The Need of Attachment

Just as we do not need food to meet the need of hunger if we can identify or invent some other means to meet that need, then also we do not need suffering if we can identify or invent some other means to meet the need of attachment. Moreover, inasmuch as needless attachment leads to suffering, we may read in a different light what Thầy Nhất Hạnh says:

Understanding [needless attachment] always brings compassion. If we don’t understand [needless attachment], we don’t understand happiness. If we know how to take good care of [needless attachment], we will know how to take good care of happiness. We need [needless attachment] to grow happiness.

The fact is that [needless attachment] and happiness always go together. When we understand [needless attachment], we will understand happiness. If we know how to handle [needless attachment], we will know how to handle happiness and produce happiness (31).

Perhaps the appeal to “suffering” in Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s book—rather than an appeal to “needless attachment”—as the source of unpleasantness in human experiences arises from an attempt to reach a certain kind of ear in our Occidental culture. For a very long time now, Thầy Nhất Hạnh has sought to speak to Occidental ears, from his earliest appeals to people in the United States to stop destroying the people of and the world of his homeland to all of his subsequent work for peace worldwide.

Moreover, he stresses over and over that one may neither communicate nor achieve communication where listening cannot or has not occurred. Out of the howling suffering that we live in within our Occidental culture—a howling plastered over by thick layers of materialism, anaesthesia, and a partial knowledge of human experience—perhaps it must seem too abstract to approach the root of “attachment” all at once.

If “understanding suffering always brings compassion,” then a part of what such compassion entails would involve a person’s realisation of the attachment underlying that suffering. Otherwise, such compassion has an only a limited, therapeutic benefit, albeit still a desirable one. No wonder that non-attachment in Buddhism so often reads in Occidental ears as, “Oh, so I’m just not supposed to care about anything?” A focus on feeling or affect (on the sensual experience of suffering) that does not track back to the source of that affect (one born of desire arising from attachment) shifts us only from a disagreeable state of attachment to a seemingly more agreeable one.

The use to which the phrase “we need suffering” gets put acknowledges that suffering serves as a means to an end, and in this way discloses the misleading use of the word “need.” In fact, do not need suffering, although it suffices as a prevalent or prevailing means for meeting the need of attachment. To realise this clearly cuts off at the knees any apathetic or sadistic attempt to justify cruel behaviour or the suffering of others under the banner of “we need suffering”. It debunks every claim both of doing harm for the good of another of doing nothing for another’s harm because we all must deal with our own problems.

We do not need suffering. One would instead have to argue that we have no alternative to suffering as a means for meeting the need of attachment, except that we do have other means both to work against attachment and to work for non-attachment that make such a claim hollow, self-serving, or maliciously intended.

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The Need to Suffer

Since a need refers to that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue, we must ask then whether suffering names an actual need or if it embodies rather a present or prevailing means for meeting an as yet, still unnamed need. In the same way, just as the necessity of food as the most prevalent means for satisfying the need of hunger implies further that we might meet that need of hunger through means other than food, then the necessity of suffering as the most prevalent means for satisfying whatever as-yet unnamed need it meets implies as well that we might meet that unnamed need through means other than suffering as well.

Here, we may return to the Bhāgavad-Gītā for a clue what might constitute this unnamed need. There, we see:

while contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops; from attachment desires are born; from desire arises anger; from anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory; from bewilderment of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence; and from the loss spiritual intelligence one perishes

The root of this cascade that ends in one’s disintegration begins from developed attachment while contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops. Contemplation of the objects of the senses itself does not inevitably play out in the cascade, but the attachment to those sense objects contemplated. From that, desires arise; desires that circumstances then either frustrate (leading to anger that the desire failed to be gratified) or gratify (leading to anger that the desire proved non-permanent and transitory).

How we understand the downstream consequences of the desires arising from attachment, not only does attachment itself begin this cascade, we may note that attachment precedes desire. Hence in Buddhism one hears again and again of the necessity of non-attachment as a solution to the problems both of frustrate desire and the perils of karmic rebirth, rather than an initial emphasis on desires themselves. Attachments to desires not desires themselves prove the trap; not affect or feeling itself, but the ground of them, attachment to them.

This already suggests that suffering, understood as an affect or a feeling, does not get to the root; we might simply say that attachment to suffering identifies a prior condition or problem that requires our address. Thus, if we “need” suffering, this hols only because “attachment to suffering” occurs so pervasively, so automatically, so unconsciously, that it already provides the framework or the ground by which we might move towards happiness or peace and away from or out of suffering.

And yet, the understanding disclosed by the Bhāgavad-Gītā shows that by awareness of the issue—by seeing that attachment to desires, not desires themselves—exhibits the root of the problem, we may proceed from that point, and not from the condition of being already trapped within our attachments. This alone shows suffering not as a need but as the prevailing means by which we address the now-no-longer-unnamed need of attachment.

The Bhāgavad-Gītā, Buddhism, and many similar traditions, in fact, insist that suffering results from needless attachment, from attachments that we assuredly resorted to but that it did not have to go that way.

The strangeness or weirdness, the difficulty of trying to come to terms with the notion of non-attachment, so prevalent in Buddhism, arises out of this critique. Even to say, “One might not be attached” seems attached to the notion of non-attachment. But nothing paradoxical hides in this. Just as our best approximation of “objective reality” can only arise from a collectively intersubjective collation of subjective impressions—the Jains would remind us, “No, not even then”—so also must every engagement with the notion of “non-attachment” find expression through our embodied and attached human beingness. We can never talk it, but can only talk about it, but even that talking about it serves, or can serve, to orient one’s attention in the right direction.

But however helpful or unhelpful the elaborations, we see that suffering supplies merely the most prevalent means for meeting the need of attachment.

We may speak of a need of attachment even in Buddhist terms, in that everything manifest being necessarily both transient and limited, then we see attachment to that limitation and transiency as the condition that must be met if the state of affairs of our individual embodiment will continue. Since much Eastern philosophy and religion sees this sort of persistence over lifetimes as a problem needing a solution, its solutions then properly go to the very root of the need that generates the ground of that persistence: attachment.

Just as I cease to exist as a self-aware living individual if the need of separation (apartness, isolation, &c) no longer gets met by some necessity (whether friendship, community, togetherness, &c), so also do we cease to exist as a self-aware living individual if the need for attachment gets no longer met by some necessity as well. That suffering embodies simply the prevalent or prevailing means by which the need of attachment gets met, this means we might meet that need by other means as well.

As such, we do not need suffering.

 

Let Us Not Promote Suffering

Against the notion of this defence of Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence that “we need suffering,” to say we need suffering also resonates terribly in English. If we would say that we need suffering, then this means we should also do all that we can to ensure that we and others suffer, so that they may grow, or at least move finally toward that end of happiness or peace that suffering lays the groundwork for.

A very great deal of political quietism and apathy may hide under this notion, even if someone does not have enough strength of character to inflict deliberate suffering in others that they might grow toward happiness. They can at least stand aside and declare the suffering of others none of their affair but certain something good and necessary.

However, as we also know the Vedic injunction—mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone—one might think that this alone should stop any such understanding of suffering—deliberately or perversely inflicted or not—in its tracks. The injunction should already rule out any apathy by people toward suffering, much less any insistence on inflicting or promoting suffering in others through violence due to the necessity and benefit of suffering. However, it does not always work out that way. In his study of the Śrī Vedānta-Sūtra, Adhyāyas III & IV, for instance, David Bruce Hughes summarises the argument around Sūtra 3.1.26:

The Vedas order:

agnisomīyaṁ paśum ālabheta

“One should sacrifice an animal in an agnisomiya-yajña.”

Because piety and impiety is known only from the Vedas’ statements, the Vedas’ orders to commit violence must be understood to be actually kind and pious. Therefore the orders of the Vedas are never impure. The prohibitions “Never commit violence to anyone,” and “Violence is a sin,” are the general rules decreed by the Vedas; and the statement, “one should sacrifice an animal in an agnisomiya-yajña,” is an exception to that general rule. A general rule and a specific exception to that rule need not contradict each other. There is scope for each (29, underlining added).

One may readily anticipate a reading of “the Vedas’ orders to commit violence must be understood to be actually kind and pious” as simply the Orwellian doublespeak of Power.

I will not engage the manifold apologetics, both disingenuous and sincere, that exist for this exception to the general rule of mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone. I raise the point only to make clear the destructive use that some may and have put the phrase “we need suffering” to use, whether to do harm to others for their own good or to do nothing about harm to others for their own good. I do not read that Thầy Nhất Hạnh intends the phrase to stand on its own, and he provides much more text by which to contextualise his intended meaning, as I hear it. Yet I still hear him saying, “we need suffering” out of a sense of his own experience of suffering as it contributed to his growth toward peace and happiness.

If we seek out the “lesson” in the suffering that befalls us, this occurs only retrospectively. Experiences befall us, and those we experience and name as suffering we may then engage in whatever way we do, even to learn something from that experience. We will see, then: one may only recognise suffering, we re-cognise it; one cannot inflict it, not even the sadist, who may know another human being well enough in advance to know that certain kinds of physical, psychological, or social violence done will instantiate in that person as suffering, that they will experience and name those actions as inflicting suffering. Nonetheless, such a cruel person inflicts only violence, and we may see then in every claim to do harm to another “for their own good” only violence and a violation of the injunction mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone.

In life, if we will less often meet sadists—those sufferers who spread the agony of their experience deliberately to others—and more often those sufferers whose own suffering makes reaching out compassionately to others too onerous or difficult, still the burdensome of this experience does not mean we must overlook the self-serving character of our attempts to solace ourselves by blunting or deflecting or ennobling the evident suffering of others—especially suffering that arises from social injustice and privilege—under the banner of “we need suffering”. Perhaps I decide I need a suffering, that does not license me to decide that you need suffering in general, and even less so any one or more specific suffering: that cancer, sexual assault, the death of your child, a war, your failure to get into college.

Whatever need of suffering we might recognise individually in retrospect, to prevail over the violence that wrought it argues not for the necessity of such violence but rather to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of an inhuman fate.

 

The Suffering of Need

In English, we have an unfortunate relationship with the word need. We may often hear something referred to as needed, when the thing described rather embodies only the present or prevailing means by which we meet an actual, often unnamed, need.

A need, rather, names only that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue. The notion of biological needs, the biology of living beings, gives us our most familiar examples. We call food a need, for instance, but food embodies only the most prevailing means by which we meet the need of hunger. In other words, we may understand hunger as a need, i.e., that condition that must be met so that a given living being may continue to persist as a living being. That food embodies simply the most prevalent means for satisfying the need of hunger means further that we might meet that need of hunger with other means than food. Biologically—for mammals at least, including ourselves—we may name also the needs of thirst, environmental exposure, and fatigue also, which we generally meet with the prevailing means of water, clothing and shelter, and sleep. By referring to these biological needs of hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion, I do not intend to offer an exhaustive list.

Since we experience these biological needs of hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion as unpleasant, as something we wish to avoid, but must continue to experience them in order to persist as living beings, then we may say that we need the suffering they entail. Without them, we would cease to exist as living beings. In this light, we may understand how Thầy Nhất Hạnh insists, “We need suffering” (30). We may see how our embodiment in this life, which seems to require this kind of biological suffering in order to persist, makes suffering a prerequisite for the condition opposite of suffering, which we might call happiness or peace.

Being > Biology

For human beings, as one species amongst the many within the counsels of species, what constitutes our human lifedoes not arise from our biology. Experiencing everything through our perceptions, our perceptions define what we deem reality. A living being without self-awareness will have no body, no brain, not even any world or environment in the sense that we experience it. For us to speak specifically of biological needs, then, already emanates not from any physical reality of the world but from our way of conceptualising our experience of it.

Since a need denotes that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue, inour human experience we not only name under a category of biology such needs as hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion, but also many other needs; Thầy Nhất Hạnh specifically combines the biological and the non-biological when he writes, “Love, respect, and friendship all need food to survive” (9).

One will find few who would object to the notion that human beings—if not all sovereign, living beings—need love, respect, and friendship. But again, we see love, respect, and friendship not as needs but rather the present or prevailing means by which we meet some actual, as yet still unnamed, need. I notice that it does not clarify thinking to imagine food as the opposite of hunger; rather, food embodies a prevailing means by which the need of hunger gets met. So just as the necessity of food meets the need of hunger, then we might ask as well what the necessities of love, respect, and friendship meet the needs of.

To address only one example, we may see that friendship meets a need of separation. Since we cannot have the experience of existing as individuals if we do not experience some reality of apartness or distinction that sets us apart from all other people and living beings, then separation or apartness describes a condition that be met so that the present state of affairs might continue. If we ceased to exist in our separateness, then we as a living being would no longer exist. However, as also with hunger, the unpleasantness of this experience of separation or apartness—this absolute isolation from all others—along with our desire to avoid the on-going state of the experience of that, makes friendship (or togetherness or community) a present or prevailing means by which that need of separation, isolation, apartness gets met.

One might elaborate a long list of non-biological human things—for example, love, respect, friendship, fairness, cooperation, compassion, recognition, &c—that we would incorrectly call needs, since these things embody rather the present or prevailing means for meeting some as yet still unnamed need. But in all cases, however one builds such a list, the experience of the unpleasantness of those needs and our desires to avoid experiencing the state of them points again to the sense of Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence, “We need suffering” (30) if we would attain its opposite: happiness or peace.

However, I would further emphasise that any so-called “biological” needs do not differ in kind at all from these otherwise “non-biological” needs.

A living system self-aware or not that fails to meet the need of hunger disintegrates; the organisation of its life as an organism falls apart and it ceases to have being. Conventionally, we say it dies. In the same way, for self-aware living beings, if one fails to meet the need of separation, the organisation of its life as a living being also falls apart and it ceases to have existence. We sometimes metaphorically say people die of loneliness, but sometimes this happens literally as well.

Moreover, whatever importance I accord my conceptualisation of my biology, that conceptualisation itself already represents a “non-biological” value. Thus, when someone gives me food to eat—when someone meets my need of hunger with the necessity of food—I say we might more clearly understand this not in terms of biology but, rather non-biologically, as meeting the need of separation with friendship.

Someone might object, “Why only the need of separation? Why not also the need of hunger?”

I intend to erase here the false distinction of the biological as somehow prior to human existence or simply more important. Instead of “one does not live by bread alone,” I would say, “one does not live by bread at all; one only persists.”

But further, that I should cease to have being “biologically” does not end my life—it ends only my experience of that life. Whatever role our human imagining of biology plays in the shaping of our lives—and it plays a considerable role, one assumes—it describes neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for understanding the character or experience of self-aware life. When I die, my life continues in the lives of other living beings; the framework of “biology” cannot explain this aspect of human experience, an experience shared by other living beings who express grief over the death of another, for instance.

For the experience of a self-aware life, then, the qualities of difference one may identify between different needs (like hunger or separation) have felt consequences, but do not finally rise to a difference in kind. In other words, one perhaps may not ultimately find a satisfying distinction of difference between the so-called “biological” and “non-biological” needs of self-aware living beings.

To make this more starkly dramatic, rather than speaking of a need for hunger, one might describe the need for starvation in human experience. It seems no accident or coincidence that one of the riders of the Apocalypse has the name Famine, not Hunger. Or again, people in prison and in poverty and in alienating workplaces may receive food and yet feel (correctly) that they have ceased to live. Or yet again, like those on hunger strikes who specifically refuse to meet the need of hunger with food, they may yet feel (correctly) that their life, perhaps for the first time, has at last attained significance and meaning. At the end of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton reflects on his impending (and voluntary) execution as giving for the first time a weight and significance to his otherwise wasted life.

In all of this, we may understand all human needs as the needs of self-aware living beings, and refuse to misleadingly distinguish between biological and non-biological needs and the means that meet those needs. Such a view remains resonant with Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence, “We need suffering” (30)—we need the human experience of hunger and separation, thirst and loneliness, &c. In the case of all such human needs, the unpleasantness of the experience of those needs as well as our desire to avoid those experiences, points to the (human) need of suffering Thầy Nhất Hạnh identifies; an experience we then either meet with the present and prevailing means that meet that need or fail too and experience the disintegration of the organisation of our lives, i.e., we die or cease to exist.

In the same way that if we cease to experience hunger this in all likelihood means that we have died, then more generally if we cease to suffer, then this in all likelihood means we have stopped humanly living.

 

mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni – never commit violence to anyone

नमस्ते. Namasté. “I bow to the divine within you, and am grateful for your presence.”

In The Art of Communicating, Zen teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh says that “when we listen to someone with the intention of helping that person suffer less, this is deep listening” (42). One must “take the time to look and see the suffering in the other person” (44), and to say to yourself as you listen, “I am listening to this person with only one purpose: to give this person a chance to suffer less” (44).

I honour to remember this as I comment on what he has written about suffering. And I remember also verses 62 and 63 in chapter 2 of the Bhāgavad-Gītā, where Kṛṣṇa offers a detailed description of the origin of suffering. I give this below with the hope that you may as well savour the beauty of the original Sanskrit script, the strangeness—for those, like myself, who cannot read Sanskrit—of an encounter with its transliteration into the Roman alphabet, and also the insight offered by one of its translations into English of the sequence Kṛṣṇa identifies as the source of suffering, how it comes about:

              2.62

2.63

dhyāyato viṣayān puṁsah saṅgas teṣūpajāyate
saṅgāt sañjāyate kāmaḥ kāmāt krodho ‘bhijāyate
krodhād bhavati saṁmohaḥ saṁmohāt smṛti-vibhramaḥ
smṛti-bhraṁśād buddhi-nāśo buddhi-nāśāt praṇaśati

While contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops;
from attachment desires are born; from desire arises anger;
from anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory
from bewilderment of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence
and from the loss spiritual intelligence one perishes

Thầy Nhất Hạnh—the word thầy suggests an honoured teacher in Vietnamese—writes that “we need suffering” (30, emphasis in original), and adds further:

Understanding suffering always brings compassion. If we don’t understand suffering, we don’t understand happiness. If we know how to take good care of suffering, we will know how to take good care of happiness. We need suffering to grow happiness. The fact is that suffering and happiness always go together. When we understand suffering, we will understand happiness. If we know how to handle suffering, we will know how to handle happiness and produce happiness (31).

The purpose of my commentary in this essay aims to respond to the points made here by Thầy Nhất Hạnh, endeavouring as I do to remember to listen for the suffering in his writing, that I might make him suffer less.