The Burden

Every now and again I come across a sutta that has a simple message but can deliver a powerful teaching. One of these suttas for me is the Bhara Sutta (SN 22.22), or The Burden. It’s quite a nice sutta to know because as Buddhists we can spend such a lot of time focusing on reminding themselves to let go that just what is being let go of can be forgotten, but this little sutta brings that back into the foreground. But of course the suttas aren’t there just to be read, they are there to inspire and direct our practice, and I find the Bhara Sutta is rich in meanings that I get use out of in my real world practice.

Let’s start with the sutta itself, here I’ve chosen Ajahn Sujato’s translation for its ease of understanding:

“At Sāvatthī.

“Mendicants, I will teach you the burden, the bearer of the burden, the picking up of the burden, and the putting down of the burden. Listen …

And what is the burden? The five grasping aggregates, it should be said. What five? The grasping aggregates of form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness. This is called the burden.

And who is the bearer of the burden? The person, it should be said; the venerable of such and such name and clan. This is called the bearer of the burden.

And what is the picking up of the burden? It’s the craving that leads to future lives, mixed up with relishing and greed, taking pleasure in various different realms. That is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence. This is called the picking up of the burden.

And what is the putting down of the burden? It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not adhering to it. This is called the putting down of the burden.”

That is what the Buddha said. Then the Holy One, the Teacher, went on to say:

“The five aggregates are indeed burdens,
and the person is the bearer of the burden.
Picking up the burden is suffering in the world,
and putting the burden down is happiness.

When the heavy burden is put down
without picking up another,
and craving’s pulled out from the root,
you’re hungerless, extinguished.” trans. Ajahn Sujato

The Bhara Sutta finds the Buddha addressing his bhikkhus, telling them that he will teach them four things about the burden; what the burden is, who bears the burden, the picking up of the burden, and the putting down of the burden. The burden itself is the five khandhas, or the five aggregates: rupa, vedana, sañña, sankhāra, viññana, generally translated as form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness.

To understand why the Buddha is describing the five khandhas as the burden, you just need to look at the Buddha’s first ever teaching, found in the Dhammacakkappatavana Sutta (SN56.11):

‘This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of dukkha:
‘Birth is dukkha, ageing is dukkha, death is dukkha, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow and despair are dukkha, association with the disliked is dukkha, separation from the liked is dukkha, not to get what one wants is dukkha. In brief, clinging to the five khandhas is dukkha.’

I’ve shortened the khandhas down from their full title, which is the upadana khandhas, upadana meaning clinging, and you can see in the last sentence of the quote above that it is clinging to the khandhas that is the problem. The clinging khandhas (or clinging to the khandhas) are the burden because they are dukkha.

But how we come to understand them as dukkha ties in with the other teaching that this sutta is referencing. The form that this sutta follows is a similar pattern to the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, and when we look at the subject matter we can see there is also a very close parallel with that teaching. The first Noble Truth is that there is dukkha, namely that there are things in life that are unsatisfactory and cause us suffering. Our task to understand this first teaching is to look closely at our own life and experiences, and to see for ourselves that there is indeed dukkha in them. So the first stage of the Bhara Sutta is pointing us to the Four Noble Truths, because when we see a reference to the five khandhas anywhere that can remind us of dukkha, and therefore of the Four Noble Truths.

Where this sutta takes a slightly different tack from the Noble Truths is in the second stage where it explores who it is that is bearing the burden. This isn’t a part of the Four Noble Truths, and there are many ways we could read the reasons for this. One of the first things that comes to mind is how vehemently the Buddha discouraged any questions around who or what we are; he considered these kinds of existential questions as subjects of inappropriate attention, and saw that, ironically, spending time trying to work out the true nature of self had the effect of reinforcing the incorrect ideas of self that we already had. With that in mind, it isn’t a surprise that the Four Noble Truths don’t ask who it is that is experiencing dukkha because it is a question that the Buddha doesn’t want us to focus on.

There’s another reason why the Buddha may not have included this question in the Four Noble Truths, and that is because the notion of ‘the person’ may not constitute a noble truth. The Noble Truths are noble because they will lead us to become noble, that is they will shift us from our ignorance and ennoble us with insight and wisdom into the nature of how things really are. Bhikkhu Bodhi sees the understanding of the Noble Truths as being a significant turning point in our practice:

“While the path from bondage to deliverance, from worldliness to spiritual nobility, is a graded path involving gradual practice and gradual progress, it is not a uniform continuum. Progress occurs in discrete steps, and at a certain point — the point separating the status of a worldling from that of a noble one — a break is reached which must be crossed, not by simply taking another step forward, but by making a leap, by jumping across from the near side to the further shore. This decisive event in the inner development of the practitioner, this radical leap that propels the disciple from the domain and lineage of the worldling to the domain and lineage of the noble ones, occurs precisely through the penetration of the Four Noble Truths. This discloses to us the critical reason why the four truths revealed by the Buddha are called noble truths. They are noble truths because when we have penetrated them through to the core, when we have grasped their real import and implications, we cast off the status of the worldling and acquire the status of a noble one …” by Bhikkhu Bodhi

So spending time making investigations about ‘the person’ will not make us into noble ones, which again reinforces the Buddha’s emphasis on not going down these lines of enquiry.

The third section of the Bhara Sutta draws us back to the pattern of the Four Noble Truths again; the Second Noble Truth is that dukkha has a cause, and that cause is clinging. The fourth section also mirrors the Four Noble Truths; the Third Noble Truth is that dukkha can end, and in this sutta the dukkha ends by putting down the burden. The fourth of the Noble Truths is the Eightfold Path as the way to end dukkha, so we can infer from this that it is by developing the stages of the Eightfold Path that we can come to learn how to put the burden down.

What I particularly like about this sutta is that it can be read at several different levels, and the parallels between it and the teachings of the Four Noble Truths is just one of several ways to look at it. Different ways to understand a sutta can make it useful to a range of people with different experiences, but it can also help as we understand things differently as we progress along our own path of development.

One straightforward message in this sutta is that if we treat the five khandhas as shorthand for human experience, or for a human life, we can find there are a lot of burdens from just being human. For instance, having a human body, although we don’t always think of it this way, is a tremendous burden. To maintain our human body on an average day we need to wake it up, take it to the toilet, feed it, water it, wash it, groom it, dress it, empty out its waste products, put more food and water in it, empty out its waste products again, move it around so it doesn’t get stiff, but not move it around too much because it will get tired, make sure it isn’t too hot, make sure it isn’t too cold, feed it again, empty out its waste products again, and then put it to bed every night. When we are healthy we don’t register how much effort we expend on looking after this human body, but as soon as we lose some of our capability it becomes more obvious to us because all of these things become harder to do.

We don’t notice the dukkha that comes with having a body, we only feel like there is dukkha when we are ill, or limited in our range of movements, or old and infirm, the rest of the time we think having a body is great. In fact we are so sure that having a healthy body is great that we pour time, effort, and money into either having the healthiest body we can, or on things that give our body the appearance of being healthy. But the desire to have a healthy body is in itself dukkha, because it isn’t within our power to always be healthy. If we make being healthy fundamental to our sense of our self and our happiness, if we cling to the comfort of a well functioning human body, then our disappointment is inevitable because old age and sickness are similarly inevitable – this is dukkha.

But of course we can’t just put down the burden of having a body so easily, we are stuck with this body until we die, another burden. What we can do to put down that burden though is to stop clinging to any wrong ideas and attitudes we have towards the body, which brings me to the next way we can read this sutta. The source of dukkha isn’t the khandas themselves, it is the clinging to them as potential sources of happiness and satisfaction.

Clinging and craving go hand in hand, and in the chain of dependent origination it is craving that leads to rebirth; but rebirth isn’t something that only has to be understood in terms of past and future lives, it can also be thought about from moment to moment. Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates ‘craving that leads to future lives’ instead as “craving that makes for further becoming”, which gives us an easier way into thinking about the connection between self view and rebirth.

When we cling to something we create the conditions where not only our misplaced senses of self can flourish, but they can multiply too. We can, and do, create new senses of self all the time, and this is what is meant by ‘becoming’. The dukkha that comes from identification is easily found – when we feel that something is very personal to us, we experience the most distress because of it. The Buddha used typically vivid imagery to convey this point to his monks in the Not Yours sutta, again speaking in relation to the five khandhas:

“Mendicants, give up what’s not yours. Giving it up will be for your welfare and happiness. And what isn’t yours? Form isn’t yours: give it up. Giving it up will be for your welfare and happiness. Feeling …Perception …Choices …Consciousness isn’t yours: give it up. Giving it up will be for your welfare and happiness.

Suppose a person was to carry off the grass, sticks, branches, and leaves in this Jeta’s Grove, or burn them, or do what they want with them. Would you think: ‘This person is carrying us off, burning us, or doing what they want with us?’”

“No, sir. Why is that? Because that’s neither self nor belonging to self.”

“In the same way, mendicants, form isn’t yours: give it up. Giving it up will be for your welfare and happiness. Feeling …Perception …Choices …Consciousness isn’t yours: give it up. Giving it up will be for your welfare and happiness.” trans Ajahn Sujato

When we pick something up as mine, or as representing me, then we are clinging to that particular sense of self and that will cause us to experience dukkha. The putting down of that burden then is letting go of these misplaced identifications when they come up.
I had a clear experience of this one day when I was trying to do some writing and something was on my mind that was causing me a lot of irritation. I can’t remember what I was annoyed about, but there was a lot of inner dialogue about it and I was quite distracted by it. As I was closing my copy of the Samyutta Nikaya, the page fell open with the Bhara Sutta on it, and I immediately recognised what was going on. I had ‘picked up’ the feeling of annoyance that had originally came up and I was now prolonging that feeling by spinning it into a story. If I hadn’t taken possession of the original feeling then it would have just passed through my experience without a problem, but instead I picked it up and made it ‘mine’. What I needed to do, I realised, was to ‘put down’ the story, and all of the feelings that came with it; to recognise that these things are not sources of self, and that thinking that they were was a simple mistake. I realised the problem was that I had picked up the story, so I just put it down, and instantly I felt calm and level headed again.

This takes me onto one other way that I read the Bhara Sutta, which points to part of the mechanism that creates that misplaced sense of self. There is an implication within this sutta that it is the very act of ‘picking up’, of grasping and clinging to something, that essentially creates ‘the person’. I read the Buddha as saying something similar in the Satta Sutta:

“…Ven. Radha went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: “‘A being,’ lord. ‘A being,’ it’s said. To what extent is one said to be ‘a being’?”

“Any desire, passion, delight, or craving for form, Radha: when one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be ‘a being.’

“Any desire, passion, delight, or craving for feeling… perception… fabrications…, or craving for consciousness, Radha: when one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be ‘a being…’” trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

I could see this at play when I was holding onto the story I was telling that was causing me so much irritation – the story was creating an ‘I’ who thought this, and thought that, and who wasn’t going to put up with it, and all that kind of thing. Before the story, that annoyed person wasn’t there, and as soon as I put the story down that person disappeared immediately. This can be a very subtle experience to witness ordinarily, but when we meditate we can frequently access states where we don’t have any particular sense of being the person who has our name, of being a particular age, of being a man or a woman, of having a particular race or nationality. I feel that when we have had these kinds of experience in meditation, and recognise that they are very peaceful experiences, then it is easier to see that the abiding sense of being the same person from moment to moment is simply an illusion, and when we drop an ‘identity’ we can notice that there is a gap between the end of one self and the start of the next.

There are I am sure plenty of other ways to read the Bhara Sutta, and I don’t think that the teachings necessarily always only have one correct meaning. The Buddha tailored his teaching to suit the person he was talking to, and often to help them to realise something in particular, so it is only natural that we might find something different in it to whatever the Buddha wanted the original recipient to take from it. But also I think the khandhas are a very personal experience, that our relationship to them is quite particular to us as individuals; and because of that it requires us to map our own territory, to find our own ways to understand how they work in our world, and how to unravel them too. And that’s a reason why I like teachings like the Bhara Sutta so much; it has so many potential layers of meaning in it that it has the scope to give something to not only a range of people, but also to us as we continue to develop. As our practice deepens and grows, the meanings we take from the same teaching can deepen and grow too, opening us up to more insights and helping to keep moving us towards our ultimate goal.

Image by sandid from Pixabay

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