The Principle of Nonattachment and the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism

The Noble Eightfold Path is an important part of the Buddhist system of thought. Each of the items on the path is related to an underlying Buddhist principle: nonattachment. This article provides some remarks on nonattachment, its history, and its relation to modern Buddhism and the Eightfold Path.
SpiritualRay Staff
According to the teachings of Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path allows followers to escape from the inevitable suffering of life by making progress toward enlightenment, which represents an end to the cycle of death and rebirth. Different schools of Buddhist thought hold different opinions on whether the Eightfold Path is the only way to achieve enlightenment, whether it is the best way to achieve enlightenment, and whether following the Path guarantees enlightenment. It is clear, however, that each principle on the Noble Eightfold Path is related to the fundamental Buddhist value of nonattachment.
Nonattachment is important to the history, understanding, and practice of the Buddhist philosophy and religion. In accounts of the history of Buddhism, it is frequently recounted that the Buddha, who was then known as Siddhartha Gautama, began his own spiritual journey and path to enlightenment by giving up all his possessions and leaving his family to seek the truth. This anecdote is widely thought to represent the importance of giving up all one has, including all the emotional attachments to family, friends, and places. (Incidentally, this mandate is echoed by Jesus Christ in the Gospels, but as a Christian principle it receives far less attention.)
To a large extent, the Buddha's own spiritual journey is taken to be an exemplar of the Buddhist spiritual journey in general. Therefore, the fact that Siddhartha left his home and all he held dear is thought to be, not only a parable about the importance of nonattachment, but an instruction that spiritual seekers in the Buddhist tradition should rid themselves of these attachments first, in order to progress toward their own enlightenment.
Of course, the history of Buddhism is thousands of years long, and over the course of this vast time span the system of thought has undergone innumerable changes and has branched into many different versions. Thus, any statement about what Buddhism teaches must be accompanied by some degree of equivocation, unless it is a factual statement about the history of Buddhism or the contents of its major texts. This is especially true with regard to the Noble Eightfold Path and the principle of nonattachment. The majority of practitioners of Buddhism around the world do not give up their possessions and leave their families. Instead of taking nonattachment to this extreme, most Buddhists engage in this practice in ways compatible with daily life.
According to one school of thought, nonattachment is a mental state, not a material state. It doesn't matter, therefore, whether one accumulates wealth or raises a family, since the enlightened spirit is completely indifferent to all states of affairs in the material world. This introduces one of the most widely known paradoxes of Buddhism, which directly relates to nonattachment. Although Buddhists are encouraged to cultivate nonattachment, ridding themselves of all emotional ties to the world and coming to understand the fundamental valueless nature of everything that happens in this life, the argument has been made that nonattachment itself constitutes a kind of attachment. People who hold this opinion claim that striving for nonattachment is still striving, and one is attached to nonattachment because one is trying to achieve that state.
A common approach to the paradox of nonattachment is to conceptualize nonattachment as a mental state. Thus, even if the Buddhist has a family or a job, one can practice nonattachment by limiting the degree to which one is emotionally affected by these things. To some, particularly in the Western world, this seems like a heartless, noncommittal philosophy, particularly because many Buddhists do not worship deities in the same way that many monotheistic religions' practitioners do. However, by adopting this attitude toward live and the universe, Buddhists can work on perfecting the Noble Eightfold Path by engaging in its recommendations: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. No matter what stage a person is at in his or her own spiritual journey, giving pause to consider the principle of nonattachment can help with progress in these eight steps.