day seven : evening

Mindfulness of Dhammas III :
The Five Clinging-Aggregates

For the past two days, we’ve been talking about the fourth frame of reference. So far, we’ve talked about the four noble truths, the five hindrances, the seven factors for awakening, and the six sense media. There’s only one list remaining, which is the list of the five clinging-aggregates. This is the list where the practice of mindfulness and the teachings on kamma come together in a profound way.

The five aggregates are these: form, feeling, perception, fabrication, and consciousness. You may find these terms familiar because we’ve been talking about them most of the week. Feeling, perception, and fabrication are the activities we use to take the raw materials from our past kamma and fix them as food for consciousness. That gives us four of the aggregates right there.

Form is the remaining one. Basically, it applies to your body, but also to any physical impressions at the five senses.

Now these five aggregates cover the raw material from the past, but they also include our present actions and the results of our present actions. In other words, they cover a lot. In particular, they analyze our experience in a way that allows us to see how we feed on things.

Think of when you’re physically hungry. On the one hand, there’s your body, and on the other hand, there are the possible things outside that you could eat. All of those come under form.

Then there’s the feeling of hunger and the feeling of fullness that comes after you have eaten. Those come under feeling.

Then there’s perception. This applies to your perception of your hunger, as when you recognize a hunger for bread, a hunger for cheese, a hunger for salt, a hunger for water, whatever. You learn how to recognize what the hunger is and then you look around to see what kind of food will fit that hunger. For example, when you’re a young child exploring the world around you, one of the first things you do when you find something new is to put it in your mouth to see if it’s food. And this is how we get the perceptions of “food” and “not-food.” All of this comes under perception.

Fabrication covers your intention to eat, your attention to the different things around you that you could eat, and all the other processes you have to follow in order to take raw food and make it edible: chopping it, cooking it, mixing it with other things.

And then finally, there’s the consciousness of all these things.

So looking at experience in terms of the five aggregates helps us to focus our attention on what the Buddha says is our fundamental activity as beings: Beings have to eat. This is how they continue to be. Without taking in food—physical, mental, and emotional—we couldn’t maintain our identity as beings.

Now the Buddha wants us to perceive this feeding as suffering, because only when we get past this kind of activity can we find a true state of happiness. But because our identity is centered on feeding, this perception goes against the grain. We normally turn a blind eye to the suffering that our feeding causes, largely because we can’t imagine not feeding; we don’t want to look too closely at the harm we’re doing. We don’t even think of what we’re doing as feeding.

So a lot of the training lies in sensitizing ourselves to what we’re doing as we feed, so that we’ll be more inclined to give the Buddha the benefit of the doubt—maybe there is something better than the identity we create out of feeding; maybe there’s an experience of happiness that doesn’t need to feed.

As we go through our practice, one of the purposes of what we’re doing is to get more and more sensitive to these activities. In fact, it’s necessary to see that they are activities. When we hear the word “aggregate,” it sounds like a pile of gravel, but we have to realize that these are activities, actions that we do. The Buddha defines the aggregates as verbs: We feel, we perceive, we fabricate, and so on. And the question always with any activity is whether it’s worth doing or not. As we’re developing virtue, concentration, and discernment, we’re using these activities to shape our experience in a more skillful way. In fact, the more skillful we get at these activities, the more we understand them. This is why you can’t let go of any clinging to these activities simply by knowing that they’re suffering. You have to explore them first through your own skills.

The practice of concentration is a primary example. When you’re practicing concentration, form would be breath. The feeling would be the sense of ease that comes when focusing on the breath. Perception would be the mental images you hold in mind concerning the breath that help you stay with the breath. Fabrication would cover all of your activities to make the concentration better: in other words, making your attention stronger, making your intention stronger, and making your evaluation more subtle. And then finally, consciousness is awareness of all of these things.

In this way, concentration becomes our food on the path. As we get better at fabricating this form of food and we develop a more appreciative taste for it, we begin to look at the other ways that we feed on life and we can see areas in which they are harmful, ways that are simply not worth the effort. This is one of the ways in which concentration helps us to let go of very unskillful activities that we would otherwise hold onto.

When the Buddha has us use the five clinging-aggregates as a framework for establishing mindfulness, the main focus is at the point in the practice when we get the mind in a good state of concentration and are ready to develop discernment. And this is where the emphasis on “clinging” comes in. You may remember the four types of clinging, which are clinging to sensuality, clinging to habits and practices, clinging to views, and clinging to a theory about your self-identity.

Now, the Pāli word for “clinging,” upādāna, can also mean feeding. What you begin to realize as your understanding of meditation grows more subtle is that you not only feed on your present experience, using the activities of the aggregates, but you are also feeding on the activities that you do to shape that experience. In fact, that’s where your sense of your self is most centered. You feed not just on food but also on the way you feed. You cling to the way you feed, and you identify yourself strongly around it.

Once this point comes into focus in your meditation, you can begin to take the clinging apart. You begin to see that no matter how skillfully you shape your present experience, you’re never finished. You have to keep doing it again and again. This may not be disturbing at the beginning, especially as you’re gaining mastery over the concentration, but at some point there comes the realization that this is becoming burdensome. The work will never end. Even though your mind can gain good states of concentration, with a sense of ease, a sense of pleasure that causes no harm, it’s not good enough. You want something better than that.

This is when you turn in to look more deeply, and in particular at the act of fabrication. You see that it’s composed of acts of intention and attention—and because the mind is growing more and more quiet, you can now see very subtle acts of intention and attention. Your attention is always directed to what to do next, what to do next, what to do next, what to do next. Your intention at that point is to find something that goes beyond this. And there comes a point when you realize that your choices come down to very simple ones: either to stay here where you’re focused or to go focus someplace else. But you also see that either choice will involve stress.

At that moment you begin to realize that there’s another choice, which is neither here nor there, and that you don’t have to keep asking the question, what to do, what to do. You abandon both attention and intention, and that’s the moment when things open up in the mind. This is where the first level of awakening can occur.

One of the first things you realize when you experience the result of this letting go is that the Buddha was right. There really is a dimension that can be experienced that’s deathless, totally outside of space and time. There’s no fabrication. None of the aggregates are there, and yet there’s still an awareness—beyond the senses, even the sense of the mind. When you return from that state, you realize that there was nothing you did to create it. This is the point that’s called the end of kamma [§5].

This is how mindfulness practice and issues of kamma come together, because this last stage of the practice corresponds to the third stage of mindfulness practice, which the suttas describe as follows:

“Or his mindfulness that ‘There is a body’… ‘There are feelings’ … ‘There is mind’ … ‘There are mental qualities’ is maintained (simply) to the extent of knowledge & recollection. And he remains independent, unsustained by [not clinging to] anything in the world.” — DN 22

In other words, at this stage you’re not doing anything else beyond simply remembering to notice what’s present. It’s only on this level, after you’ve done all the work of developing the skills of the path, that you can simply be noting what you’ve developed. This is the level of mindfulness that’s on the verge of awakening.

Remember what we said the other day about points of resonance in complex systems—the points where the system, following its own inner laws, falls apart. In mathematical terms, this happens when the equations describing the workings of the system reach a point where one of the members in the equations gets divided by zero. This, of course, produces an undefined result, which means that if an object within the system—like the Moon—strayed into a resonance point, it would no longer be defined by the causal network determining the system. It would be set free.

In a similar way, when the mind is on the third level of mindfulness practice, it’s doing only one thing: remembering to notice. And as Ajaan Lee once said, when the mind is one, it’s possible to make it zero. In other words, you can go from one repeated intention to zero intention in the present, and when there’s zero intention in the present—which is not easy, but it’s possible—there is no present experience. The mind is freed to a dimension outside of time and space. That’s the first taste of awakening.

So we’ve been talking this week about mindfulness and kamma, and finally we’ve come to this point where mindfulness practice and the understanding of kamma come fully together. Actually, they’ve been intertwined all along. Mindfulness is a matter of remembering to do things as skillfully as possible, and the more skillful you become, the more sensitive you become. When you get sensitive to the activities of clinging and the activities of the aggregates—seeing them both as activities, and seeing the clinging as suffering—this is how you fulfill the duty with regard to the five clinging-aggregates, which, because they are the first noble truth, is to comprehend them. To comprehend means to overcome any passion for them. When you abandon passion, you let go of clinging to these things, and you no longer fabricate them. When you don’t fabricate them, you don’t have to put a stop to them. They cease on their own.

When we talk about the issue of not-self and apply it to the aggregates, remember that not-self is not a teaching on a metaphysical issue. It’s more a value judgment—a judgment as to what’s worth doing and what’s not. Remember that the aggregates are actions. As long as they’re helpful on the path, you engage in them, you feed on them—in other words, you have to cling to them. But when you’ve reached the point when you don’t have to do anything more, then there’s no advantage to holding onto them. They’re not worth doing anymore. That’s when you let go.

And as for what’s left after that happens, neither the term “self” nor “not-self” applies, because those terms are perceptions, and at that point perception no longer serves a purpose.

After the first stage of awakening is reached, you return to your experience of space and time, but now your relationship to it is different. You no longer doubt the Buddha’s teachings, you no longer believe that the aggregates really are you, and you no longer cling to habitual actions. You see that actions are a means to an end, and the best actions are those that continue developing the path until you’ve reached total awakening.

So this is how the teachings on mindfulness and kamma come together. When they take you all the way to full awakening, then you no longer need them for the sake of your own happiness. Mindfulness has done its work, your kamma has become as skillful as possible, and you come to a dimension where there is no more kamma, no more duties, nothing more that you need to feed on because the mind has no more hunger. As long as you’re still alive, you’re actually in a position where you can help people more effectively because of the fact that you’re no longer embroiled in the need to feed.

Now this may seem very far away, but file it away for your mindfulness to draw on, because when you’re following the path, sometimes it’s good to have a map. When you reach an attainment that seems interesting or important, check it against the map. If there’s still any sense of hunger, a sense of stress of any kind, even very subtle, then you’re still not at the end. There’s still more to do—because when the Buddha taught awakening, he taught total freedom from all these things. This may mean extra work, but it’s well worth the effort. When absolute freedom is possible, don’t you want to find out what it’s like?

Q: I’ve come to meditation to help me bear the atrocities of the world. What is awakening? Is it a moment of conscience when one embraces all the sorrows of the world, and in that case means hello to all sorrows or is it on the contrary a state of total forgetfulness and egotism, in that case it would be hello to guilt? So, which is it?

A: Neither. Remember the image of feeding. Ordinarily, we feed on the world, both physically and mentally, in order to gain happiness and maintain our identity as beings. But when you gain full awakening, the mind no longer needs to feed because it already has enough in terms of its own happiness. When you’ve reached that state, you can engage in the world without having to feed on it. You can help those whom you can help, and you don’t have to suffer in cases where you can’t help. In this way, you’re neither embracing the sorrows of the world nor are you running away from them. Instead you have a different relationship to the world entirely. You bring gifts to the world without needing to ask anything from it.

Q: Are there different degrees of awakening?

A: Yes. There are four levels altogether. The first level is stream-entry, when you gain your first experience of the deathless. This guarantees that you will be reborn no more than seven more times, and that none of those rebirths will ever fall below the human level. The second level is once-returning, which guarantees that you will return only once more to the human world and then gain full awakening. The third level is non-return, which guarantees that you will never return to this world. Instead, you will be reborn in a very high level of heaven, one of the Brahmā worlds called the Pure Abodes, and gain full awakening there. The fourth level is arahantship, which frees you from birth and death entirely.

The different levels have different results because they cut through different levels of defilement, called fetters, that bind you to the processes of birth and death. Stream entry cuts through the fetters of self-identity views, doubt, and attachment to habits and practices. Once-return weakens passion, aversion, and delusion, but doesn’t cut through them. Non-return cuts through the fetters of sensual passion and irritation. Arahantship cuts through the fetters of passion for form, passion for formlessness—these two refer to passion for the different levels of jhāna—restlessness, conceit, and ignorance.

Q: Once those levels have been attained, are they fully attained?

A: Final awakening is totally attained, once and for all. As for the lower levels of awakening, mindfulness is still not total, so people who have attained those levels can still be reborn, and when they are reborn, they forget the attainment they had before. But they are guaranteed to re-attain it in their next life.

Q: When we leave this life after having with a certain amount of difficulty achieved a certain degree of awakening, when we return, do we return with the same degree of awakening after having pursued it, or is it necessary to start all over again?

A: We do start over again, but it’s going to be easier the next time around.

Q: When a person’s entered into the stream, then when he is reborn, does he forget the fact? Is it that they lose the peace of mind that they had?

A: Yes. They also forget the fact that they had that attainment, and they can also be trained in wrong views. And they can break some of the precepts. But when they come across the Dhamma, they realize that this is what they really believe in. And he or she is guaranteed to have the stream-entry experience again at some point in the next life, and so will discover that peace and that solidity of virtue all over again.

Q: Is it possible to have fear of awakening?

A: Yes, it is possible to have fear of awakening. Usually it’s a matter of your defilements. They don’t want you to be awakened. There’s also fear of abandoning your sense of who you are, which is why the Buddha has you focus not on what you are but on what you’re doing. When you focus on your actions, then the fear of awakening gets weaker because you see more and more clearly that your actions are causing suffering, but if you make them more skillful the suffering goes down. As you keep pursuing the issue of skillful actions in greater precision, your own concern about what you are goes down as well. And that weakens your fear of awakening.

Q: Can one attain awakening without practicing meditation?

A: No.