Can we actually “let it go?”

The goal of Buddhism is to acknowledge suffering, its causes, and to end it. “Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, dying is suffering, sorrow, grief, pain, unhappiness, and unease are suffering; being united with what is not liked is suffering, separation from what is liked is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in short, the five aggregates of grasping are suffering (Gethin, 60). What causes these sufferings are our attachments, our thirst for things, we want too much and are attached, stuck in this cycle of rebirth. In order to escape suffering we must follow the path. “This is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: the noble eightfold path, namely right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration” (Gethin, 60). This is the central focus within Buddhism, the rest is merely how to achieve enlightenment, how to stay on the “Noble eightfold” path to enlightenment.

In Buddhism we are taught that anyone can achieve this, to end our suffering and leave the rebirth cycle. Even a foolish man can. “I was drunk with the intoxication of my birth, wealth, and sovereignty. Drunk with the intoxication of my body’s build, coloring, and form (Thag, 6.9). The man leaves behind his greed, his attachments to superficiality and becomes a monk. In another tale, a woman also leaves behind her attachments. “Intoxicated with my complexion” (Thig 5.2). Both mentions being intoxicated with their looks and some form of power, but moving beyond that. This focus on moving past it makes it appear that even the lowest have a chance at enlightenment. But how are we as people, supposed to leave everything behind? This is at odds with how we are socialized. It is in our nature to want, to feel, to yearn. If someone has no motivations in life, then what is the point in living?

Buddhism is right in that life is suffering because of aging, sickness, death, and the impermanency of life. What we strive for and love will leave; by depending on these things we only suffer. This viewpoint is depressing, and while true, how are we supposed to live with not wanting? This detachment present in Buddhism is terrifying to handle and daunting. “I shall fasten you, mind, like an elephant at a small gate. I shall not incite you to evil, you net of sensual pleasure, body-born” (Thag 5.9). Even monks struggle with controlling themselves, comparing the mind to an elephant. It is hard to reconcile this message with what we are taught in life, every goal focuses on us being attached to something. Buddhism is supposed to be accessible to everyone. And yet, it seems it is not. Even priests struggle. Living life by renouncing everything seems like an empty life, a life where you are not living. It seems impossible to look beyond the single-minded, limited view of life and pleasure that we all have. We do not have the control, or the will.

Works Cited

Gethin, Rupert. “Chapter 4.” The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

“Therigatha.” Verses of the Elder Nuns. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2015

“Theragatha.” Verses of the Elder Monks. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition). 30 November 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2015


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7 Responses to Can we actually “let it go?”

  1. yeezy says:

    You bring up an interesting paradox when you write, “It is in our nature to want, to feel, to yearn. If someone has no motivations in life, then what is the point in living?”. Buddha’s teachings say that desire is the primary cause of dissatisfaction, and hence should be eliminated. However, this philosophy is contradictory because one must desire to eliminate desire. A.L. Herman writes about the “paradox of desire” in his paper “A Solution to the Paradox of Desire in Buddhism”. He explains, “‘Letting go,’ after all, is the condition of desirelessness,
    and it is achieved following the frustration of knowing that it cannot be
    achieved, that is, it cannot be regarded as a goal to be striven for, worked
    for, sought after-in a word, desired”. I’m interested in discovering other paradoxes in Buddhist prescriptions and how they are interpreted.

  2. Merp says:

    I too question what it really means to remove oneself from worldly affairs–that it is innate for us as humans to want, become attached, etc. I like the point you made about, “Living life by renouncing everything seems like an empty life”. If you ask me, Buddhism and its teachings seems contradictory in some areas. If the goal of Buddhism is to ultimately end suffering, does that not depict a feeling of attachment? Goals are meant to be achieved, and people normally strive to attain something that is wanted thus becoming attached to achieving that something–which in this case is the cessation of suffering.
    In today’s society and even in Buddhism, the term “attachment” is set in stone as a negative connotation. In Buddhism, it is a cause of suffering and one that must be brought to an end in order to achieve the end of suffering. In today’s day and age, the term is also viewed as being “too clingy” or “obsessed”. But, maybe it shouldn’t be this way. Attachment is not a black and white type of concept. There are gray areas in attachment depending on how it interpreted. Since it seems that Buddhism sees attachment in a negative way, it could be a start to view attachment in a more positive light and then gradually move on to eliminating it.

  3. Sarah says:

    Thank you for your post. Specifically, I found your observation that the goals we are socialized to pursue (in a Western Capitalist context, I presume) are themselves attachments of a sort. I wonder, then, if the message of Buddhism is particularly relevant to the time and place we find ourselves in – especially in an environment like Smith – where striving seems to be a culture. I would also like to lift up the thought that accessibility does not promise ease.

  4. Emilia says:

    I found your piece to be interesting and I think a very common struggle for most people when they think about committing themselves to either a cause or a belief. If you look at extremist groups for example, they tend to target those individuals that have very little in their lives, that are cast out by society and are living an isolated, unfulfilled life, making it easier for them to devote themselves.

    Its interesting that Buddha made himself one of these individuals, by casting aside society, but instead he found enlightenment. The one thing I would question and I feel your hinting at, is that even those who we see as the foremost experts of a religion, the religious leaders (priests and monks), also struggle themselves with the causes of suffering. But in class we questioned whether a monk really achieves enlightenment. Maybe in actuality they aren’t fully enlightened, but have been able to be less distracted and more focused on this goal than others. I wonder if they are more privileged to be able to look for this enlightenment as they are supported by the lay-people.

  5. Pikachu says:

    Buddhism appeals to many individuals from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Its followers range from the poor to the elite. However, it seems that people who are qualified and/or suitable to be devout Buddhists (monks) are, in some capacity, physically and mentally fit.

    In a religion which commands strict physical endurance and spiritual obedience, it is difficult or impossible for many people with physical and mental disabilities to pursue the monastic life. In today’s society, there are some individuals who do not have control of their entire body or level of awareness. Some are even brain dead. For people who live within unfortunate circumstances, how are they able to just forgo their suffering and strive for a better rebirth?

    Buddhism teaches that followers who devote their time to religious teachings can achieve their salvation. Even though Buddhism is depicted as an egalitarian faith, people who are on the path to salvation have privileges that are not granted to many.

  6. Wesley Crusher says:

    I guess I have two thoughts about this conversation.
    1. What is this “mainstream society”? In what way have “we” been “socialized”? The world is not a monolithic one, and it seems probable that people experience culture, or cultures, that are different and are socialized to understand the world and ones own values in different ways.
    2. That, said, I don’t think that the impulse to let it go is necessarily antithetical or alien to, I guess, white American culture. I see this impulse in the desire to go minimalist–the tiny houses fad, for instance, seems to be an (incomplete) attempt to re-value a life without “stuff”. That’s just one example that comes to mind, but I think this impulse can exist in many different ways.

  7. MG says:

    Your post raised some good points, and lead me to wonder further about the ways in which principles of Buddhism are at odds with society today. I wonder whether, if the Buddha had been alive today, maneuvering in the world we now live in, his teachings and epiphanies would have been affected. Would the path to enlightenment have been as clear to him? Or would the teachings be as at odds with what mainstream society aims to teach us?

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