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Jun 20th
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Home Teachings Non-Self The Teaching of Non-Self - What Five Aggregates Are Like

The Teaching of Non-Self - What Five Aggregates Are Like

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Article Index
The Teaching of Non-Self
Material Body
Belief in Creation
Attachment to Self
Vipassana Meditation
Volitional Activities
True Dhamma
What Five Aggregates Are Like
Summary of Processes
All Pages

What Five Aggregates are Like



The body is like froth, which is seen floating about in the creeks and waterways, made up of air bubbles, and entrapped in droplets of water. These droplets of water are blown up by air bubbles, and congregate to form frothy scum at the size of a human fist, a human head, a man, or even bigger. When it is casually seen, a big mass of froth may appear to be a matter of substance, but when carefully observed, it turns out to be insubstantial and useless for any purposes. Likewise, the human body complete with its head, body, hands, feet, in male form, and in female form, appears to be very substantial when casually seen, and it seems permanent, looks beautiful, good, and seemingly a living entity. But when the body is subjected to mental analysis, it turns out to be just like the mass of froth which is quite insubstantial - - a mere conglomeration of thirty-two abominable constituent parts, namely, hair, body hair, nail, toe nail, teeth, skin, flesh, muscle, bone, etc. On further minute analysis, it is found to be a conglomerate of minute sub-atomic particles, invisible to the naked eyes. It may be likened to a big pile of sand made up of minute individual sand particles. Alternatively, we may take the example of rice flour or wheat flour consisting of minute individual grains of rice or wheat powder. When soaked with the right amount of water, it turns into a dough, a substantial mass, which can be quite big by using large amounts of flour. This substantial dough can be shaped into a figure of a man of massive size. Similarly, the body is made up of small particles of matters massed together in one big heap, and it is just like the mass of froth, which is devoid of inner substance. There is no permanent core, no beautiful substances, and no living entity called self. The visible material qualities form a part of the body. If one removes those visible qualities, the body will become devoid of shape and form. The earth element of extension (pathavi) forms the part of the body which is manifested in the sense of touch as rough, smooth, hard, or soft. The elements of heat or cold and the element of motion form the other parts of the body. If one removes these three elements, the human body which can be touched and felt will no longer exist.

As stated above, if these constituent parts are pulverized so as to make them fall apart, then the human body will no longer exist. There will be left only fine particles of matter. Furthermore, these sensitive material qualities such as eye and visual objects are not existing permanently and enduring. They keep on arising and vanishing, the new one comes into the place of the old. Thus this body is like a lump or mass of froth. When this body is to be subjected to careful examination and analysis, one should start from where phenomenon manifests itself vividly. When walking, the material qualities of extension and motion become the most prominent.

Therefore, in accordance with the Satipatthana discourse, 'gacchanto va gacchamiti pajanati' (When going knows 'I am going'), the meditator should take note, 'going, going, raising, stepping out, dropping, etc.' While standing, the meditator should note, 'standing, standing,' while sitting, 'sitting, sitting, touching, touching, rising, falling, etc,' when the things are seen, it should be noted as 'seeing, seeing,' when body odours are smelt, 'smelling smelling,' when limbs are moved and stretched, 'stretching, stretching, moving, changing.'

When concentration gets strengthened by carefully noting as described, the meditator realizes that an act of going consists of desire to go, the motion, and the expansion. Acts of standing and sitting are made up of desire to stand or sit followed by a series of motions and expansions, likewise with bending, stretching, and changing postures.

In an act of seeing, there are eye consciousness and visual object, and in smelling, nose consciousness and odor. Each phenomenon is seen to arise for the moment only to pass away instantly. The limbs, hands, feet, head, and the shape of the body are no longer felt and recognized as such. They appear merely as a recurrent of physical processes rising and passing away incessantly. At this stage, the meditator comes to understand by himself how the body is like a mass of froth.

Perceiving thus, the meditator realizes that the body is impermanent and terribly suffering because of its incessant rising and vanishing processes. It is not-self because it is happening not as one wishes, but it happens according to its conditions, and it is not one's own inner substance.

The material body is likened to froth. It is unstable, impermanent, constantly rising and vanishing so this suffering and not self.


Feeling is likened to an air bubble. When rain drops fall on the water surface, little pockets of air find themselves trapped in the surrounding wall of water forming minute bubbles. Children produce similar bubbles to play with by blowing softly from a blow pipe. Conglomeration of these minute bubbles form a mass of froth. These bubbles are formed whenever rain drops fall on the surface of water only to vanish instantly. Feeling which experiences the sensations is likened to the bubbles, because of its nature of incessant perishing after arising.

This is in conformity with what the meditator have known through personal knowledge, but it's different than what ordinary people presume to be. In ordinary common people's view, when looking at a beautiful object for a long time, it is that pleasant sight which remains for a long time. When an unpleasant sight has been seen for some time, they think that it will also last for a long time. The ordinary object, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, is also thought to last long and to remain permanently. In the similar manner, whatever is pleasant or unpleasant to hear is believed to remain long. Especially the painful feeling is thought to remain for days, months, or years.

Thus, ordinary people's view of feeling is not quite what really happens. To personally realize that feelings are like bubbles, one must become engaged in observing constantly the psycho-physical processes happening inside one's body. If one engages thus in observing constantly the psycho-physical processes, the meditator will progress to the stage of Udayabbaya and Bhanga ñanas, that whatever is pleasant or unpleasant to see, hear, and smell vanishes instantly. The passing away of painful feeling is especially vivid. Observing the painful feeling as 'painful, painful,' with each noting enables one to see the perishing of each pain.

At the stage of Samasana ñana, painful feeling becomes more noticeable. At each noting, the pain from each place of observation vanishes, thus the pain vanishes from one place to another, and It goes on and on in this manner. The pain vanishes when noted as if it is instantly removed by hand. Thus for the meditator whose concentration has become strengthened, the pleasant sight which is seen and noted vanishes quickly. But since there are eye and visual object, the sight is seen again. Every time it is seen, it is noted and quickly vanishes again.

The process thus goes on and on. The same process takes place with unpleasant and neither pleasant nor un-pleasant objects. Disappearance with each noting of pleasant, unpleasant, and neither pleasant nor unpleasant sensations of sound is more distinct. So do the various sensations of smell disappear when noted. The tasting sensations are specially vivid to the meditator who keeps noting the taste. The delicious taste he feels while chewing the food keeps on vanishing and rising with each act of his noting. The pleasant, unpleasant, and neither pleasant nor unpleasant sensations of touch too arise and vanish when noted. Similarly, feelings of unhappiness, sorrow, sadness, happiness, and gladness will be seen, but when subjected to heedful noting, they vanish quickly. Thus feelings are just like bubbles; they disappear fast and are impermanent, untrustworthy, and of the nature of impermanence, suffering, and non-self.

Feeling is likened to bubbles. It is unstable, impermanent, and constantly rising and vanishing. This is suffering and not self.


Sense perception which apprehends ordinary sense-objects (whatever is seen, heard, touched, or known) as reality is likened to a mirage. Mirage is optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions in the appearance of a sheet of water or pictures of houses in the hot gases that arise from the earth at the midday sun. Thus mirage is an optical illusion. Wild beasts such as deers, etc., roam about in summer heat in search of water. When they see a body of water in the distance, they hasten towards that place only to find a dry tract of land instead of a pond or a lake. They have been misled by a mirage and put to a great deal of trouble.

Just as a mirage gives the illusion of a body of water or of houses where no such things exist, so perception perceives people into thinking whatever is seen, heard, touched, or known to be a human, a man, a woman, etc. Having an illusory perception of whatever is seen, heard, touched, or known, people are engaged in multiple activities concerning them, just like the deers of the wild forests who go after a distant mirage taking it to be a mass of water.

To realize that perception is illusory and to save oneself from the sufferings of pursuing after non-existent objects, one must take heedful note of all the material and mental phenomena as they occur. When concentration gets strengthened, it is seen that in every phenomenon there are only material object to be known and the mind that knows it. Later it becomes known that each phenomenon is a related event of cause and effect. Finally it is personally experienced that the knowing mind as well as the object to be known keep on perishing while they are being noted.

Thus what was formerly held by perception to be enduring, permanent, an individual, a being, a man, a woman, or self, is now being seen as a deception by perception which is creating an optical illusion like a mirage. In reality, the meditator realizes that it is merely a phenomenon of incessant arising and vanishing which are of the nature of impermanence, suffering, and non-self.

Perception is likened to a mirage. It is unstable and impermanent, and constantly rising and vanishing. This is suffering and not self.


Volitional activities are likened to plantain trunks. A plantain trunk looks like an ordinary tree trunk, which has a solid and hard inner core. But when the plantain trunk is cut up and examined, it will be found to be made up of layers of fibrous material with no substantial and solid inner core. Volitional activity is like the plantain trunk, which is void of inner substance. It consists of fifty kinds of mental concomitants headed by volition. The outstanding members of this group are contacts with the object, attention given to the object, one-pointedness of mind, discursive thinking or initial application, investigation or sustained application, effort, greed, hatred, delusion , conceit, wrong view, doubts, non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion, faith, mindfulness, loving kindness, mercy, sympathetic joy, etc., are all mental concomitants forming aggregate of volitional activities. Volition is responsible for all volitional activities (physical, vocal, and mental) and it is their leading member.

These volitional activities are numerically large and involve all activities (physical, vocal, and mental). Thus volitional activities are mainly responsible for the self-clinging that it is I or self doing all these activities. Volitional activities appear to possess a hard core of inner substance. In reality, however, volitional activities are devoid of useful inner substance. The meditator can see the reality by taking note constantly of the phenomenon of mind and body. The meditator who is constantly taking note while going as 'going, going' and 'raising, stepping, dropping,' comes to notice also the arising of the desire to go when concentration becomes stronger. This desire to go is also observed to be vanishing and arising. Although desire to go is usually described as 'mind to go,' it is actually volitional activities under the guidance of volition. It is the volitional activity led by volition that motivates the action of going. Urged on by the volition, the act of going involves raising, stepping, and dropping are accomplished. Before such knowledge is gained, there was the notion that it is I who wants to go, and I go because I want to go, which is a clinging to self. Now that the desire to go is seen to be perished away, and the knowledge appears that there is no self and there is only a phenomenon. The desires to bend, to stretch, to move, and to change are also seen in this true light. In addition, the effort put to fulfill the desire to look and to see are also volitional activities making momentary appearance and vanishing at once.

It is realized therefore, they are void of essence and not self, mere phenomenon, and passing away. Likewise, with regard to desire to listen and the effort made to hear fulfills the desire to hear. It is further seen that when thinking, investigating, and effort are noted as they arise, vanish instantly. Thus they are also devoid of essence, not self, and mere phenomenon. As greed and hate make their appearances, they are noted as 'wanting, liking, being angry' and they soon disappear establishing the fact that they are also not self, and have no essence or hard core. When faith, confidence, wishing well, wishing happiness, having compassion, etc., are noted, they vanish away instantly. They are, therefore, not made up of substance, devoid of essence, and not self. This analytical knowledge brings home the fact that volitional activities are like a plantain trunk, which reveals no solid inner core when cut open and examined layer by layer.

Volitional activity is like a plantain trunk. It is unstable and impermanent, and constantly rising and vanishing. This suffering and not self.


Becoming conscious of something is like producing a conjuror's trick. When seeing an object, a person ordinarily knows that he sees a man or a woman. He also knows that 'I sees; it is I who see.' (When hearing anything too, he knows, I hear a man's voice or I hear a woman's voice. I hear, it is I who hears.) When smelling something, he knows, 'This is the smell of such and such a person. I smell.' When eating, he knows, 'this food I eat is prepared by such and such a person; it is I who eats.' When touching, he knows, 'I have touched so and so. It is I who touches.' In thinking too, he considers that, 'I think; it is I who thinks.' To know and to become conscious of things in this manner is not knowing things as they truly are or to know things wrongly from the standpoint of the ultimate truth. Such wrong knowledge is not brought about by the five consciousness, namely, eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, etc.

These five consciousness cognizes only what is ultimately true, namely , visible sight, sound, etc., but not as the wrongly conceived objects like man, woman, etc. But at the end of full process of a particular cognition (citta vitthi) when reflection takes place with arising of mind consciousness (mano viññana), misconceptions such as man or woman with regard to the visible sight previously seen are liable to occur. For your general information, we shall briefly explain the process of cognition with respect to the process of seeing and process of reflection.

If the eye has caught a sight of visible form, the flow of the life continuum consciousness is interrupted to be followed immediately by mind door consciousness that turns to and considers the sensation. Immediately after that arises the eye-consciousness which first cognizes the sensation of sight without any reflection giving it is man or woman. As it ceases, it is followed by recipient consciousness for a moment of reception of the object. After its cessation comes the investigating consciousness, the momentary examination of the object so received. After this comes the stage of determining consciousness. When this consciousness ceases, there arises for seven times in rapid succession with much impetus, the impulsive or the active consciousness called javana. With the cessation of the last impulse, there comes the registering consciousness, which is repeated twice holding on to the same object which is still attracting the attention. At the expiration of this registering consciousness, the processes of cognition is complete and there follows a series of life continuum consciousness, a passive state of mind like that obtaining in a deep sleep.

To recapitulate, the consciousness that arises from the life continuum state is the mind door apprehending consciousness, it is then followed by eye-consciousness and recipient consciousness. Then comes the investigating consciousness followed by the determining consciousness. Then followed for seven times in rapid succession the impulse consciousness, the impulsions, then the registering consciousness appears twice in succession. Thus every time a sight is seen, from the appearance of the sense-door consciousness to the sinking of the last consciousness, there are altogether fourteen thought moments which complete a process of cognition in a regular manner. If the impression of the object is not very strong, it survives only as far as the consciousness has reached its impulse stage.

When one is near death, impulse consciousness occurs only five or six times. When the impression of the object is very obscure, the process of cognition runs up to the stage of determining, after two or three thought moments of which the process of cognition comes to an end. When Vipassana is very strong, the process does not advance till impulse stage. It abruptly ends after two or three thought moments of determining and sink back to the life continuum level. This is in accordance with the meditation instructions given to the Venerable Pothila by the young novice who instructed that the process of cognition with respect to five door consciousness should not sink to impulse stage. As staged above, in the process of cognition with respect to eye-consciousness, the object is only the ultimate visible sight, and not the conceptual form of a man or a woman.

After running the complete process, it sinks down to the life continuum which runs its course for some time. Then the process of cognition with respect to the mind door, arises through reflection on whatever has been seen. Arising from life continuum, the mind door apprehending consciousness appears, followed by impulse process which runs for seven moments and the registering consciousness which lasts for two moments. The whole course, therefore, runs for ten thought moments after which it sinks down to life continuum level again. In this thought process, the object is just the reflection on the sight that has been seen, and does not yet have any wrong concept of pervious experiences. When the reflective process of cognition takes place for the second time, it is the concept of form and appearance that have become its object -- the form and appearance of a man or a woman. When the process is repeated for the third time, it is the concept of name (of man or woman) that has become the object. From then onwards, everytime there is a reflection on what have been experienced previously, the object is always a wrong concept: 'I see a man, I see a woman.' This is how consciousness plays conjuring tricks and brings on wrong concepts in place of realities.


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" Having killed mother, father, the two brahmin kings and having destroyed the hindrances of which the fifth (i.e., doubt) is like a tiger-infested journey, the brahmana (i.e., the arahat) goes free from dukkha. "

The Dhammapada

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