Toward friends, attachment rages like a river;
Toward enemies, hatred blazes like fire.
Therefore it is the practice of Bodhisattvas to give up that home,
Where the darkness of stupidity, of forgetting what to accept and reject, prevails.
- the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Verse 2.*
Attachment and hatred. These are things that can cause us a lot of harm. We hold on tightly to the things we want and we try hard to push away the things we don’t want. Sometimes in Buddhism we talk about a concept called the three poisons. These are usually called attachment, aversion, and ignorance. But they have a few different names. It seems like that’s what we’re talking about here with attachment, hatred, and stupidity.
These are said to be the three feelings that cause us the most suffering. But in this case, we’re talking about people so I’ll limit our discussion to that. We are attached to people we like and we are averse toward people we don’t like. Sure, that makes sense.
I can understand easily why hatred is bad. It consumes us. It steals our joy. It makes us do awful things we wouldn’t normally want to do.
But what about attachment? This is a tough thing to think about.
In Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva says:
Beings who are themselves impermanent
Are greatly attached to that which is also passing.
This is our reminder that we can’t hold onto anything, even people. Eventually all things pass away. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take delight in our loved ones as well. But we need to think clearly. If you’ve ever been betrayed by someone you loved, if you’ve ever ignored red flags in a potential partner you’re interested in…that’s attachment clouding your judgment. We want unclouded judgment.
So what’s all this about giving up home?
There are some different ways to think about this. I like to think it means we should broaden our horizons. We don’t have to do anything just because it’s what we’ve always done. Maybe our home can be the baggage we’re carrying.
You are not your history. You are not what has happened to you. You aren’t your family or your tribe either. You aren’t even your opinions and beliefs. You are so much more. You are the sky and all this others stuff is just the weather. We can put down the things that don’t serve us.
The well known scholar and teacher Atisha said: “Keep far away from places harmful to your mind; Stay at a place where your virtue increases!”
We sometimes feel trapped by our circumstances and we rarely really are. I’m not saying someone has to get away from their family and friends, of course. But if you feel you’re being harmed you don’t have to stick around.
And we can love and care about and help all people, not just the ones who look and think like us. It seems that may be getting lost in the modern world. We can have compassion for anyone.
Some say this verse means we should leave our families behind and go be monks in the forest. That’s what the Buddha did. He left soon after his son, his only child, was born and just went to live in the forest. He didn’t return for several years. That’s the part of his story that never sat right with me. I always wondered “Was the Buddha like a deadbeat dad?”
One of my teachers said it doesn’t make a lot of sense to apply modern cultural thoughts about marriage and family to an ancient story. The truth is we’re missing a lot of the context because the situation 2,500 years ago on the other side of the world is so different from the situation here and now. That’s definitely true.
Someone that wants to leave their family and career behind to go run away and be a monk could take that meaning here, but I don’t.
To me leaving your home means leaving your past and your background. But not really leaving it because nothing ever really leaves. It means holding on loosely rather than obsessing about it all the time. We can learn from our past, but we don’t have to live there.
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*all quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa