The Sabbāsava Sutta (M 2) is one of the most important and practical teachings in the Pāli Canon. It summarizes our most deeply entrenched patterns of delusion and suffering and it points to the methods by which these are managed and overcome. This is what it’s all about—seeing our patterns and working with them skillfully. Thus, one might say that the Sabbāsava Sutta outlines the whole of the practice.
The key word here is āsava, often translated as “taint” although there have been renderings such as canker, corruption, inflow, and outflow. The word comes from the Pāli root su, meaning to flow. This implies that the taints are not permanent conditions but rather flow into or out of the mind.
Overcoming the āsavas or the “destruction of the taints,” as the process towards freedom is often called, is synonymous with realizing the ultimate freedom of arahantship. The methods outlined in this sutta (when understood and used skillfully) are the means for doing that.
The patterns or taints are usually listed as three in number:
- the taint of craving for sense pleasures (kamāsava),
- the taint of becoming, often seen as craving for existence in various realms (bhavāsava),
- the taint of ignorance, that is, not understanding the true nature of things (avījjāsava).
In the sutta, the Buddha teaches seven ways of working with the āsavas—seeing, developing, restraining, using, enduring, avoiding and removing. Of these, seeing the āsavas and developing the factors of awakening are the two most important approaches because they are concerned with eradicating or completely eliminating the taints. And in this context, Seeing (as I shall refer to it throughout this article) means not only seeing these patterns when they arise, but also attending to them in the correct way, that is, with wise attention. We have to understand what we need to do to keep the taints from arising and what we need to do in order to abandon them. Restraining, using, enduring, avoiding and removing, on the other hand, all have to do with keeping them under control, preventing them from arising or becoming stronger. This article is only about Seeing the āsavas.
Seeing the taint of Craving for sense pleasures (kamāsava)
Here, the Buddha is pointing to the movement of the mind that seeks gratification through the senses—the movement of greed or grasping. I call this my drippy, drool-y state of mind—craving for wonderful sights and sounds, delicious flavors. When we come into contact with things we find pleasing the mind perks up and starts to lean towards them.
It’s not just physical objects: We also clamor for desirable states of mind. Thoughts are sensory objects, too. We tend to relate to sensations, feelings and thoughts as things to want, possess, chase, or to keep around. This is a highly conditioned tendency in all of us—and it is going on virtually all of the time. We are fascinated with sensory experience, mesmerized by it.
The distress that we feel in this state of craving is overwhelming. We are incessantly out of step with what’s actually happening, incessantly leaning into the next object—so much so that the craving, not the pleasure associated with it, dominates our experience. Even when the pleasure is happening, we may not feel it fully because the craving for more takes center stage. It’s quite remarkable—especially easy to see while we are eating. Have you ever had the experience of eating a meal and not tasting anything because you were preoccupied with either getting more or commenting about the pleasure? Most people will admit to having a long way to go on this one.
Becoming interested in the pattern
Just the act of acknowledging this pattern and being interested in it helps us realize the depth of our delusion here. In reality, we don’t have to seek pleasure; it happens of its own accord. And grasping it or clamoring for more only deflects our attention from the experience. But the unawakened mind doesn’t know this and so it searches and grabs, ever fearful of not getting pleasure or of losing it.
I was talking with someone recently who began to notice how much energy she was spending searching for an intimate relationship. She said she was blindly following that impulse. She’d get an idea of how great it would be to have a partner and then she’d obsess about it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting an intimate relationship but, as she put it, hers was a seemingly endless quest. She began to notice the effect this was having on her mind. Her craving created a feeling of lack. Then in her mind it was as if she was saying, “Once I fill this void, then I’ll be happy once and for all.” She didn’t really believe that, but it was getting played out as if she did. This left her with a constant feeling of emptiness.
Perhaps we can’t relate to that specific example, but think of it metaphorically. There we are, minding our own business when up pops a pleasing sense object. It doesn’t have to be the object itself; it can simply be the thought of the object. The mind begins to lean into the pleasure associated with the object and the object becomes something to want. It doesn’t matter what it is—sights, sounds, scents, flavors, sensations, or ideas. Now we begin to relate as if something is missing in our lives and we try to fill that up. Through craving we create the lack . . . and then we try to fill it up.
When we become sensitized to this activity, we can offset it with insight and restraint. Or, if there is contentment . . . we won’t get caught up in the first place.
This is the way it is with all craving for sense pleasures—whatever they may be. With practice, we begin to notice that we never seem to arrive at satisfaction. Every moment of gratification is followed by a feeling of loss when it ends. We begin to realize that the quest is a set up; it’s never going to be great once and for all.
The unawakened mind sees sensual pleasure and tries to hold on to it when it subsides, tries to make it last, or find new forms. The awakening mind sees that there is no permanent hit to be experienced through grasping sensual pleasures and it begins to relax, to take things as they come. Life is good sometimes; at other times it’s not so good. And this is the way it is.
Waking up to grasping
Gradually—as we understand what the Buddha is saying here—we begin to wake up to the extent of our grasping and attachment and the pain of living life in this constant state of longing. Our task as meditators is to see for ourselves if this is true.
- Are we blindly bound to this habit of grasping for sights, sounds, smells, flavors, sensations, feelings and thoughts?
- What is the experience of life in that mode?
- What is the payoff? Do we ever really get what we want?
Don’t get me wrong . . . sensory experience is great and Buddha has no quarrel with it. In fact, he encourages us to see it. But as Ajahn Chah says, when we see the advantages, we must also see the disadvantages.
- “Yes, I like beautiful sights and sounds . . . but I don’t like the feeling of having to have them—as if that is what life is about!”
- “Yes, I like to eat delicious foods . . . but I don’t like being at the mercy of cravings to constantly gratify myself with food.”
- “Yes, I like to dream and imagine and think about things . . . but I don’t like living in la-la land so much of the time.”
Seeing thus, says Ajahn Chah, the mind will become stable.
Whether we realize it or not, throughout the months and years of practice we keep strengthening our capacity to stand back, freer of attaching to sensory pleasure. We begin to get a sense of what the Buddha is pointing to—that is, the far-greater happiness of non-attachment to the sensory world. Slowly, the mind turns around. We begin to see that we’re actually happier letting go than holding on!
Seeing the taint of Becoming (bhavāsava)
In the teaching on Dependent Origination we learn about a progression that moves us in an ever-deepening experience of attachment and identification. Beginning with contact at the sense doors, there arise feelings of pleasure, pain and neither, to which we cling and attach. At this point, our identification with what we are experiencing can be so great that the Buddha says we “become” it. This is an interesting choice of words . . . but very apt.
In the Mahānidāna Sutta (D 15), the Buddha puts a little flesh on the bone saying that we do this in three ways. The first kind of Becoming—the taint of becoming sensory experience—goes beyond simply seeking sensory gratification (as in the taint of craving for sense pleasures). Now we are completely preoccupied with gratification; we keep getting born into it—thinking this is what life is all about. We see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think and feel . . . but then we glom onto these and have no experience of ourselves outside of what we’ve picked up. We enter what I call “the land of not-knowing.” The commentaries say that when this happens we are not far removed from the animals.
If you’ve ever had the experience of being “out-to-lunch” in one way or another and then suddenly coming to your senses, you know about Becoming. Something caught our attention and we lost the thread of knowing. It’s like falling asleep; it IS falling asleep. We don’t see it happen. Then, when we “come to,” it is like waking out of a dream. For a few moments we know where we’ve been . . . but then even that fades into more not-knowing.
As meditators, we’ve seen this a gazillion times, haven’t we? And most likely, we will see it a gazillion times more. It’s going to take whatever it takes to get skilled enough to catch the leaning and get sick of doing it. This is how the mind slowly relinquishes its grip on delusion.
There are so many examples one could give. Some people mindlessly seek gratification through food or technology. I know a fellow who gets lost in playing computer games. Some of us pursue wealth or material objects beyond, perhaps, what we actually need to survive. I’m sure you’ve seen people who get blind-sided in this regard—buying the latest objects, thinking this is what life is about. Perhaps you’ve done it yourself. There is no problem with having a lot of stuff, but do we see the impulse to get more and do we realize that we have options?
It’s not just grasping . . . it’s really believing that this form of gratification of the senses is the path to happiness. Maybe this is not so conscious or deliberate, but our actions suggest or imply that there is something of great value in material objects. Somehow, the happiness is in the objects. We only have to watch a small child to see how quickly one gets bored with objects.
Don’t expect any help from our culture. It’s out of control! As practitioners, we have to be willing to confront the values and practices of our culture.
For myself, I watch as I go in and out of Becoming at this level. Enough of me has seen the foolishness of thinking this is the path to happiness to temper my craving; but enough is still caught in it to feel paralyzed at times—not knowing which way to go. A friend of mine went through a huge internal debate over whether or not to get a smart phone. Sure, these are fun and convenient. But, as she put it, she had to think long and hard about engaging in the use of a technology that could easily make her more distracted than she already is!
We can be conflicted, can’t we? We seem to want it both ways. And understandably so. As lay practitioners we tend to have one foot in the sensory world and one in letting go. We are householders and we haven’t taken on the higher renunciations. But whether householder or monastic, we are all in an in-between place—awake enough to see the harm of grasping and becoming, but not awake enough to stop doing it. And this goes on for a long time. Ours is a practice of reconciling the pull to be born into sensory experience . . . and the pull to let it be. Much of practice takes place right here . . . working out this tension. This is the taint of Becoming sensory experience.
Craving for existence in material realms
The next form of Becoming is the taint of craving for existence in the material realms. At the most mundane level it’s the same as above . . . repeatedly being born into the things we crave. We may even know the pain of doing so, but when the opportunity presents itself—we do it again! It can be very frustrating stuff to watch over and over again. It’s one of the key themes in practice discussions!
At a more significant level, what the Buddha is pointing to here is the craving for continued existence on the material plane—a kind of personal immortality. We don’t have to look very far to see the elaborate and sophisticated systems we have for convincing ourselves that we are not going to die—or just pretending or ignoring this fact of life. It can be a rude awakening when in the final moments of our lives it hits us that it’s really going to end! If you’ve ever witnessed what is sometimes called a “bad death” wherein a person struggles, grasps, holds on, it makes quite an impression. One comes away thinking, “I don’t want to die like that.”
Again, this is the taint of craving for existence in the material realm. And, according to one interpretation of Dependent Origination, it is (literally) the energy or force that propels rebirth. We love sensuality and don’t want to give it up. We’re mesmerized by it. And one is so deluded about the nature of the mind and body that one clings to these, thinking they are who we are, craving for continued existence in this form. This is a powerful force in our lives . . . reptilian brain stuff. We want to live; we want to survive. Yet, nobody gets out alive.
Consider what it would take to temper that or overcome it.
- We would have to have profound insight into the nature of the body and mind such that we see that they are not who we are.
- We would have to be so at peace in the present moment that there would be no thought of the next.
- We would have to so fully embrace anicca, dukkha, and anattā that there would be no quarrel with life as it is.
How we die will be determined by our capacity to uncover the true nature of the body and mind—that they are impermanent—and to relinquish our grip on materiality. I often ask myself, “What would it take for me to die with a smile on my face?” It’s a good question and worthy of contemplation. We’d have to fully connect with the process of waking up and make peace with where we are on the path.
Ajahn Chah said: “Practice until you can’t go forward, you can’t go back, AND you can’t stand still. Then you will know what it means to transcend suffering.” I’ve been chewing on that for 20 years or more!
Craving for existence in formless realms
The third kind of Becoming is craving for existence in immaterial, fine material, or formless realms. At the most mundane level, this is simply the attachment to a happy hereafter. Ajahn Chah often scolded the Thais for being preoccupied with giving dana and making merit so that they would be reborn in a deva realm. (There can be a strong attraction here because it is said that rebirth in the deva realms involves 100,000 years of pleasure!) Growing up as a Catholic, I was encouraged to behave in this life to be happy forever in heaven. This mundane form of craving for existence in immaterial realms sounds much the same, doesn’t it? Somewhere out there, there is an eternally happy place . . . and there are things I can do to get it!
We may not be able to relate to these specific examples, but it behooves us to consider the underlying delusion here. Never mind how these kinds of perspectives distort the significance of dana or sīla such that we do them to get a reward. The greater delusion here is craving eternal happiness. One is looking for a time when everything will be all right, when it will be better than what’s happening now. One is looking for a place that’s better than here.
Clinging to these ideas becomes a persistent, persnickety, subtle bias in the mind—a feeling that there is something else—and this keeps bumping us into the next moment. But there’s only NOW. We are trying to be HERE and to know what HERE is.
This kind of Becoming can play out big time in our meditation practice. As meditators, we explore the far reaches of the mind. In so doing, we stumble upon some very attractive states–the refined states which we can experience through jhāna. It is not uncommon to make more of these states than they merit. They become goals in-and-of themselves. We clamor for absorbed states of mind . . . think that’s what meditation is all about. Perhaps we drop into jhāna and think: “Ah, now I’m getting somewhere. This is the way it’s supposed to be, the way I’m supposed to be.” Or worse, think we have transcended suffering.
Maybe you’re not getting into jhāna but, even if you aren’t, the same thing can happen when we get up a full head of steam on samādhi or when the seven factors of awakening begin arising spontaneously. “Mmm. Now I’m cooking.” Don’t get me wrong . . . these states are great and this kind of internal dialogue may just be the mind talking to itself about what’s happening. It’s not always grasping. But in subtle ways we can buy into our internal analysis and, before we know it, we are grasping. We forget to See these exalted states with the same objectivity as everything else . . . and we can get very attached. In the third foundation of mindfulness we are encouraged to see the exalted mind as the exalted mind. This requires an objectivity that makes grasping less likely.
In the stages of awakening, attachment to the formless realms is one of the last things to go. Long after there has been significant insight into non-self . . . even after aversion and longing have been uprooted . . . we can remain attached to existence in fine material and immaterial realms. If you’ve ever experienced the formless realms or jhāna or simply states of refined concentration . . . then lost them . . . then tried desperately to recreate them . . . you know something about craving for Becoming in the immaterial realms.
I take inspiration from the Buddha’s example. He practiced diligently and mastered all the levels of jhāna… so much so that his teachers wanted him to take over their communities. But he was never distracted by these realms; when he experienced them, he knew they did not constitute liberation.
Suffering in all forms of Becoming
With these three forms of Becoming we see that we can get preoccupied with sensory experience and with existence in material and immaterial realms. Our task as meditators is to See the suffering inherent in all these forms of Becoming and learn how to overcome them through insight.
The taint of Ignorance (avījjāsava)
The final āsava is ignorance—that is, not understanding the true nature of things. The Buddha said that the beginning of ignorance is inconceivable. No one can say that before this, there was no ignorance. (A 10.61) So, fortunately, we don’t have to figure out why we are this way. We only have to concern ourselves with the fact that we ARE ignorant and how that affects us. Again, we want to See this ignorance.
I often say that one of the best things that ever happened to me was realizing that I’m ignorant—really getting it. We can walk around projecting an image of ourselves as people who have their acts together. If we’re honest, most of us will admit that in one way or another we are doing that. And we’ll admit that we know it’s not true.
I think a lot of our self-loathing stems in part from the conflict between what we are trying to project to the world and what we know in our hearts to be true, that is, the way we actually are. We would be a lot happier if we would simply be the way we are and find a way to make peace with that.
Opening to the extent of our ignorance can be a great relief. For me, it cleared up so much of the stress I felt. I remember thinking, “Oh, I get it . . . I don’t get it!” “That’s why I’ve been so unhappy! That explains everything!” Suddenly I was very happy.
I mentioned this at a recent retreat and encouraged folks to see that we are ignorant, unawake human beings. One woman told me later that she didn’t like that. She said she was insulted and wanted to leave. But she stayed, tried to understand the teachings, and in the end began to find them liberating.
The Buddha doesn’t mince words on this account:
“There is the case where an untaught ordinary person, who has no regard for noble ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, who has no regard for true men and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, does not understand what things are fit for attention or what things are unfit for attention. Since that is so, he attends to those things unfit for attention and does not attend to those things fit for attention.” [M 2.5]
We may look at our practice and say: “Yup, that about describes it.” When we aren’t awake . . . we attend to things that are of little or no consequence—like plans and fantasies and worries and moods. And we don’t attend to sensations, feelings and thoughts with proper objectivity.
The Buddha says the things unfit for our attention are things such that, when we attend:
- the unarisen taint of craving for sensory pleasure arises or increases
- the unarisen taint of becoming arises or increases
- the unarisen taint of ignorance arises or increases
And the reverse is true about what is fit for attention—unarisen taints don’t arise and arisen taints are abandoned.
It behooves us to contemplate what the Buddha is saying here. Unwise attention is at the root of saṃsāra, the round of birth and rebirth, because it causes ignorance and craving to increase. Wise attention is at the root of liberation from saṃsāra because it leads to the development of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Here’s another way to say it: Because of ignorance and unwise attention, we take the simple reality of each moment—grab it, add to it, distort it, make it more or less than it is. There is sensation, feeling, and thought . . . and then the mind builds a more complex universe out of the simple reality of things. That’s where we live most of the time. And it isn’t even real; it’s not what’s actually happening. I’ve talked with many practitioners who express great happiness (utter delight!) with the ever-increasing capacity to turn away from things that don’t serve us. When we look back over the years of practice, I suspect everyone will acknowledge that because of practice we turn away more easily.
Classically speaking ignorance is defined as not knowing the Four Noble Truths:
“Not knowing about suffering, not knowing about the origin of suffering, not knowing about the cessation of suffering, not knowing about the way leading to the cessation of suffering—this is ignorance.” [M 9, Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta]
What this means is that during the course of waking up each one of us goes through a process of knowing for ourselves when we are caught, seeing the craving and ignorance at the root of that, knowing that it can end, and knowing that sīla, samādhi and paññā are the ticket out.
In the context of this teaching, Seeing is the technical term for what is called the “breakthrough to the Dhamma” —that is, our first seeing (through meditative insight) of the four noble truths in their entirety. This is the same as stream entry, the first stage of awakening.
Once this vision is realized, it is not yet liberation, but it opens up the path to liberation. We have entered the stream that takes us to freedom and cannot revert back to not knowing. This is all predicated on Seeing suffering, its cause, its end and the way out.
We can understand why the Buddha puts so much emphasis on Seeing the āsavas. We practice in order to garner insight into the workings of the mind and the nature of phenomenon so we can uproot the taints and liberate the mind.