Clinging to Phenomena

Namita Chandel asked me what I (and the Buddha) mean by “clinging to phenomena.”

Here was my answer:

A phenomenon is anything that appears or arises whatsoever.  Thoughts are phenomena, physical objects are phenomena, physical processes are phenomena, people are phenomena and collections of smaller phenomena (such as those previously mentioned, as well as emotions, tendencies, inclinations, etc.).  In short, anything with recognizable form, which arises and appears in awareness, is a phenomenon.All phenomena are impermanent; they go through cycles or arising, persisting for a time while changing, and passing away.  Phenomena arise when the conditions necessary for them to arise obtain, and do not arise or cease to arise when those conditions are no longer met.

We cling to phenomena when we make our happiness dependent upon them, when they strike us as pleasant and we wish to perpetuate them indefinitely, or when we become convinced that we desperately need them to survive. Another term for clinging in this sense might be “desperate attachment” or “delusive attachment” (attachment based on the illusion that phenomena are permanent and will always be able to satisfy us).  Because phenomena are impermanent and inevitably pass away, clinging to them inevitably  results in suffering.

By seeing into the true nature of phenomena–as impermanent, ultimately unsatisfactory, and existing only in relation to other things (interdependent)–we learn to cease clinging to things and learn to see them as they are.

However, not clinging does not mean we cannot enjoy things.  We wish to take the middle way between total ascetic nonenjoyment of anything and total indulgence in everything (both of which are unsatisfactory).We can still enjoy things, love people, appreciate their company, care for others, etc.; however, we do so without clinging to them as if they were necessary for our existence or permanent.  For these two views are mistaken, and when our thinking is based on wishful thinking, we suffer; the truth breaks in on us.  So a realistic, middle way approach seems wisest.

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