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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Maurer

Clinging to Phantoms, Grasping at Dreams

The lifeworld is pervaded by suffering (Skt. duḥkha): this is the Buddha's first Noble Truth. This suffering takes many forms: the ordinary aches and pains that so often burden our physical bodies; the anguish, anxiety, anger, and fear that so frequently plague our minds; the subtle but ever-present sense of unsatisfactoriness, always lurking just beneath the surface of our conscious awareness and occassionally breaking through in an explosion of panic, dread, or despair. Even those moments of happiness and joy are touched by the truth of suffering, for they are conditioned and therefore transient: they do not last. This is the nature of our lived experience.

But it needn't be. For the Buddha also taught that our suffering has a cause and that this cause can be uprooted, putting an end to our suffering once and for all. That cause is ignorance (Skt. avidyā), a failure to see things as they really are: empty (Skt. śūnya) of any fixed and intrinsic nature (Skt. svabhāva). On the basis of ignorance we construct identities and storylines, taking them to be real; taking them to be real, we chase them down, grasp at them, cling to them. We suffer, of course, because the objects of our grasping and our clinging aren't real—they aren't really real. And because they aren't really real, we can never quite get a hold on them despite our best efforts. They are mere constructs, fabrications devoid of essential cores. All the phenomena of the world are empty appearances, arising and perishing on the basis of causes and conditions, without any substantial and unchanging natures of their own. As the Buddha states at the conclusion of the Diamond Sūtra (Skt. Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra):

"This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:

Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating upon the

surface of a stream;

like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,

or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a


We perpetuate suffering because we are blind to the way things truly are—because we are clinging to phantoms and grasping at dreams.

Crucially, the suffering we bring about by such means is rarely only our own. Indeed, depending on the state of our mind—the birthplace of our words and our deeds—the things we do and the things we say have the potential to perpetuate great pain or to engender understanding and peace. A clinging mind, one tirelessly grasping at phantoms and dreams, is an agitated and confused mind, one liable to hurt and to harm. Clinging to familiar constructs, to the identities and storylines that we favor, we invite the development of hatred and disdain toward those whose view of the world is different from our own. Grasping at sensual pleasures, at ingrained conceptions of wealth and success and prestige, we invite the development of greed and the myopic selfishness that always accompanies it. Greed, hatred, and delusion: the so-called Three Poisions (Skt. triviṣa). These three represent the most explicit ways in which our tendency to cling to phenomena manifest. They are the source of all anger, resentment, jealousy, fear, disdain, violence, injustice, and war. They are the wellspring of all the world's suffering.

Extinguishing the flames of suffering brought about by the Three Poisons requires that we put an end to our habits of clinging and grasping, and putting an end to these habits requires a fundamental change in the way we see the world and comport ourselves within it. Enacting this change is not like flipping a switch; rather, it is an ever-evolving practice. We engage this practice by paying attention, looking closely at the world and at our minds, constantly reflecting on the impermanence and thoroughgoing emptiness of things. Everywhere we look, things are arising and perishing in a state of ceaseless transformation. Desires, beliefs, and feelings change; cloudy skies clear and disclose a brilliant sun, only to swell with rain again; political regimes collapse, relationships end, and loved ones die—in short, nothing stays as it is for long. And everywhere we look, things are made up of other things, devoid of essences of their own. Not a thing in the world exists in complete isolation; not a thing in the world can get by entirely on its own. Indeed, if we look carefully enough, we discover that even a single blade of grass contains the clouds and the rain; the sky, the sun, and the soil; the oxygen coursing through the air and, eventually, through our lungs; all these things and myriad more, without which that simple blade of grass would never have come to be. And we discover that the very same is true of us.

It is here, in this moment of deep looking and careful attention, that an especially profound realization occurs: we discover that we cannot find whatever it was that we had been clinging to so dearly. And yet it did not simply disappear, there one moment and gone the next. No—it had been a phantom all along, a dream mistaken for something graspable, something real. But the truth, we now realize, is that all the world is fundamentally ungraspable, constituted not by determinate things with fixed identities but by constellations of ever-changing, utterly interdependent processes and events. Seeing this, our habit of clinging begins to let up and our experience of the world takes on an unfathomable openness and clarity. Our compassion and love for others becomes unfabricated and automatic as we begin to understand that our differences, though they exist, are as empty as the sky, and thus have no absolute basis in ultimate reality.

...And then, as quickly as it arose, this moment of understanding perishes, as all conditioned things do. And in the perishing of this moment there arises the next, and the practice of awakening begins anew.

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