Our recent trip to Japan proved to be an immersion crash course in Buddhism. I experienced a first-hand lesson of the Second Noble Truth that attachment is the source of suffering.
Nothing is constant: seasons change, hearts are broken, loved ones die, and regimes turn over. Though I was familiar with this teaching, I had never thought about a real-life, daily practice of detachment. Buddhist temples are all about the art of being free of attachment. The accompanying gardens are designed to keep us present in the now moment. Small rocks help us concentrate on what is under foot. Large stones facilitate looking up to take in a specific view. The serene grounds are a manifestation of embracing only what is immediately at hand.
In Kyoto, we heard a story about a famous tea master. The ruling samurai heard about the master’s garden being full of beautiful flowers in bloom, so he sent word that he planned to visit for tea. When he arrived, the garden was bare. The master had cut off all the blooms that morning, and placed a single flower in a vase in front of the tearoom scroll. While I imagined the displeasure and irritation the samurai must have felt, the tour guide told us that the master’s intention was for the samurai to fully appreciate the beauty of one individual stem. A blanket sensation of color from a whole sea of flowers would not do.
Whether the samurai learned the intended lesson is unknown, but I have been curious to find every day examples of attachment-free living. The opposite is commonplace. Our goal-oriented society prompts us to relentlessly pursue a certain outcome that we have already determined. If we don’t achieve it, we are sorely disappointed.
I was firmly attached to a preconceived idea about this vacation. Based on the many stories of friends who fell in love with Japanese culture on their holidays, I had formed an ideal experience in my mind. I envisioned gorgeous and delicious meals, stunning views, warm hospitality, and a wonderful family adventure. But it wasn’t that. My children irritated me; my husband mutinied at the amount of food that was served each night at one fancy dinner after another; and everything was more of a chore to find than we anticipated.
We were greeted with an inauspicious start: on our first morning after a measly five hours of sleep, we thought it would be efficient to go to the science museum by subway. Large signs indicated routes and destinations in Japanese characters, with tiny font English translations underneath. My husband merely glanced at the sign, exclaimed exuberantly “We’re going to Shibuya, right?” and bounded down the wrong set of escalators with our sons. I resisted the impulse to follow them, and patiently double-checked the sign for directions. Of course they had gone the wrong way, and I shouted after them to return. On jetlag, this was a major annoyance that affected my mood all day. Going any place felt like a major production throughout our trip. We repeatedly found ourselves in the vicinity of restaurants, but unable to easily locate them because we could not read Japanese.
Whenever my friends inquired about that holiday, I griped about my family, squarely blaming them for that difficult trip. This narrative felt right in the beginning, but it increasingly rang false. The more often I heard my words, the more I perceived them to be inaccurate. I repeatedly mulled over the basic facts of the vacation to uncover the root of my discontent and unease, but the truth eluded me. As I revisited the samurai’s story again, I had a sudden epiphany. I thought of his anticipation of an exquisite garden in bloom and the frustration with the reality of a tea master trying to teach him a lesson. I had anticipated a magical two weeks in Japan, but encountered the reality of life teaching me a lesson. I could see my attachment clearly. The food was beyond delicious, and I could have been free of the expectation for my husband to share my level of enjoyment. The views were indeed stunning, and I could have been free of the desire for my children to share my admiration. I was an active agent of my misery because of my inability to detach from my vision and to accept things as they were. My personal lesson in being free of attachment was the trip itself.
As I write these words, I realize that even a late understanding of my attachment — and therefore suffering — is not a lost opportunity. I am now able to better appreciate the things that did go right. We absorbed a ton of culture, ate fantastic food, loved the shopping, and saw old friends. I also learned another way to look at myself.
Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.
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