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Attachment makes the world go ’round

Remaining celibate in an environment of attachment

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“Love makes the world go ’round,” say the lyrics of a song from my parents’ generation. This song does not refer to the impartial love we try to generate in our Dharma practice, but to romantic or sexualized “love,” which from a Buddhist viewpoint is primarily attachment. “What’s the problem with romantic attachment?” people ask. “It makes us happy.”

Couple embracing.

Attachment serves as our chief distraction to practicing the Dharma. (Photo by Ivan Dervisevic)

In the four noble truths, attachment is cited as the principal example of the second noble truth, the true origin of suffering, even though ignorance is the root of cyclic existence. Why is attachment given prominence here? Attachment arises at the time of death as craving and grasping—the eighth and ninth of the twelve links of dependent origination—and propels our future samsaric rebirths. Attachment serves as our chief distraction to practicing the Dharma because it’s the foundation of the eight worldly concerns. The more attachment we have, the angrier we become when we do not get the things we’re attached to. In addition, we get involved in so many negative actions in our attempts to procure and protect the objects of our attachment.

Sexual attachment is our strongest attachment. But it’s not just the physical sensations of sexual contact that we’re attached to. The emotional security of being the one special person that someone else loves plays a big part, as does the social security of fitting in with societal values by being in a couple relationship and having a family. So when we monastics look at how to keep our celibacy precept, we have to look from many different angles—the physical pleasure of sex; the emotional gratification of being loved, wanted and needed; the social acceptance of fitting in with society’s expectations. This leads us to look at our loneliness, our need for others’ approval, our relationship with our body, and several other potentially uncomfortable areas that we would rather not have to acknowledge in ourselves.

Let’s face it, for most of us the precepts involving sexuality and all of its ramifications are the most difficult to keep. When Shantideva talks about being courageous in our combat with disturbing emotions, he’s talking precisely about these dicey areas. As sincere Dharma practitioners, we can’t dodge difficulties by diving into samsaric pleasures, and we can’t eliminate them by repressing and refusing to look at them.

As we start to explore these areas, we become aware of the protection from attachment that living in precepts offers us. We discover that it’s not just the parajika (root downfall) of sexual intercourse that is involved, but many other precepts also have to do with sexuality in one way or another. The precepts to avoid wearing ornaments, singing, dancing, or watching entertainment protect against ego sneakily seeking to attract a special someone. The precept prohibiting matchmaking and performing wedding ceremonies guards us from fantasizing about couples’ activities and feelings. The precept of wearing robes guards against subtly flirting with those we’re attracted to. We become more aware of how we walk, how we speak, how we use our eyes to communicate as all of these everyday activities can be hijacked by attachment seeking a romantic relationship.

Factors causing attachment to arise

The lamrim speaks of six factors causing disturbing emotions to arise: 1) dependent basis, 2) object, 3) detrimental influences, 4) verbal stimuli, 5) habit, and 6) inappropriate attention. Let’s look at these in terms of how they relate to romantic love (i.e. attachment to the physical, emotional, and social “benefits” of being in a couple relationship). Then let’s examine how to work with some of the difficult issues we uncover by trying to give up romantic love.

  1. Dependent basis

    The first factor is called the dependent basis, i.e. the seed of attachment that exists in our samsaric mindstream. The seed of attachment provides the continuity from one incident of attachment to another. Although romantic attachment may not be a big issue for us at this moment, as long as the seed exists in our mindstream, there is the potential that attachment will disturb us in the future.

    This seed is deeply rooted; although we may weaken it, we don’t begin to eliminate it until the path of seeing. Thus we can’t be smug and think, “Loneliness is not an issue for me,” or “I can control my sexual desire, no problem.” We have to be honest and admit and accept the potential of attachment within us. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

  2. Object

    The second factor is the object stimulating the attachment to arise. This refers specifically to people we are romantically attracted to. The Buddha recommended that when a disturbing emotion is very strong within us and easily overpowers us, we stay away from objects that stimulate it. For this reason, as monastics, we need to keep a respectful distance from those we are romantically attracted to.

    This can be challenging, and some people are clumsy or hurtful in their effort to avoid the object of their attachment. They blame the object as a way of avoiding looking at their attachment. Years ago, when working in a Dharma center, I encountered monks who complained about having to work with me, a nun. They cited injunctions for monks to stay away from women in order to avoid working with me and other women. This became so uncomfortable that I spoke to Lama Yeshe about it, and he responded, “Where are they going to go where they will never see a woman?”

    If we live in a Dharma center or even a monastery, we will come into contact with those of the opposite sex or with those of the same sex if you’re gay. While we relate to people kindly and respectfully, we also need to avoid unneeded contact that could arouse attachment. For example, a monk who has been ordained for two decades commented that although he’s been ordained for so long, he understands his mind well and knows he shouldn’t go out to tea with his old girlfriend when he visits his family.

    When we work with someone in a Dharma center that we could potentially be attracted to, we need to be careful about our contact. Thus we monastics do not visit others in their rooms; nor do we go for long solitary walks with them or meet them outside the center. We remain friendly but form our close friendships with people we won’t feel romantic towards.

    Some people who disrobe say, “The romantic feelings snuck up on me and I wasn’t aware of them until I was in love.” To prevent this, we need to train ourselves to not only be sensitive to the arising of attachment but also to admit it to ourselves. My experience has been that I know very well when romantic feelings begin. The problem is I don’t want to admit that they’re there because they are so enticing. “Finally someone understands me. Now there’s someone I can really share the Dharma with.” The mind concocts all sorts of reasons not to keep a respectful distance. We need to repeatedly remember the disadvantages of romantic relationships and of attachment in general. In addition, continuously setting a strong aspiration to keep the precepts for our entire life helps us to stay on our monastic course.

  3. Detrimental influences

    The third factor is detrimental influences, in particular wrong friends. These are people who say, “Monastics are just avoiding relationships. They don’t deal with their sexuality. We can practice Dharma in any situation, and an intimate relationship is an excellent way to confront our ego, learn to share, and relinquish our self-preoccupation.” In the West, many people think like this.

    Although they mean well, people holding this view lack a deep understanding of the origin of suffering and the path leading out of it. While it’s true that one can practice in a relationship, it’s more difficult to counteract attachment when one lives in an environment permeated by it. If lay life were the most effective way to practice, the Buddha would not himself have been a monastic. Nor would he have established the monastic community.

  4. Verbal stimuli

    The fourth factor is verbal stimuli, that is literature and the media. Western media—newspapers, TV, movies, advertisements, magazines, music, the Internet—constantly bombards us with sexual provocation. For this reason, it’s essential that monastics reduce our contact with the media. Watching TV, reading novels, going to the cinema, flipping through magazines are activities that we have to monitor closely. We need to check our motivation—are we looking to “relax” (read: be distracted)? And even if we begin to watch or read something with a Dharma motivation, how does it affect our mind?

  5. Habit

    The fifth factor is habit. Since we were young, we’ve had lots of conditioning from family, media, and society in general to enter into sexual and romantic relationships. Our mind is habituated with thinking couple relationships are ultimate happiness and having children gives meaning to life. We have lots of habitual energy from pre-ordination days to get involved in relationships. It’s essential to notice these habits of body, speech, and mind, and to take care not to follow them.

    I find wearing robes and shaving my head great protection in this area. Men know I’m off limits. Also, my appearance reminds me of the purpose of my life, my positive aims, and the way I want to direct my life energy. Being a monastic, we represent the Three Jewels. If we flirt, it destroys others’ faith in the Dharma. Remembering this, we are able to restrain old habits of standing, smiling, and talking in ways that show we are romantically interested in someone and want to attract him or her.

  6. Inappropriate attention

    The sixth factor is inappropriate attention. This is the mind that makes up stories, “This person is so good looking/ sensitive/ artistic/ athletic/ intelligent/ rich/ interesting/ knowledgeable in the Dharma.” With inappropriate attention, we forget that people and relationships are impermanent and hold them as safe, secure havens. “This person will fulfill my needs. He/she will never leave me; we love each other so much.” Inappropriate attention makes us think another’s body is attractive and desirable; we forget what’s inside of it. Inappropriate attention also makes us think that a relationship will bring real happiness and abolish loneliness, for it mistakes what is unsatisfactory in nature to be happiness. What’s tricky about inappropriate attention is that as Dharma practitioners, we know all the right words about emptiness, the disadvantages of samsara, impurity of the body, and impermanence of the world, but we don’t always recognize these misconceptions when they are playing out in our mind. In fact, we even joke about them. “You’re inherently attractive” we say to someone we’re attracted to, thinking that we’re aware that they are empty of inherent existence. But in fact, our mind is holding them to be inherently attractive, and we don’t even recognize it!

These six factors that cause the arising of attachment help us understand the workings of our mind better. This, in turn, enables us to be more aware and conscientious, and consequently happier and more peaceful.

Working with attachment issues

One challenge to learn to handle is the physical energy behind sexuality. For this Lama Yeshe recommended the seed syllable meditation. I find directing that energy into visualization of the Buddhas and deities helpful as well.

Another is the mental energy that collaborates with sexual energy. This produces the spectacular visualizations we have of the people we’re attracted to and what we want to do with them. Visualizations of the insides of the body work wonders as counterforces. These are described in the Vinaya as well as in Shantideva’s Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. If we do them, they work. The problem is we usually talk about these meditations but are resistant to contemplating the body’s insides.

A third challenge is loneliness and feelings of insecurity. To counteract this, let’s remember that whenever we seek refuge in another fallible human being, we set ourselves up for disappointment and pain. I find that when my practice is going well—when I’m putting energy into Lamrim and thought transformation—my mind feels close to the Three Jewels and my spiritual mentors. This closeness fills the emotional hole and inspires me to practice more. Also, when I do the meditations to develop bodhicitta, my heart opens to others and the feelings of being cut off from them vanish.

A fourth is societal expectations to be in a couple relationship. We have bought into these expectations without being aware of it. The antidote for this is to remember impermanence and death and the disadvantages of cyclic existence. When we understand these deeply, our priorities become very clear; we know deep in our hearts that enlightenment is what we really seek.


Monastics often find sexuality and emotional involvement difficult to discuss. Sometimes we believe that if we admit we have these feelings, others will think we aren’t good practitioners. Let’s be realistic. We all have those feelings, at least until we attain high levels of the path. If we hide them away with shame or fear, they fester under the surface and sabotage our Dharma practice and our well-being. If we accept and admit their presence, we can work with them.

While we need to be alert to the arising of loneliness, attachment, and sexual desire, let’s not get down on ourselves when they are present. When we deeply investigate how they operate, we may even see the humor in them. After all, when our mind is under the sway of a disturbing emotion, isn’t its way of thinking hilarious? Not taking ourselves or our issues so seriously brings a certain light-heartedness and joy to our practice and to our lives.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.

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