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.