Great topic, Suravira!
Venerable Nanananda discusses a similar sutta (AN 8.83, in which the last three items in the list – liberation, deathless, and nibbāna – are replaced only by liberation) in Nibbāna Sermon 9. His interpretation seems largely in accord with yours – that the seemingly substantial “things” that are solidified out of the flux of experience by desire, attention, contact, and feeling can be objects for liberation once concentration, mindfulness, and wisdom are brought to bear on them.
Here’s a relevant excerpt:
“Rooted in desire, friends, are all things.” We might as well bring out the meaning of these statements with the help of an illustration. Supposing there is a heap of rubbish and someone approaches it with a basket to collect it and throw it away. Now, about the rubbish heap, he has just a unitary notion. That is to say, he takes it as just one heap of rubbish. But as he bends down and starts collecting it into the basket, he suddenly catches sight of a gem. Now the gem becomes the object of his desire and interest. A gem arose out of what earlier appeared as a rubbish heap. It became the thing for him, and desire was at the root of this phenomenon - true to the dictum “rooted in desire, friends, are all things”.
Then what about origination through attention? It is through attention that the gem came into being. One might think that the origin of the gem should be traced to the mine or to some place where it took shape, but the Buddha traces its origin in accordance with the norm manopubbaṅgamā dhammā, “mind is the forerunner of all things”. So then, the root is desire and the source of origin is attention, the very fact of attending.
Phassasamudayā sabbe dhammā, “all things arise from contact”. There was eye-contact with the gem as something special out of all the things in the rubbish heap. So the gem ‘arose’ from eye-contact. Vedanāsamosaraṇā sabbe dhammā, “all things converge on feeling”. As soon as the eye spotted the gem, a lot of pleasant feelings about it arose in the mind. Therefore, all things converge on feeling.
Samādhipamukhā sabbe dhammā, “headed by concentration are all things”. Here, in this case, it may be wrong concentration, micchā samādhi, but all the same it is some kind of concentration. It is now a concentration on the gem. It is as if his meditation has shifted from the rubbish heap to the gem. Satādhipateyyā sabbe dhammā, “dominated by mindfulness are all things”. As to this dominance, undistracted attention is necessary for the maintenance of that thing which has now been singled out. Where there is distraction, attention is drawn to other things as well. That is why mindfulness is said to be dominant. Be it the so-called wrong mindfulness, but nonetheless, it is now directed towards the gem.
Now comes the decisive stage, that is, the ‘surmountability by wisdom’, paññuttarā. Let us for a moment grant that somehow or other, even though wrongly, micchā, some kind of surrogate mindfulness and concentration has developed out of this situation. Now, if one wants to cross over in accordance with the Dhamma, that is, if one wants to attain Nibbāna with this gem itself as the topic of meditation, one has to follow the hint given by the statement paññuttarā sabbe dhammā, “surmountable by wisdom are all things”.
What one has to do now is to see through the gem, to penetrate it, by viewing it as impermanent, fraught with suffering, and not-self, thereby arriving at the conviction that, after all, the gem belongs to the rubbish heap itself. The gem is transcended by the wisdom that it is just one item in this rubbish heap that is ‘The world’ in its entirety. If one wins to the wisdom that this gem is something like a piece of charcoal, to be destroyed in the holocaust at the end of a world period, one has transcended that gem.
So then, the essence of all things is not any self or soul, as postulated by the brahmins. Deliverance is the essence. In such discourses as the Mahāsāropamasutta, the essence of this entire Dhamma is said to be deliverance. The very emancipation from all this, to be rid of all this, is itself the essence. Some seem to think that the essence is a heaping up of concepts and clinging to them. But that is not the essence of this teaching. It is the ability to penetrate all concepts, thereby transcending them. The deliverance resulting from transcendence is itself the essence.
With the cessation of that concept of a gem as some special thing, a valuable thing, separate from the rest of the world, as well as of the ensuing heap of concepts by way of craving, conceit and views, the gem ceases to exist. That itself is the deliverance. It is the emancipation from the gem. Therefore, vimuttisārā sabbe dhammā, “deliverance is the essence of all things”.
So then, we have here a very valuable discourse which can even be used as a topic of insight meditation. The essence of any mind object is the very emancipation from it, by seeing it with wisdom. Considered in this light, everything in the world is a meditation object. That is why we find very strange meditation topics mentioned in connection with the attainments of ancient arahant monks and nuns. Sometimes, even apparently unsuitable meditation objects have been successfully employed.
Meditation teachers, as a rule, do not approve of certain meditation objects for beginners, with good reasons. For instance, they would not recommend a female form as a meditation object for a male, and a male form for a female. That is because it can arouse lust, since it is mentioned in the Theragāthā that lust arose in some monk even on seeing a decayed female corpse in a cemetery. But in the same text one comes across an episode in connection with Venerable Nāgasamāla, which stands in utter contrast to it.
Venerable Nāgasamāla attained arahant-hood with the help of a potentially pernicious meditation object, as he describes it, in his words: “Once, on my begging round, I happened to look up to see a dancing woman, beautifully dressed and bedecked, dancing to the rhythm of an orchestra just on the middle of the highway.” And, what happened then?
Tato me manasikāro,
tato cittaṃ vimucci me,_
“Just then, radical attention
Arose from within me,
The perils were manifest,
And dejection took place,
Then my mind got released,
Behold the goodness of the Norm.”
If one wishes to discover the goodness of this norm, one has to interpret the sutta in question in a broader perspective, without limiting its application to skilful mental states. If a train of thoughts had got started up about that gem, even through a wrong concentration, and thereby a wrong mindfulness and a wrong concentration had taken shape, at whatever moment radical attention comes on the scene, complete reorientation occurs instantaneously, true to those qualities of the Dhamma implied by the terms, sandiṭṭhika, visible here and now, akālika, not involving time, and ehipassika, inviting one to come and see.