What are we clinging to? What is our handhold? What we are clinging to is the world itself. In Buddhism the word “world” has a broader connotation than it has in ordinary usage. It refers to all things, to the totality. It does not refer just to human beings, or celestial beings, or gods, or beasts, or the denizens of hell, or demons, or hungry ghosts, or titans, or any particular realm of existence at all. What the word “world” refers to here is the whole lot taken together. To know the world is difficult because certain levels of the world are concealed. Most of us are familiar with only the outermost layer or level, the level of relative truth, the level corresponding to the intellect of the average man. For this reason Buddhism teaches us about the world at various levels.
The Buddha had a method of instruction based on a division of the world into a material or physical aspect and non-material or mental aspect. He further divided up the mental world or mind into four parts. Counting the physical and the mental together makes a total of five components, called by the Buddha the Five Aggregates, which together go to make up the world, in particular living creatures and man himself. In looking at the world we shall concentrate on the world of living creatures, in particular man, because it is man that happens to be the problem. In man these five components are all present together: his physical body is the material aggregate; his mental aspect is divisible into four aggregates, which we shall now describe.
The first of the mental aggregates is feeling (vedana), which is of three kinds, namely pleasure or gratification, displeasure or suffering, and a neutral kind, which is neither pleasure nor displeasure, but which is a kind of feeling nevertheless. Under normal conditions feelings are always present in us. Every day we are filled with feelings. The Buddha, then, pointed out feeling as one of the components which together go to make up the man.
The second component of mind is perception (sanna). This is the process of becoming aware, similar to waking up as opposed to being sound asleep or unconscious, or dead. It refers to memory as well as awareness of sense impressions, covering both the primary sensation resulting from contact with an object by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue, or body, and the recall of previous impressions. Thus one may be directly aware of an object as black or white, long or short, man or beast, and so on, or one may be similarly aware in retrospect by way of memory.
The third mental aggregate is the actively thinking component (sankhara) in an individual-thinking of doing some thing, thinking of saying something, good thought and bad thought, willed thinking, active thinking-this is the third mental aggregate.
The fourth component of mind is consciousness (vinnana). It is the function of knowing the objects perceived by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue and the general body sense, and also by way of the mind itself.
These five aggregates constitute the site of the four kinds of clinging explained in the fourth chapter. Turn back and read it again, and think it over so that you understand it properly. You will then realize that it is these five aggregates that are the object and handhold for our grasping and clinging. A person may grasp at any one of these groups as being a self according to the extent of his ignorance. For instance, a boy who carelessly bumps into a door and hurts himself feels he has to give the door a kick in order to relieve his anger and pain. In other words, he is grasping at a purely material object, namely the door, which is nothing but wood, as being a self. This is attachment at the lowest level of all. A man who be comes angry with his body to the point of striking it or hitting himself on the head is grasping and clinging in the same way. He is taking those body parts to be selves. If he is rather more intelligent than that, he may seize on feeling, or perception or active thinking, or consciousness, at any one of these groups as being a self. If he is unable to distinguish them individually, he may grasp at the whole lot collectively as being a self, that is, take all five groups together to be “his self.”
After the physical body, the group next most likely to be clung to as being a self is feeling pleasurable, painful, or neutral. Let us consider the situation in which we find ourselves, entranced with sensual pleasures, in particular delectable sensations, caught up heart and soul in the various colors and shapes, sound, scents, tastes and tactile objects that we perceive. Here feeling is the pleasure and delight experienced, and it is to that very feeling of pleasure and delight that we cling. Almost everyone clings to feeling as being a self, because there is no one who does not like delightful sensations, especially tactile sensations by way of the skin. Ignorance or delusion blinds a person to all else. He sees only the delightful object and grasps at it as being a self; he regards that object as “mine.” Feeling, whether of pleasure or displeasure, is truly a site of suffering. Spiritually speaking, these feelings of pleasure and displeasure may be considered as synonymous with suffering, because they give rise to nothing but mental torment. Pleasure renders the mind buoyant; displeasure deflates it. Gain and loss, happiness and sorrow, amount in effect to mental restlessness or instability; they set the mind spinning. This is what is meant by grasping at feeling as being a self. We should all do well to have a closer look at this process of grasping at feeling as being a self, as being “ours,” and try to gain a proper understanding of it. Understanding feeling as an object of clinging, the mind will be rendered independently of it. Feeling normally has control over the mind, luring us into situations that we regret later on. In his practical path to perfection or arahantship, the Buddha teaches us repeatedly to give particular attention to the examination of feeling. Many have become arahants and broken free from suffering by means of restricting feeling to simply an object of study.
Feeling is more likely than any of the other aggregates to serve as a handhold for us to cling to because feeling is the primary objective of all our striving and activity. We study industriously and work at our jobs in order to get money. Then we go and buy things: utensils, food, amusements, things covering the whole range from gastronomy to sex. And then we partake of these things with one single objective, namely pleasurable feeling, in other words delightful stimulation of eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. We invest all our resources, monetary, physical, mental, simply in the expectation of pleasurable feeling. And everyone knows well enough in his own mind that if it weren’t for the lure of pleasurable feeling, he would never invest study, work and physical energy in the search for money. We can see, then, that feeling is no small matter. A knowledge and understanding of it puts us in a position to keep it under control, makes us sufficiently high-minded to remain above feelings, and enables us to carry out all our activities far better than we otherwise could. In similar fashion even the problems that arise in a social group have their origins in pleasurable feeling. And when we analyze closely the clashes between nations, or between opposing blocs, we discover that there too, both sides are just slaves to pleasurable feeling. A war is not fought because of adherence to a doctrine or an ideal or anything of the sort. In point of fact, the motivation is the anticipation of pleasurable feeling. Each side sees itself making all sorts of gains, scooping up benefits for itself. The doctrine is just camouflage, or at best a purely secondary motive. The most deep- seated cause of all strife is really subservience to pleasurable feeling. To know feeling is, then, to know an important root cause responsible for our falling slaves to the mental defilements, to evil, to suffering. If this is how things are in the case of human beings, the celestial beings are no better off. They are subservient to pleasurable feeling just as are humans, and more so, though they may suppose it to be something better and finer, more subject to free will than is the human variety. But even they are not free from craving and attachment, from the fascination of delectable sensations received by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. Still higher up at the level of the gods, sensual delights necessarily have been discarded completely; but even this does not bring liberation from another kind of delight, the pleasure associated with deep concentration practice. When the mind is deeply concentrated, it experiences pleasure, a delightful sensation to which it then becomes attached. Although this has nothing to do with sensuality, it is pleasurable feeling nevertheless. Animals lower down the scale than human beings are bound to fall under the power of pleasurable feeling in much cruder ways than we do. To know the nature of feeling, in particular to know that feeling is not a self at all and not something to be clung to, is, then, of very great use in life.
Perception, too, can easily be seized on as being a self or “one’s self.” The average villager likes to say that when we fall asleep, something, which he calls the “soul,” departs from the body. The body is then like a log of wood, receiving no sensation by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue or body. As soon as that something has returned to the body, awareness and wakefulness are restored. A great many people have this naive belief that perception is “the self.” But, as the Buddha taught, perception is not a self. Perception is simply sensation and memory, that is, knowing, and is bound to be present as long as the body continues to function normally. As soon as the bodily functions become disrupted, that thing we call perception changes or ceases to function. For this reason true Buddhists refuse to accept perception as a self, though the average person does choose to accept it as such, clinging to it as “myself.” Close examination along Buddhist lines reveals that quite the opposite is the case. Perception is nobody’s self at all; it is simply a result of natural processes and nothing more.
The next possible point of attachment is active thinking, intending to do this or that, intending to get this or that, mental action good or bad. This is once again a manifestation of the arising of strong ideas of selfhood. Everyone feels that if any thing at all is to be identified as his self, then it is more likely to be this thinking element than any other. For instance, one philosopher in recent centuries had a naive philosophy on the basis of which he proclaimed: “I think, therefore I am.” Even philosophers in this scientific age have the same ideas about “the self” as people have had for thousands of years, maintaining that the thinking element is the self. They regard as the self that which they understand to be “the thinker.” We have said that the Buddha denied that either feeling or perception might be a self. He also rejected thinking, the thinking aspect of the mind as a self, because the activity which manifests as thought is a purely natural event. Thought arises as a result of the interaction of a variety of prior events. It is just one of the aggregation of assorted components that makes up “the individual,” and no “I” or “self” entity is involved. Hence we maintain that this thinking component is devoid of selfhood, just as are the other aggregates we have mentioned.
The difficulty in understanding this lies in our inadequate knowledge of the mental element or mind. We are familiar only with the body, the material element, and know almost nothing about the other, the mental, nonmaterial element. As a result, we have difficulty understanding it. Here it can only be said that the Buddha taught that “the individual” is a combination of the five aggregates, physical and mental. Now, when the event we call thinking takes place, we jump to the conclusion that there is “someone” there who is “the thinker.” We believe there is a thinker, a soul, which is master of the body or something of the sort. But the Buddha rejected such entities completely. When we analyze “the individual” into these five components, there is nothing left over, proving that he consists of just these components and that there is nothing that might be “his self.” Not even thinking is a self as the average man commonly supposes.
Now the last group, consciousness (vinnana) is simply the function of becoming fully aware of objects perceived by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. It is no self either. The organs simply take in the color and shapes, sounds, odors, tastes and tactile objects that impinge on them, and as a result consciousness of those objects arises in three stages. In the case of the eye there arises clear consciousness of the shape of the visual object, whether it is man or beast, long or short, black or white. The arising of clear consciousness in this way is a mechanical process which happens of its own accord, automatically. There are some who maintain that this is the “soul,” the “spirit,” which moves into and out of the mind and receives stimuli by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue and body, and consider it to be “the self.” Buddhists recognize it as just nature. If a visual object and an eye complete with optic nerve make contact, seeing will take place and there will arise visual consciousness. And there is once again no need for any self whatsoever. When we have analyzed the “being” into its components, namely body, feeling, perception, thinking and consciousness, we find no part which might be a self or belong to a self. Thus we can completely reject the false self idea and conclude that nobody is or has a self at all. When one ceases to cling to things, no longer liking or disliking them, this indicates that one has perceived that those things are not selves. Rational thinking is sufficient to convince one that they cannot be selves; but the result is only belief, not clear insight of the sort that can completely cut out clinging to them as selves. For this very reason we have to study and examine the five aggregates on the basis of the threefold training and develop sufficient insight to be able to give up clinging to this self idea. This practice with respect to the five aggregates serves to develop clear insight and eliminate ignorance. When we have completely eliminated ignorance, we shall be able to see for ourselves that none of the aggregates is a self, none is worth clinging to. All clinging, even the kind that has existed since birth, will then cease completely. It is essential, then, that we study thoroughly the five aggregates, which are the objects of the self conceit. The Buddha stressed this aspect of his teaching more than any other. It may be summed up very briefly by saying: “None of the five aggregates is a self.” This should be considered a key point in Buddhism, whether one looks at it as philosophy, as science, or as religion. When we know this truth, ignorance-based grasping and clinging vanish, desire of any sort has no means of arising, and suffering ceases.
Why is it, then, that we normally don’t see these five aggregates as they really are? When we were born, we had no understanding of things. We acquired knowledge on the basis of what people taught us. The way they taught us led us to understand that all things are selves. The power of the primal instinctive belief in selfhood, which is present right from birth, becomes very strong in the course of time. In speaking we use the words “I, you, he, she,” which only serve to consolidate the self idea. We say: “This is Mr. X; that is Mr. Y. He is Mr. A’s son and Mr. B’s grandson. This is So – and – so’s husband; that is So – and – so’s wife.” This way of speaking serves simply to identify people as selves. The result is that we are, none of us, conscious of our clinging to selfhood, which increases daily. When we cling to something as being a self, the result is selfishness, and our actions are biased accordingly. If we were to develop sufficient insight to see this idea as a deception, we would stop clinging to the ideas of “Mr. A and Mr. B, high class and low class, beast and human being,” and would see that these are nothing more than terms which man has devised for use in social intercourse. When we have come to understand this, we can be said to have dispensed with one sort of social deception. When we examine the whole of what goes to make up Mr. A, we find that Mr. A is simply an aggregation of body, feeling, perception, thinking and consciousness. This is a rather more intelligent way of looking at things. Doing this, one is not deluded by worldly relative truth.
It is possible to carry the process of analysis further than this. For instance the physical body can be divided up rather crudely into the elements of earth, water, wind and fire; or it can be analyzed scientifically into carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and so on. The deeper we look, the less we are deceived. Penetrating below the surface, we find that in fact there is no person; there are only elements, physical and mental. Looked at in this light, the “person” disappears. The idea of “Mr. A and Mr. B, high – class and low – class” dissolves. The idea of “my child, my husband, my wife” vanishes away. When we look at things in the light of absolute truth, we find only elements: earth, water, wind and fire; oxygen, hydrogen and so on; body, feeling, perception, thinking and consciousness. On examining these closely we find they all have one property in common, namely emptiness. Each is empty of what we refer to as “its self.” Earth, water, wind and fire, looked at properly, are seen to be empty of selfhood. It is possible for each one of us to see anything and everything as empty in this sense. This done, grasping and clinging will have no means of arising and any already arisen will have no means of remaining. They will dissolve, pass away, vanish entirely, not a trace remaining. So there are no animals, no people, no elements, no aggregates. There are no things at all; there is only emptiness, emptiness of selfhood. When we don’t grasp and cling, there is no way suffering can arise. One who sees all things as empty is quite unmoved when people call him good or bad, happy or miserable, or anything. This is the fruit of knowledge, understanding, and clear insight into the true nature of the five aggregates which makes it possible to give up completely those four kinds of unskillful clinging. In summary, everything in the whole world is included within the five aggregates, namely matter, feeling, perception, thinking and consciousness. Each of these groups is a deception, each is quite devoid of selfhood, but has the seductive power to induce grasping and clinging. As a result, the ordinary person desires to possess, desires to be, desires not to possess, desires not to be, all of which only serves to produce suffering, suffering which is not obvious, but concealed. It behooves every one to utilize the threefold training in morality, concentration and insight, and eliminate delusion with respect to the five aggregates completely and utterly. A person who has done this will not fall under the power of the five aggregates and will be free of suffering. For him life will be unblemished bliss. His mind will be above all things for as long as he lives. This is the fruit of clear and perfect insight into the five aggregates.