21 August 2004
Five Aggregates (Khandas)
Vipassana practice must depend on the object of meditation that is paramattha (ultimate) dhamma. It can be compared to farmers, who need to have land on which they grow their crops. This land is called “Bhumi” in Pali. Therefore, vipassana needs to have a land of sorts to work on – that is why it is called “Vipassana Bhumi”. This is the foundation used by vipassana meditators to develop insight.
The Buddha described six of the Bhumi and categorized them, which are:
- Aggregates (khanda), of which there are 5.
- Sense Bases (ayatana), of which there are 12.
- Elements (dhatu), of which there are 18.
- Faculties (indriya), of which there are 22.
- Noble Truths (ariyasacca), of which there are 4.
- Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada), of which there are 12.
Any of these objects can be used for contemplation to develop vipassana insight. In fact, they are the same paramattha dhammas but categorized differently.
Five Aggregates (Khandas)
Khandha means a group or a pile. This life is only composed of the five khandhas. In this sense it is not a literal pile like a pile of sand, but instead a group. What this means is that each of the five khandhas is different. There are khandas in the past, in the present and in the future. Some are inside our body, and some are outside others’ body. Some are coarse, and others are fine. Some are near (can be understood easily), and some are far (hard to understand).
There are five kinds of aggregates (five khandas). One of them is commonly called “rupa” (one) and the other four are known as “nama” (four).
There are 28 kinds of rupa, or form. The form will “disintegrate” when coming into contact with negative factors, such as heat, cold, hunger, thirst, etc. If the body faces too much cold or heat, exhaustion, or trauma, etc., it will fall apart or age quicker. Every person does not get old at the same rate. It depends on how well you take care of your body and how you limit contact with the causes of destruction. Food and stress also has an effect.
In reality, the deterioration and disintegration are happening all the time. We start to get old from the moment we were born. Aging means that the body deteriorates. We do not see it because it is covered up. Children grow into young adults and may even become attractive. When you are older though, the changes will be clearer. The hair turns grey, teeth break off, skin becomes wrinkled, etc. In fact, one form (rupa) appears and will deteriorate and disintegrate, but then there is another form that replaces it. So it appears as if the body is growing because more new ones keep appearing when we are younger. Some will also keep on disintegrating. Form (rupa) is the condition that deteriorates and disintegrates, and it does not have the knowing ability.
Examples of forms are the eyes, the nerves of the eyes, the ears, the nerves of the ears, the nose, the nerves of the nose, the tongue, the nerves of the tongue, the body and the nerves of the body. The elements–earth, water, wind, fire–can also be forms that become different body parts. Examples of outside forms are light, sound, smell, taste, sensations (cold/hot, soft/ hard, tension/vibration). When there is contact between the forms, they will deteriorate and disintegrate.
When you mindfully contemplate the body you will see this process. The hot/cold, soft/hard, tension/vibration sensation will contact the body and disappear. The sound will contact the ears and disappear. The color will contact the eyes and disappear. The taste will contact the tongue and disappear. The smell will contact the nose and disappear. It is very hard to catch them because there are new replacements occurring very quickly.
The form (rupa khanda) belongs to nature, and has the specific characteristics of arising, no ability to know itself, and then disappearing. It is not “us”, does not belong to “us”, is not in “us”, and there is no “us” in the form. This is the ultimate truth. But ignorance (avijja) has covered it up and clinging (upadana) holds on to those forms and presumes that they are what we consider the “self”. We believe the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and every organ are us – they belong to us, are inside us, and we are in these body parts. This is one of the the wrong views, called sakkayaditthi (personality-view). When we practice vipassana and develop some insight (yana), we will come to realize that these are not self. We cannot say that they are us, or belong to us. They are one part of nature that arises and passes away after contact. We will see that the body sensations – hot/cold, soft/hard, tension/vibration and color, sound, smell, taste, etc. – contact the body and then disappear. This is vipassana insight – knowing of the impermanence and eventually the nonself nature.
Knowledge from listening is called suttamayapanna. Knowledge from thinking is called cintamayapanna. The real knowledge is from observing the body and mind repeatedly until bhavanamayapanna develops. It is clear understanding that arises in the mind that yields wisdom. This does not depend on anyone telling you. When you see that the form (rupa) is only form, and not anyone’s self, it will deteriorate and disintegrate by it’s own nature.
Feeling is the mental factor that arises within the mind (vedana cetasika), and it is in every mind. Every mind will have the feeling factor when it arises.
There are 3 feelings in the mind: joy (somanassa vedana), grief (domanassa vedana), and neutral (upekkha vedana).
There are only two body feelings : pleasant (sukha vedana) and unpleasant (dukkha vedana).
There is no neutral feeling in the body – less pain equates to pleasant feelings.
When we contemplate feeling, we will see that feeling is not us, and does not belong to us. It is only the mental factors that arise at the same time within the mind. Whatever condition the mind experiences, the feeling also experiences the same. The body is a form (rupa), but feeling (vedana) is not a form. When your knee is aching, the one who experiences the pain is not the knee because the form (rupa) does not have the knowing ability. The knowing one is the feeling (vedana), which receives the sensation from the body’s nerves. When a body nerve comes into contact with cold/hot, soft/hard sensation there will be feeling. So the body contact creates feeling. Vedana is not the body but it depends on the body and the body contact. We need the form in order to experience vedana. We have to observe it at the time of contact, then we will see that vedana arises and disappears. When we are not watching it often, pain seems to last continuously. By watching it carefully, we will see that pain starts and then stops, or it decreases. There is a break in between.
If you focus on the pain, it will appear to increase because the mind is paying full attention there. After watching it for a while, you will be able to tolerate it more. You will see changes which will help you to tolerate it better. It is the same as with facing a hot stove. Initially, it will be very hot. If you turn sideways briefly, it will be less hot. If you face it repeatedly, you will get used to it. Most farmers have to work in the heat, so they are not bothered by it. Others however, who are not used to the heat will suffer more.
While meditating, you will be faced with pain. If you are brave enough you can endure it. You may use other tactics such as not paying attention to the pain or not focusing on it too much. You can switch the focus by looking at the mind and trying to not be disturbed by the pain. The pain usually shows itself even if you do not intend to look at it, because it is a strong mental input which draws the mind to it. If the mind changes the focus to another body part, the pain would be interrupted. The fact is that the mind can only perceive one thing at a time. If the pain is in the leg, but the mind focused on the head, it would not sense the leg pain. Or, if you listened to some noise, the leg pain also would be interrupted. But when the pain pulls the mind to the leg, then it would be sensed again. So we tend to think that the pain is there all the time. However, what actually occurs is that the mind perceives other inputs and the pain is interrupted, so you are relieved and do not suffer as much. You can alternate by watching the vedana, and then watching the mind – watching the thought and other sensations. You can also train the mind to not be bothered by pain and finally let go of it.
After repeating the practice you will realize that the pain (vedana) is one thing and the mind is another. You will begin to separate the nature of the body and the mind. Pain on the leg is one thing, and the irritated mind is another. The practice will train you not to react and not become irritated. You may experience pain, but you will not have to suffer. The beginner often becomes irritated by minor pain, but it will lessen after repeated practice. If the pain increases to the point that it is unbearable, then you can change your posture.
This is how you learn about vedana and gain insight. You will see that vedana is another aspect belonging to nature, not a self. We tend to cling onto vedana, thinking that it is us, that it belongs to us, and that it is in us, or we are in vedana. When we are sick, we truly believe it is us who is sick. When you have more insight you will see that vedana is only vedana – it is not self, and it does not belong to us. The pain is real, but it is only one kind of nature – it changes all the time, it cannot be controlled, and it is non-self.
Perception is another mental factor that arises with the mind (sanna cetasika). It is the natural process that recognizes conditions, form, sound, meaning, story, etc. It allows the mind to perceive and understand what it is perceiving.
Sanna (perception) is also occupied by clinging – we presume it to be our self who can or cannot perceive. This is also the personality view (sakkayadhitti) which is the wrong view.
Insight will arise from repeated observation when you see that perception appears and disappears quickly. It seems to be there but it is not, just like a mirage. It disappears when you examine it closer. It is another mental factor that accompanies the mind so it appears whenever the mind appears and disappears quickly as well. It also changes, cannot be controlled, and is non-self.
Volitional Formation (Sankhara)
After excluding the vedana and sanna from the 52 total cetasikas, there are the 50 mental factors (cetasikas). These factors form the characters of the mind. The wholesome ones will make a wholesome mind, and the unwholesome ones will make an unwholesome mind. Some may be neither wholesome nor unwholesome. There are 14 unwholesome, 25 wholesome, and 13 that can be both (including vedana and sanna).
The unwholesome sankhara are delusion, lack of shame for unwholesome acts, no fear of consequence of evil deeds, restlessness, greed, wrong view , conceit, anger, jealousy, worry, sloth and torpor, and doubt.
When these mental formations arise, be aware of them in order to see that they are not us. They do not belong to us. If you have no insight, the clinging will continue to presume that they are ours. When greed arises, we will believe it is our greed. In fact, greed and hatred are not us, they are not self. After repeated contemplation we will realize that these appear and disappear – they change, they are not us, and they do not belong to us. These characteristics can be applied to all mental formations.
The sankhara arises in the mind, through the mind door. The location of the mind is close to the left breast. Defilements will arise at the same moment as mind consciousness. If the anger is severe, we will feel the tightness or heaviness. This shows that the defilement is toxic – it burns that area and the surrounding areas. It is like a bad person who has bothered people around him. When the anger arises in the mind , the mind will be boiling. The body parts around the mind will also be affected from being tense, and can also spread upward and affect the brain. This manifests as headache and stress. The brain usually works alongside the mind. If the thoughts are wholesome, the brain will work well. If bad thoughts arise, the brain will follow suit. It is akin to having a good or bad boss. If the mind is peaceful and clear, then the brain will be relaxed and work efficiently.
When the mind is affected by unwholesome mental formations, be aware of it. Vipassana meditation is the study of the truth. This is the way that we can learn about these mental formations. We need to observe them until we can see that they are not self, not ours. Greed, hatred, and delusion are not self. They appear and disappear, they change all the time, and they are out of our control. This can give us insight, so defilement can be valuable to us. This is the process called dhammanupassana (mindfulness of the dhamma) in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta. Defilements are the paramattha dhamma, which means that they are real. They change and are not self, and they are out of our control. Watching them will lead to the gaining of vipassana insight.
What we usually tend to do when focusing on our anger, is to control it instead of study it. We do the same with our thoughts. We want our anger to be gone, and want our mind to be quiet. When we cannot control it, we become more irritated, which leads to more added defilement. The Buddha taught us just to know, without adding any comments. If the mind is floating, know that it is floating. We learn by watching – no matter how it feels. Pretend that it does not bother us. If we watch and ignore it, without being irritable, the unwholesome mental factors will change to wholesome ones. Mindfulness and clear comprehension – both of which are wholesome mental factors – will replace them. The two may alternate. We did not add fuel to the defilements, and there is no additional craving nor ignorance. The anger will die down and be replaced by wholesome mental factors. These factors are: mindfulness, concentration, wisdom, faith, shame of evil deeds, fear of the consequences of evil acts, non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion, loving friendliness, and appreciative joy. These wholesome mental factors sometimes occur even without doing meditation. Giving dana, keeping precepts, being humble, paying respect to the Buddha and chanting can also create wholesome mental factors. Vipassana practice is done by observing the mental factors that appear; faith, joy, and samadhi will follow. Be aware of these factors.
These are the 89 minds (citta, consciousness, vinnana) in short, or 111 when included with the jhanic minds. Each mind is only an aggregate that we need to observe, because the clinging will presume that it is ours and that it belongs to us. When mindfully contemplating the mind, vipassana insight will develop. We will see that the mind is impermanent, and that it does not belong to us.
It is easier for people to accept that the body is not ours. It will get old, get sick and die – after which the body will rot and degenerate. Yet it is almost impossible to accept that the mind is not ours. Upon death we still exist – we do not die with the body. The mind will leave the body and seek another rebirth. This is the way we cling on to the mind (vinnana) – that it is self, and is permanent. This wrong view is called sakkayadhitti (personality view).
Vipassana meditation will be the way to develop clear insight and release the clinging on the vinnana by seeing that it is impermanent, it is not self. To develop the vipassana yana, one has to contemplate repeatedly at the time it arises:
- Eye consciousness arises when seeing.
- Ear consciousness arises when hearing.
- Nose consciousness arises when smelling.
- Tongue consciousness arises when tasting.
- Body consciousness arises when touching.
- Mind consciousness arises when thinking, knowing.
The mind will be named differently depending on the location. When it arises in the eyes, it will be cakkhuvinnana, in the ear will be sotavinnana, in the nose will be ghanavinnana, in the tongue will be jivhavinnana, body will be kayavinnana, and in the mind will be manovinnana.
We can observe how the mind is. Many mental factors can occur together from feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), volitional formation (sankhara), and consciousness (vinnana). The area of focus will depend on the mindfulness. It can focus on the mental factors (cetasika) to see the character of the mind or focus on the knowing which is the quality of the mind.
The mind has only one ability which is “knowing” or perceiving the dhamma condition. It was categorized into 121 different minds because of the mental factors (cetasika) that accompany the mind. To focus directly on the mind is to look at the knowing ability. During meditation, as we know the inbreath and outbreath, the mind will slip and know other things. It may come back and know the breath again, or it may wander off to hear or to think. This is how the mind perceives. If the mind is not centered, it will switch around often. After watching repeatedly we will see the nature of the mind – that it arises and disappears, and does not stay permanent. It disappears quickly, which means that it has no self.
The practice is not choosing to focus solely on one object. It has to observe everything, depending on where the mindfulness is. Sometimes the mindfulness is on the form (rupa), sometimes on the feeling (vedana) , sometimes on the memory (sanna), sometimes on the volitional formation (sankhara) or consciousness (vinnana). We may observe the knowing, but then it will move on to thought, then body contact, then feeling etc. There is no order or definite pattern. Initially when starting meditation, we may begin by focusing on the body first, or by focusing on one location. After becoming more experienced, there will be no pattern. We observe whatever arises and see as many conditions as we can quickly observe.
Human beings have delusion, so we are attached to these five aggregates (khandas) and presume that they are us, that they are ours. This is why we continue to suffer. If we still have defilements we will continue to create kamma (action). This will bring about rebirth. Once we are born, suffering will follow. The five aggregates are the ones that will suffer, experience aging, sickness, death, separation from loved ones, etc. When there is a form, illness will take place. Even without diseases, the form itself has suffering since it will deteriorate and disintegrate by nature. The disease lets us see suffering in life clearer.
The ones who have the right view (sammadhitti) will see that the five aggregates are a mass of suffering. They will become disenchanted (nibbida) with the suffering and try to find a way to escape from it. Ones will see that, if we stay in such a way, then we will not be able to get out. The degeneration, aging, and suffering of the khandas are like this. If it happened only once, it would not be so bad, but the birth and death cycle has been going on and on, without any end in sight. We don’t know when it will end, and we should contemplate this suffering repeatedly. When vipassana insight becomes clear concerning the five aggregates, vipassana yana develops until one reaches nibbana.
The other word for nibbana is khandavimutti or free from the khandas. Nibbana is neither form (rupa), nor vedana, nor sanna, nor sankhara and nor vinnana, but instead is free from all of them. This is why there is no more suffering – because there is no arising and disappearing . It is not affected by change, and there is no condition to deteriorate and disintegrate. It is extreme happiness, without any bit of suffering. This is the end of suffering, and there is no suffering left. It is khandavimutti.
There is no other way to be free from the five aggregates except to practice vipassana. While the enlightened one is still living, the mind that knows nibbana will know the state in which suffering ends. If it is the arahat’s nibbana, when he passes away it is parinibbana. It is a complete nibbana, or anupatisesanibbana. None of the five aggregates are left. If the enlightened one is still alive, he still has the five aggregates but they are the aggregates without any defilements. The sankhara is only the activity of the mind, without wholesome or unwholesome intention. It is above merit or evil acts.
If there are still some fetters left, they will be the learned ones, but not yet fully enlightened (sekha puggala). These stages of enlightenment are the stream entry (sotapanna), once returner (sakadagami), and nonreturner (anagami ). They will have only the wholesome mind since there is no unwholesomeness left in them. They will have a chance to be reborn only into the higher realms. The door to the lower realms has been completely closed to them. If one is totally cut off from the five khandas, there will only be the functional mind (kiriya citta) or inoperative consciousness, which will not be reborn as there is no suffering left.
If there is a rebirth, no matter where, there is still suffering. Being born as a deva or bhrama still affords a lifespan. At the end, there is still a chance of descending to the lower realms. So the only way of ending suffering and reaching the khandavimutti is to practice vipassana.
This is the end of the talk. I wish you prosperity, happiness and progress in the dhamma.