The Way It Is
The Five Khandhas
As long as these human bodies are alive and their senses are operating, we have to be constantly on our guard, alert and mindful, because the force of habit to grasp the sensual world as a self is so strong. This is very strong conditioning in all of us. So the way the Buddha taught is the way of mindfulness and wise reflection. Rather than making metaphysical statements about your True Natures or Ultimate Reality, the Buddha's teaching points to the condition of grasping. That's the only thing that keeps us from enlightenment.
Buddha wisdom is an understanding of the way things are through observing oneself rather than just observing how the stars and planets operate. We don't go out looking at the trees and contemplating nature as if it were an object of our vision but we're actually observing nature as it operates through this personal formation.
What we take ourselves to be can be classified as five aggregates or khandhas: rupa, form; vedana, feeling; saņņa, perception; sankhara, mental formation or thought process; viņņana, sense consciousness. They provide a skilful means of seeing all sensual phenomena in groups. The easiest to meditate on is rupa khandha, the form of your own body, because you can sit here - it is stuck to the ground, heavy, it's gross. It's a slower moving thing than mental phenomena - vedana, saņņa, sankhara or viņņana. You can actually reflect on your own body for long periods of time, meditate on the breath rather than on consciousness, because breathing is something within our ability to concentrate on. Ordinary kinds of people can contemplate their own breath.
You can contemplate the feeling of your own eyes. They have sensations. Contemplate the tongue, the wetness of the mouth or your tongue touching the palate in your own mouth. You can contemplate the body as a sense organ, giving you the sensations of pleasure and pain, heat and cold. Just observe what the feeling of cold or heat in the body is like; you can contemplate that because it is not what you are. It's an object you can see, easily observe as if it were something separate from yourself. If you don't do that then you just tend to react. When you're too hot you try to get cooler, and take off your jumper. And then you get cold and you put it back on again. You can just react to those sensations of pleasure and pain in the body. Pleasure: Oh isn't that wonderful', try to hold onto that, have more pleasure. And the pain: Oh - get rid of that, run away from anything uncomfortable or painful. But in meditation we can see these sensations, and the body itself is a sensual condition that has pleasure, pain, heat and cold.
You can reflect on the forms that you see. Just look at something beautiful, like flowers. Flowers are probably the most beautiful things on the earth, and so we like flowers. So note when you look at a flower, how you're drawn to it, and want to keep looking at it: being attracted to what is pleasing to the eye. Or, say, something that is unpleasant to the eye. Looking at, say, excrement. When you see excrement, cow dung on the path, you politely ignore it. Look at your own excrement. We produce it ourselves and yet it's something that we don't really want to go round showing other people. It's something we'd rather nobody ever saw us producing. You don't really feel drawn to go looking at it like you would a flower, do you? And yet we're quite willing to wear flowers, carry flowers around, have flowers on our shrine.
It's not that you should find excrement attractive. I'm just pointing out that you can meditate on this force of the sensory world. It's a natural force. It's not bad or wrong but you can meditate on it to see how one tends to react to the sensory experiences.
When you hear beautiful sounds or horrible ones, pleasant odours or stinking ones, pleasant tastes or unpleasant ones, pleasurable physical sensations or painful ones, heat and cold - meditate on these things. Look and see these things as they are: all rupa is impermanent. Beautiful flowers are only beautiful for a while; then they become repulsive. So we're observing this natural transformation from what is fresh and beautiful to what is old, ugly. Myself, I was a lot prettier when I was twenty. Now I'm old and ugly. An old human body is not very beautiful, is it? But it's the body, following what it's supposed to do. I'm glad it's not getting prettier. It would be embarrassing if it was.
Now the mental khandhas also operate on that same principle. Vedana is a mental state, the feeling you have of attraction and aversion around the physical things that you hear, see, smell, taste, touch. The sensation of pain is just as it is, but then there's the reaction of liking or disliking. Or not even that, but just a moving toward or away from it.
You can be aware of the feelings, the moods. Note the heat that comes from anger, the dullness that comes from doubt and sloth-torpor. Note the feeling when you're jealous. You can witness that feeling. Watch, instead of just trying to annihilate jealousy. When jealousy conditions your mind rather than reacting to it or trying to get rid of it because you don't like it, you begin to reflect on it. When you're cold, what is coldness? Do you like it? This coldness, feeling cold, is that something terribly unpleasant or do you just make a lot out of it. Hunger, what is hunger like? When you're feeling hungry, meditate on that physical feeling that you tend to react to by trying to get something to eat.
Or meditate on the feeling of being alone or separate, the feeling that people look down on you. If you feel I don't like you - meditate on that feeling. Or that you don't like me! Meditate on that. Bring this into consciousness now. Not analytically, trying to figure out whether I really do; or that your relationship to me is a dependent childlike relationship that you shouldn't have; or getting caught up in Freudian psychology or whatever. But just observe the doubting uncertain state of mind in your relationships to others - not to analyse but just to observe the kind of feelings of confidence or lack of confidence, aversion or attraction. That is vedana. This is a natural thing. We're all sensitive beings, so there's attraction and repulsion operating all the time. It's a condition in nature, not a personal problem - unless we make it so.
Saņņa khandha is the perception khandha. To grasp a perception means to believe in the way things appear in the present as if it's a kind of permanent quality. That's how we tend to operate in our lives. So I might think, for example, Venerable Viradhammo is this way.' It's a perception I have whether I'm here sitting next to Venerable Viradhammo, or I'm alone, or he's helping me, or he's angry with me. I have this fixed view. A fixed perception is not all that conscious, but I tend to operate from that particular fixed position if I believe in my perception. In that way when I think of him it's as if his personality is fixed and constant rather than being the way it is at this time. My perception of him is just a perception of the moment; it's not a soul that carries through time, not a fixed personality. So saņņa is to be meditated on.
Sankhara are mental formations. There are perceptions of the mind (saņņa) and we operate from them (sankhara). So the assumptions you have about yourself - from childhood, parents, teachers, friends, relatives and all that; whether you perceive yourself as good and positive or in a negative way or a confused way - it's all the saņņa/sankhara khandhas.
Memories come up, or the kind of fears you have about what you might be lacking. You can worry that there might be a serious flaw in your character or some repressed horrible desires that might be lurking way down deep in your mind - which might come up in meditation and drive you crazy! That is another mental condition, that not knowing of what we are so sometimes we imagine the worst possible things. But what we can know is that whatever we believe ourselves to be is a condition of the mind: it arises, it passes away, it's impermanent.
If we come from certain fixed perceptions of ourselves then we conceive all kinds of things. If you operate from the position I am a man' and then that perception of yourself is what you are, you assume that. So you never investigate that perception, you just believe that I'm a man' and then conceive manhood' as being a certain way, what a man should be'. Then you compare yourself to what the ideal for manhood is and when you don't live up to those high standards of manhood, you worry. Something wrong! You start feeling upset or hating yourself, or guilty because of the basic assumption of being a man. On a conventional level this might be true, men are this way and women are that way. We're not denying the conventional reality, but we're no longer attaching to it as a personal quality, a fixed position to take at all times in all places.
This is a way of freeing ourselves from that binding quality to unsatisfactory conditions. Because if you believe yourself to be a man or a woman, as your true identity and your soul, then that is always going to take you to a depressing state of mind. All these are perceptions we have. We create so much misery over perceiving ourselves to be black or white or members of a certain nationality or class. In England people suffer because of this perception of belonging to a certain class; in America we suffer from not having any perceptions of class, from the perception that we're all the same, we're all equal. It's the attachment to any of these, even to the highest, most egalitarian perception, that takes us to despair.
Investigating these five heaps'*, aggregates or groups, you begin to see them. You can know them as objects because they're anatta, not-self. If they were what you are, then you wouldn't be able to see them. You'd only be able to be them. You'd have no way of witnessing them or detaching from them, you'd just be caught into them all the time without any ability to detach and observe them. But being men, women, monks, nuns, Italian, Danish, Swiss, English, American, Canadian, or whatever, is only a relative truth, relative to certain situations.
(*the literal meaning of khandhas)
Yet we can operate our lives from fixed positions, of being I'm American' and We're this way'. Throughout the world we have those national prejudices and racial prejudices. These are just perception and conception (saņņa/sankhara khandhas) that we can observe. When you have a fixed view about somebody - One thing I can't stand is Hondurans' - you can observe that in your mind, can't you? Even if you have strong prejudices and feelings and you try to get rid of them, that comes from assuming that you shouldn't have any prejudices at all and you shouldn't have any bad feelings towards anybody and you should be able to accept criticism with an equanimous mind and not feel angry or upset. That's another very idealistic assumption, isn't it? You see that as a condition of mind and keep observing. Rather than hating ourselves or hating others for being prejudiced, we're observing the very limitations of any prejudices or perceptions and conceptions of the mind. We're meditating on the impermanent nature of perception. In other words, we're not trying to justify or explain or get rid of or change anything. We're just trying to observe that all things change - all that begins ends.
Then we meditate on the viņņana khandha, the consciousness, the sensory consciousness of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind. How one thing goes to the other, aware of the movements of consciousness of the senses. Looking at something, hearing something - it changes very rapidly.
All these five khandhas are anicca, impermanent. When we chant: rupam aniccam, vedana anicca, saņņa anicca, sankhara anicca, viņņanam aniccam, this is very profound. Then: sabbe sankhara anicca. Sankhara means all conditioned phenomena', all sensory experience - the sense organs, the objects of the sense organs, the consciousness that arises on contact - all this is sankhara and is anicca. All is conditioned. So sankhara includes the other four: rupa, vedana, saņņa, viņņana.
With this you have a perspective from which the conditioned world is infinitely variable and complex. But where do you separate saņņa from sankhara and sankhara from viņņana and all that? It's best not to try to get precise divisions between these five aggregates, they're just convenient means for looking at things, helping you to meditate on mental states, the physical world and the sensory world.
We're not trying to fix anything so this is permanently sankhara and that is definitely saņņa, but we're just using these labels to observe that the sensory world - from the physical to the mental, from coarse to refined - is conditioned, and all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. Then you have a way of seeing the totality of the conditioned world as impermanent, rather than getting involved in it all. In this practice of insight meditation we're not trying to analyse the conditioned world, but to detach from it, to see it in a perspective. This is when you really begin to comprehend anicca; you insightfully know sabbe sankhara anicca.
So any thoughts and beliefs you have are just conditions. But I'm not saying that you shouldn't believe in anything, I'm just pointing out a way to see things in perspective so you're not deluded by them. We won't grasp the experience of emptiness or the Unconditioned, the Deathless, as a personal attainment. Some of you have been grasping that one as a kind of personal attainment, haven't you? I know emptiness. I've realised emptiness' - patting yourselves on the back. That's not sabbe dhamma anatta - that's grasping the Unconditioned, making it into a condition. Me' and Mine'. When you start thinking of yourself as having realised emptiness, you can see that also as a condition of the mind.
Now sabbe dhamma anatta: all things are not-self, not a person, not a permanent soul, not a self of any sort. That's very important to contemplate also, because sabbe dhamma includes all things, the conditioned phenomena of the sensory world and the Unconditioned, the Deathless.
Notice that Buddhists make no claim for Deathlessness as being a self either! I have an immortal soul, or God is my true nature!' The Buddha avoided any statements of that nature at all. Any possible conceiving oneself as anything at all is an obstacle to enlightenment, because you attach to an idea again, to a concept of self as being part of something. Maybe you think there's a piece of you, a little soul, that joins the bigger one at death. That is a conception of the mind - isn't it? - that you can know. We're not saying it's untrue, or false, but we're just being the knowing, knowing what can be known. We don't feel compelled to grasp that as a belief, we see it as only something that comes out of the mind, a condition of the mind, so we let even that go.
Keep that formula all conditions are impermanent, all things are not-self' for reflection. And then in your life as you live it, whatever happens you can see sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe dhamma anatta. It keeps you from being deluded by miraculous phenomena that might happen to you, and it is a way of understanding other religious conventions. Christians come along and say: Only through Jesus Christ can you be saved. You can't be saved through Buddhism. Buddha was only a man, but Jesus Christ was the son of God'. So you think, Oh, I wonder, maybe they're right.' After all when you go to one of these born again' meetings everybody's radiating happiness; their eyes are bright and they say, Praise the Lord!' But when you go to a Buddhist monastery and you just sit there for hours on end watching your breath, you don't get high like that. You start doubting and you think, Maybe that's right, maybe Jesus is the way'. But what you can know is that there's a doubt. Look at that doubt, or the feeling of being intimidated by other religions when they come on strong, or feeling averse to them, or having prejudices against religions. What you can know is that these are perceptions of the mind: they come and go and change.
Keep a constant cool reflection on these things rather than trying to figure it out, or feel that you have to justify yourself being a Buddhist. Christians start saying, You don't do anything for the third world,' and you say, We...we...we...chant! We share merit and we radiate loving-kindness'. Comes out pretty weak in a situation where you're talking about malnutrition and starvation in Africa! But now, at this time, there's this opportunity to understand the limits of what you can do. All of us, if we could, would definitely do something about starvation in Africa, if we felt that there was something one individual could do here and now at this time. Reflect on this - what is the real problem at this time? Is it the problem of starvation in Africa, or is it human selfishness and ignorance? Isn't starvation in Africa the result of human greed, selfishness, and stupidity?
Therefore we open our minds to the Dhamma. We wisely reflect on it and then realise it. Truth is to be realised and known within the context of personal experience.. But the practice is a continuous one - after 18 years I still practise all the time. Things change: people praise and blame, the world goes on. One just keeps reflecting on it by sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe dhamma anatta. When you recognise the conditioned and the Unconditioned, then you have what is called the ability to develop the Path, and there's no more confusion about that. The goal now is to realise Nibbana, or the Deathless, or non-attachment - realise what it's like to be not attached to the five khandhas. Realise that when you're sitting here and you're really at peace. There's no attachment to the five khandhas then, but you might make a perception out of that peacefulness and attach to that and always try to meditate in order to get peaceful again according to a perception. That's why it's a continuous letting go rather than an attainment.
Sometimes on these retreats when you get calm, you can have a very peaceful mind. And you attach: so then you meditate in order to attain that blissful state. But insight meditation means looking into the nature of things, of the five khandhas, seeing them as anicca - impermanent; as dukkha - unsatisfactory. None of these khandhas have the ability to give you any kind of permanent satisfaction. Their very nature is unsatisfactory and anatta.
Start to investigate and wisely consider sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe dhamma anatta rather than think you've attained something or that you've got to hold on to that attainment and start to resent anybody that gets in your way. Note what is attachment. When your mind is really concentrated, let go of it. Rather than just indulging in that peaceful feeling, attach to something. Worry about something. Deliberately do it so that you begin to see how you go out and grasp things, or worry about losing it.
In your practice, as you begin to understand and experience letting go, you begin to realise what Buddhas know: sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe dhamma anatta. It's not just the words - even a parrot can say the words - but that's not an enlightened parrot, is it? Insight is different from conceptual knowledge. But now you're penetrating, going deep into this, breaking through the illusion of self as being anything at all; or nothing - if you believe that you don't have a self - that's another belief. I believe I don't have a self. We believe in no self'. You see that the Buddha pointed to the way between those two extremes: of believing you have a self and believing that you don't have a self. You cannot find anything in the five khandhas which is a permanent self or soul: things arise out of the Unconditioned, they go back to the Unconditioned. Therefore it is through letting go rather than through adapting any other attitude, that we no longer seek to attach to mortal conditions.