When I was 9 years old, my cousin Tom and I saw the face of Jesus in my bedroom window. His father, my uncle, was a Presbyterian minister, and we were both thrilled that such a cool and kind guy would come to see us. We had first learned about Jesus in Bible stories at Sunday school, and had more recently heard him singing on the album Jesus Christ Superstar. We knew this Jesus so well that we could sing every song from the album. And we did.
I wasn’t an extremely religious child. But in retrospect, I was drawn to Jesus Christ Superstar for more than simply the great music. On this album, the very hippie Jesus sang about living a human life fully in the present moment. When the apostles got anxious about the future he told them: “Don’t you mind about the future, don’t you try to think ahead. Save tomorrow for tomorrow, think about today instead.” He even suggested that his female companion, Mary Magdalene, was the one person who was truly helping, because with her gentle touch “she alone has tried to give me what I need right here and now.” He was real and present.
In my extended angst-filled teenage years, I would sometimes wake up from what felt like a shameful night of excess and find my way into a nearby church, looking, with minimal success, for that real live Jesus. Many years later I went to Divinity School in an attempt to find that Jesus. While there, I listened jealously to my classmates’ stories about how Jesus pulled them out of their painful addiction or how he literally rode in the front seat of their car everywhere they went.
I have infrequently told others about my secret longing for a Jesus of my own, and whenever I have, I have been surprised to discover that many have also wished for a protector friend who would be by their side at all times. I didn’t want a distant amorphous being in the sky, I wanted the flesh and blood Jesus on whose shoulder I could cry, who would laugh at the crazy world with me, and who would stay close to me when I felt too depressed to get out of bed.
Meanwhile, I continued to learn and practice Buddhist teachings. And I learned that the heart of the Buddha’s teaching is that we can end suffering by letting go of our craving for and attachment to things and people who are impermanent. And yet it’s clear that our craving for impermanent human connection, physical and emotional, is something normal and natural and even healthy for us.
Most teachers living and writing today would say that Buddhist non-attachment means simply knowing and living with the awareness that everyone and everything in our world of form is impermanent. As Ajahn Chah teaches, ”Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.”
But if we look at the story of the Buddha’s life, the Buddha abandoned his wife and son at home in order to find his own enlightenment. This is usually a small footnote in the story of the Buddha-formerly-known-as-Prince-Siddharta, but what does this say about what he meant by non-attachment? Are we supposed to be non-attached in the way that we can walk away from our loved ones? Maybe the Buddha suffered a lot when he left his family, but that is not part of the story.
In 12-step programs, we learn to “detach with love.” A beautiful definition of this is from Courage to Change: ”Detachment with love means that I stop depending upon what others do, say, or feel to determine my own well-being or to make my decisions.” This is a lovely concept, but is it really possible or even desirable in human form? Is it possible not to be distraught when a loved one has attempted suicide or not to feel joy when our partner says he loves us?
And herein lies the edge. We can read the Buddha’s teaching on non-attachment as a way to avoid the deeply natural need for physical and emotional connection, to separate ourselves from others and keep our need for connection suppressed. Or we can use our practice in a way that connects us more deeply with this impermanent physical life and the impermanent beings in our lives.
“But we are so fond of life that we have no leisure to entertain the terror of death. It is a honeymoon with us all through, and none of the longest. Small blame to us if we give our whole hearts to this glowing bride of ours, to the appetites, to honor, to the hungry curiosity of the mind, to the pleasure of the eyes in nature, and the pride of our own nimble bodies.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
Longing for connection with others is what humans do. It’s what we are designed to do. Our children are physically attached to us before birth, and after birth are completely dependent on us for every aspect of their being. So how do we practice attached non-attachment?
“Human being is human being. We can enjoy our life only with our limited body and limited life. This limitation is vital element for us. Without limitation nothing exist, so we should enjoy the limitation. Weak body, strong body; man or woman. We should—the only way to enjoy our life is to enjoy the limitation which was given to us…
So, ‘the sun-faced buddha, the moon-faced buddha’ does not mean, ‘I don’t care the sun-faced buddha or the moon-faced buddha.’ It means that the sun-faced [hits table with stick] buddha, the moon-faced [hits table with stick] buddha, you know. We should enjoy the sun-faced buddha, the moon-faced buddha. It-it is not indifference. It is the more than attachment-strong, strong attachment to the moon-faced Buddha or the sun-faced buddha. But usually our attachment-we say ‘non-attachment.’ When our attachment reach to the non-attachment, that is real attachment. So if—if you attach to something, you should attached to something completely. The sun-faced buddha, the moon-faced buddha! ’I am here,’ you know, ‘I am right here.’” – Suzuki Roshi
We are embodied. Everyone one of us exists in human form. And the practice of non-attachment is not about getting past our human form, it is about living fully within our human form. Human beings need other human beings, for physical touch, emotional care, and intellectual stimulation, among other things. We can live fully in our physical form, fully in our attachment to others within the larger context of knowing that the glass is already broken.
We can’t avoid the pain of living in a human form and loving other beings with our whole heart. It’s like knowing that we are playing out a human drama on a stage, but embracing our part so completely, that we may not always remember that it’s a play. We never fully forget that it’s a play- we keep the knowledge that the glass is already broken in our back pocket- but we don’t let that knowledge get in the way of loving each other in the most human embodied way possible.
As Mother Theresa so beautifully said, “Everyone is Jesus in a distressing disguise.” Knowing that, I don’t have to wait for another sighting in my window. I can fully embrace other physical beings- each one a real live “Jesus”- with all my physical attachment and non-attachment simultaneously. And that is just what I always wanted.