Letting go of Desire

by Ajahn Sumedho | 1988 | 3,433 words

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Source: amaravati.org

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The arising of dukkha is due to the grasping of desires. And the insight is that there is this origin or arising and that desire should be let go of. This is the Second Noble Truth; it is the insight knowledge of letting go.

Some people think that all I teach is whatever happens, let go. But the teaching involves a real investigation of suffering; insight of letting go occurs through that understanding. So letting go does not come from a desire to get rid of suffering - that is not letting go, is it?

The vibhava tanha, or desire to get rid of, is quite subtle. but wanting to get rid of our defilements is another kind of desire. Letting go is not a getting rid of or putting down with any aversion. Letting go means to be able to be with what is displeasing without dwelling in aversion - because aversion is an attachment. If you have a lot of aversion, then you will still be attached. Fear, aversion - all this is grasping and clinging.

Dispassion is acceptance and awareness of things as they are, not creating anything, letting go of the aversion to what is ugly or unpleasant. So letting go is not a trick phrase coined as a way of dismissing things, but it is a deep insight into the nature of things. Letting go therefore is being able to bear with something unpleasant and not being caught up with anger and aversion. Dispassion is not depression.

How many of you dismiss and refuse to acknowledge the unpleasantness of the functions of your own bodies? There are certain functions of the human body that arent beautiful, that in polite society we do not mention. We use all kinds of euphemisms and ways of politely excusing ourselves at the appropriate moment, because one does not want the perception of oneself to be connected to those functions. We want a presence or image to be connected with something pleasing or interesting or attractive. We want our photograph taken with flowers in an attractive setting, not on the toilet. We want to disguise the natural processes of life, cover up the wrinkles, dye the hair, do everything to make ourselves look younger - because ageing is not attractive.

As we get older we lose what is beautiful and attractive. Our reflection is to be really aware of sickness and death, that which is attractive and unattractive: the way things are in this realm of sensory consciousness. Being an entity with sense organs which contact objects - which can be anything from the most beautiful and pleasing to the most hideous and ugly - we experience feelings. Feeling (vedana) entails the dualism of the pleasant, the painful and the neutral; this applies to all the senses, taste, touch, sight, hearing, smell and thought.

So vedana, I use that particular word, that khandha, as the concept for all that attraction/repulsion. We are experiencing vedana, we are aware of the pleasant, painful, beautiful, ugly, neutral through the body or what we hear, smell, taste, touch or think. Even memories can be attractive. We can have memories that are pleasing, unpleasant or neutral. And if we are heedless and operate from avijja, the view of self, the unquestioned assumption that I am, the attractive, the unattractive and neutral is interpreted with desire. I want the beautiful, I want the pleasant, I want to be happy and successful. I want to be praised, I want to be appreciated, I want to be loved. I dont want to be persecuted, unhappy, sick, looked down on or criticised. I dont want ugly things around me. I dont want to look at the ugly, to be around the unpleasant.

Consider the functions of our body. We all know that these functions are just part of nature but we dont want to think of them as being mine. I have to urinate, but one would not want to be known in history as Sumedho the Urinator. Sumedho the abbot of Amaravati, thats all right. When I write my autobiography it will be filled with things like the fact that I was a disciple of Ajahn Chah, about how sensitive I was as a little child, innocent and pure - maybe a little mischievous now and then because I dont want to be seen as a cupie doll. But in most biographies the unpleasant functions of the body are just dismissed. We are not to go round thinking we should identify with these functions but to begin to just notice the tendency to not want to be bothered with them, or pay attention and observe a lot of that which is part of our life, the way things are.

In mindfulness then, we are opening our mind to this, to the whole of life, which includes the beautiful, the ugly, the pleasing, the painful and the neutral. So in our reflection on the paticcasamuppada, we see it is connected to the Second Noble Truth.

This is where the sequence tanha, upadana, bhava is most helpful as a means of investigating grasping.

Grasping in this sense can mean grasping because of attraction, or because of aversion, trying to get rid of. Grasping with aversion is pushing away; running away is upadana, as well as trying to get hold of the beautiful, and possess it and keep it. Seeking after the desirable, trying to get rid of the undesirable.

The more we contemplate and investigate upadana, the more the insight arises: desire should be let go of. In the Second Noble Truth it is explained that suffering arises, it should be let go of and then, through the practice of letting go and the understanding of what letting go really is, we have the third insight into the Noble Truth: desire has been let go of: we actually know letting go. It is not a theoretical letting go, it is not a rejection of anything, it is the actual insight.

In discussing the Second Noble Truth there is the statement There is the origin of suffering, it should be let go of; and the third insight: it has been let go of. And that is what practice is all about - fulfilling those three. That applies to each of the Noble Truths: there is the statement, what to do, then the result of that. The First Noble Truth: there is suffering; it should be understood; it has been understood. These are the three aspects of insight into the First Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth: there is the origin of suffering, samudaya which is the grasping of desire; it should be let go of; it has been let go of. The Third Noble Truth: there is the cessation, nirodha; it should be realised; and the third insight: it has been realised. The Fourth Noble Truth: there is the Eightfold Path, the way out of suffering; it should be developed; it has been developed. This is insight knowledge. When you think: What does an arahant know? it is this: he knows there is suffering, he knows suffering should be understood, the arahant knows when suffering has been understood; the arahant knows the origin of suffering, he knows it should be let go of, knows that it has been let go of, etc.

These are the twelve insights. This is what we call arahantship - the knowledge of one who has those insights.

Paticcasamuppada is a really close investigation of the whole process. Now it is grasping of the five khandhas that is the problem. The five khandhas are dhammas* - they are to be studied and investigated. They are just the way things are. There is not a self, they are impermanent and to know the way it is to know the Dhamma.

(* dhamma means thing as part of the universe (i.e. not belonging to a person).
Dhamma refers to the Buddhas teaching and insight into Ultimate Truth.)

And so the grasping of the conditioned world as a self is based on delusion or ignorance (avijja): the illusion of a self as being the five khandhas. And because of that we live our lives based on ignorance. The volitional activities (sankhara) from that ignorance interpret everything with the I am and from the grasping of desires; the result is jara marana (ageing & death). If I grasp the body as self then I get old. My body is 54 this year, its sagging and wrinkly. And the belief that I am getting old because the body is getting old is a kind of suffering, isnt it? If there is no sense of self then there is no suffering. There is an appreciation of its ageing. There is no feeling that there is anything wrong with the body getting old; that is what it is supposed to do. That is its nature. It is not me. It is not mine, and it is doing what it is supposed to do. Perfect isnt it? I would be upset if it started getting younger! Imagine if I started getting younger, fifty years from now Id be back in nappies and Id have to go through all that again.

The thought I am getting old isnt sorrowful. It is a conventional way of talking about the body. But if this is what I think I am: I am the body, this is my body then ignorance conditions sankhara and everything is coming from that Im getting old, I want to be young, I want to live a long life, dont you call me an old man, you young whippersnapper ! Why? Because of the identity with the body.

And then I am going to die. Thats a morbid thing, lets not even talk about death. Of course we are all going to die but thats far away. When you are young you think of death as so far away - lets enjoy life. But when anyone we know dies, or we nearly die, then death can be very frightening. And all that is from the attachment of the identity I am this body.

Then of course there are all the views, feelings, memories and biases we have (vedana, sa򰟬🪠a, sankhara). Not only do we suffer from identification with the body, but also when we attach to the beautiful and to feelings, I want only the beautiful, I want only the pleasant; I do not want to see the ugly; I want to have beautiful music and no ugly sounds, only the fragrant smells....

We attach to what the world should be like; opinions about Britain and France, USA. Attachments to these views and opinions and perceptions make up the vedana sa򰟭🬳a sankhara sequence of the five khandhas. And we can the attach to all that in terms of self. Its my view, what I think, and what I want and dont want, what should be and what should not be. So we get grief, anguish, despair, depression, sorrow, lamentation from that illusion of self.

The insight into the Second Noble Truth is that there is an origin to this suffering. It is not permanent. It is not absolutely always that something arises. The rising up of dukkha is due to the grasping of desire. You can see desire because it is dhamma, it arises and ceases.

You can see the desire that arises to seek the beautiful and pleasant on the sensual plane through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. Kama tanha is sensual desire. Sensual desire always wants some kind of pleasurable or at least exciting experience. Kama tanha: you can see it in the movement that we have of going towards and then grasping the sensory pleasures.

Bhava tanha is the desire to become. This is to do with wanting to become something. As, ultimately, we do not know who we are, our desire is to attain and achieve and become something. In this Holy Life the bhava tanha can be very strong. You feel that you are here to become enlightened and achieve and attain something. It all sounds very good. But even the desire to become enlightened can come from this avijja, from this self view. Im going to get enlightened. Im going to become the first American arahant; Im fed up with this world, I want to get enlightened so that I will not have to be reborn again. I dont want to go through childhood again. I dont want any of that. I want to become something where you dont have to be born any more. That can be bhava tanha/vibhava tanha - they go hand in hand. In order to become something you have to get rid of the things you dont like and you dont want. Im going to get rid of my defilements and I want to get rid of my bad habits and get rid of my desires. And all this sounds very righteous, too. The defilements are bad - get rid of them.

So in the Holy Life, there is a lot of vibhava tanha. We can live this life solely to get rid of things and to become something by getting rid of something. Notice then that the Second Noble Truth is the realisation that desire should be let go of, should be laid down. It is not a rejection of desire but an understanding; you let it go. Because otherwise it is vibhava tanha, the desire to get rid of desire. Know it, see it, but dont make anything out of it. If you are coming from ignorance, your desire says: I want to become an enlightened being and I shouldnt think like that, I shouldnt have the desire to become a Buddha; I shouldnt want to become anything. All that can be from ignorance conditioning mental formations (avijjapaccaya sankhara). So then the insight knowledge: Desire should be let go of.

All this sounds very right in a way when we say we shouldnt be attached to anything, but that can also be coming from avijjapaccaya sankhara. I shouldnt be attached to anything is very much an affirmation of myself, as somebody who is attached to something and shouldnt be that way. I should be otherwise. So thats just a trap of the mind, thats not a real insight into kama tanha, bhava tanha, vibhava tanha. Reflect on What is attachment? If you are really just throwing things away, it is not the way to solve this problem, is it? You are not really examining kama tanha, bhava tanha, vibhava tanha, so you wont have an insight into letting go. You will merely take a position against attachment, which is another kind of attachment.

So examine, look into attachment. This is working in a much more subtle and realistic way than just forming an opinion that you shouldnt be attached to anything.

I remember a psychiatrist who lived in Bangkok, who used to take somebodys wrist watch and they would get upset and he would say: You are attached to your wrist watch. Then he would take his own watch and throw it away to prove he was not attached. He was bragging about this to me. I said You have missed the point. You are attached to the view that you are not attached to your wrist watch. That isnt letting go, is it? Throwing this away like a smart alec and saying you are attached, Im not, I threw mine away. There is a lot of self in that? Look at me Im not attached to these wretched material things. You can be quite proud of being non attached. With reflection we see attachment, and we dont have to get rid of things, but we can not be attached to them, we can let go of them. Not by throwing them out but by understanding the suffering from being attached.

As you understand the peace of non attachment, of letting go, the Second Noble Truth leads to the Third. When you let go of something, you are aware there is no attachment to the five khandhas. There is awareness that desire has been let go of. Then the insight into the third noble truth of cessation arises. There is cessation. This cessation should be realised.

As we realise the cessation more and more, we begin to notice non attachment. Not many of you are aware of non attachment. You are usually conscious through being attached to things. A totally deluded human being only feels alive through attachment and desire. Contemplate that when you are not caught up in attachment to the five khandhas, you do not feel alive, you are nobody. Having neurotic problems makes people feel interesting and alive. I have fascinating neuroses from all kinds of traumas in early childhood. So its not Sumedho the Urinator, its Sumedho the Interesting Neurotic, the Mystic or Sumedho the Abbot - these are conditions we can be attached to. Realising cessation allows you to let the self cease, there is letting go. The realisation of letting go is cessation, that whatever arises ceases. And cessation is noted. Cessation should be realised.

So our practise is one of realising cessation. That is when we talk about emptiness: we realise the empty mind where there is no self. There is no sense of the mind being anybody. As soon as you think of this as my mind, if you grasp that thought then you are deluded again. But even if you have my mind and see it as that which arises and ceases with non grasping of it, then it is just a condition that. There is no suffering from that, it is peaceful.

When there is no self, there is peace. When there is me and mine then there is no peace. Worry, anxiety what are they? They are all from me and mine. When you let go then there is cessation of me and mine. There is peace, calm, clarity, dispassion, emptiness.

I observe that when there is no self, no attachment, then the ways of relating to others is through metta (kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), upekkha (serenity). These are not from a self or avijja. It is not that theres an idea that I must have more metta for everyone because I have a lot of aversion and I should not. I should have loving kindness for all beings. I should feel compassion. Sometimes I just want to kill everybody. I should feel a lot of metta, mudita, be kind and joyful and sympathetic with people. I should be serene, too. The brahma viharas*, as ideas for a selfish person, are not the real practice. The desire to become someone who has lots of metta and karuna and all that kind of thing is still bhava tanha.

(*the divine abodes of kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and serenity)

But as the illusions of self fall away, then this is the natural way to relate. You do not become a vacuous zombie through understanding Dhamma. You still relate to each other but it is through kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and serenity, rather than through greed hatred and delusion.

Unselfish human beings, what do they generally manifest in society? You could explain metta, mudita, karuna and upekkha as that which manifests through unselfish human beings. Then apply that to our own practice now. When there is vijja - knowing and seeing clearly - then that gives total opportunity for the practice of kindness, compassion and the rest. But it is not me, not mine, not Sumedho, the metta filled Ajahn, Sumedho the Good Guy, rather than Sumedho the Urinator. As soon as Sumedho delusions step aside and cease, kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and serenity can manifest. This is why the human state is a great blessing: when the self view is relinquished what remains is a great blessing.

But it is not me. I am not a great blessing. All I can do in this conventional self is to let go of delusion. To be mindful and not get attached to things, to see clearly - that is what I can do. That is the practise of the Four Noble Truths and development of the Eightfold Path. It amounts to that vigilant, mindful seeing of things clearly. Then what happens is up to other things. There is no need to go around trying to become Sumedho the Good Guy any more. This goodness can manifest through this form if there is no delusion; and that is not a personal achievement on attainment at all, merely the way things are. The way it happens to be. It is Dhamma.


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