Buddhist Non-Attachment Philosophy And Psychological Well-Being In Vietnamese Buddhists
Non-attachment in Buddhism has been conceptually proposed to have an impact on personal well-being. Nevertheless, there has been limited empirical studies investigating how non-attachment influences health, and in particular, its effect on eudaimonic well-being. Our key research questions were: Do demographics influence non-attachment and psychological well-being? And, to what extent can nonattachment and demographics affect psychological well-being? To investigate these, developed the following aims: (1) to compare non-attachment and psychological well-being in people with different Buddhist status and types of practice (indicated by the types of groups they practiced with, the extent to which they took refuge in The Three Jewels, and the frequency with which they practiced the Dharma); (2) to examine the relationship between non-attachment in Buddhism and psychological well-being, including the related components of psychological well-being. Participants were 472 Buddhists from five sanghas in Vietnam. Data was collected from January to April, 2016. Each participant was given a battery of measures comprised of: The Non-Attachment Scale (
Keywords: Non-attachmentWell-beingPsychological Well-beingBuddhist
Religious psychology is one of the oldest branch of psychological science (Joshi & Kumari, 2011).
It emerged from the early work of James (1902), Freud (1913), and Jung (1938), and has recently
experienced a rise in popularity (Pargament, Koenig, Tarakehwar, & Hahn, 2004). In the last ten years,
there has been increasing appreciation among psychologists and practitioners of the potential for religious
principles and philosophy to influence human well-being. Some argue that, for the reason that
participation in a particular religion can extend a person’s support network, religion promotes individual
well-being (Diener et al., 2011; Krause & Hayward, 2013; McIntosh, 1995; Revheim & Greenberg,
2007), others argue that it reduces distress (Hefti, 2011); enhances stress coping ability (Pargament et al.,
2004; Park, 2005; Bradshaw et al., 2010), promotes self-evaluation (Whittington & Scher, 2010),
purposeful perception of life (Martos et al., 2010; Diener et al., 2011), and postive perception of the
future (Levin, 2010).
In the last decade, psychologists have become interested in contructs and practices of Buddhism
and Buddhist psychology (Pargament et al., 2004; Ekman et al., 2005; Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). This
trend may be reflecting interest among many agnostic scientists in a “spiritual” practice that can be
beneficial for nonreligious people, however, it could also be owing to increased recognition of Buddhist
practices in clinical psychology, and from a recent movement towards a positively-orientated approach to
psychology and well-being (Snyder & Lopez, 2009).
According to Buddhism, attachment, adversion, and ignorance are the three major human poisons,
and they are innate to the human condition (Dalai Lama, 2000). However, they can be resisted and virtues
cultivated, through the practice of generosity, which should be performed in the spirit of unconditional
love (i.e., giving freely, without attachment or expectation) (Drakpa, Sunwar, & Choden, 2013). In other
words, the Buddhist approach to happiness is to strive to free one’s self from attachment.
Attachment theory was first proposed by Bowbly (1969, 1973) and Ainsworth (1985). It considers
that the quality of a person’s relationships and their mental states throughout their lifetime, are strongly
determined by the type of attachment they experienced with their primary caregiver during early
childhood. Although attachment theory focuses on the interaction between an individual’s relationships
and personality development, little consideration was given to how this model could be utilised to create
the conditions for psychological wellbeing in adulthood (Sahdra, 2013).
Buddhist psychology, meanwhile, describes attachment (
thinking’ – the mistaken decision to look for security and happiness in possessions, wealth, and reputation
(Sahdra, 2013). There are four parameters of attachment (
doctrines of self). The Dalai Lama (2001) suggests attachment as the origin and root of suffering and the
reification of the ego-self. In this study, we use Shonin and colleagues (2014) definition of attachment as
“the overallocation of cognitive and emotional resources toward a particular object, construct, or idea to
the extent that the object is assigned an attractive quality that is unrealistic and that exceeds its intrinsic
worth” (p. 126).
craving for existence (Harris, 1997), or the absence of lust. Non-attachment, however, does not imply
withdrawal, but rather the freedom to see the world clearly. Non-attachment is achieved once a person is
aware that no possession, relationship or any achievement is infinite and that none will be able to satisfy
human need (Harris, 1997). In other words, non-attachment is the flexibility to free oneself from desire
and to choose peace. A person who practices non-attachment is not tied to any opinion, appearance or
desire for possession, and they may be more resilient to the trap of self-defensive cognitions (Sahdra et
Well-being is the subjective evaluation of general life satisfaction and can also refer to specific
life-domains. Well-being is considered from two different perspectives: hedonic well-being and
From the hedonic perspective, well-being is life experience with the presence of satisfaction and
absence of sadness (subjective well-being) (Bradburn, 1969; Diener, 1984). According to Diener, Lucas
and Oishi (2005), subjective well-being is the individual evaluation of the cognitive and affective aspects
of their life. Two core principles of subjective well-being are cognition (satisfaction) and affect (both
positive and negative affect) (Bradburn, 1969; Andrews & Withey, 1976; Diener et al., 1985). Other
authors, however, have conceptualised subjective well-being as a combined model, between pleasure
(positive emotion) and engagement and meaning (Seligman et al., 2006). Alternatively, it has also been
conceived as a variable determined by excited activities balanced with challenges and personal skills
In contrast, the Eudaimonic approach, does not separate human well-being from human potential.
Once the potential is actualized, a person will function healthily and positively (Diener, 1985; Ryan &
Deci, 2001). Being well does not only mean experiencing life with more excitement and less sadness, but
it is a process of self-actualization (Ryff, 1989). Ryff (1989) proposed a six-factor model of eudaimonic
well-being: positive self-perception (self-acceptance), positive relations, independence and autonomy, life
purpose, environmental mastery, and personal growth. The five dimensions model of Keyes (1998), on
the other hand, conceptualized well-being as being composed by: social integration, social contribution,
social acceptance, social actualization, and social coherence.
Contemporary researchers, while agreeing that well-being features a subjective, psychological, and
a social aspect (Negovan, 2010), have increasingly emphasized the psychological aspect of human
experience, and with it, its relation to religious belief. For example, Unterrainer and colleagues (2012)
suggest that from a religious approach, well-being has six dimensions: immanent hope, forgiveness, a
sense of meaning, transcendent hope, general religiosity, and connectedness. Returning to Buddhism, as
another example, Buddhism does not emphasize the achievement of goals or self-satisfaction, but on the
self-balance experience (Joshi & Kumari, 2011) and positive relaxation (Tsai et al., 2007). Well-being
from a Buddhist approach is a result of freedom from the mind itself, namely from its tendency to angst,
and the result of the ability to realise one's fullest potential in term of wisdom, compassion, and creativity
(Wallace & Shapiro, 2006).
Non-attachment and well-being
Distinct from other religions, Buddhism conceptualizes human life as suffering and from which
no Buddha or spiritual feature can help people to escape (Finn & Rubin, 2000). In Buddhism, suffering is
not simply one's dissatisfaction, it is the result of humanity’s misconception of life (Ekman et al., 2005).
Therefore, rather than emphasizing the image of Buddha as a saviour figure, Buddhism focuses on the
message of The Four Noble Truths as an approach to life. The first, the Truth of Suffering, and the fourth
truth, the Truth of the Path Leading us to the End of Suffering, convey an essential component of
Buddhism, that life begins and ends with suffering. The other two truths have closer relations with non-
attachment and with psychological well-being.
The Truth of the Cause of Suffering refers to the Buddhist concept that craving and ignorance are
the root causes all suffering. Craving is commonly presented under the form of
According to this model, sadness, is the result of the human craving for objects that they found attracted
to (Chah, 2011). In other words, humans have a tendency to find happiness in the possession of material,
pleasure, health, knowledge, position, compliment, and recognition. As a result, they are attached to their
environment and their relationships with it, rather than their inner strength for their own happiness.This
concept follows that, once attached, well-being is unstable according to the variation in the outside
phenomena (i.e., the possession of objects, relationships with others) that it is now dependent on. From
this perspective, status is another object of attachment, people become tied to the pressure of having to
achieve, and to possess in order to find happiness (Sahdra et al., 2010).
The Truth of the End of Suffering implies that only when all the deep roots of suffering are
removed, suffering will end. And with the end of suffering, happiness emerges as freedom from
expectation and dissatisfaction (Fink, 2013). According to Buddhism, as everything is impermanent,
happiness cannot be sustained by holding onto property or objects. Buddhism proposes that everything
has three characteristics: impermanence, selflessness, and dissatisfaction, and each existence is the
consequence and cause of another, nothing is absolute or unchangeable. Although Buddhism has been in
existence for a centuries and has spread around the globe, this perception is not common to humanity, and
often theworld is perceived as absolute and all forms as completely independent from each other (Ricard,
2006). Therefore, the majority of people seek happiness in the pursuit of success, youth, health,... Those
satisfactions are controlled by one's environmental stimuli, and their social interactions. Accordingly,
when those stimuli are removed, happiness is also diminished (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006).
From a Buddhist point of view, the only way to achieve inner peace is to eliminate attachment, or
to cultivate non-attachment. Non-attachment does not mean to run away or repress negative thoughts and
emotions, but to face and carefully analyse where they come from, how they take place, and how they
impact one's self and others. For example, when a new situation arises, one is often overcome with greed,
hatred, and ignorance, from which emotions arise. These emotions, which could be pleasant, unpleasant,
or neutral, act to blind humans to the true nature of peace, they will ignore, evade or deny it, and instead
cling to their attachment (Fryba, 1995). The focus of Buddhism, therefore, is to free people from their
emotion in order to perceive and accept things / phenomena as they are, not as they are created from the
illusions of the mind (Grabovac et al, 2011).
Several empirical studies have indicated a positive association between non-attachment and well-
being. For example, empirical findings indicate that subjective well-being and constructive well-being are
negatively associated with destructive emotions (Wang et al., 2016), stress (Naidu & Pande, 1990), and
closed-mindedness (Sahdra & Shaver, 2013). However, from the hedonic approach, there has been little
research into the relationship between non-attachment and eudaimonic well-being. With this study we
hope to contribute to this gap in the literature.
As the above discussion highlights, the relationship between non-attachment and well-being has
been largely neglected in research. The present study is designed to fill this gap. Our research questions
Q1. Is there an effect of demographics on non-attachment and psychological well-being? (gender,
age, refuge status (in The Three Jewels), practice Dharma, frequency of mindfulness practice and
Q2. What is the association between non-attachment and psychological well-being?
Q3. What is the contribution of non-attachment and demographics to the variation of
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this research is:
To compare non-attachment and psychological well-being in people with different Buddhist status
and types of practice (group of practice, taking refuge in The Three Jewels, and frequency of mindfulness
practice and meditation).
To examine the relationship between non-attachment in Buddhism and psychological well-being,
including related components of psychological well-being.
Participants were 472 Buddhists from Vietnam. More than 70% were female. 90.5% were
laypersons, and participants came from five different sanghas. 41.5% had taken refuge. Detailed
information on the demographics of participants is presented in Table
colleagues (2010) to measure the perception of non-attachment. This scale has 30 items, rated on a likert
scale from 1: Totally disagree to 6: Totally agree. NAS showed excellent reliability with Cronbach’s
Alpha of NAS: .93.
item-scale that covers six domains of psychological well-being, including: (1) self-acceptance (2) positive
relations with others, (3) autonomy, (4) environmental mastery, (5) purpose in life, and (6) personal
growth. The internal consistency (or) coefficients reported by Ryff (1989) for the scales were as follows:
self-acceptance, .93; positive relations with others, .91; autonomy, .86; environmental mastery, .90;
purpose in life, .90; and personal growth, .87.
There was evidence of good overall reliability with Cronbach's alpha .95. For each of the six
subscales, internal consistency exceeded .70: self-acceptance, 𝛼 = .76; positive relations with others: 𝛼 = .87; environmental mastery: 𝛼 = .86; purpose in life: 𝛼 = .84; personal growth 𝛼 = .86. However, it should be noted that the autonomy scale resulted in a Cronbach's alpha below .70 (𝛼 = .57).
Data was collected at five Sanghas around Vietnam. In December 2015, a pilot study was
conducted with 53 Buddhists, two monks who have practiced the Dharma for over 20 years, two
laypersons, and with one Buddhist researcher to check the face validity of translated scales. Suggestions
were considered and translations adjusted to make the scales more accessible to Vietnamese Buddhists.
The survey was administered from February to May 2016 and from 500 invitations, 472 agreed to
participate, giving a response rate of 94.4%.
Data was coded and analysed using the Statistical Package for the Social Science (SPSS).
Inspection of the Non-attachment Scale (Sahdra et al., 2010) and the Psychological Well-Being Scale
(Ryff, 1989) indicated that these two scales were normally distributed. To test our hypothesis, we
employed the following statistic methods: T-test, ANOVA, Bivariate Correlation, and Linear Regression
The mean score of the non-attachment scale was 4.37 (
colleagues’ (2010) study on adult participants in The United States of America, the mean obtained in that
study was much smaller for those participants who did not practice meditation (
those who did (
Effect of demographics on non-attachment and psychological well-being
An Independent Samples T-test yielded results indicating that there was an effect of gender on
non-attachment. Female participants had higher non-attachment scores (
well-being total score
One-way ANOVA analysis did not demonstrate an effect of age on non-attachment,
psychological well-being scale. There was only significant difference in the Personal growth subscale,
over-55 groups. The 26-35 age group also has higher scores compared to the over-55 group (Table
Dharma practice arrangement
One-way ANOVA analyses showed that non-attachment scores were related to Dharma practice
arrangement (a community of people that we practice with),
practiced with a sangha had the highest non-attachment score (
significantly higher than practicing with friends (
significantly higher non-attachment than did those who practiced with friends (
People who practiced in a Sangha had the highest psychological well-being scores (
.60). On the whole scale,
433) = 15.19,
434) = 10.96,
.59) than those who practiced in a group of friends (
alone also reported higher self-acceptance scores (
Those who practiced with their family members had higher purpose in life scores (M = 4.27, SD = .81)
than those practicing with friends (
It should be noted that, on the autonomy subscale, the one-way ANOVA did not yield any
significant difference between groups,
Taking refuge in The Three Jewels and Buddhist status
Participants who had taken refuge in The Three Jewels reported higher non-attachment and
psychological well-being scores, which are statistically significant. Monks in this study reported higher
non-attachment and psychological well-being scores (except on the Autonomy subscale) compared to
laypersons. An Independent Samples T-test demonstrated that the difference was statistically significant.
Detailed analysis is presented in Table
Frequency of practicing Dharma
Practicing Dharma includes a wide range of actions such as meditation, chanting, and praying.
One-way ANOVAanalyses showed that there was a significant effect of frequency of practice on non-
People who practiced daily scored highest on the non-attachment scale (
on the psychological well-being scale (
had the lowest scores.
Those who practiced several times a year had lower non-attachment scores (
and psychological well-being scores (
one to four times a month (
autonomy scores of this group (
Relationships between non-attachment, psychological well-being and its components
Pearson Correlation Analysis showed significant positive associations between non-attachment
and each of the dimensions of psychological well-being scale as well as its full scale. The correlations
between non-attachment and self-acceptance, positive relations with others, personal growth, purpose in
life, and environmental mastery, were all moderate (from .49 to .52). However, the relationship between
non-attachment and autonomy was low:
full psychological well-being scale was moderately-strong:
Factors predicting psychological well-being
Among demographic variables, only frequency of Buddhist practice was correlated to
predictive ability of psychological well-being of frequency of practice and non-attachment. Results
showed that frequency of practice could predict 8.8% of variance of psychological well-being and of non-
In this study we find evidence to suggest that there are differences in non-attachment and
psychological well-being among Vietnamese Buddhists.
First; female participants had higher non-attachment than did male participants. The following
gender identity research suggests that gender differences are correlated with differences in self and
attachment. According to Bern (1974), the masculine sex-role is identified as "acting as a leader", while
the feminine sex-role is defined as "sensitive to the needs of others". Hofstede (2001) characterized
masculinity as ego-oriented, concentrated on materials, and to live in order to work. On the other hand, he
associated femininity as relationship oriented, focused on quality of life and relationships, and work is in
order to live. Therefore, it appears that masculinity is associated with possessions, conquering, and
enhancing ego, which represent attachment to external pleasure. These observations suggest one reason
why men had lower non-attachment than women.
Second, people who practiced in a Sangha had higher non-attachment than those who did not.
Also, people who practiced Buddhism everyday had higher non-attachment than those who did not., and
monks and people who had taken refuge in the Three Jewels, had higher non-attachment than lay people
and those who had not taken refuge. Practicing within a Sangha, practicing Buddhism, living a monastic
lifestyle, and taking refuge in the Three Jewels are actions of religious commitment. The results of the
present research are therefore supported by related studies that find a positive correlation between
religious commitment and feelings of happiness (Alaedein-Zawawi, 2015; McCullough & Worthington,
1999; McCullough & Willoughby, 2009; Toussaint & Webb, 2005), and between religious commitment
and mental health (Levin, 2010). Religious commitment may increase feelings of happiness by improving
self-regulation (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009) and a willingness to forgive ourselves and others
(McCullough & Worthington, 1999; Toussaint & Webb, 2005; Alaedein-Zawawi, 2015). Buddhist
teachings approach self-regulation from The Five Mindfulness Trainings, which are practices of
protecting life, social justice, responsible sexual behaviours, deep listening and loving speech, and of
mindful consumption. The practice of protecting life helps to stop war; practice of social justice brings
equality; practice of responsible sexual behaviours prevents suffering; practice of deep listening and
loving speech generates love and trust; practice of mindful consumption protects the body and mind.
Buddhists believe that practicing these teachings can help people to transform their greed, hatred and
ignorance, to increase compassion, and find happiness from the inside.
The results of the current study indicate that participants who practiced with groups of friends had
the lowest non-attachment scores and well-being scores. Sangha is an official religious organization,
which therefore has more religious commitment than a group of friends. We suggest that people who
practice with friends were often more focused on relationships within the group than on spiritual
transformation, and are less committed than those who practice with sangha or alone. This observation
can be associated to the notion of external religious orientation, that a person participates in religion to
feel protected (Allport & Ross, 1967).
Results also demonstrated that those who practiced praying only several times a year had the
lowest non-attachment and feelings of happiness. Represented by frequency of practice, this observation
adds further support for the argument for the potential for immense influence in religious commitment.
Third, non-attachment and well-being components such as, self-acceptance, positive relationships,
personal growth, purpose of life and environmental mastery, all positively correlated with each other.
Self-acceptance is conceived as having a positive attitude toward oneself, acknowledging and accepting
characteristics, including both wholesome and unwholesome aspects of oneself, and feeling satisfied
(Ryff, 2013). In Buddhism, the self is viewed as impermanent and always changing. Practicing
mindfulness in Buddhism helps people to accept phenomena, including the self, for the way it is in that
moment. Meditation helps people to experience and realise that there is no boundary between the self and
external phenomena (David, Lynn, & Das, 2013). Thus, successful practitioners do not attach to
seemingly permanent attributes of the self. Peacefulness happens at the very moment, and is not an
illusion of things in the past.
Having positive relationships includes satisfaction and trust within relationships, caring for others,
and generating empathy and deep emotions within relationships (Ryff, 2013). Ghose and Lynken (2004)
proposed that both attachment and separation are necessary in relationships. The idea of separation is the
non-attachment: no possession, no control, and feeling compassion and unconditional love in the spirit of
the Four Immeasurable Minds. Self-development is being open to new experience, recognizing one’s
behaviour, and then changing based on cumulative experience (Ryff, 2013). Johnstone and his colleagues
(2012) conducted quantitative research on Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Islamists and Protestants and
concluded that Buddhists were the most open-minded to new experiences. One can be open-minded only
when they cease perceiving the nature of phenomena with a limited view and construct a balanced view,
which permits non-attachment to phenomena.
Ryff’s (2013) ‘Purpose of life’ construct refers to perceiving that one’s life is meaningful and that
there are goals to strive for. By bringing freedom, non-attachment allows one to realise meaning in
ordinary actions and thus meaning in life. Some studies have mentioned this as the core function of
religions - to provide meaning to life (Martos et al., 2010; Diener et al., 2011). On the other hand,
environmental mastery is to deal with complex problems and to be capable of selecting choices or
creating situations that are suitable to one’s abilities, needs and values (Ryff, 2013). Non-attachment
allows people to find their own values and therefore escape from the influences of jealousy, worry,
obsession, compulsion and so on, and therefore to face the challenges of life (Sahdra et al., 2010).
Forth, the relationship between non-attachment, and independence and autonomy had the lowest
correlation and the average score of the independence and autonomy subscale was the lowest of all mean
scores. Autonomy is understood as being independent and capable of giving decisions, regulating oneself,
and feeling freedom. Those who had a high level of autonomy were determined and independent,
allowing them to a certain extent, to resist influences from others, to generate independent thoughts and
judgements, and to act on their own (Ryff, 2013). In order to account for low scores in this subscale,
Diener, Oishi, and Lucas (2003) once said that in collective cultures, being accepted and pursuing goals
that generate happiness for other people was integral to their notion of happiness. As East Asian cultures
emphasise relationships and social status (Markus & Kitayama, 1998), it may be the case that maintaining
harmonic relationships between people, promoting common wishes and thrift, are sources of happiness
(Lu & Gilmour, 2006). Shweder (1997), who discussed three models of ethics: Ethic of Autonomy, Ethic
of Community, and Ethic of Divinity, concluded that in collective cultures, ethic of community was the
most important factor for feelings of happiness. This implied that serving the community was more
important than serving oneself. This explanation seems reasonable as Vietnam is a country with a
More importantly, a great distinction can be observed between psychology and Buddhism.
Buddhism believes that the so-called self, which is usually referred as a permanent attribute of every
person, is a source of attachment and thus suffering. This is supported by the findings of a recent study, in
which it was discovered that those who used more self-referential terms tended to have more health
problems (Drakpa, Sunwar, & Choden, 2013). Therefore, Buddhism teaches its followers about emptiness
– there is no permanent self – and offers exercises that help people, through constant practice, to
understand this teaching and achieve happiness.
Lastly, it should be noted that while assessing the relationship with non-attachment and well-
being, the current research did not study behavioural mechanisms that could lead to non-attachment.
Grabovac and colleagues (2011) proposed a Buddhist psychological model for explaining the mechanism
in which practicing mindfulness reduces symptoms of mental disoders and improves psychological well-
being. In addition, Fryba (1995) also raised the need for practicing mindfulness to change perception,
emotions, and attention that is focused on desperation, hopelessness, inferiority, the self, and delusions of
emotions of the self. Together, those suggestions imply that mindfulness and mediation can serve as
factors explaing mechanisms that could lead to non-attachment.
This research provided evidence for a relationship between non-attachment and psychological
well-being in Buddhists. Results showed that non-attachment had greater influence on psychological
well-being in Buddhists who had more religious commitment, including practicing in Sangha, praying
daily, taking refuge in The Three Jewels, and ordaining, than in other groups. Results also suggested that
for Buddhists, autonomy as an approach involving controlling life, might not be an important criterion for
assessing psychological well-being.
This is to acknowledge funding from Vietnam National University, Hanoi. This study was conducted part of the project: “Religious beliefs and its effects to human well-being". Project number: QG.15.44.
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