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The Four Parameters of Clinging

Ajahn Pasanno

Even with the simple practice of attending to one in-breath and one outbreath, we can see how quickly the mind rushes in and starts to fill up the space with different kinds of thoughts, perceptions, images, memories and fantasies. The mind is looking for something to do. This is totally ordinary and normal. But where does it come from?

It's interesting to investigate what the Buddha described as the four parameters of upadana, or attachment and clinging. The root of the word "upadana" is "fuel" or, as Ajahn Thanissaro often translates it, "sustenance." The image is of a fire that sustains our existence -- whether it is our actual physical existence or the mental existence of who we think we are, who we think we aren't, or who we think we should be.

How is that all sustained? How is it maintained? What are we feeding our minds and hearts? The Buddha points to the four types of clinging as that which holds on to the modes of existence that create our ways of being. The first is attachment to sensuality, or kamupadana. It's pretty ordinary, straightforward and easy to recognize -- the fundamental desire for gratification, pleasure and stimulation. The sensual hit that seems to make life worth living. It may also keep us locked up pretty tight, but the belief at the time is that seeking gratification is better than doing nothing. Of course, we don't really know what "doing nothing" is because we keep filling up our time.We get bored pretty quickly if there is nothing stimulating, so we look for something to keep us excited and interested.

The Buddha was once asked, "What is it that prevents us from being enlightened, being liberated in this very life?" He replied that it's attachment to sensual pleasures -- sensual delight through the eye, ears, nose, tongue, body. "One with craving and clinging is unable to experience nibbana in this very life; one without clinging is able to experience nibbana in this very life."

During our meditation, when we watch the mind go back again and again to clinging, we recognize how deep a tendency it is. The mind is looking for an object. That's its habit. In the Buddha's teachings, this is not a moral or ethical statement.We Westerners may add the belief: It's a bad thing, I'm a bad person for doing that. But the Buddha is just pointing for us to look at the result. If happiness and freedom is what one is looking for, does clinging to sensuality bring about the desired result?

The second type of clinging is ditthu-padana, or clinging to views. This is the tendency of the mind to seek out a viewpoint or opinion where everything is clear: This is right, I've got the answer, I'm happy now. Of course, life doesn't actually work like that. The Buddha calls this the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views: I've got it all figured out. Now everything is safe and comfortable for me. It doesn't take very long for this house of cards to come tumbling down or to be challenged in one way or another. The Buddha is pointing to our tendency to seek security, peace, well-being and happiness in our views and perspectives.

Third, the Buddha points to silabbatupadana, or clinging to rules and vows, to precepts and practices that one assumes will lead to purity. Oftentimes it's translated as "attachment to rites and rituals." One becomes attached to superstitious beliefs like receiving blessings by being sprinkled with holy water or by bathing in the Ganges, which were common practices in the time of the Buddha. The mind carries it through in so many ways.We try to do the right thing, to get everything lined up in our conduct or through our practices. Spreading lovingkindness, doing dedications of blessings, even seeing everything as anicca, dukkha, anatta -- these can be just as much a rite or ritual as anything else. Simply repeating in the mind "this is impermanent, unsatisfactory and not self" will not purify one. This is definitely a practice the Buddha taught, but it's important to be attentive to how it is being held.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't do certain practices or devotional rituals. But just doing these practices is not what is going to bring about purification. True accomplishment comes when we really give ourselves to the practice, putting in effort in a way that is not self-oriented or self-fixated. Are we able to drop what "I want to get out of it," or the obsession with getting everything right, even in terms of the precepts? One has to recognize that the training is for the attenuation of clinging and attachment. What really wears us out is when we don't notice our attachments, clinging and seeking. The idea of "I'm doing the practice" gets in the way of being attentive to what's happening in the heart and mind.When we are attentive, we can actually do the practice and enjoy it, delight in it and benefit from the results.

The last form of attachment is clinging to the belief in self, attavadupadana. "Atta" means "self," and "vada" means "teaching" or "belief." The self has a function, but we get caught up believing in the story or even the doctrine of it, which then creates havoc. It's important to recognize how the sense of "me" and "mine" insinuates itself all the time -- craving and clinging around the feelings of "'I' need to have this, it has to be this way for 'me'." These thoughts are the seeds for the different strands of a proliferating mind. As we are sitting and practicing, watching the breath go in and out, the sense of "me" and "mine" comes looking for a place to land, a story to spin. Can we just be with the breath and observe that? We don't have to resolve it, to fight with it, to change it into anything else. That would also be attachment to the belief in self. Just be with the sensation of the breath, coming back to the elemental nature of experience. Feel the solidity, hardness, tangibility, fluidity, movement. This is life; this is what it all boils down to in the end, the sensation of the elements. They are not me or mine, not even consciousness or the feeling of being alive. Investigate the simplicity of experience.What pulls us out of that: what form of clinging is operating, how does it work, where does it take us?

* Adapted from a Dhamma talk given on February 27, 2004.


Source: Fearless Mountain Newsletter, Spring 2004, www.abhayagiri.org 

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