“She just bought that umbrella, and it’s already broken,” said Ajahn laughing, looking at a woman running in the rain with a broken umbrella. “Ah yes, I replied, one of those cheap things made to break the first time you open it. I’ve bought a few of those before.” He looked at me with his teasing eyes: “Yes, I’m sure you have.”
My Ajahn has great admiration for Ajahn Chah, one of Thailand’s foremost Buddhist teachers, who died in early 1992. One of Ajahn Chah’s most famous teachings is about seeing the glass you’re holding as already broken. He was known for not explaining his similes and forcing his students to figure things out by themselves. But my Ajahn gave me some hints after seeing the woman with the umbrella.
“Sooner or later, he said, the glass will break, just like the lady’s umbrella. Maybe not today, maybe not in the next twenty years. But one day, it will crack. This is impermanence, and it applies to all things in this world. The Buddha teaches us to keep this fact in mind at all times, so we learn to live in tune with reality and avoid creating unnecessary suffering for ourselves by getting attached to things. When we attach to things or people, we develop an unrealistic expectation toward them: we want them to last forever. Attachment creates suffering because it argues with reality. If you know that the glass won’t last forever, then you have a realistic relationship with it. You appreciate it without getting attached to it. Attachment means making your happiness dependent on the object of your attachment. This will always cause suffering because all things are impermanent and so can’t provide lasting happiness. Find your happiness within, make it unconditional. Then you can really appreciate the glass, and its impermanent nature will never cause you suffering. This is how we should engage with the world.”
I was stunned, because I’d never thought of non-attachment this way. I’d always thought it was some kind of emotional aloofness akin to indifference. In my mind, attachment was a natural by-product of caring. If you care about something or someone, attachment necessarily follows, and you are bound to be hurt when it goes away. This is just how life is, I thought. What Ajahn was saying was that non-attachment is a way of interacting with the object which accounts for its future cracking, a way which frees it of the responsibility of making you happy. Much less demanding and painful.
He must have read my mind, because he continued: “Actually, non-attachment is unconditional love. Attaching to someone or something means that you are implicitly asking them to make you happy forever. This is a heavy demand which always brings suffering, because you are making your happiness dependent on something that will eventually break or leave. It is conditional love because you are asking for happiness in exchange for your attention. Unconditional means you don’t make any demands. You love the thing for itself, without any expectations. Your peace is your own responsibility, you don’t make the other responsible for it, whether it’s Ajahn Chah’s glass or your life partner.”
He paused for a second, gazing into space, before resuming: “The broken glass is a teaching about care and love. Seeing the impermanent nature of things makes you care for them because you know they will not be there forever. You love them the way they are, fragile and impermanent like the lady’s umbrella. Unconditional love means you love the umbrella the way it is, knowing it will break one day.”