Thanissaro Bhikku advises beginning Buddhists to ‘cling more strategically’ at first on the path to elimination of all clinging
Was so pleased to read this passage this morning. Thanissaro Bhikku gives clarity to the moment the beginning Buddhist recognizes their efforts at eliminating clinging have been effective, and experience the enhanced clarity that results. There is so much optimism in this passage: so much hope for those to whom nibbana seems so unachievable, distant, or esoteric:
…clinging is suffering, we simply have to look to see precisely where clinging is and learn not to cling.
This is where we encounter the Buddha’s great skill as a strategist: He tells us to take the clingings we’ll have to abandon and transform them into the path to their abandoning. We’ll need a certain amount of sensory pleasure — in terms of adequate food, clothing, and shelter — to find the strength to go beyond sensual passion. We’ll need right view — seeing all things, including views, in terms of the four noble truths — to undermine our clinging to views. And we’ll need a regimen of the five ethical precepts and the practice of meditation to put the mind in a solid position where it can drop its clinging to precepts and practices. Underlying all this, we’ll need a strong sense of self-responsibility and self-discipline to master the practices leading to the insight that cuts through our clinging to doctrines of the self.
So we start the path to the end of suffering, not by trying to drop our clingings immediately, but by learning to cling more strategically. In other words, we start where we are and make the best use of the habits we’ve already got. We progress along the path by finding better and better things to cling to, and more skillful ways to cling, in the same way you climb a ladder to the top of a roof: grab hold of a higher rung so that you can let go of a lower rung, and then grab onto a rung still higher. As the rungs get further off the ground, you find that the mind grows clearer and can see precisely where its clingings are. It gets a sharper sense of which parts of experience belong to which noble truth and what should be done with them: the parts that are suffering should be comprehended, the parts that cause of suffering — craving and ignorance — should be abandoned; the parts that form the path to the end of suffering should be developed; and the parts that belong to the end of suffering should be verified. This helps you get higher and higher on the ladder until you find yourself securely on the roof. That’s when you can finally let go of the ladder and be totally free.
I described my own version of this process in January:
Co-comprehending the complex of belief represented by the Four Noble Truths/Noble Eightfold Path and this principle of wu wei explained above I was directed out of a cloud of attachments, not into enlightenment so much as out of confusion.
I am of course still on my Way, as are all of us whether we comprehend it or not.
The goal is not to eliminate suffering by stridently adhering to precepts. Rather, the goal is to achieve a singular state where even those precepts become unnecessary. Food, water, air to breathe…these things all people need in measure: even Buddhas. At some level though everything else –your habits, your beliefs, your fears, your sadness– should be carefully scrutinized, and if seen to consist of a cause/effect of suffering be expunged.
Alan Wilson Watts suggested the transformation required by Taoism and Zen practice “is not an acquisitive process of learning more and more facts or greater and greater skills, but rather an unlearning of wrong habits and opinions.” There are rules, but the goal is to transcend even them. Thanissaru Bhikku gives beginning Buddhists a starting foothold still based on the ‘solid ground’ of dukkha, advising them to apply the dialectic of the Four Noble Truths selectively. There is never a shortage of targets for this analysis, especially at first. As you find the method effective at rounding off the roughest edges –measurably relieving you of the suffering they caused– your newly-liberated mind expands, becomes increasingly aware of other attachments and increasingly facile in their elimination. In this your mind gathers momentum with the inexorable certainty of a snowball rolling down a mountain, however not by adding weight but by reducing resistance.
Read the remainder of Thanissaro Bhikku’s ‘Introduction to Buddhism’ here.