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Jun 12th
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Home Teachings Non-Self The Teaching of Non-Self - Perception

The Teaching of Non-Self - Perception

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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
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Sañña, perception, is not self.

"Bhikkhus, Sañña, which is perception or remembering is not self."

Perception is sixfold in kinds:

1. Perception born of eye-contact.
2. Perception born of ear-contact.
3. Perception born of nosecontact.
4. Perception born of tongue-contact.
5. Perception born of body-contact.
6. Perception born of mind-contact.

People in general think that every time an object is seen, heard, touched, or known, it is 'I' who perceives and objects are perceived and remembered by 'me.' On seeing a sight, it is remembered as a man or a woman as an object perceived at such and such a time, at such a place, etc. This process of perception or remembering is wrongly held to be a personal feat as 'It is I who remembers, it is I whose memory is excellent.'

The Blessed One explained here that this view is wrong, and there is nothing individual or personal in the process of remembering: no living entity is involved, and it is just an insubstantial phenomenon and the nature of non-Self.


To continue to explain how perception is not self:

"Bhikkhus, perception is not self; if perception were self, then it would not tend to afflict and oppress, and one should be able to wish for and manage thus: 'let my perception be thus (all wholesome); let my perception be not thus (unwholesome).'"

Were perception, a living entity or one's inner substance, there is no reason for it to inflict and oppress. It is not the usual thing to cause self injury and harm, and it should be possible to manage in such a way that only good things are allowed to arise to be remembered and bad things not to arise to be remembered. But since perception is oppressing and does not yield to one's wish, it is not self.


"Bhikkhus, in reality, perception is not self, so it is oppressing. And no one can wish for and manage thus 'let my perception be thus (all wholesome); let my perception be not thus (unwholesome).'"

One can view perception from the angle of its good aspects. Cognition of things and objects by way of their characteristics is certainly very useful, and so is retentive memory. Remembering facts and retaining what has been acquired from learning the mundane and supramundane knowledges are good functions of perception, and they are beneficial and helpful. But mental retention or recalling to mind that which is sad, sorrowful, disgusting, horrible, etc., from the bad aspects of perception is oppressing. Some suffer from haunting memories of the departed loved ones such as sons, daughters, husbands, wives, or of financial calamities. These lingering memories bring about constant sorrow and consterration, and only when such memories fade away, one is relieved of the sufferings. Thus perception, which manifests in recognition and remembering is truly oppressing. So long as perception is bringing back memories of bereavements and financial losses, so long will sorrow and lamentation cause intense suffering which may even result in death. This is how perception oppresses by recalling to mind the sad experiences of the past. Suddenly recalling in mind during a meal time of some disgusting and repulsive object is bound to impair one's appetite.

Having seen a dead body earlier in the day, one may be disturbed in sleep at night by one's retentive memories of it. Through fanciful imaginations, some may have visualised a dangerous situation which they keep on anticipating with intense suffering for themselves. Thus perception oppresses by bringing back distressing mental objects. Hence perception is not self, but it is of the nature of non-self. Its appearance is dependent on conditions. Perception cannot be manipulated as one wishes so as to recall only those experiences which are beneficial and profitable. It is unmanageable, ungovernable, and not amenable to one's will. And because it is unmanageable and ungovernable, it is not self or a living entity, but it is mere insubstantiality and dependent on conditions and circumstances.

Perception is oppressing, unmanageable, and not subject to one's will. This is obvious, and therefore perception is not one's self, the inner core, or a living entity. But people in general find that on recalling past experiences, conclude that, "It is 'I' who have stored these experiences in mind, it is 'I' who recalls them. It is the same 'I' who has stored them up and brought them back to mind now." They cling to the belief of self and assert that there is only one individual: the self, who stored up and recalled past experiences. This wrong belief arises because of lack of heedful notings at the moment of seeing, hearing, etc., and because of the fact that the real nature of the phenomenon is not yet known by Vipassana insight. When constant arising and ceasing of the phenomenon of seeing, hearing, etc., is seen as it truly is through Vipassana insight, then the realization dawns on the person that perception is also a natural phenomenon of constant arising and ceasing.

Here, it may be asked that in view of the impermanent nature of perception, how does recollection take place of things that were cognised and known previously? The retentive power of preceding perception is handed on and passed on to the succeeding perception. As this retentive power increases on being inherited by the succeeding generations of perception, some people become equipped with the faculty of recalling the past life. This is how the perception in the life continuum or death-consciousness of past life ceases and arises again. It is because of this handing over of retentive power by the pervious perception to the succeeding perception that we can recollect both what is wholesome and pleasant as well as that which is unwholesome and unpleasant.

Without even thinking about them, the experience of days gone by may re-surface sometimes. The meditators engaged in Satipatthana meditation may be recalling as his concentration gets stronger, episodes which happened earlier in his life such as childhood. The meditator should dispose them off by noting them as they appear. Remorsefuless over past mistakes and faults in words and actions may lead to worry and restlessness in the course of meditation. Worry is a form of hindrance, and it should be discarded by taking note of it. Worry and restlessness may become a great hindrance deterring the progress in the development of concentration and Vipassana insight.

Thus perception which recalls past incidents producing worry and fret is oppressing. For this reason, it is not self. As explained in the pervious discourse, there are four ways of clinging to self and perception is concerned with three of them: Sami atta, Nivasi atta, and karaka atta. Thinking that there is self that controls over perception and remembering things as willed is Sami atta clinging, which is exercising control over the process of remembering. This Sami atta clinging is rejected by the Anattalakkhana Sutta which states that it is not possible to say of perception, "Let perception be thus (all wholesome), let perception be not thus (all unwholesome). Thinking there is living self ever present in the body, and constantly engage in the task of remembering things, is Nivasi atta.

This type of clinging can be discarded by taking note of every mental phenomenon which makes its appearance. By doing so one perceives by one's own knowledge that the remembered things keep appearing afresh and vanishing instantly. Also by taking note of the past incidents in one's life as they reappear in the mind's door, one comes to realize that there is no such thing as permanent retentive perception. There is only recurrent phenomenon renewing itself by arising and ceasing incessantly. This realization drives home the fact that there is no permanent self, or living entity residing in one's body and doing the task of remembering and recollecting. Thinking that it is I or self which is doing the action of remembering or recollection is Karaka atta clinging, and this may also be removed by meditative noting.

When perception takes place of every sight or sound, the meditative noting observes its arising and vanishing. When it is thus observed that perception of sight or sound arises and vanishes, there comes the realization that perception of sight and sound is merely a recurrent mental phenomenon and not the action of any abiding self or inner substance. And according to the Anattalakkhana Sutta, it cannot be managed in such a way that only pleasant wholesome memories persist forever and that memories of unpleasant and unwholesome incidents fade away into oblivion.

Since it is thus ungovernable and uncontrollable, realization comes to the meditator that perception is not self or living entity, but it is merely a natural process dependent on conditions, and it is renewing itself incessantly and vanishing. The Anattalakkhana Sutta was discoursed by the Blessed One specifically for the purpose of removing the self- clinging through such personal realization of the true nature (of the five aggregates).

Here a question may arise as to what difference exists between perception at the moment of contact and heedful note-taking at the moment of occurrence. Iit may be said that the two are diametrically opposed to each other in the purpose of objective. Perception perceives so as to retain every thing that is seen, heard, etc., in memory so that it may be recalled. It may take in form, shape, or condition of the object observed, whereas meditative note-taking according to the Satipatthana method is concerned just with the passing events of the mind-and-body so as to realize the impermanent nature, unsatisfactoriness, and insubstantiality. This should be a sufficient elaboration on the aggregates of perception being not self. We shall go on to explain how the aggregate of volitional activities is not self.



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