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Clinging

In the Mūlapariyāya Sutta (“Discourse on Root-Structure”) the Buddha reveals the root-structure of the reflexive experiences of the puthujjana, sekha and arahat as they result from their immediate experience of a perception. The Mūlapariyāya Sutta embraces all possible objects of perception—whether concrete or abstract—from earth, water, fire and air to oneness, many-ness and so on. But the root-structure of the reflexive experience is the same, no matter what is perceived. We begin with the puthujjana’s case, and will deal with the others later.

When the puthujjana has immediate experience of, for example, the earth-mode (solidity), the root-structure of his reflexive experience manifests as follows:

Here, monks, the uninstructed puthujjana, unseeing of the noble ones, ignorant of the noble Teaching, unseeing of the good men, ignorant of the good men’s Teaching, perceives earth (solidity) as earth. Perceiving earth as earth, he conceives earth, he conceives in earth, he conceives from earth, he conceives ‘earth is for me’, he delights in earth. Why is that? Because he has not comprehended it, I tell you.” — Mūlapariyāya Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 1)

We can analyze the above into stages as follows:

  1. The puthujjana perceives X as X (X being whatever is perceived).
  2. Perceiving X as X, he conceives X.
  3. He conceives in X.
  4. He conceives from X.
  5. He conceives ‘X is for me’.
  6. He delights in X.

Stages 2–6 represent five progressive levels of explicitness in the root-structure of the phenomena characterizing the puthujjana’s fundamental reflexive experience. Each level is more explicit than the preceding one, meaning it is more easily seen or noticed.

As mentioned above, this reflexive experience is a superstructure over the immediate experience. The immediate experience (not mentioned in the Sutta passage) is: “The puthujjana perceives X.” Since the immediate experience is the foundation for the superstructure of the reflexive experience, the reflexive experience, having to do with knowledge and description, comes after the immediate experience of the perception.

Please note that the root-structure of the puthujjana’s reflexive experience is not what we call reflexion or self-observation. It is classified as reflexive experience to the extent that there is some awareness of the immediate experience; but since there is no deliberate attention paid to it, it cannot be considered self-observation. This elementary type of root-structure found in the puthujjana can be considered the immediate experience that becomes the object of reflexive experience at the level of reflexion in the sekha.

Stage 1 above indicates the mere awareness of the perception, where the perception is recognized as the perception of X and nothing else—”He perceives X as X”; for example, he perceives green as green.

Stages 2–5 depict the basic structure of the phenomenon of appropriation, the perception of being in subjection; and this phenomenon best characterizes the puthujjana’s reflexive experience. The most fundamental nature of the puthujjana’s reflexive experience is one of appropriation—of immediate experience being appropriated or brought into subjection. Stages 2–5 above are four levels of explicitness in the basic structure of appropriation. These levels do not signify a sequence, where one arises after the previous one has ceased; they describe a single but graded structure in the present. Some of these levels, being very implicit, are difficult to see in experience. However we can always make an attempt.

In Stage 2 above—”Perceiving X as X, he conceives X”—the appropriation is so subtle that it is barely implied by the verb ‘conceives’ (maññati). The conceiving (maññanā) refers to conceiving subjectivity. And “Perceiving X as X, he conceives X” indicates that when the puthujjana has perceived X as X, he is pregnant with the possibility of bringing X, the object disclosed in immediate experience, into subjection, appropriating it.

More precisely, it means that when he has become aware that he is perceiving X, he is also pregnant with the conceit (māna) ‘I’. And because of that, he is also pregnant with the relationship that X, the object disclosed by immediate experience, is that which ‘I’ is concerned about. (The object disclosed in the immediate experience is also referred to as name-&-form, to be discussed later.)

The Pāli word māna, translated conceit, indicates a combination of concept and pride. It is not so subtle as the ordinary meaning of concept, yet not so coarse as pride; it is something of both.

In Stage 3—”He conceives in X”—X gets endowed with the conceit ‘I’. With this endowment, ‘I’ is no longer a mere concept; it is a concept with a referent. That is, ‘I’ is not just an idea or abstract concept; it is a concept that refers to something concrete, and then that concrete referent is ‘I’.

An example may help to make this clear:

Stage 0: I perceive a lump of matter (X) in front of me. This is the immediate experience.

Stage 1: “He perceives X as X.” I perceive a lump of matter in front of me as that particular lump of matter, with its particular color, shape and other qualities, and nothing else.

Stage 2: “Perceiving X as X, he conceives X.” Now while the perception is still there, I conceive the concept ‘chair’.

Stage 3: “He conceives in X.” I superimpose the concept ‘chair’ on the particular lump of matter disclosed by the immediate experience. At this level of awareness of the lump of matter, the concept of ‘chair’ is tied up with the awareness—aware of it as ‘chair’. Similarly, the conceit ‘I’ is tied up with the awareness—aware of it as ‘I’. Thus it was said, “He conceives in X”, meaning that ‘I’ have superimposed a concept or recognition of the particular lump of matter as ‘chair’. The importance of this stage will become apparent later in our discussion.

Stage 4: “He conceives from X”, is the level where there is the appearance that ‘I’ is something separate from X. It also indicates that at this level, there is more attention on ‘I’.

Stage 5: “He conceives ‘X is for me’.” Now the separation is explicit, and the apparent relationship between this apparently separate ‘I’ and X is that X is for this ‘I’. Thus to the puthujjana, when there is an immediate experience, it becomes explicitly present in his reflexive experience as for me: “My chair.”

Stage 6: “He delights in X.” See the discussion on clinging and desire later in this chapter.

Root-Structure Illustrated

Root-Structure Illustrated

The puthujjana’s experience is not merely the presence of an object. In his experience there is both an object that is present and an apparent subject, to whom the object is present. Thus, there is a present object—X—and there appears to be a present subject: ‘I’. Further, the relation between X and ‘I’ is that the object concerns the subject—is about the subject, for the subject or belongs to the subject. The subject is master over the object; thus the object is appropriated, so the most essential and fundamental part of the experience is “X is mine.” This is the root of the experience, upon which all the other factors of the experience depend.

The Buddha teaches that the conceptions of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ are latent tendencies (anusaya). This means that the puthujjana makes no deliberate effort to conceive ‘I’ and ‘mine’. But although it is involuntary, it is intentional in the strict sense of the word. (We will discuss intention in a later section.) The puthujjana responds to immediate experiences in this way without deliberation, and without being aware that he is reacting more or less unconsciously and mechanically. Further, reckoning an immediate experience as ‘I’ and ‘mine’ is essentially the same thing as making or fabricating an ‘I’ (ahaṅkāra) and a ‘mine’ (mamaṅkāra).

Besides the tendencies to the conceits of ‘I’-making and ‘mine’-making, there is also the tendency to the conceit ‘I am’ (asmimāna). The separation of ‘I’ from the object in Stage 4 is actually realized because of this conceit. Every time the puthujjana conceives ‘I’ (ahaṃ) he does so in different experiences; for ‘I’ is a conceit he implicitly endows on each immediate experience individually. But despite implicitly conceiving ‘I’ in different experiences, the explicit level where experience after experience is conceived as being for ‘I’ confirms (for him) the conceit that this ‘I’ is something that stands (ṭhiti) or persists by itself, separate from experience. In other words, the repetition of ‘I’-making in many different experiences confirms for the puthujjana that ‘I’ am, that ‘I’ exists. Thus not only does he conceive the conceit that ‘I’ am, but also that ‘I’ is a persistent entity, separate from all other things. Again, this reaction is involuntary, requiring no particular effort from the puthujjana; therefore he is unaware of it, he doesn’t notice it.

This being ‘I’, or existence of ‘I’, or remaining ‘I’, or persistence of ‘I’ in time, is the most fundamental form of being (bhava). It is in fact the essence of what we refer to in ordinary language as existence or ‘being’.

The puthujjana, however, sees this state of affairs wrongly. First he deceives himself into thinking that there is a subject existing independently of the object; that ‘I’ is something existing independent of experience, and that experience is for this subject, that it is ‘mine’. He thinks, “Because ‘I’ am, things are for ‘me’.” But according to the Buddha, actually, ‘I’ exists because we see things as for ‘me’. The conceit ‘I’ am brings in temporality, the perception of existing in time.

We now come to two very important aspects of being: the perception of permanence (niccasañña) and the perception of pleasurableness (sukhasañña).

Subjectivity—the conceits ‘I’, ‘mine’ and ‘am’ (ahaṃ, mama and asmi)—is always explicitly or implicitly structurally related with the perception of not passing away (na vayo), of being permanent or immortal. Death or nonexistence is always the most repugnant perception to the puthujjana’s innermost being. Notions of subjectivity are always associated with notions of permanence or immortality. The conception of the individual as ‘I’ requires this notion of permanence, even though the permanence of ‘I’ is by no means established. Reflexion on experience indicates this, as follows:

In the present experience there is the notion of ‘I’, and the experience (or a part of it) is itself identified with that which is ‘I’. This present experience is presently regarded as continuing in a very subtle manner; and even if this present particular experience is seen to pass away, experience in general is not thought to cease immediately altogether.  When the present experience gives way to another, the subsequent experience is also then identified as that which is ‘I’. In other words, whenever this experience identified as ‘I’ passes away, there is always another experience to be identified as ‘I’.

Thus, the puthujjana never thinks that ‘I’ ceases altogether immediately with the cessation of the present experience; he thinks there is always ‘I’. The puthujjana occasionally muses that experience will cease altogether—that is, he will die—but only as time goes on, some years in the future. But this happening ‘some time later’ is a vague concept, corresponding to a far remote actuality, remaining untouched by and and completely separate from both the present experience and the immediately following experience. Thus the puthujjana, even when he muses that he will die, never thinks that he will die right now at this instant, or even at the next.

Thus, ‘I’ is always implicitly thought to continue, to remain, to be, to exist, to persist in time in one way or another. This perception of being by-itself becomes firm at the level where the experience is taken to be for ‘I’ (Stage 5). Here separation of ‘I’ from the immediate experience is explicit, apparent; and repeatedly taking successive experiences as for ‘I’ more explicitly reinforces the concept of an ‘I’ that stands separate from all existence.

The puthujjana thinks that somehow or other, because of the apparent continuity given by the repeated superimposition on each experience of the notion that the experience is for ‘I’, that ‘I’ stands as a by-itself. The consequence of this whole state of affairs is that it leads the puthujjana to the subtle belief that there actually is a permanent ‘I’ standing by-itself, apart from all experience—that ‘I’ am, irrespective of all else. This subtle belief grips the puthujjana because he is completely unaware of what is happening, and does not notice the complex superstructure that lies beneath and supports ‘I’.

There is a distinction between considering a thing as ‘I’ and the conceit ‘(I) am’. Considering a thing as ‘I’ is a mental endowment—describing a thing as ‘I’. The conceit ‘(I) am’ refers to an existence or persistence in time—‘(I) am’. The superimposition on immediate experience of the concepts in ascending order of explicitness is: as ‘I’ , for ‘I’, ‘am I’.

The perception of not passing away, of permanence, differs from the view or belief in eternal existence, where eternity is conceived as infinity of duration. Belief in eternal existence is only a consequence of the perception of permanence. The puthujjana does not have the view in every reflexive experience that he will exist in some way for all time. When the eternalist view or belief (sassatavāda) does come in, it does so only in deliberate reflection, and it is dependent upon the fundamental conceptions of the root-structure.

But what does exist in the puthujjana’s every reflexive experience is the involuntary perception that he will continue, that he will be, that he will not pass away. Every instant of being requires the assumption of continuation of being. The question of duration—whether he will continue for some time or for all time—is a secondary matter that appears only in deliberate reflection. So the question of the duration of being is not part of the puthujjana’s each and every reflexive experience; it is the subtle perception of merely continuing, of being. The term permanence is therefore not as accurate a rendering of the Pāli na vayo as the phrase not passing away; but we will use permanence because it is much easier to handle.

The perception of permanence is always structurally related with the perception of pleasurableness. ‘Is mine’ and ‘I am’—or more generally, ‘being’—are always associated with perceptions of permanence and pleasurableness. These two perceptions are not always explicit—seen or noticed; nevertheless, if subjectivity is there (‘I am’) they they are also there, if only to a very slight degree. Subjectivity and the perceptions of permanence and pleasurableness are structurally inseparable. This fact can be seen through its obverse: the experience of the sudden apprehension of death.

The sudden apprehension of death is such a shocking and unpleasant experience. Shock is acute disappointment or unexpectedness, concentrated in a very short period of time; and the unexpectedness is in the apprehension that being ‘I’, which was implicitly always thought will be, will now not be any more. The apprehension of death means the perception of the impermanence of ‘I’ in its full force. But ‘I’ was always implicitly or explicitly assumed to be permanent and pleasurable; hence the unpleasant shock in the sudden apprehension of death.

Any thing—any object considered as a particular phenomenon—always has certain associated significances. For example, the consideration of a lump of matter in front of me as a ‘chair’ is associated with, or structurally inseparable from, the notion of ‘being seated on it’. This concept of ‘being seated on it’ is its significance, or as we shall see later on, its intention; and if this significance or intention is not present, then the lump of matter is no longer cognized, or at least is no longer cognized as a ‘chair’. Likewise, the notion ‘I’, or the consideration of a thing as ‘I’, is always associated with certain significances or intentions: the perceptions of permanence and pleasurableness. ‘I’ has no meaning without these significances, and nothing lacking those perceptions can be considered as ‘I’. In other words, the notion of subjectivity is always correlated with perceptions of permanence and pleasurableness.

Now, there is no ‘mine’ or ‘am’ or ‘being’ apart from some thing taken to be ‘mine’ or ‘am’ or ‘being’. It always has to be ‘this is mine’ or ‘this am I’ or ‘this is being’. Despite whatever mystical beliefs one may have, there is no such thing as ‘pure being’ apart from experience. The immediate experience, together with taking the experience to be ‘I’ and ‘mine’ is what gives the individual ‘being’.

Briefly, ‘being’ is the persistence of subjectivity, or the persistence of subjective experience. And since the immediate experience is recognized to be that which ‘I’ am (at this time ‘I’ is identical to the immediate experience), the perception of pleasurableness in ‘being’ (i.e. in ‘being-I’) is conceptually realized as the perception of pleasurableness in the immediate experience. Stage 6 indicates the perception of this pleasurableness. We have rendered it as delighting (abhinandati).

On the other hand, displeasure—fear, worry, anxiety, etc.—arises with the perception of danger to ‘being’. Consequently, the most acute displeasure arises in the perception of total destruction to ‘being’, the apprehension of immanent death.

Thus, pleasure is primarily the pleasant mental feeling that arises at the perception of ‘being’, and displeasure is the unpleasant mental feeling that arises at the perception of danger to ‘being’. The pleasure or displeasure increases according to the nature of the ‘being’ that is perceived. If it is perceived to be a very welcome mode of ‘being’, then the pleasure is very great; likewise, if the perceived danger to ‘being’ is very great, then the displeasure is very great. There is no pleasure or displeasure divorced from ‘being’. The relief from pleasure and displeasure, which is the feeling of ease that the arahat experiences, is very different from the pleasure associated with ‘being’, and will be discussed later on.

Clinging and Desire

So far what we have discussed as the basic structure of the process of appropriation, of bringing the immediate experience into subjection, is also the basic structure of what the Suttas call upādāna, which can be translated as holding or clinging. Herein we will render upādāna as clinging. Upādāna or clinging covers a wider field than appropriation or bringing into subjection; but fundamentally, in essence, it refers to the same thing. Thus the six stages of the root-structure of the puthujjana’s reflexive experience described above are, in the language of the Suttas, also progressive levels of explicitness in the root-structure of the phenomenon of clinging.

As we pointed out above, the earlier levels of this root-structure are not easy to observe; it takes considerable effort to see that the root-structure of the puthujjana’s reflexive experience are even roughy as described in the Suttas. Another phenomenon that is not indicated in the root-structure, but noticeable without difficulty, dependent on Stage 6 is desire. Desire is called nandi or chanda in the Suttas.

“To him delighting in that feeling, welcoming it, standing attached to it, desire is born.” —Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 38)

What, then, is desire? Desire is clinging to the perception of pleasurableness that there is in ‘being’, appropriating it and not letting it go. But since clinging is fundamentally considering or taking a thing as ‘I’, desire is taking the perception of pleasurableness in ‘being’ as ‘I’. In desire, there is not only the perception of pleasurableness in ‘being’, but also taking this perception of pleasurableness in ‘being’ as ‘I’. Thus desire is perceiving the perception of pleasurableness in ‘being’ as ‘I’.

Desire has the characteristic of looking forward. It depends upon anticipation (vinicchayo):

“Dependent upon anticipation, desire and lust.” — Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 38.1)

This anticipation includes an evaluation from the point of view of pleasurableness. The Pāli word vinicchayo, which we render as anticipation, also includes this aspect of evaluation. One desires to continue the present mode of ‘being’, or to fabricate a new mode of ‘being’ in the immediate future. Desire is primarily a desire for ‘being’; the specific form or mode of ‘being’ is secondary. The realization of a desire for ‘being’, however, is always the desire for a specific mode of ‘being’. There cannot be a ‘being’ separate from something or other reckoned to be that ‘being’: ‘I am that’. The precedence we have given to the conceit ‘I am’ is not therefore structural; it is precedence only from the point of view of of its importance to the problem of suffering. Desire maintains the fundamental clinging. It is another layer of clinging including temporality, and it is the layer of clinging explicitly seen in experience.

Summary

We have seen that clinging (upādāna) is appropriating the immediate experience or bringing it into subjection. This appropriation or bringing into subjection is nothing but considering (samanupassati) or reckoning the immediate experience as ‘I’ or ‘mine’, however subtle that may be. Considering (samanupassati) and conceiving (maññati) differ in that the factor of deliberation is clearly present in considering, while deliberation is merely pregnant, or almost absent, in conceiving. From this point of view we can regard considering as the mature form of conceiving. This means that to hold a thing, to appropriate a thing, to bring a thing into subjection or to cling to it, is fundamentally to consider it as ‘I’ or ‘mine’. This point cannot be overstressed. The same thing applies to the phenomena called attaching, desiring, lusting, etc. To be attached to a thing, to desire a thing, to lust for a thing, is to fundamentally and essentially consider that thing as being ‘I’ or as being ‘for I’. For this reason, all these phenomena—attachment (ajjhosāna), desire (chanda), lust (rāga), etc.—are also called clinging (upādāna) in the Suttas.

‘This is mine’ (etaṃ mama) is a rationalization, or a conceptual elaboration of the conceiving (maññanā) described in the root-structure; ‘I am this’ (eso ahaṃ asmi) is a rationalization of the conceit ‘I am’. The Suttas classify these two—’this is mine’ and ‘I am this’—as views (diṭṭhi). They are the two fundamental ways in which the puthujjana views or looks upon immediate experience. ‘This is mine’ is the more fundamental of the two, and therefore it forms the most fundamental of views. Conceiving of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, and with it considering the immediate experience as ‘I’ and ‘mine’, form the fundamental clinging. These two views—’this is mine’ and ‘this am I’—depend on this fundamental clinging. These are views in that they are deliberate reflections, like a coarse layer standing over the subtle conceiving (maññanā) and the subtle conceit ‘I am’ (asmimāna) that are fundamental in all ‘being’ (bhava). These two views also indicate different degrees of clinging. A thing is held harder if it is considered that which ‘I’ am, than when it is considered for ‘I’, or ‘mine’.

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