THE FIVE AGGREGATES
Who are we? What is it that makes up this self, this being? The Buddha’s answer is: “We are the five aggregates.” We need to examine these five to understand who we are and how we can better manage this self.
The Buddha’s teaching revolves around the five aggregates which is his analysis of what constitutes a being. When we practise vipassana meditation it is to gain insight into the very nature of these aggregates.
The five aggregates (Pali: panca-khandha) are material form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness.
We possess a material form, i.e., this body. Traditionally it is said to be composed of the four great elements of earth, water, fire and air. Earth denotes the quality of solidity, hardness and softness; water the qualitiy of fluidity and cohesion; fire the quality of temperature, heat and cold; and air the quality of motion, movement, pressure and distension.
When we practice vipassana meditation we are observing these qualities in our body. When we observe the in- and out-breath we are noticing the air element, the sensation of the air being drawn into the lungs and being exhaled. If we are using the rising and falling movement of the abdomen as our object, we are noticing movements that are related to the breathing process. Other instances of the air element: air going upwards (burping) and air going downwards (breaking wind).
After sitting for some time we might feel hardness in the buttocks that are pressing on the meditation cushion. Hardness may also be felt in various parts of the body, such as in the legs that may be placed one on top of the other. Stiffness may be felt in the back. At times, we may feel softness and pleasant sensations. We can acknowledge hardness and softness as material qualities representing the earth element.
Sensations of heat and cold will also be present in the body. For example, when we observe the hardness in the buttocks, warmth or heat may also be felt. Initially when we sit on the cushion, we may experience a soft and cool sensation. Also, the body will feel changes in temperature according to the climatic conditions. All these sensations can be acknowledged as the fire element.
As for the water element this is not so evident. According to the Buddhist Abhidhamma theory, what is tangible or can be physically felt are the three elements of air, earth and fire. The Abhidhamma asserts that the quality of cohesion in the water element is not discernible by consciousness. However, we can sense the water element when we feel the saliva in our mouth or when a tear should form in the eyes.
Here it would be pertinent to give the definitions of the four elements as stated by the Buddha in his discourses to his disciples: “What, monks, is the earth element? The earth element may be either internal or external. What is the internal earth element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is solid, solidified, and clung-to, that is, head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, contents of the stomach, feces, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is solid, solidified, and clung-to: this is called the internal earth element. Now both the internal earth element and the external earth element are simply earth element.
“What, monks, is the water element? The water element may be either internal or external. What is the internal water element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is water, watery, and clung-to, that is, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil-of-the-joints, urine, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is water, watery, and clung-to: this is called the internal water element. Now both the internal water element and the external water element are simply water element.
“What, monks, is the fire element? The fire element may be either internal or external. What is the internal fire element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is fire, fiery, and clung-to, that is, that by which one is warmed, ages, and is consumed, and that by which what is eaten, drunk, consumed, and tasted gets completely digested, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is fire, fiery, and clung-to: this is called the internal fire element. Now both the internal fire element and the external fire element are simply fire element.
“What, monks, is the air element? The air element may be either internal or external. What is the internal air element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is air, airy, and clung-to, that is, up-going winds, down-going winds, winds in the belly, winds in the bowels, winds that course through the limbs, in-breath and out-breath, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is air, airy, and clung-to: this is called the internal air element. Now both the internal air element and the external air element are simply air element.”
During meditation we can perceive these material qualities in the body as sensations of the air being inhaled and exhaled, hardness and softness in various parts of the body, heat and cold, pressure, tingling, vibrations, etc. Using the breath and bodily sensations as meditation objects is a way to gain calmness of mind. The body is a great object for the mind to be placed on. This is because the moment we sit we become immediately aware of the body, the breathing, and bodily sensations. As we build up awareness on the body, the mind is conditioned to stay with the body objects and wanders less. If we sit and try to be aware of solely the consciousness, the mind gets lost in thoughts because consciousness is subtle and hard to stay continuously with. It slips away easily.
By comparison, the body which is material is grosser than the immaterial and formless mind. Thus it is much easier to stay with the body objects. The Buddha strongly emphasised the importance, value and benefits of mindfulness placed on the body, stating: “One thing, monks, when developed and frequently practised leads to a great sense of spiritual urgency, to great benefit, to great surcease from bondage, to mindfulness and clear knowing, to the attainment of vision and knowledge, to a happy abiding here and now, to the realization of the fruit of freedom and knowledge. What is that one thing? It is mindfulness directed to the body.”
Further, he said, when mindfulness of the body is developed and frequently practised, “the body becomes calm, the mind, too, becomes calm, discursive thoughts are quietened, and all mental states that contribute to wisdom come to fulfilment through development; unwholesome states, which had not arisen, would not arise, unwholesome states which had arisen are abandoned, wholesome states which had not arisen arise, and wholesome states which had arisen increase and reach fulfilment; ignorance is abandoned and knowledge arises, the conceit “I am” is abandoned, the latent unwholesome tendencies are uprooted, and the fetters that bind one to existence are abandoned.” (Anguttara Nikaya)
And again: “They do not savour the deathless who do not savour mindfulness of the body. They savour the deathless who savour mindfulness of the body.”
We may wonder how it is that mindfulness of the body can bring so many benefits including the attainment of the deathless which is the state of Nibbana – the summum bonum or the highest good and the ultimate goal in the Buddha’s dispensation.
Did not the Buddha teach four foundations of mindfulness, the body being only the first, the remaining three being mindfulness on feeling, consciousness and dhammas (a technical term referring to certain categories of phenomena)?
We need to consider that when we are mindful of the body, consciousness and all the rest will become apparent. Thus even when we know the body we can be aware of the consciousness that knows. In fact we can often know consciousness, labeling it as ‘knowing, knowing,’ and then revert to knowing the body, breathing, sensations. If we were to stay with just the consciousness it will not do as consciousness is slippery and the mind will wander away into thoughts. Thus, it is helpful and practical to move between awareness of body and awareness of mind.
As we know from our own experience during meditation, the mind does wander and get lost in thoughts. Even as we try to stay with the body objects, we still notice the wandering mind, noting it as ‘thinking, thinking’ or ‘wandering, wandering,’ and bring it back to the body. We also know the mind, whether it is calm, peaceful or otherwise, and various other types or states of mind and feeling. However, a good part of the time will be employed placed on body awareness which helps to calm down and settle the mind. Thus the body becomes like an anchor for the mind; body awareness stabilises the mind. From this state of stability the mind itself will become clear and insight into the true nature of phenomena will arise.
Regarding the definitions of the four elements above it needs to be mentioned that they should not be considered as some kind of biological study and analysis of body and matter and be compared to our present more sophisticated understanding of the nature of matter. The Buddha’s take on the elements is based on the understanding of matter in his time which is 2,500 years ago. What is relevant here is that there is matter and there is mind. Matter comprises certain basic material qualities or characteristics such as hardness and softness, temperature, fluidity, distension, movement, and so on. When we meditate we can know these material qualities that are part of the body or material form aggregate.
Now as we meditate we will come to see the impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial nature of both material and mental phenomena. Obviously it is not the same breath we are inhaling and exhaling. We are experiencing different breaths, i.e., one breath after another, which undergoes change even as it is inhaled into the lungs and exhaled. We can notice changes in the pattern of breathing – short, long, shallow, deep – and changes in the sensations, how the breath is felt as it moves in and out. Furthermore, we can notice sensations throughout the whole body from head to toe, especially when we direct our mind to a certain or any part of the body. Changing sensations of hardness, stiffness, tightness, softness and relaxation can be felt in the buttocks, legs, back, and various parts of the body. So too pressure, temperature (warmth and cold), tingling, vibrations, etc. We can notice the continuous flow of these sensations and sometimes their change and sudden arising and passing away are obvious.
Material phenomena are impermanent. Intellectually we already know this. However, when we meditate, this knowledge becomes clearer to us. Through continuous and frequent meditation, this knowledge becomes indelibly imprinted in our consciousness. It goes in very deeply. We can then never forget it. Everywhere we go we’ll be reminded of the impermanent nature of phenomena - not only of matter but also of mind, as we will be discussing in more detail later.
There are advantages to understanding impermanence on a deep level as this will remove our unrealistic expectations for things to last. We are then not so surprised and disappointed when things change because we understand that this impermanence is an integral part of nature. When things are difficult, we can console and tell ourselves, “Be of good cheer. This, too, will pass.” When things are going well, we should remember that they are not going to remain that way forever. Anytime they can change being subject to conditions. Thus we are not so attached or deluded and can accept change when it comes.
“Anicca” (impermanence) is one of the three marks of existence, the other two being “dukkha” and “anatta.” I have not translated these two Pali terms as I wish to elaborate on their meanings.
“Dukkha” has two connotations, i.e., “suffering” and “unsatisfactoriness”. “Anatta” is often translated as “not-self’ but also sometimes as “insubstantiality.”
Suffering is obvious in life. All who are born have to face various forms of suffering in life. No one can dispute this. In the first noble truth the Buddha mentioned as instances and examples of suffering birth, aging, sickness, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, despair, association with the unloved, separation from the loved, and not to be able to get what one wants.
We all know the many forms of stress in life – earning a living, trying to make ends meet, striving to build a career, being in difficult and painful relationships, facing ill-health and death, having fear, worry, anxiety, unhappiness, depression, etc.
When we meditate, the mind becomes more aware of the suffering in life. For those of us who consider ourselves well instructed disciples of the Buddha and for those who are keen observers of the suffering in us and around us in life, when we meditate, this truth of suffering will become even more evident and deeply felt. It becomes an unshakable conviction.
We perceive the unsatisfactoriness of it all. There is no security in life. Things can change at any time. Life is a struggle. And ultimately we have to face sickness and death. There is no happy ending to life, for death is always sad and painful: no one wants to lose their own life or be separated from their loved ones.
We can see that we suffer from perpetual discontentment, always having to seek out sensual objects for our pleasure and happiness. We are a slave to these objects. Where can there be peace when we are subject to craving? We are not free men and women but rather we are under the yoke of craving, always acting at its behest, always hungry or feeling a sense of lack.
Of course, sensual happiness cannot be denied. We know that we do enjoy sensual pleasures and have good times. But we can see deeper into the unsatisfactory state we are in: we know that the clock is ticking away and we are all living on borrowed time, not knowing when calamity may strike.
Insights into the suffering and unsatisfactory nature of life in its many forms and aspects may arise even in quiet moments, when the mind is still and peaceful.
Already when we meditate we can see the unsatisfactory nature of this mind and body – the inherent pain and discomfort in the body. We notice how restless and fidgety the body and mind can be even as we are trying to calm down the mind.
Even the peace that we gain with difficulty after having overcome the hindrances is impermanent and will pass away at the end of our sitting.
How can this understanding of the prevailing suffering and unsatisfactoriness in life be of aid to us? It is greatly helpful and beneficial. For one thing we’ll have no more unrealistic expectations of life. We know that samsara cannot ultimately deliver. Therefore we are not so surprised when suffering is cruelly presented to us. We can accept it and cope with it. We know how to respond with equanimity and detachment. We know our happiness comes from a deeper source in us, i.e., our commitment to our core values and principles in life, our pledge to live a life of kindness and goodwill. As we live by these core values, nobody and nothing can really take away our happiness and equanimity which is not dependent on external factors. We create our happiness through our enlightened and noble way of being.
For the Buddhist, there is the higher goal of Nibbana to strive for, the cessation of these aggregates which means the cessation of this whole mass of suffering, the cessation of birth, aging, sickness, death, together with all the attendant suffering in life.
The third characteristic of existence is “anatta” – insubstantiality and not-self. What is insubstantial cannot be regarded as a self or a soul. As we meditate we can see that nothing persists or lasts. Everything is in a state of flux. This mind and matter are continuously arising and passing away from moment to moment. Sensations are changing. Consciousness is perceived not as something fixed but as a stream of consciousness arising and vanishing from moment to moment together with its thoughts and mental factors.
The self is seen not as a permanent unchanging entity but as something very fluid and shifting. Thus we come to understand what the Buddha meant by not-self. He meant there is no permanent self but a flow of phenomena which should ultimately not be regarded as a self, though for the sake of communication we may continue in a conventional sense to refer to ourselves as “selves”.
The truth of not self is one of the most difficult to comprehend in the Buddha’s teachings. Many people find it enigmatic and puzzling. But as we continue to meditate we come to realise and appreciate what the Buddha meant and the conviction grows in us that, alas, what we have taken for a self is actually not-self but just a conglomerate of five spinning aggregates. Here it is relevant for me to quote the Buddha:
“So too, Māgandiya, if I were to teach you the Dhamma thus: ‘This is that health, this is that Nibbāna,’ you might know health and see Nibbāna. Together with the arising of your vision, your desire and lust for the five aggregates affected by clinging might be abandoned. Then perhaps you might think: ‘Indeed, I have long been tricked, cheated, and defrauded by this mind. For when clinging, I have been clinging just to material form, I have been clinging just to feeling, I have been clinging just to perception, I have been clinging just to formations, I have been clinging just to consciousness. With my clinging as condition, being [comes to be]; with being as condition, birth; with birth as condition, ageing and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.’” (Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 75)
The Buddha’s teaching is about abandonment, not about accumulation. It is about renunciation, not about craving and grasping. It is scary and even repugnant to some. The Buddha knew this. Hence when he attained his awakening at the age of 35, he said he was at first hesitant about teaching: “This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, takes delight in attachment, rejoices in attachment. It is hard for such a generation to see this truth, namely, specific conditionality, dependent origination. And it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna.”
The Buddha understood full well our attachment to and fondness of sensual pleasures. He commented: “Forms, sounds, tastes, smells, contacts, and all mental phenomena are desired, pleasant and lovely…and are indeed thought of as happiness by the world but when they cease, that is regarded as suffering by them. However, the cessation of individual personality (i.e., the five aggregates) is seen by the noble ones as happiness. This view of those who see is contrary to that of the world.
“What others speak of as happiness, this the noble ones speak of as suffering. What the others speak of as suffering, this the noble ones know as happiness. See a doctrine which is hard to understand. Herein ignorant people are confounded.
“This teaching is not easily intelligible to those who are overcome by passion for existence, following the stream of existence, come to Mara’s domain. Who except the noble ones deserve to understand the state of Nibbana? Knowing this state properly they are quenched, without taints.”
Nibbana is said to be true because it is firm and permanent. “Whatever is transistory (i.e., of this world) indeed has a false nature. But Nibbana does not have a false nature. Because of the full comprehension of the truth, they indeed are quenched, without craving.” (Sutta Nipata)
Nibbana is described as the highest peace and happiness, being the extinction of greed, hatred, and delusion. In giving his discourse on the four establishments of mindfulness, the Buddha wanted us to go all the way to the end of suffering in Nibbana, to comprehend the marks of impermanence, suffering, and not-self in the five aggregates and the world, and thereby removing ourselves from their spell and enchantment, and striving towards cessation and Nibbana. Liberation, release, cessation, peace - these are all synonyms for Nibbana.
However, in a retreat when I give Dhamma talks in the evenings I must confess that I rarely dwell at length on Nibbana. It is something which I myself cannot fathom, except to appreciate that the Buddha must have achieved something nigh impossible by uprooting greed, hatred and delusion. Which one of us is without craving, anger, conceit and a whole string of other mental defilements? Truly, we stand in awe of the Buddha’s attainment and so, too, of those arahant disciples who similarly uprooted these defilements.
However, if we can but weaken the craving, anger and delusion in us, we can reduce a lot of suffering in our life and consequently increase our happiness. Hence, I emphasize on the Buddha’s teaching of contentment. It is not by getting more that we are happy but by being happy with what we already have or even do with less. And if we have more (through rightful means, of course), we find even greater happiness by sharing our good fortune and not by being miserly and oppressing and exploiting others.
If we can reduce our anger and impatience we will remove a lot of suffering in life. Every time we are angry we suffer and we cause suffering to others. Anger is destructive and not helpful. We should remain calm and see how we can respond towards a difficult person or situation in a skilful and constructive way.
We frequently reflect on how the self is something constructed and non-existent, yet we still strive to make a wholesome and beautiful self which we know we have to ultimately let go of in order to alight on the further shore of Nibbana.
Now many practitioners who come to retreats are more concerned with how they can manage their mind in this present life. Nibbana is not high on their priority list or even on that list at all. Nevertheless, the Buddha Dhamma is still highly effective for everyday life management. As we said if we can live with more contentment, less anger, more lovingkindness, patience, understanding, generosity, etc., we will be happier in this very life.
Mindfulness is very helpful. As we meditate we notice our conditioned patterns and behaviours, the way we tend to react that causes suffering for ourselves and others. We also see our wholesome patterns and tendencies. We realize that all we have to do is to condition the mind to cultivate wholesome and positive traits while weakening the unwholesome and negative ones.
Mindfulness enables us to see what is happening in our mind. This is very important because unless we see there is no possibility of change. In seeing, there is an opportunity for us to direct the mind to go in the right direction. With practice over time, this happens by itself – the mind notices and stays on track. When it loses balance it knows how to correct itself. No doubt, we are still not perfect, not completely free from unwholesome states, but we can see that we are in a much better position now: the defilements are not as strong as they once were while the wholesome mental factors are gaining strength.
Besides, if we can look at the practice from the perspective of not just one life but many lives, we know we are a work-in-progress and will just have to keep on practising till our last breath. The beauty of this practice is that we know things can only get better and not worse as we will be making progress and laying the foundation or planting the seeds for our future enlightenment.
Of the five aggregates, one, the body, is material, while the other four – feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness – are mental.
Feeling is mental because we feel with our mind. It is not the body that feels but the mind. Although we say the body feels hot, it is actually the mind or consciousness that perceives and feels the heat. If a person is dead there will be no feeling at all.
Feeling is always there. It is present in every moment of consciousness. Thus feeling is arising and passing away all the time with the stream of consciousness.
In the Buddha’s teaching, feeling is classified into three types – pleasant, painful, and neither painful-nor-pleasant or neutral.
We can further divide feeling into bodily feeling and mental feeling. Say we feel some pain in the body, this is a bodily feeling. Although we say it is a bodily or body-based feeling, we know that it is the mind that performs the function of feeling.
Say we are sick and are experiencing a lot of body pain, this can cause the mind to become depressed. In this case, the body pain is one thing, and the mental pain of depression is another thing. One is the mind feeling the pain and another is the mind reacting to the pain with depression. We differentiate between two types of pain here, the body pain and the added mental pain of depression. Besides sadness and depression there can arise mental factors like fear, worry, anger and anxiety, all these being additional painful mental feelings.
Sometimes the mind is strong and we may be able to tolerate pain and body unwellness with equanimity, calmness, patience, courage, and even cheerfulness. While there is body pain and sickness, yet mentally there are moments when the mind can bear up well. This ability of the mind to cope well means at times the mental pain of sadness and depression can be averted.
One of the aims of our practice is to keep the mind strong so it can bear up well with bodily pain and sickness. This is a great challenge. But we can succeed. We need to distinguish between these two types of pain. We see how some people cope very well with their sickness. They still remain mentally strong, calm, steady, patient, even cheerful. Some people, in comparison, do not cope so well, they become depressed, fearful, angry, short-tempered, impatient, etc. How we admire the former and wish to be like them.
In one of his discourses, the Buddha told his disciples, “Though the body may be sick, the mind need not be sick.” Thus we have our spiritual work cut out for us – how to be strong in the face of bodily pain and sickness. No doubt there will be many moments when we lose our mental composure and balance. We cannot be always so strong and steady. But we know now which way the mind should go and we keep training the mind to be strong, steady, calm, peaceful, and cheerful. With practice we can reduce the mental pain and replace it with equanimity and cheerfulness. It is good that we are now mindful of the fact that we can do something about the mental pain, that we are not totally helpless when facing body pain and sickness.
Of course, when dealing with bodily pain and illness, it is understood that we will seek treatment and take medications that we deem necessary to help us alleviate the pain and cure the sickness.
Besides the sadness that arises as a reaction to body pain and sickness, there is unhappiness that is wholly mental and not related to the body. For example, we may be healthy and yet unhappy. We may be having good food, a good life and many blessings in our life, yet we are feeling sad or downhearted for some reason. There are many possibilities for our unhappiness. Perhaps we are facing a particular problem connected with a relationship or work or finance. Or we may just be generally dissatisfied with life and feel melancholic and unable to lift our mind up.
These mental pains we also strive to overcome. There is a beautiful simile given by the Buddha that after being struck by the first arrow of pain, be it physical or mental, we need not be further pierced by more arrows. We can do something about it by way of response. We are not completely helpless. On the contrary, there is much we can do to create happiness in our life. First we train the mind to be strong, steady, and able to bear difficult conditions. We make it our practice and habit to be calm, peaceful, cheerful, looking on the bright side, always finding a silver lining in every cloud, counting our blessings, making the most and best of whatever situation we are in, and cultivating skilful, positive and helpful attitudes. Thus, more often than not, we maintain a peaceful and pleasant state of mind. And whenever we fall into despondency, sadness, anger, anxiety, and other painful states we are quick to notice them and extricate ourselves from such unhappiness. In this way we can maintain peaceful, pleasant and happy feeling in us.
When we sit in meditation we will experience bodily discomfort. Sometimes pain can become acute. The tendency of the mind is to react with aversion and wanting to move the body in order to get rid of the pain. With practice we can train the mind to tolerate pain. We can become quite accepting and prepared to observe the pain. We can notice the type of pain and how it changes. If there is aversion, tension and resistance in the mind, we can notice that too and adjust the mind to become more tolerant again. However, if we find that we have exhausted our strength to observe the pain, we can mindfully change the body posture or move our leg to gain relief.
Why do we observe pain? Because we want to train the mind to develop a certain tolerance of pain, which can be achieved with practice. When we encounter illness or physical pain in the future we won’t be so scared of pain as we have experience in observing it and we know we can bear up to some extent.
Our mind can respond with equanimity to the bodily pain, without the mental pain of aversion. We realize that we are able to prevent that second arrow from piercing us by our ability to maintain an equanimous and detached mind.
Also, when we take on pain as a meditation object we can see its impermanent nature. It doesn’t remain the same pain. We can notice changes in the pain, different types of pain, and fluctuations in its intensity. Even the mind that observes the pain is impermanent. It is not the same continuous mind. It changes. Sometimes it is strong, able to bear, and sometimes it is not. The noting mind is a series of mind or consciousness moments arising and passing away one after another observing a changing pain sensation. Changing mind observing the changing bodily pain. Here we can see that the self is only an idea, a mental construction and projection. What exists ultimately is just these phenomena, mental (noting mind) and physical (the four material elements appearing as painful to the mind), both arising and passing away continuously.
In noting pain, the first noble truth of suffering becomes obvious. We can see so much suffering and discomfort that is inherent in the body when we try to sit still. However, with practice we find the meditation pain becomes less. The body gets used to the sittting posture and the mind gains skill in staying with the meditation objects. Body and mind become tranquil and peaceful. We experience neutral and pleasant bodily and mental feeling.
A frequently asked question is, must we always observe pain? If we have watched it so many times in the past and already know well its nature, can’t we just move our body and choose to sit with neutral and/or pleasant sensations? Yes, this is an option. We can do so. By then the mind, too, is skilled in quickly attaining a calm, peaceful and pleasant state with the meditation objects it has become familiar with, such as the breath and the more neutral sitting and touching sensations.
We seek after pleasant feeling. It would seem we actually live for such feeling, for who would want to live with pain and misery? In fact, a good part of our life is spent seeking after sensual pleasures. We work and earn money in order to be able to enjoy these pleasures. We crave for pleasant sights, sounds, smells, taste, and touch. The Buddha described these objects as “desirable, lovely, agreeable, pleasing, and sensually enticing.”
However, there are various problems and disadvantages here. We have to work hard to earn the money which is spent in no time. We work long hours and have relatively scant time to enjoy. Some of these pleasures, if abused (e.g., consuming alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling), can ruin us. We become addicted and destroyed by them. In fact, overindulging in any pleasure can be harmful. We can neglect our responsibilities and end up in a bad way.
We are never satisfied. The more we have the more we want. If we are observant we can see this in our own behaviour. We want more of the same or something different for a change. Craving is insatiable and bottomless. The Buddha likened it to a man drinking salt water. His thirst can never be quenched. The Buddha also compared pleasure to a leper scratching his sore. Scratching does not heal the wound but only temporarily assuages the itch.
It is obvious that the answer is not in increasing our craving but to see how we can be happy with less. Contentment with simple and fewer pleasures is the way to go. The more we can be happy with less, the better off we are. But, of course, it is difficult not to crave as we are addicted to these pleasures. Everywhere we are bombarded by messages urging us to consume and enjoy. The sources of pleasure have increased tremendously since the Buddha’s time. They are very alluring and easily accessible if we have the means to purchase them. Hence, practising renunciation and contentment is much more challenging now than in olden times.
It is not easy to weaken this craving. It takes effort and determination. The Buddha knew how difficult it is. He asked us to, at least, not break the five training precepts and harm ourselves and others in our quest for sense pleasures. These five are not to kill, steal, commit sexual misconduct, speak falsehood, and consume intoxicants that can cause the mind to become heedless.
In order to weaken craving we should often reflect on its disadvantages and danger. This will motivate us to see how we can practise renunciation in little ways here and there. Also, we can find other forms of happiness such as offering our services, helping others, studying good teachings, and purifying and cultivating our mind through the practice of lovingkindness, compassion, generosity and all the wholesome and beautiful values in life.
Meditation plays a key role in purifying the mind. When we do metta (lovingkindness) meditation we particularly weaken hatred and anger. However, the meditation also does weaken craving because it keeps our mind on wholesome thoughts of metta and takes it away from thoughts of craving. When we do vipassana (insight) meditation we are keeping the mind on vipassana objects which also take our mind away from sensual objects. Furthermore, in vipassana, we deepen our insight into the three marks of existence – impermanence, suffering, and not-self – that prevail in samsaric existence. This will bring about a wholesome kind of disenchantment towards sensual objects, thereby weakening craving. In fact, the ultimate goal of Vipassana is to uproot craving and ignorance. Though the final goal may not be achievable in this life, the foundation and condition are set for its attainment in a future life. Meanwhile, in this life we can attain stages of awakening that can substantially weaken craving and ignorance.
The Buddha spoke of two kinds of happiness. Sensual happiness and spiritual happiness. When we do good, keep our precepts, and meditate we attain spiritual happiness. When we meditate we can attain jhana, a deep and pleasurable immersion of the mind in the meditation object. This bliss of meditation is a non sensual kind of happiness. It is the happiness of a calm and peaceful mind that is free of the taint of sense desire. The Buddha strongly recommended this non sensual happiness of jhana. He said:
“Jhana is called the pleasure of renunciation, the pleasure of seclusion, the pleasure of peace, the pleasure of enlightenment. I say of this kind of pleasure that it should be pursued, that it should be developed, that it should be cultivated, that it should not be feared.”
When there is a happiness that is superior to sensual happiness and can make an end of craving and rebirth, the Buddha said a wise person would cultivate the former and abandon the latter. Thus we should see how we can live a simple and happy life, devoted to doing good and being kind, and meditating to enjoy the bliss of jhana.
Painful feeling stands out. We can know immediately when we feel pain or when the mind is unhappy. Pleasant sensations and experiences, feeling happy and joyful – all these, when they are present, can be easily known by us.
Neutral feeling, however, is not so easily discerned. Although it arises and passes away all the time we don’t notice it. This is understandable, for neutral feeling, being neither painful nor pleasant, does not stand out. In comparison with pain and pleasure, neutral feeling is considered subtle.
But we can know by deduction that neutral feelings are there. Feelings are arising and passing away in us all the time through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching (body awareness), and thinking. If the feeling associated with the seeing, hearing, etc., is neither pleasant nor painful, then we can deduce that it is neutral. We experience lots of these neutral feelings without usually being aware of them. However, if we pay particular attention to notice what kind of feeling is present in the body and mind, then we’ll be able to discern lots of neutral feelings. Whatever cannot be classifed as pleasant or unpleasant/painful will be noted as neutral.
The nature of the mind is to crave for pleasant feelings, be averse towards the unpleasant, and bored by the neutral. Thus we become restless and bored with the neutral feeling and will seek for some pleasant objects that will give us a pleasant feeling.
However, if we are mindful of the neutral feeling, we can feel a moment of peace there. If we mentally say words such as, “peaceful, peaceful,” “calm, calm,” “relaxed, relaxed,” “easy, easy,” we can actually induce or create some peaceful moments in us. You can do this sometimes when you are walking about or doing some chores, such as sweeping the floor or washing the dishes.
When you are mindful, being aware of body movements, sensations, and states of mind, or when you are radiating metta as you go about your daily life, you can create wholesome neutral and pleasant feelings in yourself.
During vipassana meditation, you will experience lots of neutral body sensations and mental feelings. As there is mindfulness present, a peaceful and pleasant state of mind will develop. When the mental factors of equanimity and peace are present, the feeling takes on a different tone. The peaceful feeling is actually pleasant, so one is experiencing a pleasant spiritual feeling. It is the same when we are doing metta. The feeling of peace that comes from the mind being free from ill will is a pleasant feeling.
No matter how pleasant the feeling, it is still unsatisfactory because it is impermanent and subject to change. Hence, the Buddha said, “Whatever is felt is included in suffering.” As an adept practitioner ascends the various levels of jhanas (deep mental absorption) feeling becomes more and more refined until it is barely perceivable at the eighth jhana which is called the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception. According to the text, an adept jhana attainer, who has attained the third or fourth stage of sainthood, can access from this eighth jhana a ninth attainment called the cessation of perception and feeling. It seems that consciousness together with feeling, perception and mental formations is temporarily suspended in this stage.
It is said that once Sariputta, the chief disciple of the Buddha, was asked how could this attainment be considered happiness when there is a complete absence of feeling. Interestingly, Sariputta replied, “Friend, it is happiness precisely because there is nothing to be felt.” According to the Commentary, these spiritual adepts could, if they so wish, stay up to seven days in this state before they emerged and engaged with the world again.
We perceive all the time. We perceive sights (colour, shapes, forms), sounds, smells, tastes, bodily sensations and mental objects (thoughts, ideas). Because of repeated perception of an object we can easily recognise it. We don’t have to think twice to know what the object is. Thus, perception has the function of grasping the distinguishing features of an object, making a note of them, so that it can recognise the object when encountering it again. This is the straight-forward and simple function of perception.
However, there are perceptions of a more complex nature such as how we perceive the world (our world view), how we perceive a person, a situation, a problem, etc. It is interesting to notice how our perceptions may change over time. For example, we may initially think well of a person but after some unpleasant experiences we had with them personally or after hearing some negative reports about them, we may change our opinion. This means that our perception of the person has changed. In some ways we are periodically editing and modifying our perception regarding persons and situations. Also, each of us may have a different perception in the way we see a person, a situation, a problem, etc.
When things are going awry for us and we are feeling down and out, we can perceive the world in a very negative light. At that time we see everything as dark and hopeless. We can’t see any way forward and can even harbour suicidal thoughts. However, when this black mood passes, our perceptions change and the world doesn’t seem so bad anymore. We feel lighter and so much better. Hence, it is always good to bear in mind some positive and uplifting maxims, such as “Be of good cheer, this too will pass,” or “Tomorrow the birds will sing. Be brave. Face life.” (Charlie Chaplin), or “In the middle of winter I discovered in me an invincible summer.” (Albert Camus), so that the mind can hang in there when it is feeling low and gradually find its way back to the light.
Understanding the impermanent and subjective nature of perception is very helpful. We can be more open, skilful and less rigid in our interactions with others and in our approach to life. We can step back and view things in perspective and in a balanced way. Seeing the bigger picture we can respond wisely and skilfully.
In the Buddha’s teaching, our biggest problem is that we have a skewed or distorted perception of the world. We don’t see clearly and deeply the three universal marks of existence. We see what is impermanent as permanent, what is suffering as happiness, and what is not-self as self. Often, a fourth mark is added, i.e., we see what is not beautiful as beautiful. The whole purpose of the Buddha’s teaching and the practice of insight meditation is for us to break or shatter these false perceptions.
We have already touched on these three characteristics earlier in our discussion on the material form aggregate above, so we won’t go into them again here. It is of great importance that we constantly bear these three characteristics in mind, see how they operate in our daily life, and be no more under an illusion of permanence, perfect lasting happiness, and selfhood or substantiality. This will make us realize that samsara cannot deliver the happiness we seek and only in Nibbana will we find release. Hence, we will aspire for the ultimate goal, and our mind, fortified by Right View, the first factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, will be inclined towards Nibbana.
As regards the fourth mark, people may see life as beautiful and frown on the Buddha’s teaching as pretty grim and nihilistic. Life is both beautiful and dreadful. In reading poems we find a lot of the pain and anguish in life described there. In songs, too, we can hear the suffering of heartbreak and betrayal. Life is not as beautiful as we would like to make it out to be. Although there is much beauty in nature we also know that nature can wreak chaos and cause terrible destruction.
There is the beauty of youth, but we know how fast youth passes and age is ever creeping up on us. And the beauty of form, too, is only skin deep. What is behind the skin, such as flesh, blood, body organs, sinews, etc., is not such a pretty sight. What is truly beautiful though are the wholesome qualities of the heart, such as lovingkindness, compassion, understanding, wisdom, generosity, patience, tolerance, perseverance, courage, confidence, and the list goes on. The Buddha encouraged us to cultivate these noble qualities which will beautify our life. He urged us to make a garland of our precious human life.
But viewed as a whole, soberly and realistically, samsara is not a desirable and beautiful place to be in. It is full of dangers and suffering much of which is caused by man’s greed, hatred, and delusion. Furthermore, we cannot be free from aging, sickness and death. Where there is birth there must be death. Where there is craving there will be rebirth at death and the whole cycle of suffering is repeated.
The Buddha saw the connection between craving and rebirth and the ignorance underlying the craving. What bears the three marks of impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality cannot be truly beautiful. Hence he sought, found, and taught a way out of samsara and suffering. However, some people have doubts about rebirth and/or are only concerned with this life – they want to know how they can be happy in this life and do not wish to “buy” the whole Buddhist doctrine on rebirth, cessation of being, and Nibbana.
While intended to lead us all the way to Nibbana, the Buddha’s teaching is also helpful for those who just want to live more happily in this very life. Mindfulness is an effective tool to guide our mind towards peace, love and happiness. As we live a moral life and chip away at greed, hatred, and delusion while cultivating the wholesome mental factors, we will naturally experience more happiness in this life.
This comprises a huge group of mental phenomena. Whatever is not classified as feeling, perception and consciousness comes under the mental formations aggregate. Thus, whatever mental factor you can think of can be placed in this category. Here are some examples: thinking, planning, assessing, analysing, imagining, fantasizing, day-dreaming; craving, desire, greed, miserliness, attachment, non-greed, non-attachment, contentment, generosity; hatred, anger, irritation, annoyance, resentment, cruelty, vindictiveness, lovingkindness, goodwill, friendliness, gentleness, compassion, understanding, tolerance, forbearance, forgiveness; ignorance, delusion, confusion, wisdom, mental clarity, intelligence; mindfulness, heedfulness, attention, forgetfulness, distraction, negligence; patience, perserverance, impatience; calmness, tranquility, concentration, restlessness, mental agitation; diligence, effort, conscientiousness, persistence, resolution, laziness, dullness, drowsiness; faith, trust, confidence, courage, fear, doubt, worry, anxiety, remorse; honesty, rectitude, integrity, uprightness, dishonesty, crookedness, deceit. The mind can take on many hues, shades and nuances, so you can have an endless list of mental formations.
Our practice is directed towards cultivating and strengthening the wholesome mental factors and to weaken and eliminate the unwholesome ones. That is essentially the spiritual work we have embarked upon and the path to true happiness. Under right effort of the noble eightfold path the Buddha has instructed that we should make the effort to (1) prevent the arising of unwholesome thoughts that have not arisen (2) abandon unwholesome thoughts that have arisen, (3) arouse wholesome thoughts that have not arisen (4) maintain, increase and strengthen wholesome thoughts that have arisen.
A very important mental factor which is said to be the leader of the mental formations aggregate is intention. The Buddha pointed out that our thoughts, words, and deeds are influenced, conditioned and directed by our intention. Hence, it is very important to pay close attention to the intention or motivation behind our thoughts, speech and actions. If the intention is unwholesome then the action that follows will also be unwholesome.
The Pali word for mental formations is ‘sankhara’ which is also translated as “volitional formations” as there is a will, volition, or intention behind the formations. Some translators have used words like “mental preparations”, “determinations”, “constructions”, and “fabrications” in place of the word “formations”. This is because these formations prepare, determine, construct and fabricate the mind in various ways.
In the much beloved Dhammapada which contains pithy sayings of the Buddha, the very first two verses underscore the importance of intention:
“Mind is the forerunner of all states. Mind is chief. Mind-made are they. If one speaks or acts with an evil mind, suffering follows one just like the wheel that rolls after the hoof the ox that draws the cart.
“Mind is the forerunner of all states. Mind is chief. Mind-made are they. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, then happiness follows one just like one’s shadow that never leaves.”
It is obvious that “mind’ here refers in particular to the role of intention. Intention is the forerunner, the leader, the creator of our speech and deeds. The Buddha described intention as the maker of our kamma. It behooves us to pay particular attention to the intention and motivation behind our deeds if we want to live a noble and good life, producing happiness and alleviating suffering.
Consciousness is the basic awareness of an object. It has the function of knowing the object. However, it is said to be a very basic kind of knowing which cannot really grasp the object without the assistance of perception since it is perception that distinguishes and recognises the details and features of an object and which then gives it a name or label.
Consciousness can be divided into six types, i.e., seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking consciousness. It can further be classified as wholesome or unwholesome according to its mental contents, i.e., whether it is with greed or without greed, with anger or without anger, with delusion or without delusion, and so on.
Consciousness never arises singly by itself. It always co-arises with the other three mental aggregates of feeling, perception, and mental formations. Thus, at every moment of consciousness, there is a feeling tone, perception, and the presence of some mental formations which include mental contact with the object and a certain modicum of attention and concentration required for the mind to apprehend or perceive the object.
Consciousness is impermanent. It arises and passes away every moment together with the other three mental aggregates. These four mental aggregates co-arise and co-cease from one moment to another. Thus, we are actually a stream of consciousness – one consciousness after another arising and passing away with the other three mental aggregates from moment to moment. We are actually not even the same person from one moment to another!
The Burmese Abhidhamma scholar, Ven U Narada, explained in his book, “A Guide to Conditional Relations”: “As the subsequent consciousness arises immediately after the preceding consciousness ceases, these consciousnesses are not the same. But because there is no interval of time between them, this difference in the consciousness is not discerned and so it appears that it is one and the same consciousness that thinks throughout the day and lasts throughout life. That is why beings hold firmly to the wrong view that consciousness is permanent.”
In Vipassana meditation, we can notice the impermanent nature of consciousness. When we observe a train of thoughts we can deduce that consciousness is arising and passing away with each thought. What is the duration of one consciousness with one thought before another consciousness arises with another thought? Consciousness is arising and passing away with tremendous, inconceivable speed, in tiny fractions of a second.
When a series of similar types of consciousness arises and passes away, it is more difficult to see the impermanent nature of consciousness. We might think it is the same consciousness at work. But when there is a change in the type of consciousness, then it becomes more obvious that the previous consciousness has ceased. For example, we may be struggling with sleepiness or dullness during our meditation and then suddenly the sleepiness passes away and the mind is clear and bright. We feel happy to have this clear mind and be free of the sleepiness. It is obvious then that sleepy mind has given way to clear mind; in other words, a series of sleepy consciousness is replaced by a series of clear consciousness.
We can think of many other examples: A series of unhappy consciousness gives way to a series of equanimous or happy consciousness, a restless mind changes into a calm peaceful mind, an angry mind is replaced by a non-angry mind followed by a happy and cheerful mind. A worried mind subsides and one experiences a consciousness free of worry. A series of consciousness that is craving for something occurs. Then that craving eventually ceases and is replaced by consciousness that is content and without craving.
We can see how the mental factors (of craving, anger, lovingkindness, etc.) condition and affect the consciousness. They give their own particular “flavour” or “characteristic” to the consciousness. The mental factors, too, condition the feeling. If the mental factor of anger has arisen, then the feeling tone is one of pain. If one feels happy while giving away something or doing some good deed, then the mental factors of generosity and kindness have conditioned or produced a happy and pleasant feeling in the mind.
In conventional speech, we say “I feel angry.” However, if we were to explain what is going on according to Buddhist psychology, we would say that the mental factor of anger has arisen and the feeling associated with it is one of pain. Anger gives rise to a painful feeling. The anger is a mental factor that comes under the mental formations aggregate while the feeling belongs to the feeling aggregate. So they are not the same. The anger is one thing and the feeling is another.
Consciousness is never the same, as every moment, even now as you are reading this, a new consciousness is arising. The subsiding of the preceding consciousness is immediately followed by the arising of the subsequent consciousness. Thus when the consciousness is observing say a bodily sensation, it is not the same consciousness but a series of consciousness arising one after another comprehending the sensation. What’s more, it is not just the consciousness apprehending the sensation, but in addition perception is also present performing its function of assisting the consciousness to distinguish and recognise the object. There is also, of course, at the same time a feeling tone which can be pleasant, painful or neutral. Meanwhile, there are also various mental formations present such as attention, mindfulness and concentration directed towards the object. Thoughts, too, may occur in the mind. If there is a strong pain, the mental factor of aversion may arise. Furthermore, we can notice changes in the consciousness itself: sometimes it may be strong and sharp, able to observe the sensation clearly; sometimes less so.
As the consciousness together with the other three mental aggregates is arising and passing away taking the bodily sensation as an object, that sensation, too, is not something static or fixed. It is also arising and passing away rapidly from moment to moment. However, according to Buddhist psychology, consciousness arises and passes away at a faster rate than that of material phenomena. In any case, changing consciousness is observing changing matter – thus it is all rather complex, fluid and dynamic. Everything is, verily, in a state of flux.
Consciousness can arise taking the bodily sensation as an object in the present moment. However, consciousness cannot know itself. It cannot reflect back on itself just like the tip of a finger cannot touch itself. Thus, it takes another consciousness, a subsequent consciousness, to reflect back on the preceding consciousness. Consequently, in the case of mental phenomena, what is observed is the immediate past, i.e., the consciousness that has just passed away. But because the two consciousnesses are occurring so close to each other, are “touching”, following each other without a gap, it is as if one is observing something in the present. In Buddhist psychology, this is called the serial present (santati-paccupanna).
Say a consciousness with anger has arisen. At the very time when anger is present in the mind, one is not aware of that anger as one is immersed in it. In other words one cannot be angry and at that exact moment know that one is angry. It takes another consciousness arising subsequent to the consciousness with anger to reflect back on the preceding consciousness and realise that anger has arisen. When one is angry there is no mindfulness present. Then a subsequent consciousness with mindfulness arises acknowledging the anger. So there are two consciousnesses at play here. The consciousness with anger is one and the consciousness with mindfulness is another. The consciousness with mindfulness is not angry, is without anger. It is a wholesome state of mind that reflects back on the previous consciousness that was with anger and realises that anger had taken hold of one’s mind.
In practice, a series of consciousness with mindfulness arises reflecting back on the previous series of consciousness that was with anger. However, usually the series of consciousness with mindfulness is initially not strong enough to cut off the momentum of the anger. Thus, we find that after noticing the anger, anger again arises in between the consciousnesses that were with mindfulness and trying to keep track of the anger. So there is an effort or struggle going on in the mind to contain or check the anger. Not only is there mindfulness noticing the anger but there are also other consciousnesses arising exercising wise reflection or skilful thoughts to help us to abandon the anger. Eventually with the repeated interception of the consciousness with mindfulness and wise reflection, the anger weakens and subsides. So we can see that there is quite a dynamic process going on in the mind at the time.
During meditation we come to have a sense of the vibrant flow of consciousness and material phenomena. What is dominant will stand out. At times we notice the bodily phenomena, the breathing, various body sensations of hardness, softness, tingling, heat, movement, vibrations, etc. At times we notice the consciousness itself, the faculty of awareness. We notice the fleeting thoughts. We notice the various states of mind that come and go. We notice our mental habits, behavioural patterns and tendencies, moods, feelings, emotions, etc. Having learned about the five aggregates from the Buddhist text and becoming what is often stated in the text as “well-instructed noble disciples or students of the Buddha”, we can observe how these aggregates operate in us. We can verify the Buddha’s teachings as regards how these aggregates and everything else are stamped with the three universal characteristics of impermanence, suffering, and insubstantiality or not-self. The more we meditate the more the understanding and insight into the true nature of this mind and body will grow and deepen in us. We will also become more aware of the manifestation of these truths in the world around us. We will harbour no more illusion and unrealistic expectations. We will integrate our understanding into our everyday life and live much more lightly and happily, knowing how to respond skilfully and wisely, and continuing to cultivate and strengthen wholesome states of mind.
What we normally call “mind” is a collection of these four mental aggregates of feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. The problem, according to the Buddha, is that we take one, several, or all of the five aggregates as the self. We project a self or soul into them while they are just “empty phenomena rolling on,” i.e., they are merely phenomena conditioned by craving, ignorance and kamma (our intentional actions from the past and in the present) and empty of selfhood.
Thus, sometimes we may take the body as the self (“I am so handsome”) or we take feeling as the self (“I am so sad”), or we take perception as the self (“I perceive, I see, I know, therefore ‘I’ exist”), or we take mental formations as a self (“I intend, I plan, I think”) or we take consciousness as the self (“This consciousness must be my self. It is something that is immaterial and lasts forever. It can never be destroyed, for it is my very soul”). In all cases, the idea of a self is just that – an idea, based on a mental construction or projection from one, several, or all of these five aggregates.
At the time of the Buddha, there was a strong Vedic Brahmanic school of thought that postulated the existence of an eternal self or soul (atta) that cannot be destroyed. Of course, this view is still very much alive in the theistic religions of today. It seems Buddhism is the only creed that denies the existence of a creator God and an eternal soul. So Buddhists are atheists.
The Buddha asserted there was neither creator God nor soul. Thus, when the Vedic sages and scholars spoke of the indestructible self which they call “atta,” the Buddha taught to the contrary – it is “anatta” or not-self, he proclaimed. Buddhism is well known for its teaching of “anatta,” not-self.
The Buddha was not a scientist concerned with how the physical world began. He was a philosopher or spiritual seeker solely concerned with finding an end to suffering. He analysed the human being as five impermanent aggregates that are conditioned by ignorance and craving. If we can but remove the wrong view of a self and the craving accompanying it, this process of rebirth will, running out of the fuel that drives it, come to a halt.
Admittedly, there is still the question or puzzle of how did consciousness together with this ignorance and craving first arise. The Buddha said he found no conceivable beginning. It seems that consciousness with ignorance and craving has always been there. Yet, we can make this beginningless consciousness and our samsaric existence come to cessation by removing the ignorance and craving that are the cause of this being’s continuation and wandering in samsara.
This answer (of there being no beginning and yet a possible ending) may not appear to be satisfactory. It seems one has to take a leap of faith by taking the Buddha’s word for it, have faith in him and his being awakened. While I have been very fortunate and blessed with a good life, I still see, when I look soberly at existence, the suffering and imperfection in it. I see the Buddha has well analysed and understood the human condition and the futility of perpetuating the continuation of these five aggregates. Therefore I will be happy to check out of samsara and put an end to this rebirth process.
If we assume there is no such thing as rebirth and this life is the one and only, then supposedly we will have attained our Nibbana at death. So there is no problem there. No matter how much one suffers, at least there will be an end to it at death. But if there is rebirth, then death is not the end of it all and this whole suffering-fraught process begins again. Even rebirth in one of the heavenly realms is deemed unsatisfactory – one will weary even of celestial pleasures, and heavenly existence, too, is impermanent. Devas, too, die and are reborn again, high or low, according to their kamma. Thus, I am happy not to be anything or to become nothing from something, accepting the Buddha’s teaching that there being no self in reality, what ceases is merely suffering. Clinging to that “something” is, in fact, what is causing and perpetuating the suffering.
“Both formerly and now, Anuruddha, I teach only suffering and the ending of suffering,” proclaimed the Buddha.
“It’s only suffering that comes to be,
Suffering that stands and falls away.
Nothing but suffering comes to be,
Nothing but suffering ceases.” (Samyutta Nikaya)
If we regard these five aggregates as a self, then naturally we equate cessation with the extinction of a self. But if we do not regard any one or all of the five aggregates as a self, then we see that it is only suffering that ceases.
Actually, call it whatever you may - “self,” “no self,” “aggregates” - I will be happy and relieved when I can make this whole thing or process come to a cessation.
For those who have doubts about rebirth and hold that this is our one and only life, then you can still be happy to have lived a life based on moral and wholesome values, not wanting to hurt but to spread happiness, and to be peaceful and content. In this way we see that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by following the Buddha’s teachings.
I would like to conclude this essay with a discourse and words from the Buddha:
Once the Buddha was dwelling at Ayojjhā on the bank of the river Ganges in what is now modern day India. There he addressed the monks: “Monks, suppose that this river Ganges was carrying along a great lump of foam. A man with good sight would inspect it, ponder it, and carefully investigate it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insubstantial. For what substance could there be in a lump of foam?
So too, monks, whatever kind of form there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near: a monk inspects it, ponders it, and carefully investigates it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insubstantial. For what substance could there be in form?
“Suppose, monks, that in the autumn, when it is raining and big rain drops are falling, a water bubble arises and bursts on the surface of the water. A man with good sight would inspect it, ponder it, and carefully investigate it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insubstantial. For what substance could there be in a water bubble? So too, monks, whatever kind of feeling there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near: a monk inspects it, ponders it, and carefully investigates it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insubstantial. For what substance could there be in feeling?
“Suppose, monks, that in the last month of the hot season, at high noon, a shimmering mirage appears. A man with good sight would inspect it, ponder it, and carefully investigate it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insubstantial. For what substance could there be in a mirage? So too, monks, whatever kind of perception there is….(a monk would, after careful inspection, find it)… to be void, hollow, insubstantial. For what substance could there be in perception?
“Suppose, monks, that a man needing heartwood, seeking heartwood, wandering in search of heartwood, would take a sharp axe and enter a forest. There he would see the trunk of a large plantain tree, straight, fresh, without a fruit-bud core. He would cut it down at the root, cut off the crown, and unroll the coil. As he unrolls the coil, he would not find even softwood, let alone heartwood. A man with good sight would inspect it, ponder it, and carefully investigate it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insubstantial. For what substance could there be in the trunk of a plantain tree? So too, monks, whatever kind of mental formations there are.... (a monk would, after careful inspection, find it)....to be void, hollow, insubstantial. For what substance could there be in mental formations?
“Suppose, monks, that a magician or a magician’s apprentice would display a magical illusion at a crossroads. A man with good sight would inspect it, ponder it, and carefully investigate it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insubstantial. For what substance could there be in a magical illusion? So too, monks, whatever kind of consciousness there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near: a monk inspects it, ponders it, and carefully investigates it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insubstantial. For what substance could there be in consciousness?
“Seeing thus, monks, the instructed noble disciple experiences disenchantment towards form, disenchantment towards feeling, disenchantment towards perception, disenchantment towards mental formations, disenchantment towards consciousness. Experiencing disenchantment, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It’s liberated.’ He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’
“Form is like a lump of foam,
Feeling like a water bubble;
Perception is like a mirage,
Mental formations like a plantain trunk,
And consciousness like an illusion,”
so said the Buddha. (Samyutta Nikaya)
On another occasion, a deva (celestial being), Subrahma, approached and made this request to the Buddha:
"Always anxious is this mind,
The mind is always agitated,
About problems present and future;
Please tell me the release from fear."
It is interesting to note that even in the celestial realms, beings there are not free from fear and anxiety. Incidentally, the deva’s statement also well described our human condition.
And the Buddha’s reply:
"Not apart from awakening and austerity,
Not apart from sense restraint,
Not apart from relinquishing all,
Do I see any safety for living beings." (Samyutta Nikaya)
And what is there that we have to relinquish or abandon? By now you well know the answer and should say without batting an eyelid, “The five aggregates, of course!” The Buddha assured that he would not have asked us to abandon them if it were not possible, nor would he have asked us to do so, if it was not for our own good. He said, “When you have abandoned them, that will lead to your welfare and happiness for a long time.” (Majjihima Nikaya Sutta 22)
And the Great Teacher further declared: "Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste — the taste of salt — so in this Teaching and Discipline there is but one taste — the taste of freedom."
“Form is like a lump of foam,
Feeling like a water bubble;
Perception is like a mirage,
Mental formations like a plantain trunk,
And consciousness like an illusion.”
Buddha (Samyutta Nikaya)