Attachment (Upadana)

Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group


Today, I would like to talk about attachment (upadana). The Sanskrit term upadana gets translated as “attachment” or “grasping”, or “clinging”. Understanding suffering and liberating ourselves from suffering is the primary focus of Buddhism. So, this talk, I hope, will provide a brief introduction to the topic of attachment and how it is relevant to Zen meditation, or, zazen practice.


What does attachment mean in a Buddhist context, and how does it arise? I'll use Dependent Origination as the framework for this discussion. The teaching of Dependent Origination is one of, if not, the fundamental teaching of the Buddha. In the Pali Cannon, the canonical formulation of Dependent Origination is made with 12 links. The 12 link formulation or model describes how suffering arises as a function of time. Our suffering doesn't just appear out of the blue, but evolves depending on certain conditions being in place. When we are very careful in our zazen practice, it is possible to experience these different links clearly. Attachment is the ninth link in the chain. While the 12 links are a rich and fascinating area of study for meditators, I won't talk about all the 12 links today, only attachment and the links which immediately precede attachment.


We start with a moment of sensory input, or a moment of “contact”. Contact always comes in through one or more of the six sense gates, eye, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. In explaining it in this way, the Buddha is emphasizing the immediate body centered nature of our experience.


Having sensory input is then a necessary preceding condition for having a sensation. The term sensation (vedana in Sanskrit) refers to a pre-verbal level of experience which is basic to all living beings. Sensation is basically the first response of a living organism to sense stimuli. In his description of sensation, the Buddha emphasizes the physicality of the experience by characterizing sensation as dependent on eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. In addition, the quality of a sensation is characterized as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.


One of the other interesting things about sensation is that they are associated with what the Buddha called “underlying tendencies”. Each of the different qualities of sensation have a different underlying tendency. So, pleasant sensations have an underlying tendency toward lust, unpleasant sensations have the underlying tendency toward aversion, and neutral sensations have the underlying tendency toward ignorance.


The next link in the chain is “craving”, and a sensation is a necessary condition for craving. Again, the Buddha characterized craving in terms of the six sense bases, eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. Following what we talked about previously, craving is very much rooted in our physical experience of the six sense gates. When we allow ourselves to be dragged along by the underlying tendencies we end up with an intensified sense of lust, or aversion, or ignorance. This is craving.


Craving, according to the 12 links, is the preceding condition for attachment. In continuing the previous pattern of characterizing the conditions in terms of the six sense gates, we might anticipate that there would be six types of attachment based on eye, ears, nose, tongue body and mind. However, this is not what happens. Instead, the Buddha characterized attachment in terms of four categories. The four are:

  • Attachment to sensory input

  • Attachment to views

  • Attachment to rules and rituals

  • Attachment to views of self


These four classes of attachment are not just dull abstract lists to memorize. They are meant to be useful. We can use them to ask questions of ourselves and reflect on and characterize our relationship to ourselves and our relationships to other beings and the world around us.


The attachment to sensory input is based on greed for sense stimulation. This could be around a sense of greed or entitlement for the taste of a particular food, the pleasure of sex, listening to music, or seeing certain visual images, and do on. It is important to note that it is not that enjoying food, or sex, or music which is a problem, the point here is that attachment to such things causes suffering to arise.


Attachment to rules and rituals refers to (in a Buddhist context) of seeking to gain liberation by the performance of rituals and following rules. I think this can also be construed more generally by viewing rituals and regulations as intrinsically having the power to effect some desired change. There is some magical thinking involved with this class of attachment. Maybe OCD personality disorder can be seen as an extreme form of this type of attachment.


Attachment to views is pretty self-explanatory. Holding hard and fast to a view which naturally excludes the consideration of other views and setting up conflict with others who may hold different views. Do we overgeneralize or express ideas in terms of extremes? Do we confuse our view of reality with reality itself?


Attachment to views of self is such an important issue in Buddhism that it gets its very own category.1 Views of self deals with our tendency to think of ourselves as inherently existent entities. That means that we tend to hold to the idea that we have an essence or soul which is permanent and, in some way, unchangeable.


The nature of the four classes of attachment are markedly different that the preceding six-fold links in that except for attachment to sense stimulation, the categories of attachment are not rooted in the sense gates.. This is a significant shift because it represents or highlights the point where we shift from a pre-verbal, non-conceptual body centered experience to a conceptualized experience.


This shift from body centered to conceptual experience is paradoxical. Conceptions are so much less tangible than bodily experiences, and yet this is where attachment is formed. We all know how difficult it is to “deattach” from something. We should remind ourselves at this point that the teaching of Dependent Origination is a model of how suffering arises, and it is worth pointing out that while all suffering is rooted in conceptualization, not all conceptualizations are suffering.


Concepts are a type of object of mind. In this link, we can see that we are using mind to attach to itself. It has nothing to do with immediate sense experience or the “outside world” at this point. Concepts, because they are objects of mind, are, strictly speaking, purely imaginary constructs. Then, we either ignore or are unaware of the insubstantial, conditioned, and imaginary nature of these constructs, and superimpose or impute a sense of permanence and substantiality to them.


The process of the 12 links gets driven forward because at the link of attachment, we begin to solidify a sense of duality of the grasper and the grasped. Zen Ancestor Nagarjuna describes the process we are discussing in verse form (MMK XXVI.6-7):


Conditioned by feeling [sensation] is craving.

Craving arises because of feeling [sensation].

When it appears, there is grasping,

The four spheres of grasping.


When there is grasping, the grasper

comes into existence.

If he did not grasp,

Then being freed, he would not come into existence.


So, attachment, or as it is translated in the verse, “grasping” is the basis for the “grasper” and the “grasped”. The four spheres of grasping are the four types of attachment enumerated above. If we didn't grasp, then there would be no arising of the grasping self. Notice that the act of grasping precedes the notion of a grasping self. Stop the grasping, then there is no “grasper”. Maybe this is why refraining is so important in practising with the precepts.


How do we practise not grasping? One of the things we can learn through a regular zazen practice is that many of our ways of thinking and acting are the result of deeply habituated mental patterns or pathways. We deal with unpleasant situations or thoughts not by an appropriate response, but by reacting along one or more of these mental patterns or habit energies. We may notice in zazen how deeply attached we are to these patterns and to our notions of self and other. We may notice what it feels like when we start getting dragged around by our habit energies, by our reactivity. How do we find a way out?


The point of working with the 12 links is to find the weak link, that is, where the process can most easily cutoff so that an experience does not continue to evolve toward suffering. According to the twentieth century Theravadin monk, Buddhadasa, trying to break the chain at craving or attachment is very difficult, so we try to stay or abide at a link which has less momentum. It as it turns out, that the initial sensory contact and sensation or feeling are such links.


The most important thing about working with sensation is not the sensations themselves, but using the sensations to access and practise with the corresponding underlying tendencies. During zazen, we practise abandoning the underlying tendencies. This is the “not moving” of zazen. In terms of Dependent Origination, this makes perfect sense. It is easy to see how the underlying tendencies are the threads which pull us from sensation to craving. That is, taking us from simply being with a given sensation to craving more (or less) of that sensation. When we abandon the underlying tendencies, and simply abide in sensation, then the chain of Dependent Origination is broken and our experience does not evolve toward duality and suffering.


This is a good example of how Zen practice can get mapped onto traditional Buddhist teachings. Remember that sensation was characterized by being a sensation which depended on eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind. In zazen, we emphasize the body. For example, we teach following or counting the breath. This is abiding in body sensation moment after moment without judging or grasping. When the bird chirps or the dog barks, ear contact arises and we stay right there. When thought arises, we practise with mental contact by letting go of thoughts, as 20th century Soto Zen master Kosho Uchiyama describes the practice of shikantaza in Opening the Hand of Thought:


Here we have to clearly distinguish ‘chasing after thoughts and thinking’ from ‘ideas or thoughts occurring’ … What is letting go of thought? Well, when we think, we think of something. Thinking of something means grasping that something with thought. However, during zazen we open the hand of thought that is trying to grasp something and simply refrain from grasping. This is letting go of thoughts.


Even if a thought of something does actually arise, as long as that thought does not grasp that something, nothing will be formed.


Dogen says something similar in Fukanzazengi (Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen) when he says,


settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.


The essential art of zazen is the practice of not-grasping. We let thoughts, bodily sensations, and other sensory input come and go. We don't reach out for it, nor do we try to stop it. As Uchiyama-roshi is telling us, when we refrain from grasping, nothing will be formed. This nothing will be formed refers to conceptual constructs of self and other, or as Zen Ancestor Nagarjuna puts it, “the grasper” and “the grasped”.


When we have a regular zazen practice we are training our body and mind to refrain from attaching or grasping. We practise the not moving of Zen. Through this not moving, the mind can become more open, more flexible and supple. By abiding in bodily sensation during zazen, we build confidence in our ability to break the chain of Dependent Arising which leads toward suffering. We can begin to see how we fabricate our attachments. Once we see our attachment as something fabricated, something we made up, it begins to lose its power. It is easier to let go. When we let go, less suffering and more possibilities for a contented life begin to appear. Thank-you.

1 At the bottom of views of self is what is called identity view. Without getting too technical, an identity view is posited in terms of four relations of how we appropriate and identify with one or more of the skandhas (form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness ).


Here are the four relations with some examples:

  1. Identical with it. For example, “I am my physical form”, or “I am my consciousness”.

  2. Possessing it. For example, “I have a physical form:” or “I have a consciousness”.

  3. Containing it For example, My self is constituted by physical form and consciousness.”

  4. Contained within it.. For example, “my self is contained in this physical form” or “My self is contained in my consciousness.”


Again, a list like those enumerated under identity view are meant to be useful. They can guide our inquiry into what makes our suffering tick.


Copyright, Kuden Paul Boyle, 2016