THE THINGS WE CLING TO
What are we clinging
to? What is our handhold? What we are clinging to is the world itself. In Buddhism
the word "world" has a broader connotation than it has in ordinary usage.
It refers to all things, to the totality. It does not refer just to human beings,
or celestial beings, or gods, or beasts, or the denizens of hell, or demons, or
hungry ghosts, or titans, or any particular realm of existence at all. What the
word "world" refers to here is the whole lot taken together. To know
the world is difficult because certain levels of the world are concealed. Most
of us are familiar with only the outermost layer or level, the level of relative
truth, the level corresponding to the intellect of the average man. For this reason
Buddhism teaches us about the world at various levels.
The Buddha had a method
of instruction based on a division of the world into a material or physical aspect
and non-material or mental aspect. He further divided up the mental world or mind
into four parts. Counting the physical and the mental together makes a total of
five components, called by the Buddha the Five Aggregates, which together go to
make up the world, in particular living creatures and man himself. In looking
at the world we shall concentrate on the world of living creatures, in particular
man, because it is man that happens to be the problem. In man these five components
are all present together: his physical body is the material aggregate; his mental
aspect is divisible into four aggregates, which we shall now describe.
first of the mental aggregates is feeling (vedana), which is of three kinds, namely
pleasure or gratification, displeasure or suffering, and a neutral kind, which
is neither pleasure nor displeasure, but which is a kind of feeling nevertheless.
Under normal conditions feelings are always present in us. Every day we are filled
with feelings. The Buddha, then, pointed out feeling as one of the components
which together go to make up the man.
The second component of mind is perception
(sanna). This is the process of becoming aware, similar to waking up as opposed
to being sound asleep or unconscious, or dead. It refers to memory as well as
awareness of sense impressions, covering both the primary sensation resulting
from contact with an object by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue, or body, and the
recall of previous impressions. Thus one may be directly aware of an object as
black or white, long or short, man or beast, and so on, or one may be similarly
aware in retrospect by way of memory.
The third mental aggregate is the actively
thinking component (sankhara) in an individual-thinking of doing some thing, thinking
of saying something, good thought and bad thought, willed thinking, active thinking-this
is the third mental aggregate.
The fourth component of mind is consciousness
(vinnana). It is the function of knowing the objects perceived by way of eye,
ear, nose, tongue and the general body sense, and also by way of the mind itself.
five aggregates constitute the site of the four kinds of clinging explained in
the fourth chapter. Turn back and read it again, and think it over so that you
understand it properly. You will then realize that it is these five aggregates
that are the object and handhold for our grasping and clinging. A person may grasp
at any one of these groups as being a self according to the extent of his ignorance.
For instance, a boy who carelessly bumps into a door and hurts himself feels he
has to give the door a kick in order to relieve his anger and pain. In other words,
he is grasping at a purely material object, namely the door, which is nothing
but wood, as being a self. This is attachment at the lowest level of all. A man
who be comes angry with his body to the point of striking it or hitting himself
on the head is grasping and clinging in the same way. He is taking those body
parts to be selves. If he is rather more intelligent than that, he may seize on
feeling, or perception or active thinking, or consciousness, at any one of these
groups as being a self. If he is unable to distinguish them individually, he may
grasp at the whole lot collectively as being a self, that is, take all five groups
together to be "his self."
After the physical body, the group next
most likely to be clung to as being a self is feeling pleasurable, painful, or
neutral. Let us consider the situation in which we find ourselves, entranced with
sensual pleasures, in particular delectable sensations, caught up heart and soul
in the various colors and shapes, sound, scents, tastes and tactile objects that
we perceive. Here feeling is the pleasure and delight experienced, and it is to
that very feeling of pleasure and delight that we cling. Almost everyone clings
to feeling as being a self, because there is no one who does not like delightful
sensations, especially tactile sensations by way of the skin. Ignorance or delusion
blinds a person to all else. He sees only the delightful object and grasps at
it as being a self; he regards that object as "mine." Feeling, whether
of pleasure or displeasure, is truly a site of suffering. Spiritually speaking,
these feelings of pleasure and displeasure may be considered as synonymous with
suffering, because they give rise to nothing but mental torment. Pleasure renders
the mind buoyant; displeasure deflates it. Gain and loss, happiness and sorrow,
amount in effect to mental restlessness or instability; they set the mind spinning.
This is what is meant by grasping at feeling as being a self. We should all do
well to have a closer look at this process of grasping at feeling as being a self,
as being "ours," and try to gain a proper understanding of it. Understanding
feeling as an object of clinging, the mind will be rendered independently of it.
Feeling normally has control over the mind, luring us into situations that we
regret later on. In his practical path to perfection or arahantship, the Buddha
teaches us repeatedly to give particular attention to the examination of feeling.
Many have become arahants and broken free from suffering by means of restricting
feeling to simply an object of study.
Feeling is more likely than any of the
other aggregates to serve as a handhold for us to cling to because feeling is
the primary objective of all our striving and activity. We study industriously
and work at our jobs in order to get money. Then we go and buy things: utensils,
food, amusements, things covering the whole range from gastronomy to sex. And
then we partake of these things with one single objective, namely pleasurable
feeling, in other words delightful stimulation of eye, ear, nose, tongue and body.
We invest all our resources, monetary, physical, mental, simply in the expectation
of pleasurable feeling. And everyone knows well enough in his own mind that if
it weren't for the lure of pleasurable feeling, he would never invest study, work
and physical energy in the search for money. We can see, then, that feeling is
no small matter. A knowledge and understanding of it puts us in a position to
keep it under control, makes us sufficiently high-minded to remain above feelings,
and enables us to carry out all our activities far better than we otherwise could.
In similar fashion even the problems that arise in a social group have their origins
in pleasurable feeling. And when we analyze closely the clashes between nations,
or between opposing blocs, we discover that there too, both sides are just slaves
to pleasurable feeling. A war is not fought because of adherence to a doctrine
or an ideal or anything of the sort. In point of fact, the motivation is the anticipation
of pleasurable feeling. Each side sees itself making all sorts of gains, scooping
up benefits for itself. The doctrine is just camouflage, or at best a purely secondary
motive. The most deep- seated cause of all strife is really subservience to pleasurable
feeling. To know feeling is, then, to know an important root cause responsible
for our falling slaves to the mental defilements, to evil, to suffering. If this
is how things are in the case of human beings, the celestial beings are no better
off. They are subservient to pleasurable feeling just as are humans, and more
so, though they may suppose it to be something better and finer, more subject
to free will than is the human variety. But even they are not free from craving
and attachment, from the fascination of delectable sensations received by way
of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. Still higher up at the level of the
gods, sensual delights necessarily have been discarded completely; but even this
does not bring liberation from another kind of delight, the pleasure associated
with deep concentration practice. When the mind is deeply concentrated, it experiences
pleasure, a delightful sensation to which it then becomes attached. Although this
has nothing to do with sensuality, it is pleasurable feeling nevertheless. Animals
lower down the scale than human beings are bound to fall under the power of pleasurable
feeling in much cruder ways than we do. To know the nature of feeling, in particular
to know that feeling is not a self at all and not something to be clung to, is,
then, of very great use in life.
Perception, too, can easily be seized on as
being a self or "one's self." The average villager likes to say that
when we fall asleep, something, which he calls the "soul," departs from
the body. The body is then like a log of wood, receiving no sensation by way of
eye, ear, nose, tongue or body. As soon as that something has returned to the
body, awareness and wakefulness are restored. A great many people have this naive
belief that perception is "the self." But, as the Buddha taught, perception
is not a self. Perception is simply sensation and memory, that is, knowing, and
is bound to be present as long as the body continues to function normally. As
soon as the bodily functions become disrupted, that thing we call perception changes
or ceases to function. For this reason true Buddhists refuse to accept perception
as a self, though the average person does choose to accept it as such, clinging
to it as "myself." Close examination along Buddhist lines reveals that
quite the opposite is the case. Perception is nobody's self at all; it is simply
a result of natural processes and nothing more.
The next possible point of
attachment is active thinking, intending to do this or that, intending to get
this or that, mental action good or bad. This is once again a manifestation of
the arising of strong ideas of selfhood. Everyone feels that if any thing at all
is to be identified as his self, then it is more likely to be this thinking element
than any other. For instance, one philosopher in recent centuries had a naive
philosophy on the basis of which he proclaimed: "I think, therefore I am."
Even philosophers in this scientific age have the same ideas about "the self"
as people have had for thousands of years, maintaining that the thinking element
is the self. They regard as the self that which they understand to be "the
thinker." We have said that the Buddha denied that either feeling or perception
might be a self. He also rejected thinking, the thinking aspect of the mind as
a self, because the activity which manifests as thought is a purely natural event.
Thought arises as a result of the interaction of a variety of prior events. It
is just one of the aggregation of assorted components that makes up "the
individual," and no "I" or "self" entity is involved.
Hence we maintain that this thinking component is devoid of selfhood, just as
are the other aggregates we have mentioned.
The difficulty in understanding
this lies in our inadequate knowledge of the mental element or mind. We are familiar
only with the body, the material element, and know almost nothing about the other,
the mental, nonmaterial element. As a result, we have difficulty understanding
it. Here it can only be said that the Buddha taught that "the individual"
is a combination of the five aggregates, physical and mental. Now, when the event
we call thinking takes place, we jump to the conclusion that there is "someone"
there who is "the thinker." We believe there is a thinker, a soul, which
is master of the body or something of the sort. But the Buddha rejected such entities
completely. When we analyze "the individual" into these five components,
there is nothing left over, proving that he consists of just these components
and that there is nothing that might be "his self." Not even thinking
is a self as the average man commonly supposes.
Now the last group, consciousness
(vinnana) is simply the function of becoming fully aware of objects perceived
by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. It is no self either. The organs simply
take in the color and shapes, sounds, odors, tastes and tactile objects that impinge
on them, and as a result consciousness of those objects arises in three stages.
In the case of the eye there arises clear consciousness of the shape of the visual
object, whether it is man or beast, long or short, black or white. The arising
of clear consciousness in this way is a mechanical process which happens of its
own accord, automatically. There are some who maintain that this is the "soul,"
the "spirit," which moves into and out of the mind and receives stimuli
by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue and body, and consider it to be "the
self." Buddhists recognize it as just nature. If a visual object and an eye
complete with optic nerve make contact, seeing will take place and there will
arise visual consciousness. And there is once again no need for any self whatsoever.
When we have analyzed the "being" into its components, namely body,
feeling, perception, thinking and consciousness, we find no part which might be
a self or belong to a self. Thus we can completely reject the false self idea
and conclude that nobody is or has a self at all. When one ceases to cling to
things, no longer liking or disliking them, this indicates that one has perceived
that those things are not selves. Rational thinking is sufficient to convince
one that they cannot be selves; but the result is only belief, not clear insight
of the sort that can completely cut out clinging to them as selves. For this very
reason we have to study and examine the five aggregates on the basis of the threefold
training and develop sufficient insight to be able to give up clinging to this
self idea. This practice with respect to the five aggregates serves to develop
clear insight and eliminate ignorance. When we have completely eliminated ignorance,
we shall be able to see for ourselves that none of the aggregates is a self, none
is worth clinging to. All clinging, even the kind that has existed since birth,
will then cease completely. It is essential, then, that we study thoroughly the
five aggregates, which are the objects of the self conceit. The Buddha stressed
this aspect of his teaching more than any other. It may be summed up very briefly
by saying: "None of the five aggregates is a self." This should be considered
a key point in Buddhism, whether one looks at it as philosophy, as science, or
as religion. When we know this truth, ignorance-based grasping and clinging vanish,
desire of any sort has no means of arising, and suffering ceases.
Why is it,
then, that we normally don't see these five aggregates as they really are? When
we were born, we had no understanding of things. We acquired knowledge on the
basis of what people taught us. The way they taught us led us to understand that
all things are selves. The power of the primal instinctive belief in selfhood,
which is present right from birth, becomes very strong in the course of time.
In speaking we use the words "I, you, he, she," which only serve to
consolidate the self idea. We say: "This is Mr. X; that is Mr. Y. He is Mr.
A's son and Mr. B's grandson. This is So - and - so's husband; that is So - and
- so's wife." This way of speaking serves simply to identify people as selves.
The result is that we are, none of us, conscious of our clinging to selfhood,
which increases daily. When we cling to something as being a self, the result
is selfishness, and our actions are biased accordingly. If we were to develop
sufficient insight to see this idea as a deception, we would stop clinging to
the ideas of "Mr. A and Mr. B, high class and low class, beast and human
being," and would see that these are nothing more than terms which man has
devised for use in social intercourse. When we have come to understand this, we
can be said to have dispensed with one sort of social deception. When we examine
the whole of what goes to make up Mr. A, we find that Mr. A is simply an aggregation
of body, feeling, perception, thinking and consciousness. This is a rather more
intelligent way of looking at things. Doing this, one is not deluded by worldly
It is possible to carry the process of analysis further than
this. For instance the physical body can be divided up rather crudely into the
elements of earth, water, wind and fire; or it can be analyzed scientifically
into carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and so on. The deeper we look, the less we are deceived.
Penetrating below the surface, we find that in fact there is no person; there
are only elements, physical and mental. Looked at in this light, the "person"
disappears. The idea of "Mr. A and Mr. B, high - class and low - class"
dissolves. The idea of "my child, my husband, my wife" vanishes away.
When we look at things in the light of absolute truth, we find only elements:
earth, water, wind and fire; oxygen, hydrogen and so on; body, feeling, perception,
thinking and consciousness. On examining these closely we find they all have one
property in common, namely emptiness. Each is empty of what we refer to as "its
self." Earth, water, wind and fire, looked at properly, are seen to be empty
of selfhood. It is possible for each one of us to see anything and everything
as empty in this sense. This done, grasping and clinging will have no means of
arising and any already arisen will have no means of remaining. They will dissolve,
pass away, vanish entirely, not a trace remaining. So there are no animals, no
people, no elements, no aggregates. There are no things at all; there is only
emptiness, emptiness of selfhood. When we don't grasp and cling, there is no way
suffering can arise. One who sees all things as empty is quite unmoved when people
call him good or bad, happy or miserable, or anything. This is the fruit of knowledge,
understanding, and clear insight into the true nature of the five aggregates which
makes it possible to give up completely those four kinds of unskillful clinging.
In summary, everything in the whole world is included within the five aggregates,
namely matter, feeling, perception, thinking and consciousness. Each of these
groups is a deception, each is quite devoid of selfhood, but has the seductive
power to induce grasping and clinging. As a result, the ordinary person desires
to possess, desires to be, desires not to possess, desires not to be, all of which
only serves to produce suffering, suffering which is not obvious, but concealed.
It behooves every one to utilize the threefold training in morality, concentration
and insight, and eliminate delusion with respect to the five aggregates completely
and utterly. A person who has done this will not fall under the power of the five
aggregates and will be free of suffering. For him life will be unblemished bliss.
His mind will be above all things for as long as he lives. This is the fruit of
clear and perfect insight into the five aggregates.