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Upadana? Let go of clinging

(summary below)

Hi Pali people,

Upadana literally means ‘taking up’, but the default translation has become ‘clinging’. I think ‘clinging’ does not reflect the meaning very well, though, and think ‘taking up’ is much more accurate. Another translation being used is ‘grasping’, which may be a bit closer to ‘taking up’, but it still represents another idea than what I think upadana is really about.

Here’s some examples of upadana and the verb upadiyati in “ordinary speech” first:

  • AN1.315, mentions a seed that takes up nutrition from the soil.
  • AN11.13, mentions abandoning bad qualities and not taking them back up, just as a pot turned upside down spills its water and does not take it back.
  • MN74, says abandoning views, not taking up another.
  • MN144 and SN35.87: laying down this body, not taking up another.
  • anukampaṃ upādāyā: out of compassion, (lit having taken up compassion).
  • mahābhūtānaṃ upādāya rūpaṃ: matter (=rupa) taken (up) from the four elements.

A quick search with the search engine showed there are quite a few more examples like this, at least with the gerund upadaya. A funny one is:

S.I.112: Tena kho pana samayena bhagavā pañcannaṃ upādānakkhandhānaṃ upādāya bhikkhūnaṃ dhammiyā kathāya sandasseti. - “At that time the Bhagava, having taken up the upadana-khandhas, was instructing the bhikkhus with a dhamma talk.”

which could be read as the Buddha being quite unenlightened, but it means he took them as the subject for the talk.

Anyway, in all the above ‘clinging’ and ‘grasping’ do not work at all and ‘taking up’ is a more logical choice. So why should we not use it in the deeper contexts? Of course, something can have a different meaning in a different context, but with reference to the five aggregates and in context of anatta and liberation, SN22.79 is quite clear when it says: “a noble disciple who gets rid of things and does not accumulate them, who abandons things and does not take them up, who scatters things and does not amass them…”. Accumulating and amassing are synonyms for taking things up, not for clinging. Moreover, this speaks about the sekha, and to say that a sekha does not cling or grasp sounds like he/she is already enlightened (as it does in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation for example). Instead the sekha is not taking up more things as a self and is abandoning them instead.

That sutta and others are about taking things to be one’s self. In the more common context of dependent arising, I understand upadana to mean taking up the aggregates by seeing them as “mine”, which then causes a next life (bhava). So this is basically the “taking up a new body” that I mentioned before. Now, SN12.61 says: “the body is seen taken and laid aside”, which is one indication that taking (adana) and taking up (upadana) are basically just synonyms.

Some more examples that support this (there may well be more):

  • SN22.22: “And what is taking the burden? It is that craving which leads to punabbhava (rebirth).” The connection between craving, taking (adana) and bhava in this sutta, and craving, taking up (upadana) and bhava in the default sequence of dependent arising is clear and direct.
  • IT15 has something very similar when it says in verse “free from craving, not taking things” one does not get reborn.
  • SN 45.35, also in verse: Ādānapaṭinissagge, anupādāya ye ratā; “not taking up, they delight in letting go of taking.”
  • SN12.66: “When there is craving, acquisition comes to be.” Here acquisition basically takes the place of upadana.

‘Acquisition’ is yet another clear synonym for upadana, which makes altogether four: accumulating, amassing, taking, and acquiring. Antonyms I’ve mentioned are abandoning, laying down, scattering, getting rid of.

This all also makes much more sense when considering the connection between craving and upadana in dependent arising from a practical point of view. You don’t crave things and then cling to them only after, you crave them and then you go and get them, you take them up. So it is not clinging to, but actually taking things that causes rebirth.

Of course upadana means ‘fuel’ as well. Now, I know some think that in Indian philosophy a fire clings to its fuel or a plant clings to its fuel (eg AN1.315, SN 12.60) but this makes no sense to me. A fire taking up (using up) its fuel, or a plant taking up its fuel (nutrient) from the ground is much more sensible. (Compare English ‘uptake’: “absorption, especially of food or nutrient by an organism” - source: wiktionary)

Summary: Clinging is a bad translation for upadana. Upadana is not holding on, it is taking up. This is clear from both many ordinary and technical contexts, also from the antonyms and synonyms used, and from a practical perspective.

What do you think? Should we let go of ‘clinging’? Any comments or corrections I’ll appreciate, especially any references where the meaning ‘clinging’ or ‘grasping’ for upadana is undeniable, because I could not think of any myself.

Also, the four types of upadana sometimes mentioned (eg. SN 12.2) I have not yet looked at much. Any suggestions regarding these in connection with ‘taking up’ would be great.

With kindness,

Sunyo

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@Sunyo

I very much agree with you. I’ve used ‘taking up’ for some time. I appreciate your analysis and examples.

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arguments regarding the exact meaning of ‘upadana’ aside, I would say ‘clinging’ is aesthetically more the go, it terms of conversation and from a literary stand point, clinging gets my vote

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Good points all, I will think about it. I have been usually using “grasping”. I don’t like clinging, because it specifically means “refusing to let go of something you already have”, whereas, as you point out, upādāna has a more active sense.

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For the last 10 or more years, I’ve been hearing Ajahn Brahm using this exact same translation for upādāna. He also talks about fuel being taken up. I’ve heard him basically say that “attachment” is an inaccurate translation and it’s more like, “up-taking” or “taking up”.

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how 'bout slobbering or drooling as a panita upadana, hina would be attaching, majjhima.grasping…panita…drooling

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Thank you for the informative and thorough post Sunyo

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Hi Bhante_Darma

What does ‘panita’ mean? I did check the PTS online dictionary but had no luck.

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https://suttacentral.net/define/paṇīta

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Thanks for this fresh perspective! I’d like to add a connotation that I think gets lost in ‘taking up’, which is the ‘appropriating’ aspect that shines through in many of the examples you bring.

E.g. ‘a seed that takes up nutrition from the soil’ - the seed doesn’t merely ‘take it up’, looks at it and lets it go again, it is rather appropriating it. The pot doesn’t take the water back inside itself.

On a literal level the difference would be upa-, because ādiyati would already express the ‘taking up’ aspect. The upa- would work as an intensifier or express proximity.

Proximity: take up close - close to what? close to ‘oneself’ --> take as oneself
Intensity: take up vehemently etc. - which brings it closer to the ‘grasping’ meaning

Btw as far as I see the whole term - literal or metaphorical - is completely alien to the prebuddhist literature. I couldn’t find it in the vedas or the early upanishads.

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Thanks Bhante, how do I access this…what do I click on to get to the dictionary?

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Use search.

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And now I’m using it correctly…I’d tried earlier to put the word “dictionary” into search and came away baffled…

So after you replied, I figured there is more to it! Thanks, I’ve got it now and btw, it’s a very nicely done thing.

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Glad to be of service!

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Could you please explain it step by step. I have had the same problem and I am still not there yet.
Thanks in adavance

With Metta

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I also often have trouble with various searches and am probably missing some basics as to what to do.

To see if I could mimic a problem I sometimes have, I typed the simple word ‘satta’ into the search box and this page came up (as you see no definition of search in the results). So now, for definitions I just use https://suttacentral.net/define/satta, which yields the dictionary definitions as well as adjacent terms and similar spellings. In other words type the first part of this address and put whatever word you want a definition for at the end.

But there may well be an easier way, such as a link to go directly to the dictionaries?

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This is a different website. :wink:

Use suttacentral.net. Write the word in the search box and go.

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Hope this may some help:
Upādāna: ‘clinging’, according to Vis.M XVII, is an intensified degree of craving tanhā. The 4 kinds of clinging are: sense-clinging kāmupādāna, clinging to views ditthupādāna clinging to mere rules and ritual sīlabbatupādāna, clinging to the personality-belief atta-vādupādāna.

1;What now is the sense-clinging? Whatever with regard to sense-objects there exists of sense-lust, sense-desire, sense-attachment, sense-passion, sense-confusedness, sense-mental chains: this is called sense-clinging.

2 ''What is the clinging to views? 'Food and offerings are useless; there is no fruit and result for good and bad deeds: all such view and wrong conceptions are called the clinging to views.

3;What is the clinging to mere rules and ritual? The holding firmly to the view that through mere rules and ritual one may reach purification: this is called the clinging to mere rules and ritual.

4;What is the clinging to the personality-belief? The 20 kinds of ego-views with regard to the groups of existence see: sakkāya-ditthi these are called the clinging to the personality-belief; Dhs. 1214-17.

This traditional fourfold division of clinging is not quite satisfactory. Besides kamupādāna we should expect either rūpupādāna and arūpupādāna or simply bhavupādāna Though the Anāgāmī is entirely free from the traditional 4 kinds of upādāna he is not freed from rebirth, as he still possesses bhavupādāna The Com. to Vis.M XVII, in trying to get out of this dilemma, explains kāmupādāna as including here all the remaining kinds of clinging.

Clinging’ is the common rendering for u., though ‘grasping’ would come closer to the literal meaning of it, which is ‘uptake’; see: Three Cardinal Discourses WHEEL 17, p.19.

upādāna-khandha: the 5 ‘groups of clinging’, or more clearly stated in accordance with Vis.M, ‘the 5 groups of existence which form the objects of clinging’. Cf. M. 44, and see khandha

http://what-buddha-said.net/library/Buddhist.Dictionary/dic3_u.htm

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Duh… I knew I was doing something incorrectly. :unamused: thanks. BTW, is there a way to access SC from discourse?

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It’s imporant to establish that what the Visuddhimagga can do is to give us the understanding of the Visuddhimagga, which is not the understanding of the suttas. Would you automatically trust Thomas Aquinas (13th c. CE) to give you the correct authoritative understanding of christianity?

Buddhaghosa was to me one of the outstanding scholars and editors in buddhist history, but we have to check if his definitions stand the scrutiny of today’s more careful intertextual ebt-studies.

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