The fundamentals of existence are visible form or corporeality (Rupa); feelings of pleasure, pain or indifference (Vedana); names, allusions or perceptions (Sanna); conditioned mental formulations (Sankhara); and cogniscance, consciousness, or awareness (Vinnana). According to the Buddha, these five ‘aggregates’ are impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha) and not-self (anatta), and that is how we should contemplate them.
THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING: A GUIDED MEDITATION
Beginning The Meditation
In this meditation we will contemplate the experience of being.
Sit comfortably upright, close your eyes and breathe easy. Become aware of the breath as it comes in and goes out.
Focus your attention on the movement of air at the nostrils, or on the rising and falling of the stomach, which ever you find easier.
How does the breath feel right now? Is it deep or shallow? Is it coarse or refined? Is it free-flowing or obstructed? Just notice the quality of breath without worrying about it.
Keep your awareness on the breath coming in and going out. If your awareness turns to thoughts other than the breath, bring it back. Bring yourself back to the present moment by refocusing your awareness on the breath. Remind yourself that now is not the time to be distracted by worries and other hindrances.
When you are feeling naturally settled and at one with the breath, allow your awareness to encompass the entire body. At times your awareness may feel concentrated inside your skull, in which case all you need do is gently expand it to include the scalp, ears, face, neck, chest, upper back, shoulders, arms, hands, stomach, lower back, buttocks, groin, thighs, knees, calves, shins, ankles and feet. Try to stay with this body-centred awareness of the present moment.
At some point the breath may become almost intangible. The body may seem lighter and vibrant. All kinds of physical and mental phenomena may manifest. Whatever arises, allow it all to come and go. Observe it all dispassionately until a sense of calmness and wellbeing prevails.
Contemplation: ‘The Five Aggregates’
Now that the mind is stable and tranquil, it is time to contemplate the nature of being.
The fundamentals of existence are visible form or corporeality (Rupa); feelings of pleasure, pain or indifference (Vedana); names, allusions or perceptions (Sanna); conditioned mental formulations (Sankhara); and cogniscance, consciousness, or awareness (Vinnana). The Buddha taught that these five ‘aggregates’ are impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha) and not-self (anatta), and that is how we should contemplate them.
Form or Rupa
The body is experienced as an amalgam of four elements: Earth (solidity), Water (fluidity), Air (gaseousness) and Fire (thermoregulation). The solid parts of the body – hair, nails, skin, teeth, muscles, tendons, bones and internal organs – are the body’s Earth element. The flow of gases in the lungs, intestines and body cavities are the body’s Air element. Blood, saliva, mucus, bile, pus, phlegm, urine, oil and sweat are the body’s Water element. The Fire element includes the body’s normal internal temperature (maintained through thermoregulation), the heat of injury and sickness, and the chill of shock or fear, for example. We assume this conglomeration to be human and we refer to it as ‘I’, ‘Me’, ‘Myself’… etc. We assume other such conglomerations to be ‘human’ or ‘animal’ and accordingly we refer to them by their conventional names.
So a body is impermanent how? What we call a human body is never the same from one moment to the next. At conception in the mother’s womb it grows from a tiny speck into a foetus, and is eventually born into the world. The newly born infant body continues to grow and develop, acquiring skills and knowledge throughout childhood and adulthood. The adult body enjoys peak fitness between 20 and 40 years of age, after which it becomes wrinkled, weaker, and less supple. Eyes, ears and internal organs lose their efficiency. Hair turns grey or white. Teeth turn yellow and start falling out. Eventually the elderly body ceases to function and dies. It then decays, falls apart, and is recycled. If the body were permanent there would be no birth, ageing, sickness and death – the body would remain the same as when conceived. But the body changes from moment to moment and is therefore impermanent.
In what sense is a body unsatisfactory? To have a body is to suffer. A human baby spends its first nine months compressed inside the womb and is subjected to stresses in accordance with its mother’s lifestyle. When born, a baby reacts to its new environment by crying. From then on until death s/he suffers the unpleasantness of hunger and thirst, the discomfort of feeling too hot or too cold, the aches and pains of sickness or injury, and the frustrations of developing and maintaining the physical and mental skills necessary for mobility, communication, problem-solving, etc. The body is like a lighted candle and the winds of death are blowing from all directions. Not only are the body’s organs susceptible to injuries and diseases too numerous to mention, but everything we cherish – the people we love, our treasured possessions, our precious hobbies, and even our favourite foods, have the potential to kill us. If we are fortunate enough to avoid an early death we have to endure the indignities of impaired functioning as our body naturally ages, grows sicker, and falls apart. A body inevitably results in suffering and is therefore unsatisfactory.
How is the body not-self? No matter how much we may desire to remain youthful, healthy and strong and no matter how hard we may try, we cannot stop the body aging, sickening, and eventually falling apart. If the body really was ours to possess it would obey our wishes – it would never become painful; never succumb to injury, illness, old age and death. How plausible is it then to regard the body as ‘self’ if it behaves contrary to our wishes? In reality, the body has no owner or controller. It is not-self.
If we consider any other compounded object we will conclude that it, too, is impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self. A small acorn grows into a mighty oak tree that finally withers and dies. A tall mountain is gradually eroded by sun, wind and rain and eventually it washes up on a far shore as grains of sand. Land, buildings, vehicles, clothing, tools, artworks and all other commodities are eventually lost, damaged, stolen and recycled. Such things are unsatisfactory because we cannot rely on them as a source of happiness, and we are certain to experience the sufferings of disappointment, grief and regret if we invest our self-identity in them. External objects are not-self – we may use them and preserve them temporarily, but we cannot keep them and we are unable to stop them deteriorating and falling apart eventually.
Feelings or Vedana
Feelings – the sensations or moods that we experience day and night – can be pleasurable (Sukkha-Vedana), painful (Dukkha-Vedana) or unexciting (Adukkhamasukkha-Vedana). The mind experiences desire or happiness whenever eyes, or ears, or nose, or tongue, or skin detect an object that is pleasing. The mind experiences aversion or unhappiness when any of these sense organs detect an object that is displeasing. The mind experiences indifference or boredom when any of these sense organs detect an object that is unarousing. Feelings of pleasure, pain, or indifference, appear and disappear continually in accordance with sensory contacts.
Why are feelings impermanent? Feelings cannot last because the conditions that initiate them are also liable to change. Feelings of happiness may quickly change to feelings of unhappiness if we encounter a stressful situation at home or in the workplace, for example. Unhappy feelings may change gradually to feelings of indifference if our stress is prolonged. Feelings change in accordance with changing conditions. If we are mindful we can observe feelings changing from one state to another as their causal conditions change. Feelings are impermanent.
How do feelings become unsatisfactory? When we’re feeling happiness we want it to last, but it doesn’t and so we experience the suffering of disappointment. When we’re feeling sadness we want it to go away quickly, but it doesn’t and so we experience the suffering of resentment. When we’re feeling indifference we mistake it for contentment, but desire or aversion inevitably arises in our mind and once more we experience the suffering of delusion. Feelings are unstable, unreliable, and therefore unsatisfactory.
Why are feelings not-self? Feelings do not obey our commands – we can only watch them come and go in accordance with prior conditions that are beyond our control. The best that we can do is to use our intelligence and our abilities to create conditions that are likely to generate happy feelings in the future. Because feelings are unstable, unreliable, and unsatisfactory, we cannot regard them as our self. Feelings are not-self.
Perceptions or Sanna
Perception is the process of labelling and memorization that occurs whenever sensory nerves are stimulated. The mind labels and remembers sights, sounds, smells, tastes and the touch of things. The mind also remembers the associated feelings of pleasure, pain, or indifference. But all of these are only memories – they are not the real thing.
For a time we may remember the things that we see, hear, smell, taste and touch, but these memories are soon forgotten. Perceptions are impermanent.
When we realise we have forgotten these memories we wish that we could remember them, and we get upset and frustrated because we cannot. Perceptions are unsatisfactory – they are a source of suffering.
The fact that we cannot recall forgotten memories – not even when we believe that remembering them is crucial – should tell us that we do not own or control perceptions. Perceptions are not-self.
Mental Formulations or Sankhara
Mental formulations or sankhara are the thoughts that proliferate when sense objects are perceived. One thought leads to another, and another… and so on. These thoughts can be wholesome or unwholesome.
Why are mental formulations impermanent? The mind formulates ideas and judgements about the forms it sees, the sounds it hears, the odours it smells, the flavours it tastes, the substances it touches, and the thoughts it thinks. It ponders and evaluates them. These thoughts accumulate and eventually disappear as the mind perceives and contemplates new sensory objects.
What is unsatisfactory about mental formulations? Our activities and experiences in the home, in the workplace, and in places elsewhere, result in a continual sensory bombardment that evokes memories, ideas and thoughts about all kinds of things – money, relationships, possessions, past and the future, for example. The more we think about these things, the more likely we are to suffer from lack of sleep, loss of appetite, stress and nervous debility, etc.
Why are mental formulations not-self? Ideas and judgements may bring pleasure or pain. When we think nice thoughts we want them to last, when we think nasty thoughts we wish they would go away. But thoughts do not obey us – they are not under our control. They are ownerless; not-self.
Consciousness or Vinnana
Consciousness or vinnana is the mind noticing a sensory contact. The moment the eye sees an object, for example, the mind knows and it evaluates the object as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’, ‘interesting’ or ‘boring’, etc. Exactly the same process happens when the ear hears something, when the nose smells something, when the tongue tastes something, when the skin touches something, and also when the mind is conscious of its own functioning. Unfortunately, the mind’s consciousness is usually tainted by ignorance (Avijja), craving (Raga) or aversion (Dosa) and falls short of enlightened wisdom.
So why is consciousness impermanent? Consciousness arises when sensory nerves are stimulated by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. These sensory objects may induce a state of calm or agitation. A state of calm may change to one of agitation in the blink of an eye, and vice versa. Moreover, because consciousness is dependent upon the health and functioning of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin and brain, it is often impaired and will deteriorate over time as the nervous system ages and succumbs to injuries and diseases.
How is consciousness unsatisfactory? Usually we take for granted our awareness of sensory objects and mental states, but as we grow older and our cognitive abilities start to deteriorate, we worry about it. We are unhappy because we realise we cannot rely upon consciousness, and consequently we suffer.
What makes consciousness not-self? Some sense-objects arouse feelings of happiness which we hope will last – positive consciousness; some arouse feelings of sadness which we hope will go away – negative consciousness; others arouse feelings of indifference which are tolerable – neutral consciousness. But consciousness does not obey our commands – it stays or goes regardless of our wishes. We do not own or control consciousness; it is not-self.
Concluding The Meditation
Let us conclude this meditation by considering all five aggregates together.
Corporeality (Rupa), feelings (Vedana), perceptions (Sanna), mental formulations (Sankhara) and consciousness (Vinnana) – the ‘Five Aggregates’ – all have the same three qualities of existence: Impermanence (Anicca), Suffering (Dukkha), Not-self (Anatta).
The five aggregates are in a state of constant flux – never the same from one moment to the next. From birth they are continually growing, changing and declining until death. They are inconsistent, impermanent.
These aggregates are also vulnerable to damage through aging, injury, sickness, wear and tear. They are an unreliable source of happiness, but they are a reliable source of suffering.
We do not own the aggregates and we cannot control them. They arise and disappear regardless of how we think about them. Therefore material forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formulations, and consciousness, cannot wisely be regarded as self. The aggregates of being are not-self.
To be free of suffering we need to understand why we invest our self-identity in the aggregates of body and mind. Our perceptions and the mental formations that result from sensory contacts are tainted with ignorance (Avijja), craving (Raga) and aversion (Dosa). Our mind is seduced by the body and its sensory delights; it overlooks all the drawbacks of being born and weaves self-serving narratives to justify its acquisitive and destructive activities. Ignorance, craving and aversion are the driving forces that keep on spinning the endless cycle of suffering, death and rebirth.
We should contemplate the five aggregates again and again, until we realise their true nature. We can say that we understand their true nature when a sincere wish never to be reborn again arises. When the aggregates are truly understood, our thoughts turn away naturally from pipe dreams of eternal happiness to ending the cycle of suffering once and for all, just as the Buddha advised.
May all living beings share in any benefits arising from this meditation. By rejoicing in this cause, may all living beings be happy and free from hatred. May all their noble dreams come true.
Suggested Further Reading
A Practicing Guide To Peace by Phra Ajahn Plien Panyapatipo, Second Edition May 2009.
‘The Five Aggregates: A Study Guide’ by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.