Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

Free from the Burden of Holding On

ONE OF AJAHN CHAH’S most well-known teachings is that of letting go. And one of the key phrases that he used to explain what letting go means, and how it is to be developed, is that we should let go “within action.” This immediately reminds us that letting go is not passivity or a refraining from action—the letting go takes place within the action itself.

Monks and nuns may sometimes be accused of attachment to the vinaya, attachment to a discipline. This is a difficult accusation to refute. If someone says you are attached to the vinaya, does that mean you have to stop keeping the precepts in order to prove that you’re not really attached? I think a distinction needs to be made between attachment and devotion.

In Pali there is an interesting distinction between two important words: upadana and samadana, both of which we usually translate as “attachment” or “clinging.” With upadana, we attach through ignorance. Samadana, however, is the word for taking on a precept; it’s holding on to something with wisdom, for as long as it needs to be held. In explaining samadana, Ajahn Chah would say, it’s not that you don’t take hold of the object. For instance, you take hold of a water bottle, tip the bottle until you have as much water as you need, and then put it down. If you don’t hold on to the bottle at all, you are not going to get any water into the glass. So samadana is taking up a precept or practice with wisdom. Having undertaken it in such a way, one relates to it with devotion and loyalty.

Letting go doesn’t mean that we don’t take on responsibilities or practices, but that we let go within those practices. What exactly is it that we let go of? We let go of the five. They are body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts—wholesome and unwholesome dhammas in the mind—and sense consciousness. When we say we let go of them, this is a shorthand phrase meaning letting go of craving and clinging to those things through ignorance. But wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever practice we are undertaking, we are always dealing with these five khandhas or aggregates.

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