The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 6.
The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness
The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 6.
Mindfulness of Dhammas: The Aggregates
On a personal note finally understanding what the Buddha was getting at with his concept of the aggregates was one of my bigger “Ah-ha” moments. This satipaṭṭhāna is incredibly important because it concerns not just my body, feelings or mind, but deeper still, goes to the heart of who I feel I am – my sense of self. Me. For this reason the Buddha particularly emphasised this contemplation, recognising that successful practice opened directly into realisation and awakening. What does the text teach?
He knows: “such is material form, such its arising, such its passing away; such is feeling, such its arising, such its passing away; such is cognition, such its arising, such its passing away; such are volitions, such their arising, such their passing away; such is consciousness, such its arising, such its passing away.”
We have five aggregates. An aggregate is a group, cluster or collection that make up a whole – so here we have the five elements, or better, processes, that make up a persons physical and mental existence. The aggregates – khandhas (Pāḷi), Skandhas (Sanskrit) – are:
- rupa – material form (or matter) – the body, including the senses, composed of four basic elements or forces: earth (solidity), water (cohesion), fire (heat) and wind (motion).
- vedana – feeling (or sensation) – sensory experience of an object as either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
- samjna – cognition (or perception) – sensory and mental processes that register, recognise and label everything (for instance, the shape of a tree, the colour green, the emotion of fear).
- sankhara – volition (or mental formations, constructing activities, conditioned things or karmic activities) – all types of previously conditioned thoughts and emotions that are triggered by our perception and then initiate actions.
- vijnana – consciousness, (or discrimination or discernment) – a moment of awareness of an object, discriminating its components and aspects.
An easy way to think of this is that it is like starting up your computer. Form is pushing the ‘on’ button – a physical thing. Sensation is the computers first simple level of activation. Perception is the coming on line of all the operating systems and applications. Mental formations is all the material we have added to the computer – all our writing, photos, music and all the possibilities of what to do with these. And consciousness is the screen on which, moment to moment, all this is registered. The first aggregate of material form is the hardware, the remaining four mental aggregates are the software.
And we are to be mindful of when they each or collectively arise and pass away. Really quite simple!
What are little boys (and girls and all sentient beings) made of?
Why is this so important? What we have here is the Buddha’s description of what makes up the entirety of who we are. And who are we? We are just these five physical and mental aggregates.
Early Buddhism does not believe in human beings having an unchanging essential nature which it calls a ‘self’, attã, (Pāḷi), ãtman (Skt). This means no ‘True Self’, Soul, Spirit or Divine Nature; no permanent personal essence in any form whatsoever. This is the challenging doctrine of ‘not-self’ – anattã. When the Buddha looked into himself everything he found was impermanent, was not a ‘self’, within the understanding of his culture, and was unsatisfactory, in that it was a source of suffering.
We can do this experiment ourselves: Look at your body. Is there any part of it, inside and out that has not changed and which does not continue to change? Look into you mind. Are there any sensations, emotions or thoughts that do not change and which do not continue to change? And finally consciousness – plainly the contents of your consciousness are continually changing but when you look for something within or behind consciousness that does not change what do you find? Is there simply nothing there?
Still a bit too esoteric, too unbelievable? Well modern neuroscience says exactly the same thing. Nowhere in the different functions of the brain can a ‘self’ function be found. Everything works together giving the illusion of a self which cannot actually be located.
When I finally understood this it was a shock – what nothing but our body and what goes on in our brain? Nothing but the five aggregates? Yes, nothing.
To give this a bit of background, at the time of the Buddha there were many wandering ascetics who had their own ideas about what constituted a person’s self. This is made complicated by the language of the time not using upper and lower case letters so it could not do what we do – Self, upper case S to signify a metaphysical ‘True Self’, ’Inner Self’ or ‘Higher Self’, and lower case s to signify ‘myself’, me, the person I am – or an empirical self as scholars say. What this means is that it is quite difficult to know what sort of self is being talked about – metaphysical or empirical. One way of clarifying things is to remember that the word for self – ãtman – initially just meant ‘I’, meaning my ordinary sense of self, but then yogis speculating about the inner meaning of ‘I’ – self – began to believe the self at its deepest level had some sort of eternal aspect that connected us to the fundamental truth or nature of the universe. This concept is still familiar to us to this day as it is implied in many popular forms of spirituality and many of us without thinking too closely about it may still broadly believe it. It goes like this – there is something inside me that is identical to the innermost nature of the universe, break the pot of my individual separate self and what is trapped inside, once released, will ecstatically reunite with the whole. Against this philosophical backdrop the Buddha, ever the empiricist, disagreed because when he looked inside himself he simply couldn’t find any such entity. There was no timeless and wise life source, the jīva, as the Jains believed, nor was there any ãtman, an eternal self, unaffected by the suffering of change, autonomous, permanent and blissful, the agent behind the senses, as the Brahman’s Upaniṣads claimed. There was just the aggregates – physical and mental process, our body and mind. But did that then mean that he agreed with the ‘Materialists’ who taught that we have this body and when it dies that’s it? No, not quite.
While the Buddha was a bit of a scientist he did – along with everyone else in his time – believe in rebirth. However, he also believed something different – that our rebirth and also awakening was conditioned by what we did, not by what we offered the various gods in the form of sacrifices. This personal ethical element is visible throughout the Buddha’s teaching as we have already seen – all the talk of wholesome and unwholesome dhammas, skilful and unskilful thoughts and actions is evidence of this. Our actions, karma, really do count and one aspect of our mindfulness practice is decreasing reactions driven by the three poisons and encouraging responses that cultivate kindness, compassion and wisdom. Good choices create good rebirths and these provide the opportunities for practicing the Dhamma.
In one of the early Sutta’s there is a conversation between the Buddha and his attendant Ananda that picks up the complexity of the Buddha’s understanding of self. Ananda asks why the Buddha would neither deny nor confirm the existence of the self when questioned. The Buddha’s answer is very interesting because it reveals a very subtle relationship to metaphysics alongside a psychological understanding of how concepts about self or no self can obscure the truth. Here is how the Buddhist scholar Rupert Gethin 1998:161 writes about it:
In one particular passage of the Nikayas we are told how the Buddha was once asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta whether the self existed. The Buddha remained silent. Vacchagotta asked whether the self did not then exist. The Buddha once again remained silent. The Buddha then explained to the curious Ananda that if he had answered that the self exists it would have been to side with those ascetics and brahmins who hold the doctrine of ‘eternalism’; moreover it would not have been in accordance with his understanding that all phenomena (dhammas) are not self. On the other hand if he had answered that the self does not exist it would have been to side with those ascetics and brahmins who hold the doctrine of ‘annihilationism’; moreover it would have thrown poor Vacchagotta into even more confusion, as he would have concluded that formerly he had a self but now he did not.
This passage from the Nikayas has sometimes been used to support the idea that the Buddha really did believe in the self but was unwilling to say it straight out for fear of being misunderstood. Personally I can’t see this. The Buddha is being kind to Vacchagotta by not wishing to confuse him, but principally he is trying to avoid saying that the self exists or that it doesn’t exist – just as he tells Ananda. His own position is the ‘middle way’. We do have a functional self, which Buddhism calls the person, puruṣa, that we feel to be ‘ourselves’ and which is necessary for being in the world. But this self, made up of the five aggregates, is not a metaphysical ‘true self’ in any of the ways that other practitioners – including Vacchagotta – understood it. However it is an empirical self that does acquire karma – or better still – it is a bundle of karma barreling through time. What we do with our thoughts and actions has hard consequences – some keep us trapped in the suffering of grasping, greed and ignorance, some provide the foundation for awakening. Skilfully navigating our way through this means we have to understand our self and neither believe it is untouched by change nor that it does not really exist. After all, things that change do exist but just not for ever. This is the Buddha’s message.
Impermanent, not-self and unsatisfactory
In the context of this satipaṭṭhāna all this exploration of the self is implied. We could almost say that when we practice noticing when an aggregate, or all the aggregates, come and go we are reliving the experiment that the Buddha originally made. Why are we to be mindful of when they arise and pass away? This is the key point. Because suffering arises when one identifies with or clings to the aggregates – that is our body and what happens in our mind – and this suffering is extinguished when, seeing the aggregates impermanent, not-self and unsatisfactory nature, we let go of our attachment to them. So essentially the same basic belief we have witnessed throughout the whole Satipaṭṭhāna. Clinging causes unhappiness, relinquish clinging and Nibbāna dawns.
Joseph Goldstein 195ff. picks this up – the whole message of this satipaṭṭhāna is to free ourselves from clinging to the aggregates – our body and mind – by seeing their impermanent, unsatisfactory and ‘selfless’ nature. Throughout the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta the refrain has already stressed that we practice bare attention and mindfulness so that we may become aware of impermanence “internally and externally” and thereby become “independent and not clinging to anything in the world”. Here mindfulness of impermanence is stressed again but this time specifically a mindfulness of the transitory nature of our body and mind.
Goldstein then goes on to say that the ‘unsatisfactory’ nature of our body and mind – the aggregates – is a good object of mindfulness. Something I would wholeheartedly agree with when I consider just how much angst my ageing body creates in the hypochondria department of my mind let alone all the other stuff happening in my thoughts and emotions. The intensity of these experiences screams out BE MINDFUL!
Lastly he comes to not-self and the need to see (experience) the aggregates as not “I” or “mine” – that is to abandon identification with our body and mind. (!!!!) He approaches this by going beneath the skins surface. Most of us look in the mirror and think, “That’s me” (for better or worse). However, diving beneath the skin we find muscle, organs and bones – so which of these bits is “me”, or if the answer is “all of them together”, then if we take one bit away at a time, at which point does the “me” disappear? The point of this is to break up a solid sense of “I” and thereby begin to loosen our identification with what is experienced.
The Ven. Anãlayo spells this out in detail: due to our ignorance of the impermanent and unsatisfactory nature of the aggregates we take them for ‘who I am’. In the case of the body it is, ‘where I am’. In the case of feelings, it is ‘how I am’. In the case of mind, (cognitions) it is, ‘what I am’ perceiving. In the case of volitions it is, ‘why I am’ acting. And in the case of consciousness it is, ‘whereby I am’. However, when we look for an unchanging self in any or all of the aggregates it can neither be found within or outside of them – they are all not self.
Anãlayo is also very keen to point out that this is not empty philosophic speculation. At heart it is all about our relationship to ourselves and how best to handle this:
These concepts do not refer to … philosophical beliefs … but to unconscious assumptions implicit in one’s way of perceiving and reacting to experience. Such assumptions are based on an inflated sense of self-importance, on a sense of self that continuously demands to be gratified and protected against external threats to its omnipotence.p.208
I think this really names the bottom line – in an environment we cannot control, with a mind that is equally unruly, we are prone to a pervasive background anxiety concerning our safety. In the face of this we are driven to seek out and maintain choices that may protect us but – alas! – not being omnipotent we frequently fail. Identifying this the satipaṭṭhāna offers concrete solutions:
A practical approach to this is to keep inquiring into the notion “I am” or “mine”, that lurks behind experience and activity. Once this notion of an agent or owner behind experience has been clearly recognised, the above non-identification strategy [recognition of its impermanence] can be implemented by considering each aggregate as “not mine, not I, not my self”. p.210
Or put within the language of the eight week mindfulness courses, “thoughts are not facts”, “feels real, not true” and the exercises we do that illustrate that our perception is frequently distorted by our personal history. Essentially making things ‘all about me’ makes them difficult.
Practically applied in this way, contemplation of anattã [not-self] can expose the various types of self-image responsible for identifying with and clinging to one’s social position, professional occupation, or personal possessions. Moreover, anattã can be employed to reveal erroneous superimpositions on experience, particularly the sense of an autonomous and independent subject reaching out to acquire or reject discrete substantial objects. p.211
Yes, our personal stories about who we are, what we like and don’t like, things that have happened to us etc. etc. all have a side that puts limits and constraints on us. They also become things we guard and maintain and become angry about is someone disregards or challenges them. This is so profound the implications of it can only be understood over time.
So how are we to apply this:
In practical terms, contemplating the arising and passing away of each aggregate can be undertaken by observing change taking place in every aspect of one’s personal experience, be these, for example, the cycle of breaths or circulation of the blood, the change of feelings from pleasant to unpleasant, the variety of cognitions and volitional reactions arising in the mind, or the changing nature of consciousness, arising at this or that sense door. Such practice can then build up to contemplating the arising and passing away of all five aggregates together, when one comprehensively surveys the five aggregate components of any experience and at the same time witnesses the impermanent nature of this experience. p.213-4
One very good version of this practice that our mindfulness course teaches is the mindful non-identification with physical and emotional sensations. Just by being present we begin to notice that when we let go of the ‘story line’ sensations simply come and go without us having to do anything.
Finally Anãlayo says that while we cannot control what we experience we can control our reactions if we have sufficient awareness. Here I immediately think back to the two arrows. Bodies and minds have experiences – first arrow – but we can avoid many second arrows once we stop feeding these experiences into our ‘self story’:
[What] can be brought under personal control through systematic training of the mind, is identification with the five aggregates. This crucial … factor of identification is the central focus of this satipaṭṭhāna contemplation, and its complete removal constitutes the successful completion of the practice. p.215
Many of us reading this material may have found it difficult. It seems so counter-intuitive to say that we are no more than a set of physical and mental processes when our sense of self is so strong and central. Further more it also seems utterly impractical if we fall into the extreme of saying there is no self, (remember, one of the two extremes the Buddha denied), because if there were no functional self there would be no means to interact and operate in the world. Also, arguably, we would no longer have a point to our lives, it would become without meaning. We who have been educated in psychotherapy and psychology have come to value the idea of self – to become a healthy human being we believe we need to have a sense of self that is separate, has agency and which organises our experience of ourselves and the world around us. A healthy human being whose life means something valuable and has individual significance. A healthy self is good!
In fact Buddhism does not disagree with any of this. My own teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche lists a number of ways the self – “I” – functions:
- the ‘mere’ I – what we have called the functional self or the ‘person’.
- the social I – what we may call ‘persona’ – our mask.
- the reified I – a sense of self that feels concrete and lasting, that we mistakenly believe doesn’t change.
- the self cherishing I – which arises from reification, always self protective.
- the metaphysical I – the idea of a self that is eternal and divine.
The first two do not cause problems while the last three do.
From this it is clear that the middle way of the Buddha acknowledges and values a functional self that is adapted to the world while observing that once we start protecting this self against change it makes us unhappy, insecure and miserable. In fact all the evidence suggests – here think Dalai Lama – that someone who has the light touch of a mere I is enormously strengthen by it – not some sort of grey ghost but robust, warm, engaged and fully present. Seemingly letting go of grasping neurotically at who we are or want to be releases something far bigger.
Which brings me to my last point. In later Buddhism, something rather close to a self – capital S – creeps back in with the notion of Buddha Nature. The impersonal Buddha Nature, like Nibbāna, is not created, it is out of time and has never been tarnished by the conflicted thoughts and emotions that obscure it. It really does sound a bit ‘true self’ like! The Buddha Nature is associated with intrinsic awareness, a pure awareness in the sense that in the same way a mirror is unstained by what appears upon it so too this deepest level of awareness is untouched by the thoughts and emotions that arise and dissolve within it. For some schools of later Buddhism this is the greatest truth, this unpartitioned awareness is the mind of the Buddha, the ground from which the whole phenomenal universe manifests and returns. It is not a ‘thing’ because it has no causes or conditions that it arises from, nor is it nothing because its nature is to endlessly manifest and unfold. It is a wonderful mystery, entirely ineffable!
Just from the tone of this last paragraph it is clear that something that feels very positive has reappeared in what can feel like a bleak exploration of self. The Buddha Nature teachings do not contradict the aggregates theory – it acknowledges that our personal bodies and minds are just as described above but it does add another layer. Beneath, (above, around, behind, within), there is a timeless awareness that to have continuous experiential knowledge of is to be awakened. Something very meaningful, rich and compelling has entered the debate.
For those who would like to know how the Early Buddhist understanding of consciousness evolved into the later Buddhist understanding of intrinsic awareness have a look at this wonderful chapter in Goldstein, J. (2002) One Dharma, Harper, San Francisco pp.157-183.
1.The practice we already have is being present with our emotions and physical sensations while dropping the story line. Sensations come and go without our having to identify with them. This is to pick up mindfulness of the aggregates as impermanent and not-self.
2. We always say, “I am feeling tired – hungry – lost – excited – elated – etc. etc.” What happens if – at least when we are practicing – we say instead the admittedly awkward – “Tiredness is arising” and so on. In this way experiences arise without adding an ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘mine’. Body sensations occur, emotions occur and thoughts occur but we do not encourage the reification of a self that feels they are occurring within or to.
3. And one last fun but profound one – where is the I who is looking for an I when you look in your mind to find it?
Anālayo 2003, Satipaṭṭhāna, the Direct Path, Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, UK.
Rupert Gethin 1998, The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.
Joseph Goldstein 2013, Mindfulness, A Practical Guide To Awakening, Sounds True, Boulder Colorado.