Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Attachment enables anger to spread like wildfire

(6.70) If, for example, a house caught fire
And there was a danger of the fire spreading to an adjacent house,
It would be advisable to remove anything, such as dry grass,
That might enable the fire to spread.

(6.71) In the same way, when those to whom I cling are harmed,
My attachment to them enables the fire of anger to spread to me.
Fearing that this will consume all my merit,
I should definitely abandon such attachment.

(6.72) How fortunate is a person condemned to death
Who is spared with having just his hand cut off;
And how fortunate are we if, instead of the agonies of hell,
We have to experience only the sufferings of the human realm.

It is surprising, but not surprising, how easily we become angry and retaliate when those we are attached to are harmed in any way.  This is especially true for parents.  When our kids are harmed in some way, we leap into action and are ready to go to war on their behalf.  I have too many stories to tell where this has happened to me, but the point is because we are attached to those we love being happy, when they are harmed in some way, we quickly become angry.

Why do we do this?  Because we have attachment to others being happy.  This seems like a just and normal reaction.  But we need to make the distinction between attachment to others being happy and compassion and love.  On the surface, they seem like the same in that they both wish others are happy and free from suffering.  What is different is for whose sake we want them to be happy and free from suffering.  Attachment to others being happy is concerned about ourselves, and becomes unhappy when others are not happy. We think our happiness depends on them being happy, so when they become unhappy we become unhappy, so anything that causes them to be unhappy, we also get angry with. 

When we have attachment to others being happy, we are not able to help them when they are down because we fall with them, so we become useless to them.  When we have attachment to others being happy, we can’t do what we need to do to actually help them.  Sometimes we have to do things that will make people unhappy when we don’t go along with their dysfunction, but we do it for their own benefit, even if they don’t realize this.  Parents have to do this all the time.  Unconditional love and compassion is concerned about others, and when they are unhappy we just love them more and so are still happy.

But it seems almost wrong to abandon our attachment to those we love being happy.  Won’t that make us indifferent to their plight and a cold and heartless person?  The opposite is actually the case.  It is our attachment to them being happy which actually gets in the way of us loving them purely, especially when they need us the most. 

We think instead of give up our attachment to our friends and family and children, can we just try hard not to get angry? We can even make promises to do so.  But is it possible if we have attachment to others being happy for us to not to get angry when they are harmed? If we have attachment, then is it definite that at some time we will get angry?  Of course it is. 

Our attachment to others being happy also can turn us into emotional tyrants.  We so can’t bear them being unhappy that when they are, we become angry with them and get upset at them for not being happy.  We then think we know what they need to be happy, and we will use our anger to try manipulate them into doing what we think they need to do to become happy.  Of course, this never works, but it doesn’t stop us from trying. 

We also, frankly, like our attachment to others.  Society fails to make the distinction between love and attachment, which is why there are so many poems and songs about how painful love is.  If we find ourselves getting angry often at those we have the most attachment to, is there a connection between the two?  We need to look at these things.  We don’t want to lose our object of attachment.  Do we have to?  When we abandon the mind of attachment, what happens to its object?  Does it cease altogether? Does part of it remain?  In truth, when we abandon our attachment, the object of our attachment disappears.  This doesn’t mean the person disappears, rather they turn into an object of love.  Objects of love are so much more pleasant than objects of attachment, so we can abandon our attachment without fear.

Of course we don’t want to experience hardship of abandoning the objects of our attachment.  But as Shantideva indicates, abandoning our attachment is nothing compared to the suffering we’ll experience if we keep our attachment, especially if we continue to get angry in dependence upon that attachment.  If we are not willing to pay the short-term price of abandoning our attachment we will never know the long-term rewards of permanent freedom.  A Dharma practitioner is somebody who is willing to do this because they know it is worth it.  The difficulty we experience does not come from the fact that we are now making the right decision, rather it comes from having repeatedly made the wrong decision in the past.  When we see this clearly, the more difficult it is, the more determined we will be to get free from it. 

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