Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Grasping to Let Go



I have heard many times others teaching that grasping at things is, according to Buddhism, the cause of suffering. In the Sandokai, a staple teaching in many Zen sanghas, there is even the line Grasping at things is surely delusion. I can imagine many of you have a negative view of grasping as it occurs in your life. You'd like to diminish it's power over you, or maybe even destroy grasping all together. Last Sunday, our head teacher introduced a koan I had heard once before, and I found myself grasping for some kind of understanding of it. It befuddled me completely. But really, none of us need a koan to feel the intensity, stickiness, and icky feeling of grasping. Food. Sex. Comfort. Ease. I've grasped for all of those. I can imagine you have too.

Grasping is an interesting word. A noun and an adjective, it has several related, but not exactly similar meanings.

In adjective form, it points to desiring to acquire, to excessive wanting of wealth and/or material possessions.

In noun form, there are the following meanings:

1. gripping something tightly with one's hands

2. the activity of managing or exerting control over something

3. understanding with difficulty or after some difficulty

Other than noun definition number three, which maybe resonates with how many Buddhist practitioners experience their lives and practice out there, grasping sounds like trouble. however, I came across the following teaching from the Alagaddupama Sutta that speaks of grasping in a different manner, suggesting that we need to learn how to grasp rightly in order to awaken in this life.

Here is the Buddha speaking to a group a monks:

"Suppose there were a man needing a water-snake, seeking a water-snake, wandering in search of a water-snake. He would see a large water-snake and grasp it by the coils or by the tail. The water-snake, turning around, would bite him on the hand, on the arm, or on one of his limbs, and from that cause he would suffer death or death-like suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong-graspedness of the water-snake. In the same way, there is the case where some worthless men study the Dhamma... Having studied the Dhamma, they don't ascertain the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment. Not having ascertained the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment, they don't come to an agreement through pondering. They study the Dhamma both for attacking others and for defending themselves in debate. They don't reach the goal for which [people] study the Dhamma. Their wrong grasp of those Dhammas will lead to their long-term harm & suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong-graspedness of the Dhammas.

"But then there is the case where some clansmen study the Dhamma... Having studied the Dhamma, they ascertain the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment. Having ascertained the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment, they come to an agreement through pondering. They don't study the Dhamma either for attacking others or for defending themselves in debate. They reach the goal for which people study the Dhamma. Their right grasp of those Dhammas will lead to their long-term welfare & happiness. Why is that? Because of the right-graspedness of the Dhammas.

"Suppose there were a man needing a water-snake, seeking a water-snake, wandering in search of a water-snake. He would see a large water-snake and pin it down firmly with a cleft stick. Having pinned it down firmly with a forked stick, he would grasp it firmly by the neck. Then no matter how much the water-snake might wrap its coils around his hand, his arm, or any of his limbs, he would not from that cause suffer death or death-like suffering. Why is that? Because of the right-graspedness of the water-snake. In the same way, there is the case where some clansmen study the Dhamma... Having studied the Dhamma, they ascertain the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment. Having ascertained the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment, they come to an agreement through pondering. They don't study the Dhamma either for attacking others or for defending themselves in debate. They reach the goal for which people study the Dhamma. Their right grasp of those Dhammas will lead to their long-term welfare & happiness. Why is that? Because of the right-graspedness of the Dhammas. [6]


The sutra goes on to introduce the famous simile of the raft, the view that we ride the dharma across the river and then, not needing it anymore, we can let it go.

Translator Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes:


Many a casual reader has concluded from the simile of the raft simply that the Dhamma is to be let go. In fact, one major Mahayana text — the Diamond Sutra — interprets the raft simile as meaning that one has to let go of the raft in order to cross the river. However, the simile of the water-snake makes the point that the Dhamma has to be grasped; the trick lies in grasping it properly. When this point is then applied to the raft simile, the implication is clear: One has to hold onto the raft properly in order to cross the river. Only when one has reached the safety of the further shore can one let go.


It's interesting: in studying the Diamond Sutra with my sangha recently, I never got the sense it was saying we had to let go in the way he says. Maybe I missed it; that's certainly a possibility.

Anyway, for those of us who are practicing or are influenced by Zen, I think it's really easy to read the teachings of the Zen ancestors and conclude that a line like "grasping at things is surely delusion" is the definitive teaching to live one's life by.

Well, as Suzuki Roshi said, "Not Always So."

So, let's look at a rather mundane example of this. You want comfort, right. You want to feel that everything is not only ok, but that it feels "good" somehow. Now, think about it. If you immediately leap to "I shouldn't grasp," then you might be bypassing the opportunity to fully understand what comfort looks like, feels like, tastes like. In other words, you might abandoned the raft before you cross the river, and because you have let go too early, you end up drowning in suffering and confusion later.

Here's the thing: grasping is delusion. And yet it's only through our delusions that we awaken and are liberated. Right?

So, I believe the Buddha is trying to tell us not to shun, bypass, abandon the stories of our lives too early. We have to have patience in other words, something I sometimes do well, and other times not so much.

I've read a lot of stuff about staying with the appearing, intensifying, and disappearing of emotions in the body. A lot of "western" convert Buddhists take these teachings to heart, myself included.

And yet, life is more than emotions, and Buddhist practice is more than just refraining from everything that causes suffering.

In fact, it might be that we have to do a lot of sloppy grasping in order to learn to grasp rightly so that we can let go. Sounds crazy, doesn't it?

5 comments:

Magpie said...

Nathan, while I'm certain you didn't write this for me, it sure feels like you did after my post yesterday. I appreciate your breaking down the dharma in a way that everyone can understand and apply to their own life. Right grasping is something I struggle with, hearing the Buddha's teachings on it give me a sense of comfort that the moves I made the other day were closer to right grasping than wrong grasping, mainly because I am comfortanle (as I can be) with either outcome.

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Nathan said...
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