“Don’t be attached to my philosophy and doctrine. Attachment to any religion is simply another form of mental illness.”

This is a quote that Lama Yeshe has used in his books and articles, for example in this piece:

Don’t be attached to my philosophy and doctrine. Attachment to any religion is simply another form of mental illness.

It’s crept into a couple of publications (such as a “quote of the day” ebook), but otherwise isn’t very widespread at the moment. In fact this quote — of this exact form of words — seems to originate with Lama Yeshe. That’s not necessarily evidence of it being fake; after all, he might have translated some Buddhist verse himself, and so these exact phrases might be unique to him. But they don’t strike me as being genuine. Pema Yangchen, who passed this quote on to me, was concerned about the phrase “mental illness,” which the Buddha, of course, wasn’t likely to have used.

I was struck more, however, by the first part: “Don’t be attached to my philosophy and doctrine.” Although there’s a tendency for modern teachers to emphasize this and to claim it’s what the Buddha taught, it actually boils down to a kind of pandering to our modern fear of dogmatic religion. Most of us who come to Buddhism in the west are put off by, and critical of, the way, first, that theistic religions demand that we “believe” certain propositions that can’t be empirically verified and thus have to be taken on faith, and, second, the way in which those same religions insist on the “rightness” of their own belief and the “wrongness” of any others. When westerners come to Buddhism, they bring those fears with them, and they’re relieved to be told that the Buddha said not to be attached to his teachings, and that we need to test them in our own experience.

Those statements aren’t exactly false, but there’s a bit of spin involved. The Buddha did point out, in the Kalama sutta, that the truth of a teaching was to be seen in whether it increased or reduced attachment, ill will, and aversion. But he was talking there about teachings in general, not his own. I don’t recall him ever specifically saying that his teachings were to be tested.

Of course saying that teachings, in general, are not to be clung to implies not clinging to the Buddha’s Dharma, but that isn’t something, to the best of my knowledge, that he emphasized. He wanted people to practice his teachings, not to be constantly doubting them.

Here’s one way that the Buddha talked about not clinging to views:

A person who associates himself with certain views, considering them as best and making them supreme in the world, he says, because of that, that all other views are inferior; therefore he is not free from contention (with others).

In fact he sometimes talked about the need to correctly grasp his teachings:

There are here, O monks, some foolish men who study the Teaching; having studied it, they do not wisely examine the purpose of those teachings. To those who do not wisely examine the purpose, these teachings will not yield insight. They study the Teaching only to use it for criticizing or for refuting others in disputation. They do not experience the (true) purpose for which they (ought to) study the Teaching. To them these teachings wrongly grasped, will bring harm and suffering for a long time. And why? Because of their wrong grasp of the teachings.

“Suppose, monks, a man wants a snake, looks for a snake, goes in search of a snake. He then sees a large snake, and when he is grasping its body or its tail, the snake turns back on him and bites his hand or arm or some other limb of his. And because of that he suffers death or deadly pain. And why? Because of his wrong grasp of the snake.

He goes on to say that “these teachings, being rightly grasped, will bring welfare and happiness for a long time.”

His emphasis in this teaching is that we should recognize and apply the spiritual purpose of the teachings, which is personal transformation leading to awakening, rather than seeing them as being a set of “correct” teachings that we can use in debate in order to feel superior. Of course that’s pretty much what we’d mean by “not grasping” after the Dharma! The word “grasping” here is being used in a way different from how we’d understand “attachment” or “clinging.”

Slightly further on in the same sutta I’ve just quoted, the Buddha uses the famous simile of the Dharma as a raft. He explains how a raft is used to get from point A to point B, and that having arrived at the destination we don’t then carry the raft around with us.

In the same way, monks, have I shown to you the Teaching’s similitude to a raft: as having the purpose of crossing over, not the purpose of being clung to.

“You, O monks, who understand the Teaching’s similitude to a raft, you should let go even (good) teachings, how much more false ones!

Of course on the way to the further shore, we need to rely upon and even “correctly grasp” the raft, even if we don’t cling to it in the sense of using it as a way to aggrandize our sense of self by using it as a basis for disputation.

My point isn’t that the Buddha thought we shouldn’t be attached to, or cling to his teachings. It’s just that he didn’t, in any neat way, seem to have articulated the kind of message that Lama Yeshe attributes to him.

As for madness, the Buddha did say:

…beings, destroyed by wrong-view,
go mad [khittacitta], out of their minds [visañña].

The quote as a whole is fine as a paraphrase of the Buddha’s teaching, but it’s not something he said. I suspect that Lama Yeshe has coined such a paraphrase, and that he has come to see it as a direct quote, when in fact it isn’t. It’s not uncommon for paraphrases to turn into quotes in this way.

In fact, in his “Freedom Through Understanding,” he says the following:

Lord Buddha said that we should not be attached to even the realizations of Nirvana or enlightenment. He also said that it’s wrong for his followers to be dogmatically attached to his doctrine, that that’s another type of psychological sickness or disease.

It may be that this was the original, and that Lama Yeshe mistakenly turned his own words into a quote.

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5 thoughts on ““Don’t be attached to my philosophy and doctrine. Attachment to any religion is simply another form of mental illness.””

    1. Possibly, but even teachers make mistakes. And the quote is found in an article he wrote, and over which I imagine he had editorial overview.

  1. I think Lama Yeshe (and/or his ‘translators’) is making a cultural translation of klesha when he says “mental illness.” As a teacher, he was prone to attempt bridging conceptual differences, this being only one example. I’m not sure every such measure he attempted to take was entirely successful…

    But I think Buddha did find overly clinging to points of view as one among the most serious of the kleshas, since most Abhidharma lists of kleshas do have a category of ‘view’ kleshas (with a five-fold subdivision).

    Jaini wrote a long time ago about the omission by Vaibhāṣikas of ‘views’ (dṛṣṭi) from their list of the six root afflictions. See Padmanabh S. Jaini, ‘Prajñā and Dṛṣṭi in the Vaibhāṣika Abhidharma,’ contained in: Lewis Lancaster, ed., Prajñāpāramitā and Related Systems: Studies in Honor of Edward Conze, Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series (Berkeley): 403-417. Among the subcategories is one about holding too tightly to points of view (or philosophies, etc.). I would say this must mean ‘dogmatism.’ If this is so, I would say that unless one might be a Vaibhāṣika (who and where are they nowadays?), Buddha did see dogmatism as a big problem for the development of awakening. It seems Buddhism is the only religion in the world today that regards flexibility as a virtue.

    But I don’t want to insist on my view in this matter. I do very much respect the work of weeding done here in this blog, and equally lament contemporary tendencies to make the Blessed Ones views bend to our predispositions.

    Yours, D.

    1. Thanks for a thoughtful response, Dan. I suspect you’re correct in thinking that “mental illness” is a translation of “klesha.” In a similar vein I’m fond of rendering vipallāsa with the psychological term “cognitive distortion.”

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