The limitations of metaphors of clinging and letting go in Buddhist practice Barry Magid September 22nd 2012

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Miscellaneous Koans

There’s a famous koan about a man hanging by his teeth from a branch of a tree, way high up, unable to grasp the branch or the trunk, his arms, his legs just hanging there, just clinging for dear life by his teeth. A monk passes beneath the tree, sees him hanging up there and asks, Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? He could at least have brought a ladder, but instead he asks the person hanging there to let go, answer.

Koans like that are meant to be a paradigm for our practice in which we have to recognize the extent to which we are clinging to something, in which our lives are organized around self-clinging. In response to the needs of others or in response to the Dharma, in some sense we have to let go, even though that letting go feels like we’re going to plunge to our death. It’s a metaphor for the death of the self in the midst of realization.

Now, there are many ways in which that metaphor for clinging, holding on, can provide us with a good deal of psychological insight into the dilemmas we face in our everyday life. There are often situations where we feel stuck, clinging, where we feel like we’re desperate but we still can’t change anything, we can’t let go. It’s very, very common for people to come and tell me in elaborate detail the story of why everything in their life as it is is completely untenable and unbearable yet nothing can be changed. That basic tension and paradox is just what they live with all the time. And, you know, sometimes you can make it into an adventure, and involuntarily something will change. Sometimes it’s a turning word, sometimes it’s a heart attack.

But I think that metaphor for clinging and letting go is often overused or is really only part of the dilemma that most of us face, for why most of us come to practice. It gives a picture of people who basically are too attached, holding on too tightly, where the solution is this kind of letting go. Often in koans it’s very easy to play at letting go, but it’s much harder to see what that really means in your life. As I’ve taught over these many years now, I would say that that’s not necessarily the problem that most people come here with. At least many people come here with something very different and seek out practice not because they’re too attached but because their lives are adrift and they have nothing to attach to. People come out of lives that are disorganized or chaotic or abusive, where the people in their lives have been untrustworthy, when they know no one to trust or hold onto or believe in. They come to practice looking for something secure, reliable, something that they can trust and attach to, make a stable part of their lives. How do we think about that kind of attachment?

See, there’s a whole way in which letting go describes only one part of what we have to do to practice in our life. The other side has to do with, How do we make healthy and appropriate attachments? How do we decide where to invest our time and energy and meaning? For a lot of people, making a commitment to practice is a way of putting their lives back on track, a commitment to come to the zendo and sit regularly is like a commitment to make your bed and do the dishes and pay the bills on time and keep the house clean. Joko used to always equate practice with that kind of regularity in your daily life. But it doesn’t make much difference if you can be very organized in the zendo but not organized at home. For most of us, we’re trying to use practice as a paradigm for that kind of right structure or discipline in our own lives. We’re trying to figure out how to be on track and what that track means and what it can look like.

We have to figure out what it means to form a healthy trust and attachment to a teacher and to fellow members of a sangha. We’re often people with stories of difficult family upbringings, maybe we’ve difficult families in the present, maybe we’re alone. Maybe there are all sorts of ways in which we’re looking for someone or a number of people in our lives that we can have something in common with, have shared values, be understood by, feel connected to, have a shared purpose.

In one sense these are all attachments, and yet they’re the kinds of attachments we have to figure out how to maintain and hold intelligently. We have to be prepared as in all attachments for them to change, for them to not live up to our ideal of how they should be or how they should go. The teacher, the sangha, the zendo, Buddhism in America, none of it may exactly conform to our ideal and somehow we have to find a way to make intelligent commitments and attachments. In part that’s letting go of too brittle and too specific an ideal. Sometimes that’s the kind of letting go we have to do. We have to accept that the Dharma, like everything else, is embodied by real people, not by saints or mythical figures. If you want to practice Zen, well, it’s going to look like this. It’s not going to look like some story out of Wu-en Kuan. That’s a kind of letting go. Sometimes that letting go, and being able to really make a secure attachment, go hand in hand. If you can’t let go of a picture of how it’s supposed to be, you can’t securely attach to what’s actually there.

I think there’s no simple answer to this koan of attachment. Like the man up the tree, you can try letting go, you can have that kind of experience within a certain realm. But how do you demonstrate healthy attachment? The right kind of dedication? The right way to find the discipline, security, certainty, direction that you want in your life? It can all be conflicted and problematic and we have to find a way. It may not be as direct and dramatic as letting go of a branch of a tree, but somehow we have to find a way to land on the ground and feel secure on our feet.

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