Chapter Eleven

Clinging & Craving on the Path

As you commit to the path and reflect on your actions, you begin to appreciate the Buddha’s strategy for attacking the problem of suffering. Before you abandon the cause of suffering, he has you develop something better to hold on to in the interim, both to make you more inclined to let go of your cravings and to insure, when you do let go, that you won’t be set adrift.

In fact, his step-by-step discourse marked the beginning stage in providing you with that something better. As you’ll recall, he gave that talk to wean his listeners away from their infatuation with sensuality. To do that, he provided them with a way of viewing the world in which a certain course of action—the renunciation of sensuality—is an obvious and attractive should because it leads to your long-term welfare and happiness, with “you” defined in terms of multiple lifetimes. In other words, as you recall the four types of clinging that constitute the first noble truth, you’ll see that he’s recommending a view-clinging and doctrine-of-self-clinging that will help get you started on the habits and practices of the path. This means that, as you get started on the path, the Buddha proposes three new versions of clinging to replace the unskillful ways of clinging in which you’ve engaged in the past.

As for sensuality-clinging, that has no role on the path at all, but the path itself proposes an interim pleasure—the pleasure, rapture, and equanimity of right concentration—that will form an alternative object of desire to replace your desires for sensuality. This non-sensual pleasure will be your food along the way, so that you’re not tempted to revert to sensuality as the path gets difficult. In effect, with the practice of right concentration, the Buddha’s offering a skillful type of habit-and-practice clinging to replace sensuality-clinging as your source of inner food.

In fact, of all three forms of clinging to be used in the path, habit-and-practice-clinging is the most pivotal. After all, the path to the end of clinging is a path of action—we’ve noted that it’s the kamma that puts an end to kamma—which is why the Buddha’s teachings go into great detail on the habits and practices of virtue, concentration, and discernment that should be developed to form the path. However, to believe that such a path could actually work, you need a view about the world in which actions can be freely chosen and have the power to transcend the round of death and rebirth. This is why right views about action—kamma and rebirth—also form part of the path.

At the same time, you need to have a sense that you, as an agent, are capable of following the path, and that you, as a consumer, will benefit from doing so. This is why, as part of his strategy for motivating you to engage in the path factor of right effort, the Buddha provided many teachings to encourage a healthy sense of self, saying that the self is its own mainstay, that it’s responsible for its actions, that it’s capable of mastering the path, and that it will benefit from doing so.

But it’s worth noting that even though the early teachings are very detailed in their instructions as to what should and shouldn’t be done, the worldviews and self-views they provide to support these instructions are nothing more than sketches. Because they’re not the focus, the Buddha addressed views of the world and the self only when absolutely necessary to support the basic premises of kamma. The truths of action and rebirth, for instance, were hotly debated by his contemporaries, so he had to take a position on those issues to justify the path of practice he taught. The size and age of the cosmos were also hot topics, but because they had no bearing on the power of action, the Buddha consistently put those topics aside.

Similarly with issues of the self: Other philosophical schools debated the question of how best to define the self, but—as we’ve seen—the Buddha noted that to define yourself was to limit yourself, so he refused to answer questions about what the self was—or even whether it existed. As he said, questions of that sort weren’t worthy of attention. All he was concerned about was your perception of self—responsible for your actions, competent to follow the path, and able to benefit from doing so—and the reality of control: You can manipulate the aggregates at least enough to construct a path that can take you to awakening. The raft may be made of twigs and branches, but if you tie them together well enough, they can do the job.

In fact, the question of action was so central to the path that one of its crucial steps was to learn how to see that your sense of the world and yourself were nothing more than actions themselves. They come about from things you do, and the act of holding to them is a kind of kamma that, like all actions, carries consequences.

As you follow the Buddha’s instructions to provide yourself with skillful clingings to fall back on, you develop the factors of the noble eightfold path; and as you develop those factors, you come to appreciate how well they target the three kinds of craving that cause suffering: craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, and craving for non-becoming. In other words, you see for yourself how the fourth noble truth helps put an end to suffering by attacking it right at the cause.

The factors most directly involved in this approach are the ones that comprise the discernment group—right view and right resolve—and the concentration group: right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The remaining factors, in the virtue group, play more of a supporting role in that they develop the clear conscience and mental sensitivity that right mindfulness and right concentration need in order to be honest and strong.

The factors of the concentration group, in turn, provide an important foundation for making the discernment group sharper and more effective. They do this in three ways.

• As you’ll recall from Chapter 6, one of the main reasons why people crave sensuality is because they can imagine no other alternative to pain. As the Buddha said, even when you can see the drawbacks of sensuality, if you have no access to a higher form of pleasure, you’ll stay stuck in sensual craving. So one of the prime functions of right concentration is to provide that skillful alternative.

• Second, the fact that right concentration is composed of the five aggregates means that, as you work to develop it, you get hands-on experience in what the aggregates actually are and how they function. Because you play with them to create a state of concentration, they’re now your playmates. You’re on familiar terms with them as activities in which you engage, and this takes them from the realms of abstraction into the realm of direct, active experience.

• Finally, the fact that right mindfulness and right concentration increase the steadiness of the mind means that right view can see the subtle motions of the mind, along with their interactions, much more clearly in real time.

This connects with another point we made in Chapter 6: To go beyond craving for becoming and craving for non-becoming, you have to see the events of the mind that ordinarily lead up to becoming and develop dispassion for them as events before they have a chance to develop into a sense of “self” or “world.” The fact that right view looks at experience in terms of skillful and unskillful actions, and right resolve aims at avoiding unskillful mental attitudes, means that these discernment factors are equipped with the right framework to make this analysis. When supported by the factors of the concentration group, they can apply this framework to actual events.

The Canon says that craving for sensuality is the first form of craving to be overcome, followed by craving for becoming and non-becoming. This gives the impression that you focus exclusively first on sensuality and then on the other two forms of craving, but in actual practice you need to attack all three at once. That’s because sensuality—fantasies and plans for sensual pleasures—entails a sense of the self who will find and enjoy the pleasures, along with the world in which those pleasures will be found. This means that the grosser forms of becoming that surround sensuality will be the first to go, followed by the subtler ones that surround the practice of the path itself.

To detect the events leading up to craving, and through craving and clinging to becoming, and then to develop dispassion for them, the Buddha recommends a five-step program (SN 22:57).

(1) See their origination, i.e., what other events cause them.

(2) Observe their passing away as those causes pass away.

These two steps allow you to discern the fabricated nature of these events as steps in a process.

(3) Look for their allure—why the mind is attracted to them.

(4) Look for the drawbacks of clinging to them. When you see that the drawbacks far outweigh the allure,

(5) dispassion arises, providing the escape from them.

The crucial steps in this approach are (3) and (4). As we noted in Chapter 6, one of the difficult aspects of truly understanding craving is to see precisely where it’s located. That’s the duty here of step (3). If you don’t detect the exact location of the allure, then no matter how much insight you have into the drawbacks, that insight won’t lead to true dispassion because it won’t be on target.

As for step (4), the Buddha prescribes many perceptions to apply to these fabricated events to help you see that they’re not worth the effort of fabricating states of becoming around them. These perceptions fall into three main groups:

• focusing on the inconstancy of fabrications,

• focusing on the stress of whatever is inconstant, and

• focusing on the fact that if something is inconstant and stressful, it’s not-self.

These perceptions are aimed at helping you to see that any state of becoming that you construct out of such raw materials won’t lie totally under your control and so inevitably will lead to disappointment. The effort required to construct a sense of self around such things is simply not worth it. It would be like building a house out of flimsy materials in an area prone to earthquakes. It could fall down at any time.

When this value judgment hits home, that’s how right view develops the dispassion that can put an end to that particular instance of craving for sensuality.

In the beginning stages of the practice, as you’re developing discernment aimed at dispassion, there’s a natural tendency to hold on to the insights that work. After all, this is how discernment develops: You use your powers of alertness to see what gives good results in getting past a particular craving, and you use your powers of mindfulness to remember that lesson for future use. Your command of the path encourages you to hold on to it with more and more confidence.

However, over time, as you get more skilled in reflecting on what you’re doing as you develop this discernment, you begin to see that you’re simply replacing gross forms of craving with subtler ones: the craving that leads you to cling to the factors of the path. After all, given that the factors of the path can be objects of clinging, and clinging is based on craving, those factors arise in dependence on the same sorts of mental events that underlie the cravings you’ve been abandoning. If you really want to be free from the stress of fabrications, you’ll have to start letting go of the craving to hold on to the path, without, of course, reverting to craving in its more blatantly unskillful forms.

This sort of reflective insight—backed up by heightened powers of concentration and discernment—is what enables you to begin developing the dispassion that leads to the noble attainments. Your act of letting go becomes more all-encompassing: You begin to let go, not only of the cravings you’ve been observing, but also of the factors of the path that underlie the act of observing.

In fact, this is the stage of the practice where the separate duties of the four noble truths begin to converge: Dispassion, which is the duty with regard to the second noble truth, now becomes the duty for all four. Comprehending suffering leads to having dispassion for clinging; developing the path—and especially the factor of right view—leads to having dispassion for the factors of the path; even when realizing cessation, you have to have dispassion for it if you want your freedom to be all-around.

The main turning point is when you start developing dispassion for the path. The Canon describes a variety of ways in which this can happen. This means that the exact insight that will lead to a breakthrough to the noble attainments will vary from person to person.

In the most general terms, the Canon says that you take the same five-step program that you applied to acts of craving and clinging, and you apply it to the five faculties of conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment. Because the faculty of conviction includes the virtue group of the noble eightfold path, and the faculty of persistence is the same thing as right effort, this means that, in effect, you apply this framework to all the factors of the noble eightfold path (SN 48:3–4).

You see how the path originates from causes and how it passes away. You see its allure in freeing you from stress and suffering, and in providing you with the peace and pleasures of jhāna, but you also see its drawbacks in that it’s fabricated, and so has to be constantly maintained.

In some cases, the Canon says that you focus this analysis on the practice of concentration, seeing how it’s composed of the five aggregates, and applying the same perceptions of inconstancy, stress, and not-self to those aggregates until the mind inclines toward the deathless (AN 9:36). In other cases, it says that you apply the insights of right view to right view itself: Just as right view has taught you to regard views as actions—and to see the stress that comes from clinging to those views—it now teaches you to look for the stress in clinging to right view. When you see this stress clearly as a drawback, that insight inclines the mind in the direction of the deathless (DN 1; AN 10:92).

In either case, you realize that you can’t stay where you are, nor can you go to any other mental location, for that would involve craving and stress as well. If, while the mind is faced with this dilemma, an opening occurs that is neither “here” nor “there,” that’s the opening to the deathless (Ud 1:10).

The Canon illustrates this point with a paradox: A heavenly being once asked the Buddha how he crossed over the flood, and he replied that he neither pushed forward nor stayed in place. That was how he was freed from locations and everywhere released (SN 1:1).

Now, the Canon warns that, on gaining an experience of the deathless, it is possible to feel passion and delight for it, and so to cling to it (AN 9:36). When that happens, your awakening is only partial, as the mind still has a location: the perception of the deathless to which it clings. This is because your powers of reflection are still not strong enough. You didn’t catch these new acts of craving and clinging in time. And while even a partial experience of the deathless is life-changing—it confirms your conviction in what the Buddha taught, that the ending of suffering is possible—it also teaches you that there’s more work to be done. You’ll have to pick up the path again in order to strengthen your powers of concentration and discernment so that the next time the opening to the deathless occurs, you’ll be better prepared.

It’s because the experience of the deathless is so overwhelming that the Canon forewarns you: You need to apply the perception of not-self not only to fabricated phenomena but also to the deathless itself. And as we’ve noted, you’ll then have to let go of that perception, too, so that your release will be complete.

All of which goes to show the importance of the basic training in truthfulness that the Buddha recommended for his followers from the very beginning: As you learn to be more honest and observant toward your actions—to be accurate in the perceptions you apply to your experiences, and to be truthful in reporting your actions and in citing the source of your views—you begin to develop the reflective skills that will carry you all the way to the reality of suffering’s end.