Why Holding on too Tightly Is a Bad Idea

By Derek Penwell

In the Deer Park Discourses the Buddha famously observed that “life is suffering”–the first noble truth–which, when first heard by students in my world religion classes, strikes them as unnecessarily morose.

“Yeah, life sucks and all that … but it’s not all bad.”

At that point, I explain to them that the word used by the Buddha (dukkha), which often gets translated from the Pali as “suffering,” doesn’t just mean something like “unremitting agony.” It can mean that, of course; but it means much more.

Dukkha is better understood as a wheel in which the axle is off center, making the wheel wobble constantly as it turns. Dukkha is like a pebble in the shoe, which can cause great pain, but is more often experienced as a phenomenon that exists just beyond the horizon of awareness, always seeming to lurk at the edges of consciousness. It is, in short, the nagging sense that something is not right.

Suffering … not in the epic sense of the grand heroic struggle, but in the dislocative sense that life is not as it should be.

Why is life dukkha? According to the Buddha, the second noble truth is that life is dukkha is because we desire.

“Of course, we desire. Why is that bad?”

Again, I stop and explain that the word the Buddha used (tanha) is probably better translated “selfishly grasp.”

We suffer because we grasp after things intended only to satisfy ourselves. We want things because we want them, and when we don’t get them, we experience suffering.

Our selfish grasping causes us to treat things as permanent, which things are only transitory (anicca).

I believe that this time love will last forever, that my new _________ (fill in the blank) won’t break, rust, expire, wear out, etc., that the body that has served me so well in the past will persist through time. When that which we grasp for inevitably stops working, leaves, runs dry we suffer.

Moreover, as the Buddha observed, we’re extremely proficient at lying to ourselves about the nature of our existence (anatta). We tell ourselves that the world we inhabit is the real world, and not just the world we perceive, that truth is an easy thing to possess for ourselves, and not for our enemies, that we are finally who we believe ourselves to be. When we find out the extent to which we cling to illusions, we suffer.

By now, my students are itching to argue with the Buddha. That’s when I break out the third noble truth.

The third noble truth consists in seeing the first two noble truths together as inextricably bound up with one another, then seeking to untangle them. The Buddha said that “If you want not to suffer, you must not selfishly grasp.”

“That’s fine for the Buddha; he gave everything away. He didn’t have anything left to hold onto.”


Jesus said something very much like this about 500 years later: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:35–36).

So, here’s the thing. Churches are not unlike individuals in their mad scramble to hold onto something, to grasp after that which is impermanent.

Have you ever been to a church where desperation hangs in the air–the feeling that “we’ve got to do something, or we’re going to die?”

Have you ever been to a church where every meeting is punctuated by hand-wringing over money? The lack of young families? Declining worship attendance?

Have you ever been to a church where failure is not viewed as a learning experience, but as one more step down the inevitable path toward extinction?

Dukkha. Tanha. According to the Jesus and the Buddha, they’re causally related. The more you have of one, the more you can be sure you have of the other.

If you want not to suffer, you must relinquish your grasping. That is to say, you must disentangle yourself from that which causes your suffering. You must detach from those things, ideas, expectations to which you cling so desperately. Turn loose.

“Again, easy for you to say.”

But it’s not easy for me to say, and even harder for me to do. I didn’t say it was easy, only necessary. Jesus says the cost of the whole process is a cross, which is to say, death (Mk 8:34).

So, maybe the way to think about it looks something like this:

Have you ever been to a church that spends more time struggling over what to give away than what to keep–that is, expends more energy on the Outreach committee than on the Property committee?

Have you ever been to a church that sees its small youth group not as a disappointment, but as an opportunity to offer more focused ministry?

Have you ever been to a church that views its building as a present to the world and not as a bequest to its members?

Have you ever been to a church where worship is centered on the gift that is offered to God rather than on what individual participants “get out of it?”

Have you ever been to a church where truth is a friend and illusion is the thing to be avoided at all cost?

Have you ever been to a church in which justice is not just the securing of individual rights, but the pursuit of a vision of the reign of God in which there is no justice until it gets extended to everyone?

Letting go means relinquishing everything, perhaps even the life to which we cling so desperately.

Take heart, though, if you follow Jesus, you already have a pretty good idea what giving it all away looks like.