Samsara: Grasping and Clinging

How can we get away from and become completely independent of things, all of which are transient, unsatisfactory and devoid of selfhood? The answer is that we have to find out what is the cause of our desiring those things and clinging to them. Knowing that cause, we shall be in a position to eliminate clinging completely. Buddhists recognize four different kinds of clinging or attachment. 1) Sensual attachment (Kamupanana) is clinging to attractive and desirable sense objects. It is the attachment that we naturally develop for things we like and find satisfaction in: colors and shapes, sounds, odours, tastes, tactile objects, or mental images, objects past, present, or future that arise in the mind, and either correspond to material objects in the world outside or within the body, or are just imaginings. We instinctively find pleasure, enchantment, delight in these six kinds of sense objects. They induce delight and enchantment in the mind perceiving them.

As soon as an individual is born, he comes to know the taste of these six sense objects, and clings to them; and as time passes he becomes more and more firmly attached to them. Ordinary people are incapable of withdrawing from them again, so they present a major problem. It is necessary to have a proper knowledge and understanding of these sense objects and to act appropriately with respect to them, otherwise clinging to them may lead to complete and utter dereliction. If we examine the case history of any person who has sunk into dereliction, we always find that it has come about through his clinging fast to some desirable sense object. Actually every single thing a human being does has its origin in sensuality. Whether we love, become angry, hate, feel envious, murder, or commit suicide, the ultimate cause must be some sense object. If we investigate what is it that drives human beings to work energetically, or to do anything at all for that matter, we find it is desire, desire to get things of one kind or another. People strive, study, and earn what money they can, and then go off in search of pleasure — in the form of colors and shapes, sounds, odors, tastes, and tactile objects — which is what keeps them going. Even merit making in order to go to heaven has its origins simply in a wish based on sensuality. Taken together, all the trouble and chaos in the world has its origin in sensuality.

The danger of sensuality lies in the power of sensual attachment. For this reason the Buddha reckoned clinging to sensuality as the primary form of attachment. It is a real world problem. Whether the world is to be completely destroyed, or whatever is to happen, is bound to depend on this very sensual clinging. It behooves us to examine ourselves to find out in what ways we are attached to sensuality and how firmly, and whether it is not perhaps within our power to give it up. Speaking in worldly terms, attachment to sensuality is a very good thing. It conduces to family love, to diligence and energy in the search for wealth and fame, and so on. But if looked at from the spiritual point of view, it is seen to be the secret en trance for suffering and torment. Spiritually speaking, attachment to sensuality is something to be kept under control. And if all suffering is to be eliminated, sensual attachment has to be done away with completely. 2) Attachment to opinions (Ditthupadana). Clinging to views and opinions is not difficult to detect and identify once we do a little introspection. Ever since we were born into the world, we have been receiving instruction and training, which has given rise to ideas and opinions. In speaking here of opinions, what we have in mind is the kind of ideas one hangs on to and refuses to let go of. To cling to one’s own ideas and opinions is quite natural and is not normally condemned or disapproved of. But it is no less grave a danger than attachment to attractive and desirable objects. It can happen that preconceived ideas and opinions to which we had always clung obstinately come to be destroyed. For this reason it is necessary that we continually amend our views, making them progressively more correct, better, higher, changing false views into views that are closer and closer to the truth, and ultimately into the kind of views that incorporate the Four Noble Truths.

Obstinate and stubborn opinions have various origins, but in the main they are bound up with customs, traditions, ceremonies and religious doctrines. Stubborn personal convictions are not a matter of great importance. They are far less numerous than convictions stemming from long held popular traditions and ceremonies. Adherence to views is based on ignorance. Lacking knowledge, we develop our own personal views on things, based on our own original stupidity. For instance, we are convinced that things are desirable and worth clinging to, that they really endure, are worthwhile and are selves, instead of perceiving that they are just a delusion and a deception, transient, worthless and devoid of selfhood. Once we have come to have certain ideas about something, we naturally don’t like to admit later on that we were mistaken. Even though we may occasionally see that we are wrong, we simply refuse to admit it. Obstinacy of this sort is to be considered a major obstacle to progress, rendering us incapable of changing for the better, incapable of modifying false religious convictions and other long-standing beliefs. This is likely to be a problem for people who hold to naive doctrines. Even though they may later come to see them as naive, they refuse to change on the grounds that their parents, grandparents and ancestors all held those same views. Or if they are not really interested in correcting and improving themselves, they may simply brush away any arguments against their old ideas with the remark that this is what they have always believed. For these very reasons, attachment to opinions is to be considered a dangerous defilement, a major danger, which, if we are to better ourselves at all, we ought to make all efforts to eliminate. 3) Attachment to rites and rituals (Silabbatupadana). This refers to clinging to meaningless traditional practices that have been thoughtlessly handed down, practices which people choose to regard as sacred and not to be changed under any circumstances. In Thailand there is no less of this sort of thing than in other places. There are beliefs involving amulets, magical artifacts and all manner of secret procedures. There exist, for instance, the beliefs that on rising from sleep one must pronounce a mystical formula over water and then wash one’s face in it, that before relieving nature one must turn and face this and that point of the compass, and that before one partakes of food or goes to sleep there have to be other rituals. There are beliefs in spirits and celestial beings, in sacred trees and all manner of magical objects. This sort of thing is completely irrational. People just don’t think rationally; they simply cling to the established pattern. They have always done it that way and they just refuse to change. Many people professing to be Buddhists cling to these beliefs as well and so have it both ways; and this even includes some who call themselves bhikkhus, disciples of the Buddha. Religious doctrines based on belief in God, angels and sacred objects are particularly prone to these kinds of views; there is no reason why we Buddhists should not be completely free of this sort of thing.

The reason we have to be free of such views is that if we practice any aspect of Dhamma unaware of its original purpose, unconscious of the rationale of it, the result is bound to be the foolish, naive assumption that it is something magical. Thus we find people taking upon themselves the moral precepts or practicing Dhamma, purely and simply to conform with the accepted pattern, the traditional ceremonial, just to follow the example that has been handed down. They know nothing of the rationale of these things, doing them just out of force of habit. Such firmly established clinging is hard to correct. This is what is meant by thoughtless attachment to traditional practices. Insight meditation or tranquillity meditation as practiced nowadays, if carried out without any knowledge of rhyme and reason and the real objectives of it, is bound to motivated by grasping and clinging, misdirected, and just some kind of foolishness. And even the taking of the Precepts, five, eight, or ten, or however many, if done in the belief that one will thereby become a magical, supernatural, holy individual possessing psychic or other powers, becomes just misdirected routine, motivated simply by attachment to rite and ritual.

It is necessary, then, that we be very cautious. Buddhist practice must have a sound foundation in thought and understanding and desire to destroy the defilements. Otherwise it will be just foolishness; it will be misdirected, irrational a just a waste of time. 4) Attachment to the idea of selfhood (Attavadupadana). The belief in selfhood is something important and also something extremely well concealed. Any living creature is always bound to have the wrong idea of “me and mine.” This is the primal instinct of living things and is the basis of all other instincts. For example, the instinct to seek food and eat it, the instinct to avoid danger, the instinct to procreate, and many others consist simply in the creature’s instinctive awareness of a belief in its own selfhood. Convinced first of all of its own selfhood, it will naturally desire to avoid death, to search for food and nourish its body, to seek safety, and to propagate the species. A belief in selfhood is, then, universally present in all living things. If it were not so, they could not continue to survive. At the same time, however, it is what causes suffering in the search for food and shelter, in the propagation of the species, or in any activity whatsoever. This is one reason why the Buddha taught that attachment to the self-idea is the root cause of all suffering. He summed it up very briefly by saying: “Things, if clung to, are suffering, or are a source of suffering.” This attachment is the source and basis of life; at the same time it is the source and basis of suffering in all its forms. It was this very fact that the Buddha was referring to when he said that life is suffering; suffering is life. This means the body and mind (five aggregates) which are clung to are suffering. Knowledge of the source and basis of life and of suffering is to be considered the most profound and most penetrating knowledge, since it puts us in a position to eliminate suffering completely. This piece of knowledge can be claimed to be unique to Buddhism. It is not to be found in any other religion in the world. The most efficacious way of dealing with attachment is to recognize it whenever it is present. This applies most particularly to attachment to the idea of selfhood, which is the very basis of life. It is something that comes into existence of its own accord, establishing itself in us without our needing to be taught it. It is present as an instinct in children and the small offspring of animals right from birth. Baby animals such as kittens know how to assume a defensive attitude, as we can see when we try to approach them. There is always that something, the “self” present in the mind, and consequently this attachment is bound to manifest. The only thing to do is to rein it in as much as possible until such time as one is well advanced in spiritual knowledge; in other words, to employ Buddhist principles until this instinct has been overcome and completely eliminated. As long as one is still an ordinary person, a worldling, this instinct remains unconquered. Only the highest of the Aryians, the Arahant, has succeeded in defeating it. We must recognize this as a matter of no small importance; it is a major problem common to all living creatures. If we are to be real Buddhists, if we are to derive the full benefits from the teaching, it is up to us to set about overcoming this misconception. The suffering to which we are subject will diminish accordingly.

To know the truth about these things, which are of everyday concern to us, is to be regarded as one of the greatest boons, one of the greatest skills. Do give some thought to this matter of the four attachments, bearing in mind that nothing whatever is worth clinging to, that by the nature of things, nothing is worth getting or being. That we are completely enslaved by things is simply a result of these four kinds of attachment. It rests with us to examine and become thoroughly familiar with the highly dangerous and toxic nature of things. Their harmful nature is not immediately evident as is the case with a blazing fire, weapons, or poison. They are well disguised as sweet, tasty, fragrant, alluring things, beautiful things, melodious things. Coming in these forms they are bound to be difficult to recognize and deal with. Consequently we have to make use of this knowledge the Buddha has equipped us with. We have to control this unskillful grasping and subdue it by the power of insight. Doing this, we shall be in a position to organize our life in such a way that it becomes free of suffering, free of even the smallest trace of suffering. We shall be capable of working and living peacefully in the world, of being undefiled, enlightened and tranquil.

Let us sum up. These four forms of attachment are the only problem that Buddhists or people who wish to know about Buddhism have to understand. The objective of living a holy life (Brahmacariya) in Buddhism is to enable the mind to give up unskillful grasping. You can find this teaching in every discourse in the texts which treats of the attainment of arahantship. The expression used is “the mind freed from attachment.” That is the ultimate. When the mind is free from attachment, there is nothing to bind it and make it a slave of the world. There is nothing to keep it spinning on in the cycle of birth and death, so the whole process comes to a stop, or rather, becomes world transcending, free from the world. The giving up of unskillful clinging is, then, the key to Buddhist practice.

Extract from “Handbook for Mankind” by Bhikkhu Buddhadasa.