THE GREAT DISCOURSE ON
Venerable MAHASI SAYADAW
Note: Pali terms in this page are created with Unicode CN-Times font.
PERCEPTION AND VOLITIONAL FORMATIONS
"Monks, saññā, (perception or memory) is not self..."
Perception is sixfold in kind: 1. Perception born of eye-contact. 2. Perception born of ear-contact. 3. Perception born of nose-contact. 4. Perception born of tongue-contact. 5. Perception born of body-contact. 6. Perception born of mind-contact.
Whenever an object is seen, heard, touched, or known, we usually think, "It is I who perceives; this object is perceived and remembered by me." On seeing a sight, it is remembered as a man or a woman, or as an object perceived at such and such a time at such and such a place. The same applies to audible objects and other forms of sensory awareness. This process of perception or memory is wrongly held to be a personal feat: "It is I who remembers, my memory is excellent." The Blessed One explains here that this view is wrong, that there is nothing individual or personal in the process of remembering, just insubstantial phenomena; it is not self.
Explaining how perception is not self, the Buddha continued:
"Monks, perceptions, saññā, are not self. If perceptions were self, then they would not tend to afflict or oppress, and one should be able to control perceptions thus: 'Let my perceptions be thus (all pleasant), let my perceptions be not thus (unpleasant)'."
Were perceptions a living entity, our inner substance, there would be no reason for them to inflict and oppress us -- it is not normal for beings to cause themselves harm and injury -- and it should be possible to manage that only good things are perceived and remembered. But since perception is oppressing and does not yield to one's wish, it is not self.
"But monks, in reality, perception is not self. It is oppressing, and no one can wish for and manage thus: 'Let my perceptions be thus, let my perceptions be not thus'."
Perception has its good aspects. Cognition of the characteristics of objects is certainly very useful. So is retentive memory: remembering facts and retaining what has been acquired from learning is a good function of perception. However, recalling to mind what is sad, sorrowful, disgusting, or horrible form bad aspects of perception, which are stressful and therefore oppressing. Some people suffer from haunting memories of departed loved ones, sons, daughters, husbands or wives, or of financial calamities that have befallen them. These lingering memories bring about constant sorrow and consternation; only when such memories fade away is one relieved of the suffering.
Thus saññā, perception, the function of recognition and remembering, is truly oppressing. So long as perception is bringing back memories of bereavement and financial loss, so long will sorrow and lamentation cause intense suffering, even resulting in death. This is how perception oppresses by recalling to mind sad past experiences.
Suddenly recalling some repulsive object during meal time is bound to impair one's appetite. The memory of a dead body seen earlier in the day may disturb one's sleep at night. Some people fantasize about dangerous situations and anticipate them with great anxiety. This is how perception oppresses by bringing back distressing mental objects.
It is not self because its appearance is dependent on conditions.
Perception cannot be manipulated as we wish by recalling only those experiences which are beneficial and profitable, and suppressing those which will cause distress and suffering. It is unmanageable, ungovernable, and thus not self, not a living entity, but simply insubstantial phenomena dependent on causes and conditions.
Perception in one's own person, as stated in the text, is oppressing, unmanageable, not subject to one's will. It is obvious, therefore, that perception is not one's self, one's inner core or a living entity. But people in general find, on recalling past experiences, that there are some which are retained in memory and conclude that "It is I who has stored these experiences in mind; it is I who recalls them. The same "I" who has stored them up has also brought them back to mind now." They cling to the belief, therefore, that there is one individual, the self, who stores up and recalls past experiences. This wrong belief arises because of lack of heedful noting at the moment of sensory activity and because of the fact that the real nature of the phenomena is not yet known by vipassanā insight.
When constant arising and ceasing of the phenomena of sensory awareness is seen as it truly is through vipassanā insight, realization dawns that perception is also a natural phenomenon, constantly arising and ceasing.
Here it may be asked: in view of the impermanent nature of perception, how does recollection take place? The retentive power of preceding perceptions is passed on to succeeding perceptions. As this retentive power increases on being inherited by the succeeding generations of perception, some people become equipped with the faculty of recalling past lives. This is how the perception in the life-continuum or death-consciousness of the past life ceases but arises again, with reinforced powers of recall, as the birth consciousness and life-continuum of the present life.
It is because of this handing over of "retentive power" by the previous perception to the succeeding one 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 experiences of days gone by may sometimes resurface. As his concentration gets stronger, a meditator engaged in Satipaṭṭhānā medita-tion may find memories of episodes from early childhood arising. The meditator should dispose of them by noting them as they appear. Remorse over past mistakes and faults may lead to worry and restlessness in the course of meditation, and these may become a great hindrance to progress in the development of concentration and vipassanā insight. They should be discarded by taking note of them. Thus, perception which recalls past incidents and produces worry and fret is oppressing. For this reason, too, it may be taken that perception is not self.
As explained in the previous discourse, there are four ways of clinging to self, and perception is concerned with three of them: sāmi attā, nivāsī attā and kāraka attā.
Thinking that there is control over perception, remembering things as willed and not remembering things when there is no wish to do so, is sāmi attā clinging, that is, the belief that there is a self that controls the process of remembering. This sāmi attā clinging is rejected by the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta, which states that it is not possible to say of perception, "Let perception be thus, let perception be not thus."
Thinking there is a continuous self ever present in the body, who carries out the task of remembering things, is nivāsī attā. This type of clinging can be discarded by taking note of every mental phenomenon which arises. By doing so, one perceives personally that memories keep appearing and instantly vanishing. 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 are only recurrent phenomena renewing themselves by incessant arising and ceasing. This realization drives home the fact that there is no permanent self or living entity residing in one's body which does the task of remembering or recollecting.
Thinking it is I or self which is doing the action of remembering or recollecting is kāraka attā clinging, and this may also be removed by meditative noting. When perception of sights or sounds takes place, the meditator observes their arising and vanishing. Seeing that perception of sight or sound is always arising and vanishing, there comes the realization that perception is merely a recurrent mental phenomenon and not the action of any abiding self or inner substance. And in accordance with the Anatta-lakkhaṇa Sutta, it cannot be managed in such a way that only pleasant, wholesome memories persist and unpleasant, unwholesome memories fade away. Since it is thus ungovernable and uncontrollable, realization comes to the meditator that perception is not self or living entity, but merely a natural process dependent on conditions, incessantly renewing itself and vanishing. The Anatta-lakkhaṇa Sutta was taught by the Blessed One specifically for the purpose of removing the attā clinging through such personal realization of the true nature of the khandhas.
Here the question may arise: what is the difference between the mundane functions of perception, such as memory, and the recollective powers of sati, or mindfulness, as described in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta? There is a world of difference between the two; in fact it may be said that they are diametrically opposed to each other in purpose and objective. Perception perceives for retaining sense objects for future recall; it may take in the form, shape or condition of the object observed. Meditative note-taking according to the Satipaṭṭhāna method is concerned just with the passing events of mental and corporeal phenomena, so as to realize their impermanence, unsatis-factoriness and insubstantiality.
VOLITIONAL FORMATIONS ARE NOT SELF
Saṅkhārā bhikkhave anattā. Saṅkhārā ca h' idaṁ bhikkhave attā abhavissaṁsu nayidaṁ saṅkhārā ābādhāya saṁvatteyyuṁ labbhetha ca saṅkhāresu evaṁ me saṅkhārā hontu evaṁ me saṅkhārā mā ahesun'ti. Yasmā ca kho bhikkhave saṅkhārā anattā, tasmā saṅkhārā ābādhāya saṁvattanti; na ca labbhati saṅkhāresu 'evaṁ me saṅkhārā hontu, evaṁ me saṅkhārā mā ahesun'ti.
"Monks, volitional formations (saṅkhārā) are not self."
Here, it should be noted that saṅkhāras are of two kinds: conditioned things and conditioning things. Conditioned things are those aggregates that have arisen through such causes as kamma (volitional activity), mind, climate (seasonal conditions) and nutriments.
Immediately after the rebirth consciousness, mental and corporeal phenomena spring up as kamma resultants. Vipāka (kamma resultant) types of consciousness and their concomitants and the heart-base (hadāya vatthu) together with kamma-produced physical properties such is eye, ear, nose, tongue and body, spring up in this way. They are all conditioned things, resultant effects of kammic activities, and they are called resultant saṅkhāras as conditioned by kamma.
Likewise, mind-produced physical properties, such as the movements of bending, stretching, moving, going, standing, sitting, talking, and smiling, are called resultant saṅkhāras. Because they are born of thoughts, they are resultant saṅkhāras conditioned by mind.
Mind and its concomitants are mutually conditioned and conditioning. We thus have saṅkhāras as causal agents as well as saṅkhāras as resultants.
Physical properties produced by climatic conditions are resultant saṅkhāras conditioned by climatic conditions. Physical properties that arise through intake of nutriment are resultant saṅkhāras conditioned by nutriments.
Finally, all succeeding mental states and all their concomitants are resultant saṅkhāras, dependent on the preceding mental conditions and their concomitants for their arising. All such aggregates which arise because of kamma, mind, seasonal conditions and nutriment are resultant saṅkhāras, conditioned things. This is summarized in the famous formula:
Sabbe saṅkhāra anicca; Sabbe saṅkhāra dukkhā
All conditioned things are impermanent; all conditioned things are suffering, dukkha.
These are corporeal and mental aggregates which manifest during the cognition of sense impressions, the five groups of grasping which must be realized by vipassanā insight as impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial. In the above formula the Blessed One states that they should be seen as such. In order to see them in such light, one must take heedful note of every arising of these aggregates as they appear. During this observation, as concentration gets strengthened, one becomes aware that the aggregates are incessantly arising and vanishing. In accordance with the Commentary statements, hutvā abhāvato -- "it is impermanent because having arisen it perishes"-- and udayabbaya paṭipīḷanato -- "it is fearsome because it is oppressed by constant arising and perishing." This is the contemplation that conforms to the words of the Blessed One.
There are people who are damaging the Buddha's Dispensation by teaching in a way the exact opposite of what the Buddha taught. In the above formula -- sabbe saṅkhāra anicca -- they teach saṅkhāra to mean not "conditioned things" as explained above, but "activities." Thus, according to them, the above formula means "All activities are suffering." Hence they admonish against any kind of activity, such as giving alms, keeping precepts and practicing meditation. These activities, they say, will produce only dukkha. They advise keeping the mind as it is. Such teachings are readily accepted by uninstructed people who are not keen to put effort into meditation practice, but it is obvious to anyone, even with a limited knowledge of the teaching, that such teachings are against the words of the Buddha. Accepting such teachings amounts to rejecting the teaching of the Blessed One. Once the teaching is rejected, one will find oneself outside the dispensation of the Buddha, which is a cause for some concern.
In the Pali text, sabbe saṅkhāra dukkhā, saṅkhāra means "conditioned things," resultants of determining conditions, not "conditioning things," "activities" or "efforts." All saṅkhāras as conditioned things are to be contemplated as impermanent and suffering. It is wrong to interpret saṅkhāra here as meritorious activities. What is required is to carefully note and observe all the conditioned aggregates in one's own body until their real nature is seen and dispassion developed over them.
SANKHĀRA IN THE CONTEXT OF THIS SUTTA
The saṅkhāra described so far, conditioned things produced by kamma, mind, seasonal changes and nutriment, are not the saṅkhāra referred to in this Sutta. In the context of this Sutta, saṅkhāra refers to conditioning things, one of the five aggregates, namely, the volitional formations or mental activities which produce kamma.
The Khandhavagga of the Saṁyutta Nikāya gives the following definition: that which brings about physical, vocal and mental activities is saṅkhāra (of saṅkhārak-khandha). Of the five aggregates, the aggregate of matter has the quality of being changed or transformed by opposing circumstances. It cannot by itself bring about any action or change, but it has substantive mass. The movements of the volitional formations are expressed in the material body, which then appears to be doing the action. The aggregate of feelings (vedanā) experiences feelings, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It cannot of itself produce any effective action. Neither can the aggregate of perception, which merely recognizes or remembers things, like a clerk in an office making a record for future reference. The aggregate of consciousness just knows that a sight is seen, a sound is heard, and so on. It is not capable of causing any action. It is the aggregate of saṅkhāra which is responsible for physical, vocal or mental actions, such as walking, standing, sitting, lying down, bending, stretching, moving, smiling, talking, thinking, looking, or listening. The wish to go, stand, sit or sleep is a function of saṅkhāra. All three kinds of activities, physical, vocal, and mental, are instigated and organized by saṅkhāra.
To think that all these activities are carried out by one's self is to hold the wrong view of self in the saṅkhāra and is known as kāraka attā (agent self) clinging.
To think that the self which performs all activities resides permanently as a living entity in one's body is to cling to the wrong view of nivāsī attā (continuous self).
Thinking that this self, the living entity in one's body, can act according to its wishes, that its actions are subject to one's will, is sāmi attā (controlling self) clinging.
Volitional formations are clung to by all three modes of clinging. In reality, however, there is no self, no living entity to cling to, there are merely natural processes faring according to their own conditions and circumstances. The Blessed One taught that the functioning of saṅkhāras is not the action of a living entity. From the viewpoint of the common person, there seems to be a living entity that executes the actions of going, standing, and sitting, but the Blessed One refuted this belief by stating:
"Monks, were volitional formations self, they would not inflict suffering and it should be possible to say of them, 'Let volitional activities be thus (all wholesome), let volitional activities be not thus (unwholesome),' and manage them as one wishes."
Saṅkhāras are the mental states headed by cetanā, volition. There are fifty-two kinds of mental states. With the exception of feeling and perception, the remaining fifty constitute the aggregate of volitional formations, saṅkhārakkhandha. In Sutta discourses, only cetanā, volition, is specified as representing the saṅkhāra activities, but according to the Abhidhamma, we have other volitional formations that can produce kamma, such as attention (manasikāra), initial application of thought (vitakka), sustained application (vicāra), zest (pīti), greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), delusion (moha), non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion. These fifty kinds of volitional formations are responsible for all kinds of activities, such as going, standing, sitting, sleeping, bending, stretching, smiling, and speaking. These actions, as well as mental activities such as thinking, visual-consciousness, and auditory-conscious-ness, are carried out and directed by saṅkhāra.
HOW VOLITIONAL FORMATIONS OPPRESS
The Blessed One urged us to reflect in this way: were volitional formations self they would not oppress. Actually they do oppress in many ways. When we do things out of desire or greed, we become exhausted and distressed. When we say things which should not be said, we are embarrassed. If we commit criminal offences, we get punished. We burn ourselves with longing, losing our appetite and sleep. When we commit evil deeds, such as stealing or telling lies, we land in woeful states and undergo intense misery.
Likewise, volition accompanied by hate motivates vocal and physical actions which produce distress and suffering. Volition accompanied by delusion, conceit and wrong views also leads to distress and suffering in the present life and in the states of woe. These are the ways in which volitional formations oppress. Were volitional formations self, they would not be oppressive in this manner.
Were volitional formations self it should be possible to arrange and organize them in such a way that only wholesome activities bringing beneficial results were carried out, not those which would cause harm. Actually it is not possible to manage these activities as one wishes. We may find ourselves involved in activities we should not do, saying things we should not say, or thinking thoughts we should not think. In this way it can be seen that volitional formations are not amenable to control and are therefore not self. In order to see this clearly, the Blessed One said:
"Monks, in reality, volitional formations are not self, not one's inner core. For this reason, they tend to inflict distress. Furthermore, it is not possible to manage and say of volitional formations: 'Let volitional formations be thus, let them not be thus'."
Volitional formations are, therefore, not self, insubstantial, faring in accordance with causes and conditions. Accordingly, they are oppressing; how they are oppressing has been described above. Through bad companions, through the defective guidance of poor teachers and through wrong attitudes of mind, we do, say and think things we should not do, say, or think about. In mundane affairs, we may get involved in blameworthy, illegal activities and indulge in bad habits such as drinking, drug-taking or gambling. Also because of greed or anger, we vocalize things which should not be spoken about. These activities result in destruction of property, punishment by legal authorities and loss of friends and associates. From the spiritual and moral standpoint, bad deeds such as killing and telling lies produce bad results, even leading to the misery of the woeful states. Thus, volitional formations oppress by producing bad kammic effects.
Here I would like to recount a story of how an unwholesome volitional activity of slandering resulted in dire distress.
THE STORY OF THE SPIKED PETA
At one time the Venerable Lakkhaṇa and the Venerable Moggallāna were coming down from the Vultures' Peak to go for alms food. On their way down, the Venerable Moggallāna saw a peta by means of his Divine Eye. The peta had needles piercing and passing through its body. Some entered into its head and emerged from its mouth, some entered into the mouth and came out from the chest, some entered from the chest and came out through the stomach, some pierced through the stomach and came out by the thigh, some came in by the thighs and out through the legs, some entered into the legs and came out through the feet.
The peta was running about in intense pain, but the needles followed him and pierced his body wherever he went. On seeing his plight, the Venerable Moggallāna reflected that he had become divested of all kammic effects that could land him in such an existence. Pleased with the thought of self-liberation, he smiled to himself, and this was duly noticed by his companion, the Venerable Lakkhaṇa, who asked him the reason for his smile.
The Venerable Lakkhaṇa was not developed enough to see petas, and would have disbelieved the story and cast doubt on Moggallāna's words, so the Venerable Moggallāna did not tell him then what he had seen, but told him to ask about it again when they got to the presence of the Blessed One.
After finishing the meal, they went to the Buddha, and the Venerable Lakkhaṇa asked once again why the Venerable Moggallāna had smiled as they came down from the Vultures' Peak. The Venerable Moggallāna said then that he saw a peta being tormented by piercing needles and he smiled on reflecting that he had become free from such unwholesome volitional activities as had landed the peta in his predicament.
Then the Blessed One praised him, "My disciple is well equipped with the Divine Eye. I saw this peta on the eve of my enlightenment while seated on the throne of wisdom, but since there was no witness, I have not said a word about it. Now that I have the Venerable Moggallāna to corroborate the story, I shall tell about him."
The Blessed One recounted that while in human existence, that being had committed the grievous misdeed of slandering, for which unwholesome kamma he had to undergo intense suffering in the nether worlds for many lakhs of years. Having come up from that abode, he had become this peta to suffer for the remaining portion of the resultant saṅkhāras.
The peta was invisible to ordinary vision, that is why Venerable Lakkhana did not see him. The needles that pierced the peta did not fall upon other beings, only on that peta. This is an example of how oppressing volitional formations can be.
There were other petas visible to the Venerable Moggallāna, such as the cattle slaughterer who had become a peta chased by vultures, crows, and eagles, who attacked him with their beaks; the bird hunter who had become a peta in the shape of a piece of meat, pestered by vultures, crows and eagles, and who wailed as he fled from his assailants; a former sheep slaughterer who had no skin covering his body -- a bloody, messy lump of flesh -- he was also a target of attack by vultures, crows and eagles; a peta who had previously been a pig slaughterer who had knives and two edged swords falling upon him and cutting him up; a hunter who had spears piercing him. They were all running about wildly, shrieking and wailing. The Venerable Moggallāna also saw petas who were suffering because of other unwholesome volitional formations, such as torturing others and committing adultery. They serve as further examples of the oppressive nature of unwholesome saṅkhāras.
The denizens of the lower worlds and creatures of the animal world are undergoing suffering because of unwholesome volitional formations which they have done in the past. In this human world, miseries due to the difficulties of earning a living, disease and maltreatment by others have their origin in past unwholesome volitional formations. These volitional formations oppress because they are not self, not one's inner core.
It is not possible to manage volitional formations so that unwholesome ones are prevented from arising and only the wholesome ones appear. This can be experienced personally by meditators: they want to develop only the volitional formations pertaining to meditation, but they find, especially in the beginning, undesirable distractions making their appearance. Under the guidance of greed, various thoughts suggesting different procedures for meditation practice are continually arising. Other thoughts under the guidance of aversion and conceit, to practice this way or that, arise. The meditators must discard these distracting thoughts by noting "liking," "desiring," "thinking" and so on. As stated above, all these volitional activities tend to afflict, they are unmanageable, therefore they are not self, not one's inner core; they are insubstantial phenomena, dependent on conditions. They may be likened to the rain, the sun or the wind. We have no control over the rain. Although we may wish for it, we will not get it unless such conditions as clouds, humidity, and wind elements permit. When the conditions are right, we get rain even if we do not want it. Likewise with the sun: when the sun is covered by clouds, there is no sunshine, no matter how much we may wish for it. In the absence of cloud cover, the sun shines brightly whether we want it or not. The wind blows only when atmospheric conditions are right. When conditions are not favorable, there is no wind, however much we wish for it. These external phenomena have nothing to do with us; we have no control over them. Volitional formations are internal phenomena over which we also have no control. They fare in accordance with conditions and are, therefore, not self.
HOW REALIZATION OF NOT-SELF COMES ABOUT
For the meditator constantly taking note of corporeal and mental phenomena, it becomes very obvious how volitional formations are uncontrollable and not amenable to one's will. While contemplating on the movements of the abdomen and bodily motions, noting "rising," "falling," "sitting," "touching," if stiffness arises, it has to be noted as "stiffness, stiffness." Then the desire to change postures follows. This desire is nothing but mental activity headed by cetanā, volition. Cetanā is giving silent instructions, "Now, change the posture, change the posture." The meditator may want to continue noting without changing posture, but because of the insistent urgings of cetanā, he does change. This is an unwanted volitional formation.
Likewise, while noting feelings of pain, heat or itchiness, posture is changed at the direction of ungovernable volitional formations.
Again, during the course of meditating, sensual thoughts may appear. These are volitional formations which the meditator does not wish for, and they must be banished by vigilant noting. Volitional formations may urge the meditator to go and talk to someone, to look around or do some work. These are all undesirable volitional formations which arise all the same whether one likes it or not.
They are examples of the unmanageable, uncontrollable nature of volitional formations. They should not be welcomed, but discarded by heedful noting.
To think that there is a manageable, controllable self is to adhere to sāmi attā clinging. The meditator who takes note of the processes of corporeality and mentality as they take place clearly perceives that what one desires does not happen, and what is not desired does happen. In this way he removes the sāmi attā clinging. As he observes the processes of origination and dissolution taking place in quick succession, and sees that which is cherished dissolving, sāmi attā clinging is abandoned. Nothing is seen to remain stable; everything is dissolving, perishing. In this way, nivāsī attā clinging, the belief in the permanent existence of self or inner substance, is also banished.
Then the meditator perceives that events take place only when various factors come together to fulfil the necessary conditions for their happening. Take, for instance, the arising of eye-consciousness. There must be the eye, an object of sight and sufficient light. Then there must be the intention to look. When there is eye and a clearly visible object of sight, the act of seeing is bound to ensue. Likewise a sound is heard only when there is ear, sound, unobstructed space and intention of inclining the mind to hearing. When there is ear and a clearly audible sound, an act of hearing will surely take place. An act of touching will take place when there is an object, the body, bodily impression and intention to touch.
Seeing that respective resultant events of seeing, hearing, and touching take place only when corresponding factors necessary for their arising have come together, the meditator realizes that there is no self or living entity which is causing the seeing, hearing or touching. He thus banishes the kāraka attā clinging which holds there is self or living entity masterminding or overseeing activities. In order to remove this kāraka attā clinging, the Blessed One taught that saṅkhāra, volitional formations, are not self.
I have now dealt fairly comprehensively with the exposition on volitional formations not being self, and shall end the discourse here for today.
See also: Vietnamese Translation
Source: Sakyamuni Meditation Center, California, U.S.A.