When the Buddha formulated his first noble truth—the truth of suffering and stress—he didn’t say “Life is suffering,” or “There is suffering.” He said something much more insightful, subtle, and to the point: “Suffering is the five clinging-aggregates.” The aggregates are physical and mental factors—they’re actually activities—from which we create our sense of self. They consist of physical form, feelings, perceptions, thought fabrications, and consciousness. But as the Buddha also explained, the aggregates aren’t the problem. It’s the clinging.

So when he said that all he taught was suffering and the end of suffering, he was really saying that all he taught was clinging and the end of clinging. If we want to understand his teachings and get the most out of them, we have to comprehend what clinging is, why it amounts to suffering, and how he recommended bringing it to an end.

Clinging is something we do. And by extension, suffering is something we do: It’s an active, rather than a passive, verb. In fact, the Pali word for clinging—upādāna—has a second meaning: feeding. The first noble truth, then, is saying that we suffer from our feeding habits.

It’s no wonder that many people resist the Buddha’s analysis of suffering. It’s as if he’s placing the blame for their suffering on them, and denying their right to find sustenance from the world. They’d rather hear that the world is making them suffer. They’d prefer a noble truth that places the blame outside.

But the Buddha wasn’t interested in placing blame. Instead, he was interested in empowerment: If you had to wait—or fight—for outside conditions to be just right in order for you to stop suffering, the end of suffering would be forever beyond reach. But because suffering is something you do, you can change what you do and stop suffering. With empowerment comes responsibility: If you’re suffering from your feeding habits, it’s up to you to find a new way to feed, one that strengthens you to the point where you have no more hunger of any kind.

That’s a tall order. As the Buddha’s analysis shows, we suffer precisely because of our strongest attachments. The end of suffering requires that we sacrifice many of the things to which we’re most firmly attached: not only things that we identify as ours, but also many things we identify as us. This is especially difficult because we identify strongly with our own clinging and suffering. 

But then, that’s why this truth of suffering is a noble truth. Suffering itself isn’t noble. The noble part is seeing it in light of the Buddha’s analysis, and deciding to rise above the need to cling and feed.

This noble truth carries a noble duty: Instead of trying to run away from suffering, you have to comprehend it as clinging. Full comprehension means that you contemplate your clingings to the point of ending all passion, aversion, and delusion around them. And because clinging itself is a form of desire and passion, once clinging is fully comprehended, it ends.

A first step in comprehending clinging is to identify the forms it takes. The Buddha lists four:

  • Sensuality-clinging: any passion and desire to find pleasure in fantasizing and planning sensual pleasures.
  • View-clinging: passion and desire to develop views for how the world is structured and how it works.
  • Habit-and-practice-clinging: passion and desire for ideas that tell you how you should act in the world.
  • Doctrine-of-self-clinging: passion and desire for ways of defining who or what you are.

This list may sound arbitrary and abstract, but in fact the Buddha is talking about some very basic functions of the mind. 

  • Sensuality-clinging is all about what you want in terms of sensuality. 
  • View-clinging is all about your ideas about the world, about what is and how it works.
  • Habit-and-practice-clinging covers your ideas of how you have to act in the world to get what you want. It’s all about your ideas of what you should do. 
  • And doctrine-of-self-clinging is all about your sense of yourself as (1) an agent, negotiating the way the world works and doing what needs to be done to find pleasure in order to feed (2) the consumer who will enjoy those pleasures once they’re attained. These two functions of the self are your basic set of strategies for finding happiness.

The first three types of clinging define the arena in which your self acts and searches for happiness. The balance of power among the three will vary from person to person, and even within an individual from one moment to the next. 

Imagine, for instance, that you’re a hedonist who wants nothing more than to fulfill your sexual fantasies without constraint. You might believe the world is composed of nothing but matter with no moral laws, and that the only thing you should do is pursue pleasure wherever you find it. This would be a case of sensuality-clinging dictating your view of the world as well as your habits and practices. 

On the other hand, if you believe that your dignity as a human being lies in your ability to choose between right and wrong, you’ll be inclined to believe that there is a moral law behind the universe that rewards good choices. This would be a case where the shoulds of habit-and-practice-clinging dictate your view of what is and what your attitude toward sensual wants should be.

There are many cases where people change their worldview to fit in with their desires, just as there are cases where their wants are subjugated under their shoulds and fixed ideas of what is. Modern psychology has detailed the suffering that comes from precisely this sort of conflict. Freud, for instance, described it as the ego’s constant need to negotiate among the shoulds of the super-ego, the wants of the id, and the what is of the reality principle. Jung saw it as the clash between the shoulds and wants of the individual ego and those of the larger unconscious. However you analyze it, this conflict is a common feature of the human condition.

Still, even though the first three types of clinging define the arena in which the self functions, the Buddha identified doctrine-of-self-clinging as the most basic clinging of all. As he stated, only in a teaching where this type of clinging is comprehended can people reach awakening (Majjhima Nikaya 11). That’s because your sense of who you are explains why you’re invested in seeing the world a certain way and in believing that certain things should be done in order to attain what you want. Without your desire to gain pleasure for yourself, views of the world or of how you should act wouldn’t have much hold on the mind. 

Of all the different forms of clinging, doctrine-of-self-clinging is the one on which the Buddha focused the most attention for explaining how clinging gets fixated on the five aggregates. According to him, you can identify the self either as identical with any of the aggregates, as possessing any of the aggregates, as containing any of the aggregates, or as existing within any of the aggregates. These four possibilities multiplied by five aggregates give twenty possible self-identity views to which you might cling (Samyutta Nikaya 22.1). These twenty alternatives cover every possible way of defining yourself, from a separate self, identified with your body, to a cosmic, interconnected self that contains everything, physical and mental, within it.

In every alternative, your sense of self can play either of its roles—as agent or as consumer—so you can suffer when clinging to your self no matter how you define it. The self-as-consumer, even though it enjoys feeding, is constantly hungry. As the Buddha said, even if it rained gold coins, that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy one person’s sensual desires. This means that the self-as-agent has to be constantly at work—negotiating among wants and shoulds and trying to gain a measure of control over the way things are—to assuage the hunger of the consumer, with never a moment’s rest. 

Because doctrine-of-self clinging is basic to all forms of clinging, meditators often focus on it as the central problem, to the exclusion of the other three. You can’t uproot your sense of self, however, without simultaneously prying loose the other forms of clinging, too. The self’s identity is linked to its strategies for navigating the world, which are tied to its views about what is and what should be done. 

You see this connection most clearly when you enter into a different culture, or when your own society undergoes radical change. The world is no longer what it used to be, the skills that used to get results may not apply, and you find that your very identity gets called into question. To survive, you need to construct a new self by adapting old skills and developing new ones for negotiating the new arena in which you act. The pandemic has brought this lesson home in spades. The world is a new place, placing new restrictions on us as agents and consumers. We’ve had to take on new identities based on what we see as the new rules about what should and shouldn’t be done even in the simple act of going out the front door. We’ve also watched as other people, seeing the world differently, adopt different identities, and as the battle over who’s right and who’s wrong has brought even further changes in who we are. But from the Buddha’s point of view, even if the pandemic ended and everyone’s relationships became harmonious, our resulting self-identities would still have to suffer from their incessant need to feed.

So—given that the roots of the self are entangled in its wants, its worldviews, and its ideas of what should be done—if you want to uproot your sense (or senses) of self, you also have to tackle the other three types of clinging: your attitude toward sensuality and your sense of how you should act, given your views on how the world works.

Because desire is the motive force for all conditioned things, the first order of business in putting an end to suffering is to see the end of clinging as a desirable goal. And because sensuality-clinging plays no role on the path to the end of clinging, you have to get to the point where you can see the pleasure of sensuality as an inferior goal and freedom from sensuality as potentially desirable.

This goes against some firmly ingrained habits. After all, sensual pleasure is, for most of us, our prime go-to source of comfort and well-being. Even the Buddha himself said that when he realized he would have to abandon sensuality to progress on the path, his heart didn’t leap up at the prospect (Anguttara Nikaya 9.41). Only when he admitted the drawbacks of sensuality, and saw renunciation as freedom and rest, did he actually get to work on abandoning his fascination with sensuality.

The way he did this is suggested by the way he taught other people to do it. There were many cases where he wanted to teach the four noble truths to his listeners, but because they didn’t yet see the rewards of renunciation, they wouldn’t fully benefit from hearing those truths. So he first prepared his listeners’ minds with what he called a graduated talk. As a beginning step, he described the joys of giving, then the joys of being virtuous, and then the pleasurable rewards that come from both generosity and virtue in the sensual heavens—rewards that far outweigh the rewards in this life (Majjhima Nikaya 56). 

Once his listeners were attracted to the idea that the best way to attain sensual bliss was through generosity and virtue, he turned the tables on them by pointing out the drawbacks even of heavenly sensual pleasures: As you enjoy those pleasures, you get addicted and heedless, abandoning the good practices that got you to heaven to begin with. It’s as if samsara were a sick joke. You work hard, developing good qualities of mind to gain long-lasting sensual pleasures, but then the act of enjoying those pleasures has a corrosive effect on the good qualities that produced them. The mind deteriorates as it grows accustomed to having its wants all met, that deterioration eventually causes it to fall, and you’re back where you started—if not somewhere worse.

When this realization inspires a sense of dismay, you begin to appreciate the idea that the only true happiness would lie in getting out of this trap. That’s when you’re ready for the four noble truths.

Notice what the Buddha is doing in the course of giving this talk. To pry you away from your attachment to sensuality, he’s providing you with a way of viewing the world in which a certain course of action—renunciation of sensuality—is an obvious should because it leads to your long-term welfare and happiness, with “you” defined in terms of multiple lifetimes. In other words, he’s recommending new objects of view-clinging and doctrine-of-self-clinging that will help get you started on the habits and practices of the path. As the talk explains, we live in a world where good actions are rewarded, both in this lifetime and in future ones. We ourselves are beings who will survive death—as we have already survived death many times—to enjoy the results of our actions. The talk describes the rewards and limitations of our actions in leading to sensual pleasure now and into the distant future, while the four noble truths explain a path of action that leads away from the incessant round of lifetimes of sensual pleasure alternating with pain and toward a happiness totally unconditioned.

The noble truths also propose an interim pleasure—the pleasure, rapture, and equanimity of right concentration, the last factor in the fourth noble truth—that will form an alternative object of desire to replace your desires for sensuality. This non-sensual pleasure will be your food along the way, so that you’re not tempted to go back to sensuality even as you understand its drawbacks. In effect, he’s offering a skillful type of habit-and-practice clinging to replace sensuality-clinging as your source of inner food. 

This means that the path to the end of clinging uses interim versions of three kinds of clinging: view-clinging, habit-and-practice-clinging, and doctrine-of-self-clinging. You hold on to the raft composed of these three forms of clinging until you get to the further shore. Only then do you let them go.

Of the three, habit-and-practice-clinging is the most pivotal. After all, the path to the end of clinging is a path of action—what the Buddha called the kamma (karma) that puts an end to kamma—which is why his teachings go into great detail on the habits and practices of virtue, concentration, and discernment that should be developed to form the path. However, to believe that such a path could actually work, you need a view about the world in which actions can be freely chosen and have the power to transcend the endless round of death and rebirth. This is why right views about kamma and rebirth also form part of the path. 

At the same time, you need to have a sense that you, as an agent, are capable of following the path, and that you, as a consumer, will benefit from doing so. This is why, as part of his strategy for motivating you to engage in the path factor of right effort, the Buddha provided many teachings to encourage a healthy sense of self, saying that the self is its own mainstay, that it’s responsible for its actions, that it’s capable of mastering the path, and that it will benefit from doing so.

It’s worth noting that even though the early teachings are very detailed in their instructions as to what should and shouldn’t be done, the worldviews and self-views they provide in support of these instructions are only sketches. Many issues were at play in the worldviews actively discussed during the Buddha’s time, but he focused only on views related to the nature of action, its powers, and the patterns of causality by which it brings about results. Karma and rebirth, for instance, were hotly debated by his contemporaries, so he had to take a position on those issues to justify the path of practice he taught. The size and age of the cosmos were also hot topics, but because they had no bearing on the power of action, the Buddha put those topics aside.

Similarly with issues of the self: Other philosophical schools debated the question of how best to define the self, but the Buddha noted that to define yourself was to limit yourself, so he refused to answer questions about what the self was—or even whether it existed. As he said, questions of that sort weren’t worthy of attention (Majjhima Nikaya 2). All he was concerned about was your perception of self: responsible for your actions, competent to follow the path, and able to benefit from doing so. That’s all.

An example of how the Buddha has you use clinging as motivation on the path is related to his five-step program for dealing with unskillful thoughts that will pull you away from the practice. When a sensual desire or a wrong view about action threatens to pull you out of concentration, he recommends that you look at the thought in question as an action, a type of clinging, and then follow four steps: observing (1) the origin of the clinging—what causes it to arise; (2) its falling away; (3) its allure; and (4) its drawbacks. When you see that the allure is far outweighed by the drawbacks, you develop dispassion for it, which is step (5): escape.

The crucial step here is to develop an acute sensitivity to the drawbacks. This is where the Buddha recommends analyzing the thought in question as an action and applying three perceptions to it: It’s inconstant and stressful, so why perceive it as you or belonging to you? You should actually perceive it as not-self.

What’s interesting here is that the motivation for applying this last perception is that you will benefit from it. In the passages where the Buddha has you reflect on the rewards of applying this perception even toward the last stages of the practice, the reflections are phrased in terms of “I” and “mine”: “My my-making will be stopped. I’ll be endowed with uncommon knowledge. (AN 6:104)” Or when he told the monks to abandon attachment to what was not theirs, he phrased the motivation this way: “Whatever’s not yours: Let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness and benefit.” (SN 35:101) So in these cases, even with the perception of not-self, the Buddha is using a sense of “you” as motivation to keep you focused on following the habits and practices of the path.

Given that all clinging is suffering, even skillful forms of clinging ultimately have to be transcended if we want suffering to end. To do that, we have to develop a skillful set of views that, once the path is fully developed, will direct us to abandon the path as well. Here again, the Buddha recommends taking his five-step approach and focusing on the skillful habit-and-practice-clinging that lies at the heart of the path: the practice of right concentration. Even the four jhanas or states of meditative absorption that comprise right concentration, he warns us, are composed of the five aggregates. To investigate them, and to fully let go of our clinging to these pleasurable states, he offers the following instructions: 

First, break down your state of concentration into the five aggregates that comprise it. Then, apply the three perceptions to those aggregates, to see that they are inconstant, stressful, and not-self. As you develop dispassion even for the subtle pleasure and equanimity of concentration—because you apprehend the stress that goes into creating or fabricating them—you incline the mind to the unfabricated. Then, as fabrications fall away and you discern the deathless, be careful not to cling even to that act of discernment. As you develop dispassion for it, your dispassion becomes all-encompassing. There’s nothing left to cling to, and you can reach total unbinding. 

This is how our feeding habits come to an end: not because we force ourselves to stop eating, but because we’ve arrived at a state where there’s no need to feed: the ultimate release, free from hunger, at last.

Edited by Mary Talbot

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