SN 22.53 "Involvement"

Can anyone help me to understand what this sutta means, practically speaking? In what sense does consciousness not get involved with the other aggregates? Does it mean not getting “drawn in” to experiences, or perhaps a degree of detachment?


Bit of an advanced question, tbh. From my current understanding of sutta-based theory, your question regarding this discourse touches on a few themes.

  1. “Consciousness is the thumb”
    One is that, as Bhikkhu Sujato has illuminated (and no doubt based on some obscure sutta passage): “Consciousness is the thumb” in analogy to the hand; the hand also symbolizing grasping (upādāna). If I understand correctly, it means that consciousness and the other aggregates are co-dependent, and that one cannot have an experience of consciousness without an experience of at least one of the other aggregates, and vice versa.
  2. The aggregates have their own domains.
    One aspect that has stood out to me as I learn more about the thought-world of the Buddha’s teaching as described in the suttas, his descriptions of experience, is how surgical it is. So many of the “dhammas”, the ways of describing or vivisecting experience, are exactly that: vivisected, disjuncted, severed, split. According to the Buddha, the domain of bodily action (kamma), is separate from the domain of verbal action, is separate from mental action. And the same goes for the six senses, the three feeling tones, the four elements, and to the point of the question: the five aggregates. They each have their own domain, extent, and they are non-overlapping.
  3. Involvement/detachment
    Yea, I think the practice for the aggregates referenced here is one of dissociation/detachment. This kind of dissociation is common to many dhamma themes: seclusion, independence, not grasping at anything in the world, not regarding anything as myself, belonging to me, not proliferating on thoughts, not being carried away by the senses, not regarding the body as self, not regarding feelings as belonging to oneself, etc., etc. This sutta is ultimately dealing with the state of arahatta, so it goes very deep, to the ultimate aim of the Buddhist path: the complete dissociation from the aggregates. No more sense of self.
    (I should probably add here that detachment/disassociation should never be confused with aversion, which is of course, an unwholesome root, a taint.)
  4. The nature of nibbāna
    It’s hard to say much of anything about nibbāna wihout sounding like a… So I’ll just leave it to others

I’ve just had my dinner and start thinking which deserts to go for. Does my consciousness arise from 1) the sight -form-of ice cream :icecream: 2) memory of past pleasures of having ice-cream etc. It doesn’t arise from the trifle. That explains the first bit of the sutta, in my experience.

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Alternative translation:

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A practical example like ice-cream is a good idea! So it sounds like consciousness not getting involved or engaged with the sight, taste and memory of ice-cream.
But how does that work, practically speaking?
I could choose not to look at ice-cream, or not keep looking at it, or just avoid ice-cream. But wouldn’t that be more like appropriate attention, or guarding the senses?
This sutta sounds more like “bare attention”, just noticing phenomena and not proliferating?
And is there any connection here with consciousness without surface?

A related simile of the hand as nama-rupa is in the second of Bhikkhu K. Ñāṇananda’s talks The Law of Dependent Arising (Paṭicca Samuppāda) The Secret of Bondage and Release Books Archive - seeing through the net
It is illustrated by Bhikkhu Analayo in the second of his lectures on Nibbāna: The Mind Stilled, at about 5:50: Bhikkhu Anālayo Lectures

And what are name and form? Feeling, perception, intention, contact, and attention. This is called name. The four primary elements, and form derived from the four primary elements. This is called form. Such is name and such is form. These are called name and form.

From Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda’s transcript:

From our analysis of this discourse, it should be obvious
how important the Law of Dependent Arising is. Generally, we
talk only about the Four Noble Truths. But from this episode, it is
clear that when one examines the causes and conditions of
consciousness, one would hit upon name-and-form. Let me
elaborate a little on this point. However much we explain, it
seems there are many who cannot budge an inch from the
traditional interpretation. So often, I have pointed out with special
reference to the Buddha’s own definition found in the discourses
that the factors on the ‘name’ side in name-and-form are feeling,
perception, intention, contact and attention. It is with the help of
these five that we recognize the four elements, earth, water, fire
and air in terms of hard and soft, hot or cold, and so forth. That is
why it is called rūpasaññā (perception of form). Those five
factors are called name only in a formal sense. Primarily,
recognition is not by ‘name’ in the conventional and linguistic
sense. But by means of feeling, perception, intention, contact and
attention. Some confuse the issue by arguing that contact has to
precede feeling. However much we point out with quotations,
they insist on putting contact first. Let me explain it in such a way
that at least you all would not forget.

Please stretch your right hand if you can. Now stretch out
the fingers. I am going to give you an exercise to drive out
sleepiness if any. Now stretch your palm. Alright, start counting
your fingers. ‘One’, what is the finger you bend? Is it the thumb?
Isn’t it the little finger? This is how I call the small but
mischievous little finger – ‘Feeling’. Then comes number Two –
the ring finger where you wear the signet ring. Well, call it
‘Perception’. Now for number Three. Bend the decisive middle
finger, prominent and intrusive. See how it digs into your palm.
Let us call it ‘Intention’. He is the one who calls the waiter and
silences a meeting. You do your work when ‘intention’ steps in.
Number Four is the index finger, fussy and busy all the time. You
may dub it ‘Contact’. What comes last as Number five? The
THUMB – ‘standing apart but approachable to the rest’ as
lexicons define it. Take it as ‘Attention’. So have this ‘at your
finger tips’, this definition of ‘Name’. When you clutch your
fingers, the one nearest to your thumb (i.e. Attention) is the index
finger (i.e. CONTACT). Well, that is why I prefer the original
sutta definition of ‘nāma’. Of course, these similes are not found
in the discourse. I brought these up only for clarification. Now,
after this, at least you all, dear listeners, must not doubt the
Buddha-word regarding ‘nāma’ in ‘nāmarūpa’.

Tough question but I will try to explain this viea four nutriments.

  • Nutriment for Rupa is Ahara. (food)
  • Nutriment for Vedana and Sanna is Phasa. (contact)
  • Nutriment for Shankhara (choices/fabrication) is intention
  • Nutriment for consciousnes is Nama-rupa (name and form)

What is Rupa - earth,water,fire and air
What is Nama - Vedana,Sanna,Phasa, etc explaind by Mike

So consciousness and name and form are inseparable.
They grow with the support of each other.
However, with the reduction of nutrients, the intensity of the consciousness also subdued.
That means a Samadhi state.
From Samadhi you have the right knowledg and right release.

I found MN44 quite helpful in explaining involvement/grasping:

“But ma’am, is that grasping the exact same thing as the five grasping aggregates? Or is grasping one thing and the five grasping aggregates another?”

“That grasping is not the exact same thing as the five grasping aggregates. Nor is grasping one thing and the five grasping aggregates another.

The desire and greed for the five grasping aggregates is the grasping there.”

MN44 then proceeds to show the how identity view relates to the grasping aggregates:

“But ma’am, how does identity view come about?” …

Mike, with Nananandas illustration of the hand, where would consciousness be?
And how does this relate to the OP question?

So how does one reduce the nutriments, practically speaking? Would this include quietening the activity of nama-rupa, or the mind? Reducing sensory input? Making less things to be conscious of?

Following the Noble Eightfold Path.

Does this mean that with less grasping for the aggregates there is less aggregate activity, and therefore less for consciousness to get involved with? I can see how this would work with sankharas, but I’m not clear how this would work with rupa, sanna and vedana.

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There is no intrinsic thing called consciousness as the same way there is know intrinsic fire.
Fire depend on wood call a wood fire. Fire depend on the house called a house fire.
The same way consiousness refers to depend on what consciousnes arises such as eye consciousness, earconsciousness etc. There are many consciousness as per Abhidhamma.

OK, but I still don’t get where consciousness sits with the hand example - is it just seeing the hand?

[quote=“Martin, post:14, topic:13058”]
is it just seeing the hand

Which hand example? Ven. Sujato or Ven. Nagnananda?

Nananandas. Though I’m still not clear how it relates to the OP.

Have you heard people say that there are happy hormones, sad hormones and fear hormones etc.?
When consceiousness arises with happy hormones it is called the hapyy consciousnes and so on.
Buddha did not say hormones but he mentioned something called “Dathu”

Concioousness does not appear in nama. But I was struck by the similarity between this simile and the simile for the aggregates that I quoted from @ SCMatt. In that case consciousness was the thumb, whereas in the nama simile the thumb is attention (manasikāra), but the grasping simile is similar…


I think vinnana is just awareness, not something that takes on attributes or moods. So there would be the awareness of “happy”, as a sankhara or citta state, or whatever.
I’m not sure how this relates to the OP though. We seem to be going off on tangents a lot in this thread, and it would be good to refocus on the OP question. :+1:
In what sense does consciousness not get involved with the other aggregates, practically speaking?

OK. In the OP sutta it seems like consciousness is getting less involved with the other aggregates because there is less grasping for the other aggregates, and/or because there is less aggregate activity for consciousness to interact with. Or something! :yum:
Maybe with less nama-rupa there is less for consciousness to get involved with?