Meeting the Grasper

Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group




A few years ago (probably around 7-10 years ago), I became interested in how I would either blank out or slip off into day dreaming during zazen. Maybe I was a little frustrated. Couldn’t I just follow the bodily sensations of breathing without wandering off here and there? I would be sitting and then I would suddenly find myself thinking about something else. I think, probably, that most meditators experience this. I also think that they may believe that they are powerless over the process and that it “just somehow happens”. The advice typically given in Zen is when you notice that you have drifted off, just gently reassert one’s intended practice. This is OK advice, but it is not very inspiring and it doesn’t urge us to engage our practice more deeply. The question intrigued me: How did I go from paying attention and being present to some drifted off mental space? I resolved that I would investigate this. Could I pay attention to losing paying attention? It seemed paradoxical if not impossible to try such a thing.


I believed that I would be able to investigate this because I knew from Buddhist teachings that phenomena arise dependently upon conditions rather than just mysteriously appearing “out of the blue”. This is what is meant by having faith in cause and effect. I postulated that drifting off happened in response to conditions, and that it could be observed if I were careful enough.


Here is the methodology I followed: Actually, it wasn’t much different from what I usually do, but I set my intention differently – to observe the drifting off. When I first started sitting, I placed my mental attention (manaskara) at a point 3 fingers below my navel. I followed the bodily sensation of breathing. When I felt concentrated, I broadened my mental attention to include my sitting bones. I did this for a little while, and after that, it didn’t take very long for something to happen. I conducted these “experiments” for awhile and noticed there were two mechanisms for drifting off. The first I experienced was a seizing of an image. The second one was like drowning in words.


So, what I found in my investigation is that drifting off is actually grasping. It is an active act, not a passive happening to us as we might suppose. We don’t just “blank out”. We lose our focus because our mind has grasped something, either an image or a concept and has gotten caught up in what we have grasped.


This seizing of an image is an experience which is difficult to put into words, and putting it into words might give the wrong impression, but this is a talk and I have to use words. I experienced my mind apprehending an image. There were no words associated with the image, just the image. My mind grasped that image unequivocally. The grasping felt forceful. In reflecting upon the experience later, the act of image apprehension was like how an angler fish eats it prey – very quick and completely. After being aware of this grasping, it was relatively easy to let it go and continue on with the awareness of bodily sensations.


During my investigation, I noticed that a different apprehension mechanism took place when the attention was distracted by a word. The mind grasped the word and that caused a proliferation of words in rapid succession. In reflecting upon that experience later, the image which illustrated the experience was being in a basement which rapidly filled up with mud – the mud of words. This is an example of prapañca a Sanskrit term which gets translated as “proliferation” or “conceptual proliferation”.


Of these two types of experiences I found that the word based grasping was the more common one. So, it might be useful to say a few words about prapañca (proliferation). In the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, there is a sutta (sutra, scripture) called The Honeyball which describes how proliferation occurs. The formula is the same for the six sense gates (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) and using mind as an example, it goes like this: depending on mind and mind objects, mind consciousness arises. With mind, mind objects, and mind consciousness “meeting”, a moment of “contact” is generated. Contact is a condition for sensation to arise. Subsequently, sensation is a condition for perception to arise. What one perceives is what gets (conceptually) thought about. Conceptual thought is the basis of mental proliferation. Then, the process turns back on itself and with what has been mentally proliferated colours subsequent perceptions and notions. This subsequent colouring of perceptions and notions has at its root the notion of “I am the thinker”. From this assertion all other distinctions are generated – notions of “me”, “mine”, “not me”, “not mine”, self and other come from this assertion of a thinking “I”.


The sutta goes on to say that it is possible to point out (or notice) each point in the process and when we can notice it, we can interdict and derail the process of mental proliferation. This corresponds with my own experience which I will say a few words about now.


More recently, I again began to examine the arising of distracting thoughts. The methodology was similar to what is outlined earlier. I’ll describe a typical experience. When I sit at home alone, I use the timer on my phone. During a sitting I could feel the arising of an impulse to look at my phone to see how much time was left. This was a very subtle experience. I could feel the impulse building. I noticed that when I returned my attention to awareness of the bodily sensations of breathing, I stopped feeding the impulse, and it was cut off. The impulse withered away before I started “thinking” about it. At this point, I can’t really determine at what point the impulse withered – at contact, sensation, or perception. I need to investigate this more.


It is worth noting that I did not read The Honeyball sutta until I was preparing this talk and wanted to learn more about prapañca. It is possible to experience or “discover” the truth of Buddha’s teaching without first studying the teaching. We may not even know we’ve experienced Dharma, but then we might be reading something, and it will be familiar or it will make sense based on prior meditation experience.


I would like to take a few moments to clarify something: I’m not talking about my own experience to aggrandize myself. I talking about this for a couple of reasons. First, and primarily, to encourage you. If I can do it, you can too. Secondly, this is an example of how to work with Buddhist teaching in a meditative context.


I think there is a tendency when it comes to religion or religious practice that people think, “Only the great masters of ancient times can do this stuff and become enlightened and liberate themselves from suffering”. Or, some people may think, “Oh these texts are impossibly abstract and can’t possibly be relevant to my inadequate or immature practice”. Both of these are wrong views.


When studying and interpreting Buddhist teachings, we need adhere to the principle of sanditthiko – the principle of here and now, the actual present reality. This means that whatever you are studying must be interpreted as applicable to your present day, immediate life. So, when we are talking about grasping, it is something we can access right here and right now. There is no other time for application of the Dharma. Your own meditation practice is good enough for you to start investigating Buddhist teachings. You don’t need to be a “Dharma expert”. As the sutta on The Four Foundations of Mindfulness puts it, awareness “is simply established … to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and mindfulness”. All we need is our diligent effort. As Dogen wrote in Fukanzazengi,


Constantly perform in such a manner and you are assured of being a person such as they. Your treasure-store will open of itself, and you will use it at will.


Up until now, we have mostly talked about the mechanisms of grasping using the Nikayas (the Pali Canon of Theravadin Buddhism). What do Mahayana teachings have to say about grasping? One of the two major schools of Indian Mahayana Buddhism is the Madhyamika School. Zen ancestor Nagarjuna is credited as the founder of the Madhyamika School. I’ll point out one teaching where Nagarjuna addresses the issue of grasping and the graper.


In Nagarjuna’s Fundamentals Verses on the Middle Way, (MMK), the relationship between the grasper and grasping is discussed 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, “grasping” is the basis for the “grasper” and the “grasped”. The four spheres of grasping are the four types of attachment which are:


  • Attachment to sensory input

  • Attachment to views

  • Attachment to rules and rituals

  • Attachment to views of self


According to Nagarjuna, 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 grasper, the grasping self. Stop the grasping, then there is no “grasper”. This teaching makes explicit what is only implied in The Honeyball sutta.


We normally conceive of agents and actions like this: we assume there is the agent who then does the action. Nagarjuna’s teaching points out that this notion is backwards relative to our actual experience. According to Nagarjuna the action gives rise to (the notion of) the agent. This is something we can verify in our meditation practice for ourselves. In addition, this has important implications for the karmic activity. Our actions don’t reflect the person we are. Rather, the “person” we are is created contingently by our actions.


We have been talking about meeting the part of our mind which grasps. We are meeting the grasper in our meditation practice. Some people might be under the impression that we practise meditation to become enlightened. That would be incorrect. It is much interesting and useful, in my opinion, to understand and experience our grasping in the laboratory of our meditation practice. We practise to understand our delusions. As Dogen puts it in Genjokoan,


Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings.


At one level, the reason for this is straightforward. Our suffering is due to our grasping, and our grasping is based on our delusions. Suffering is the problem. We can only address a problem when we have an awareness of the problem. The Buddhist way of addressing the problem is to examine the causes and conditions by which the problem arises. The proximate cause is our grasping. What kinds of mental phenomena do we grasp? What is mechanism of our grasping? These can be our practice questions.


At another level, clarifying and realizing how we suffer is really all that we can talk about. It does us no good to talk about what it will be like to be enlightened. As Dogen points out in Yui Butsu Yo Butsu Shobogenzo (“Only a Buddha and a Buddha”),


When you realize buddha dharma, you do not think, “This is realization just as I expected.” […] Realization is not like your conception of it. […]. Reflect on this: what you think one way or another before realization is not a help to realization.


Whenever we have some conception of something, we place limits on it. We introduce inaccuracies into our experience, and we push the truth of it farther from us. This is a general pattern in Buddhist teachings. For example, in the Buddha’s discourse on Right View, (MN 9(5) and MN 9(7)), the Buddha taught,


what is the root of the unwholesome? Greed is a root of the unwholesome; hate is a root of the unwholesome; delusion is a root of the unwholesome.


what is the root of the wholesome? Non-greed is a root of the wholesome; non-hate is a root of the wholesome; non-delusion is a root of the wholesome.


Similarly, the Ten Clear Mind precepts are phrased negatively. For example,


A disciple of Buddha does not kill

A disciple of Buddha does not take what is not given


These teachings do not establish how we “should” be, rather they are telling us what to look out for what will give us trouble. The reason for this is that when we positively assert a phenomenon, it gives us something to grasp, to which we cling. In the Perfection of Wisdom sutras which describe bodhisattva practice, a bodhisattva is encouraged to function without relying on any place to stand – without propping ourselves up with self-justifying concepts. The bodhisattva’s way is a way of radical non-grasping. This non-grasping runs through our entire practice – from sitting on the cushion in meditation to being out in our everyday world. Thank-you.


Copyright, 2017. Kuden Paul Boyle