Post-Insight Practice and the Khemaka Sutta

I’ve written this piece as a kind of postscript to my article on post-insight practice, because I’d like to draw the attention of those of you who are interested in this area to the Khemaka Sutta. In this sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya (SN 22.89), a large number of senior monks have gathered in a park at Kosambi. In another park in the same area there is a sick monk called Khemaka. The elder monks send a messenger to inquire whether he is getting better. He sends back word that, far from improving, his condition is worsening. Concerned about this, they then send their messenger back to ask him:

“Concerning these five clinging-aggregates described by the Blessed One €” i.e., form as a clinging-aggregate, feeling as a clinging-aggregate, perception as a clinging-aggregate, fabrications as a clinging-aggregate, consciousness as a clinging-aggregate: Do you assume anything with regard to these five clinging-aggregates to be self or belonging to self?”

Khemaka sends back word that there is nothing about the five skandhas that he takes to be self or belonging to self. The elders then suggest that, if there is nothing about the five skandhas that Khemaka assumes to be self or to belong to a self, he must be an arahant. In response, Khemaka is very insistent that he isn’t an arahant. He says €œWith regard to these five clinging-aggregates, ‘I am’ has not been overcome, although I don’t assume that ‘I am this’.€

After much toing and froing of the messenger monk, eventually Khemaka rises from his sick-bed, goes to the elders and explains his situation to them in person:

“Friends, even though a noble disciple has abandoned the five lower fetters, he still has with regard to the five clinging-aggregates a lingering residual ‘I am’ conceit, an ‘I am’ desire, an ‘I am’ obsession.€

In other words, although he sees himself as a non-returner, someone who has completely overcome the first five fetters, he has still not totally finished with a sense of ‘I am’.

Khemaka gives a couple of similes for his situation. The first is of the scent of a lotus. He says that you can’t pin down exactly where the scent comes from: the petals, the filaments and so on. It’s more as if it comes from the flower in general. Through this image, Khemaka suggests that although he has decisively seen through any illusion of the five skandhas being ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘mine’,  through the force of previous habit a sense of I still ‘hangs around’.

Just as, in his image, there is no particular part of the flower from which the scent comes, so he has  no settled identification with any of the five skandhas – he doesn’t assume that ‘I am this’. Yet still the ‘scent of self’ is part of his experience – ‘I am’ has not been overcome. It’s as if, having been dislodged from the five skandhas through insight, a sense of self can continue to live a kind of ghostly half-life, with no fixed abode but still appearing from time to time. (I say ‘as if’, because we are not talking about anything real here, just the arising of a deluded way of functioning.)

Khemaka’s other simile is of a dirty cloth that is given to a washerman to launder. It comes back clean, but still smelling of the cleaning materials. It then has to be put in a scented basket until all traces of the scent of the cleaning agents have been eradicated. This is very similar to the flower simile, but in this case it is the cleaning process which is still leaving its effects. This suggests that one can have seen through self, but still be caught up with a sense of satisfaction at having done so, or a feeling of being someone who has seen through self. This is very understandable, but it isn’t the complete self-forgetting of the arahant. Khemaka describes to the elders the way to arrive at this final stage:

€œBut at a later time he keeps focusing on the phenomena of arising & passing away with regard to the five clinging-aggregates: ‘Such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance. Such is feeling… Such is perception… Such are fabrications… Such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.’ As he keeps focusing on the arising & passing away of these five clinging-aggregates, the lingering residual ‘I am’ conceit, ‘I am’ desire, ‘I am’ obsession is fully obliterated.€

While he is describing it, the process happens, and Khemaka becomes liberated, as do many of his hearers.

I find this sutta helpful, as it shows very clearly that even though you may have seen that there is no self in the five skandhas, and even though that knowledge may be decisive in terms of discarding a belief in a separate self, still the selfing tendency is likely to continue up to the threshold of full Awakening. Therefore, even if we believe we have developed some measure of genuine insight, we still need to continue looking deeply at our experience, as there will always be a tendency to become identified, for selfing to continue. This identification is no longer ‘monolithic’ – an enduring or pervading belief in a real self – we don’t assume that ‘I am this’. However, there is still almost certain to be €œa lingering residual ‘I am’ conceit, an ‘I am’ desire, an ‘I am’ obsession€.

It seems to me that there are several potential sources of this continued subtle selfing:

1. There may still be times when out of lack of mindfulness we fall back into acting from a belief in self, even though on reflection or examination we know it not to be true;

2. Out of habit, there may still be a subtle sense of self ‘hanging around’, despite having no firm identification in which to root itself;

3. There may be subtle views and assumptions that aren’t yet conscious that we’re taking for granted;

4. There can easily be some kind of identification with the state of being freed, of being ‘someone who has gained insight’.

Although direct seeing of no-self takes a lot of the tension and sense of effort out of Dharma life, the Khemaka Sutta clearly shows that insight into anatta virtually never destroys the habit of grasping at a self in one go. The selfing tendency is not eradicated so easily, and the ‘work’ of seeing through the veil of views (the jneya sambhara) continues virtually to the end of the Path.

Vessantara,  January 2014

[All excerpts from the Khemaka Sutta are translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, from the Access to Insight website.]