Each month in Sutta Study, a new series on Trike Daily led by Insight meditation teacher Peter Doobinin, we’ll explore one of the Buddha’s suttas. The suttas, found in the Pali Canon, comprise the discourses the historical Buddha gave during his 45 years of teaching. Rather than philosophical tracts, the suttas are a map for dharma practice. In this series, we’ll focus on the practical application of the teachings in our day-to-day lives.
The dharma, the Buddha’s path, is described as a path of freedom. But what are we seeking freedom from?
In the sutta Yokes, the Buddha explicates four forms of bondage that dharma students learn to find freedom from: the yoke of sensuality, the yoke of becoming, the yoke of views, and the yoke of ignorance.
In the Buddha’s time, a yoke was a wooden beam affixed to the necks of oxen, attached to a cart filled with a heavy load. The word yoke also denotes a form of enslavement. Synonyms include: burden, oppression, subjugation, subjection, servitude.
The yoke of sensuality refers to the burden we carry when we engage in the habitual pursuit of sense pleasure. Our burden is not sense pleasure in and of itself; it’s the chasing after and clinging to sense pleasure. So, for instance, the sense pleasure provided by a smartphone isn’t the problem; it’s the constant looking at the phone—compulsively picking it up, putting it down, then picking it up again. We become yoked to the phone. This is what is sensuality means in the Theravada monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of the sutta: when we engage in an ongoing effort to acquire sense pleasure, we become “obsessed with sensual passion, sensual delight, sensual attraction, sensual infatuation, sensual thirst, sensual fever, sensual fascination, sensual craving,” it says.
The second yoke is the yoke of “becoming,” with which we burden ourselves when we proliferate thinking, stories, and narratives. We may, for example, find ourselves engaging in a long inner narrative about the difficulties we’re having in caring for an aging parent. We may find ourselves going into this story again and again, over the course of days, months, or even years. When we’re involved in a state of becoming, our reality “becomes” something else. Instead of living in the present moment, we live in thought worlds. Most of us, most of the time, live in states of becoming.
Our views are another yoke. Again, our difficulty isn’t found so much in views themselves—the simple movements of the mind—but rather in the way we hold on to them. Of course, views are highly susceptible to holding on; they’re “sticky,” like the tar traps used in ancient India to trap monkeys, which is the simile the Buddha used. Perhaps we’re in the habit of holding on to a negative, critical view about the performance of one of our co-workers. Yoked, we entertain this particular view on a regular basis, day after day, until we can’t see it any other way. Even if the co-worker did a great job, we would only see the flaws. Entangled in our views, we become “obsessed with view-passion, view-delight,” the sutta says.
The fourth yoke is ignorance. When we take up the yoke of ignorance, we exist in a state of “not-knowing”—and not the kind of open-mindedness some Buddhist traditions value. Rather, this not-knowing describes when, we don’t pay attention to our experience. We’re not mindful. We’re not mindful of the way our body feels, of the unpleasant sensations that we experience on a humid summer day. We’re not mindful of the anger that arises when a friend criticizes us. We’re not mindful of our anxiety. Yoked by ignorance, we’re not mindful of our sense experience: the experience of sights, sounds, tastes, smells, bodily sensations, and the sixth sense of the mental qualities, including thinking and emotions. We’re blind, unaware, asleep.
Attached up to these four yokes, like oxen pulling an overloaded cart, we’re “conjoined with evil, unskillful qualities.” We’re riddled with desire, aversion, and delusion, and in a state of “suffering and stress.”
But unlike the yokes used on oxen, we put the yokes of sensuality, becoming, views, and ignorance around our own necks. It’s essential to understand this, because when we realize that we’ve put ourselves in bondage, we can then see that we are able to free ourselves from that bondage.
Freedom, the Buddha tells us, relies on wisdom, which enables us to “let go” of the four yokes.
In the sutta, the Buddha suggests five steps we can take in an effort to cultivate this wisdom, examining the following in regards to each yoke: origination, passing away, allure, drawbacks, and escape.
In seeing origination, we look closely at what occurs in the body and mind as we begin to become attached to the four yokes—we learn to pay attention, for instance, to our experience as we begin to engage in a form of sensuality. We may notice, say, that as we go on the Internet and begin to surf various websites, there’s a specific thought pattern that arises; maybe there’s a line of thinking that triggers a sense of urgency, that suggests that it’s critically important that open our laptops or pick up our phones. Maybe there’s a corresponding quality of desire in the body, perhaps a jagged thrum in the chest or abdomen. We may notice that the breath shortens; maybe the in-breath is squeezed or constricted.
Similarly, we learn to be heedful of our experience as we enter into a state of becoming. As we begin to engage in a narrative about a difficult conversation with our son or daughter, we may notice that we’re triggered by fearful thoughts. We may notice a feeling of apprehension, a tightness in the chest. We may notice that the breath has become rough, out of alignment.
As we’re mindful of the qualities of body and mind that instigate our taking up of the yoke, we become more able to prevent ourselves from doing it. Once we’ve become obsessed with the yokes, it’s exceedingly difficult to let go of them; but if we are mindful of these four yokes before they become too oppressive, we have a better chance to free ourselves from them.
In being mindful of “passing away,” we pay attention to what it’s like as we unharness ourselves from the yokes. As we disengage from a sense experience like the Internet, we may notice a certain quality in the mind—perhaps a loss of interest or a weariness that comes after staring at a computer screen. Or we can consider what the mind is like as we put aside a view about another person or a political ideology. We may notice that the current of thinking begins to slow or turn in a different direction. We may notice that the emotion we have been feeling begins to dissipate. What’s the body like as we discard these views? What’s the breath like?
As we discern the origination and passing away of sensuality, becoming, views, and ignorance, we gain insight into the impermanent nature of these yokes. We understand that they are not fixed components of our human experience. We understand that their nature is to come and go, and that we’re not required to remain attached to these yokes. We don’t have to burden ourselves.
In seeing the “allure” of the yokes, we look to see what we find attractive about them. What pulls us to them? Each of these yokes holds an attraction for us, and we can learn to recognize this allure. As we begin to take up a sense pleasure like television, we acknowledge that there is a certain amount of pleasure that we derive from watching a particular show. We recognize what that pleasant feeling is like as we experience it in the body. As we propagate a negative view about a political figure, we’re heedful of the pleasure we get from condemning the person. As we enter into a state of ignorance, lacking mindfulness, we notice the enjoyment we receive from checking out. It’s important to recognize that we find a degree of satisfaction in taking up these four yokes. But when we’re aware of their allure, we’re less likely to give in to them.
In developing mindfulness of the four yokes, we recognize that while they are alluring, they also have drawbacks. In other words, we learn to see that if we take up these yokes, we suffer. As we pursue sense pleasures, as we reside in thought worlds, as we propagate our views, as we fade into the ether of not-knowing, we pay attention to the consequences. We pay attention to the body and mind; we recognize our suffering. We feel the pain, dis-ease, and stress.
It’s important that we see both the short- and long-term drawbacks of the yokes. If I spend the next few hours surfing the Internet, we might ask, how is it going to affect me? If I allow myself to engender this narrative about how I don’t like my job, how is it going to affect me—my mind, my day, my life? How is it going to affect my ability to practice the dharma? How is it going to affect my ability to find true happiness? When we ask these questions and pay attention to the results, we become sensitive to the long-term effects of these yokes.
Last, the dharma student learns to know the “escape” from the yokes of sensuality, becoming, views, and ignorance. The breath is the first escape that we learn. Chasing after sense pleasures, caught in whirlwinds of thinking, obsessing over our views, drifting in states of not-knowing, we find escape by putting the mind on the breath, and we take refuge in it.
In finding escape in the breath, we separate from the yokes. We come to learn what it’s like when we put down these burdens. We realize that escape is possible. This is an important facet of discernment. There is a possibility of letting go. There is a possibility of freedom.
Ultimately our ability to know escape will depend on the degree to which we’re able to cultivate dispassion for the yokes. In seeing origination, passing away, allure, drawbacks, and escape, we cultivate this dispassion, which is the final escape. When there’s dispassion for the yokes, we relinquish them. We don’t harness ourselves to them. We don’t take up the burdens. We are free.
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