness, we can begin to choose our reactions, rather than being driven by unconscious psychological patterns. As we do so, we become aware of our ego in a new way, as a set of patterns that seeks to separate us from others in our thinking. Once we begin to see beyond this tendency to separate, we can begin to experience true oneness with others, which is the root of compassion.
Compassion and detachment therefore work hand in hand. True compassion arises within us when we are able to detach from our own egoic judgments and responses to others, and truly connect. Far from alienating us from others, or limiting our capacity for joy, true detachment therefore connects us with others on a deeper level. We are freed from limitations based on our psychological conditioning and the mental and emotional patterns that arise from it.
In this way, detachment is a tool for helping us to recognize the truth of our own mind, and for realizing our natural connectivity to the rest of the world, and all the individuals in our lives.