The Wings to Awakening

PART III ii. THE FIRST TRUTH

The first noble truth is that of dukkha, translated here as stress and suffering. The term has a wide range of other meanings as well, including distress, dis-ease, and-what is probably its most elemental meaning-pain. People learn their most basic strategies for dealing with pain in very early childhood, when their powers of observation are undeveloped and they cannot learn from the verbal lessons of others. Being in such a stage, they are in a poor position to understand pain, and it often leaves them bewildered. This means that they develop unskillful ways of handling it. Even when their minds later develop verbal and higher logical skills, many of the unskillful strategies and attitudes toward pain that they developed in early childhood persist on a subconscious level.

One of the most important insights leading up to the Buddha's Awakening was his realization that the act of comprehending pain lay at the essence of the spiritual quest. In trying to comprehend pain-instead of simply trying to get rid of it in line with one's habitual tendencies-one learns many valuable lessons. To begin with, one can end any sense of bewilderment in the face of pain. In seeing pain for what it truly is, one can treat it more effectively and skillfully, thus weakening the process by which pain and ignorance feed on each other. At the same time, as one learns to resist one's habitual reactions to pain, one begins to delve into the non-verbal, subconscious levels of the mind, bringing to light many ill-formed and hidden processes of which one was previously unaware. In this sense, pain is like a watering hole where all the animals in the forest-all the mind's subconscious tendencies-will eventually come to drink. Just as a naturalist who wants to make a survey of the wildlife in a particular area can simply station himself near a watering hole, in the same way, a meditator who wants to understand the mind can simply keep watch right at pain in order to see what subconscious reactions will appear. Thus the act of trying to comprehend pain leads not only to an improved understanding of pain itself, but also to an increased awareness of the most basic processes at work in the mind. As one sees how any lack of skill in these processes, and in particular in one's reactions to pain, leads only to more pain, one's mind opens to the possibility that more skillful reactions will not only alleviate specific pains but also lead away from pain altogether. Passage 238 shows how conviction in this possibility-which is nothing other than the principle of kamma-leads from the experience of stress and pain into a causal chain that cuts the bewilderment leading to further pain and ends in total release.

Although pain is the best vantage point for observing the processes of the mind, it is also the most difficult, simply because it is so unpleasant and hard to bear. This is why discernment needs the faculties of conviction, persistence, mindfulness, and concentration to give it the detached assurance and steady focus needed to stick with pain in and of itself, in the phenomenological mode, and not veer off into the usual narratives, abstract theories, and other unskillful defenses the mind devises against the pain. Only through the development of the five faculties into right concentration does discernment have the basis of pleasure and equanimity needed to probe into pain without feeling threatened by it, thus being able to arrive at an unbiased understanding of its true nature.

Passage 198 shows the direction this understanding should take, ultimately analyzing the wide variety of stress and pain down to five categories: the five aggregates of clinging/sustenance. Many of the remaining passages in this section give more detailed analysis of these categories. Taken together, these passages provide a useful conceptual framework for taking on the duty of trying to comprehend the issues surrounding stress, suffering, and pain. Here we will first discuss the aggregates, and then their connection with clinging and sustenance.

The five aggregates are form, feeling, perception, fabrications, and consciousness. These five categories cover the entire range of experience that can be adequately described [231]. "Form" covers all physical phenomena, both within one's own body and without. The remaining four categories cover all mental events. "Feeling" covers feelings of pleasure, pain, and neither-pleasure-nor-pain, regardless of whether they are based on physical or mental sensations. "Perception" denotes the mental act of applying labels or names to physical or mental events. "Fabrications" here covers the verbal and mental processes of concocting thoughts, questions, urges, or intentions in the mind. "Consciousness" covers the act of consciousness at any of the six senses: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and intellect. A few texts [235-36] discuss a separate type of consciousness that does not partake of any of the six senses or their objects. This type of consciousness is said to lie beyond the range of describable experience and so is not included under the five aggregates. In fact, it is equivalent to the Unfabricated and forms the goal at the end of the path.

The five aggregates, on their own, do not constitute suffering or stress. They are stressful only when functioning as objects of clinging/sustenance. This hybrid word-clinging/sustenance-is a translation of the Pali term upadana. Upadana has a hybrid meaning because it is used to cover two sides of a physical process metaphorically applied to the mind: the act of clinging whereby a fire takes sustenance from a piece of fuel, together with the sustenance offered by the fuel. On the level of the mind, upadana denotes both the act of clinging and the object clung to, which together give sustenance to the process whereby mental pain arises. In terms of this metaphor, pain is hot and unstable like fire, whereas the mental act of clinging to the five aggregates is what keeps the fire burning. These images are part of a larger complex of imagery contained in the Pali discourses, likening the processes of pain and its cessation to the physical processes of fire and its extinguishing. An understanding of this imagery helps to give a graphic, intuitive sense for the ways in which the Pali texts analyze the problem of stress and pain.

Many of the texts explicitly liken pain to a fever or to a burning, unstable fire [221; Thig.VIII.1]. Others deal more in indirect imagery, in which the terminology for explaining fire is applied to the mind. The word upadana is one instance of this type of indirect imagery. Others include khandha, or aggregate, which also means the trunk of a tree; and nibbana, the most common name for the Buddhist goal, which also means the extinguishing of a fire. According to the physics of the Buddha's time, fire was "seized' when it was ignited. Burning, it was in a state of unstable agitation, entrapped by the fuel to which it clung for sustenance. On going out, it was "freed." Letting go of its sustenance, it grew cool, calm, and unbound. According to the commentaries, "unbound' is what nibbana literally means. Thus the study of pain is like the study of a raging fire: one tries to comprehend it in order to find the source of the burning, bondage, and entrapment so as to put the fire out and gain freedom from it for good.

There are four types of clinging to the aggregates that give sustenance to the processes of suffering and stress: desire and passion

  • for the sensuality found in the aggregates,
  • views regarding the aggregates,
  • practices and precepts involving the aggregates, and
  • theories about the self involving the aggregates.

M.44 [MFU, pp. 44-45] makes the point that the act of clinging is neither the same as the aggregates nor entirely separate from them. If clinging were identical with the aggregates, there would be no way to experience the aggregates without clinging, and thus there would be no way for an awakened person to return to the conditioned level of experience after Awakening. If clinging and the aggregates were totally separate, clinging could exist independently of the aggregates and would count as a separate part of describable experience. If this were so, the transcending of the aggregates at the moment of Awakening would not constitute the transcending of the fabricated realm, and thus the task of comprehending suffering would not yet be finished. Thus the nature of the actual interdependence between clinging and the aggregates means that a full comprehension of the aggregates is enough to bring about Awakening, at the same time that it leaves an opening for the continued experience of the fabricated realm after Awakening has occurred.

What this interdependence means in practical terms is that one must examine the aggregates in such a way as to realize fully that they are not worth clinging to. One does this by focusing on two of their common characteristics: their instability and their complexity. In seeing their inherent instability, one realizes that they are inconstant. Because they are inconstant, any attempt to base happiness on them is inherently stressful, just as there is inherent stress in trying to sit comfortably on a wobbling chair. Because the aggregates offer no basis for true happiness, they lie beyond one's control, and thus do not deserve to be viewed as "me" or "mine." Focusing further on the aggregates, one perceives the complexity of their interrelationships. Passage 201 indicates some of this complexity in its discussion of the relationship among feeling, perception, and sensory consciousness. Although these aggregates function in different ways, in actual experience they can occur only as parts of an interrelated cluster of mental events surrounding a common object. In fact, they are so closely related to one another that ordinary awareness assumes them to be a single whole. One of the tasks of discernment in comprehending pain is to see these aggregates as interrelated events. Because their interrelationships follow complex, invariable laws, one's comprehension of their true behavior brings with it the oppressive realization-oppressive as long as one is still regarding the causal network in part or in whole in terms of "self" or "other"-that they ultimately do not lie under one's control. At best, one can explore and manipulate them to the extent of understanding them to gain freedom from them, but in and of themselves they do not offer any stable kind of happiness.

Observing and understanding the complex interrelationships among feeling, perception, and consciousness leads one into the area of dependent co-arising, which forms the essence of the second truth. As one's understanding grows more sensitive, it drives home the point that all clinging to these interrelated phenomena should be abandoned. This understanding-that phenomena taking part in such relationships are unworthy of clinging-forms the essence of the path. The full pursuit of this path, in which one abandons all passion and desire for the five aggregates, brings about knowledge of the cessation of stress. All of this bears out Ven. Gavampati's comment [194] that knowledge of the first noble truth inherently involves knowledge of the remaining three.


196. And what is the noble truth of stress? The six internal sense media, should be the reply. Which six? The medium of the eye...the ear...the nose...the tongue...the body...the intellect. This is called the noble truth of stress.
S.LVI.14

197. The All is aflame. Which All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Eye-consciousness is aflame. Eye-contact is aflame. And anything that arises in dependence on eye-contact, experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain, that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging, and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.

The ear is aflame. Sounds are aflame....
The nose is aflame. Aromas are aflame....
The tongue is aflame. Flavors are aflame....
The body is aflame. Tactile sensations are aflame....

The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Intellect-consciousness is aflame. Intellect-contact is aflame. And anything that arises in dependence on intellect-contact, experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain, that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging, and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.
S.XXXV.28

198. Sariputta: Now what, friends, is the noble truth of stress? Birth is stress, aging is stress, death is stress; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair are stress; not getting what is wanted is stress. In short, the five aggregates for sustenance are stress.
Now what is birth? Whatever birth, taking birth, descent, coming-to-be, coming-forth, appearance of aggregates, and acquisition of [sense] media of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called birth.

And what is aging? Whatever aging, decrepitude, brokenness, graying, wrinkling, decline of life-force, weakening of the faculties of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called aging.

And what is death? Whatever deceasing, passing away, breaking up, disappearance, dying, death, completion of time, break up of the aggregates, casting off of the body, interruption in the life faculty of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called death.

And what is sorrow? Whatever sorrow, sorrowing, sadness, inward sorrow, inward sadness of anyone suffering from misfortune, touched by a painful thing, that is called sorrow.

And what is lamentation? Whatever crying, grieving, lamenting, weeping, wailing, lamentation of anyone suffering from misfortune, touched by a painful thing, that is called lamentation.

And what is pain? Whatever is experienced as bodily pain, bodily discomfort, pain or discomfort born of bodily contact, that is called pain.

And what is distress? Whatever is experienced as mental pain, mental discomfort, pain or discomfort born of mental contact, that is called distress.

And what is despair? Whatever despair, despondency, desperation of anyone suffering from misfortune, touched by a painful thing, that is called despair.

And what is the stress of not getting what one wants? In beings subject to birth, the wish arises, 'O, may we not be subject to birth, and may birth not come to us.' But this is not be achieved by wishing. This is the stress of not getting what one wants. In beings subject to aging...illness...death...sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair, the wish arises, 'O, may we not be subject to aging...illness...death...sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair, and may aging...illness...death...sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair not come to us.' But this is not to be achieved by wishing. This is the stress of not getting what one wants.

And what are the five aggregates for sustenance that, in short, are stress? Form as an aggregate for sustenance, feeling as an aggregate for sustenance, perception as an aggregate for sustenance, fabrications as an aggregate for sustenance, consciousness as an aggregate for sustenance: These are called the five aggregates for sustenance that, in short, are stress.

This is called the noble truth of stress.
M.141

199. The Buddha: These are the five aggregates for sustenance: form as an aggregate for sustenance, feeling as an aggregate for sustenance, perception as an aggregate for sustenance, fabrications as an aggregate for sustenance, consciousness as an aggregate for sustenance....These five aggregates for sustenance are rooted in desire....

A certain monk: Is it the case that sustenance and the five aggregates for sustenance are the same thing, or are they separate?
The Buddha: Sustenance is neither the same thing as the five aggregates for sustenance, nor are they separate. Whatever desire and passion there is with regard to the five aggregates for sustenance, that is the sustenance there....

The monk: To what extent does the term 'aggregates' apply to the aggregates?

The Buddha: Any form whatsoever-past, present, or future; internal or external; gross or subtle; inferior or superior; near or far-that is the form aggregate. Any feeling whatsoever-past, present, or future...near or far-that is the feeling aggregate. Any perception whatsoever-past, present, or future...near or far-that is the perception aggregate. Any fabrications whatsoever-past, present, or future...near or far-those are the fabrication aggregate. Any consciousness whatsoever-past, present, or future; internal or external; gross or subtle; inferior or superior; near or far-that is the consciousness aggregate.

The monk: What is the cause, what is the condition, for the discernibility (manifesting) of the form aggregate...feeling aggregate...perception aggregate... fabrication aggregate...consciousness aggregate?

The Buddha: The four great existents [the properties of earth, liquid, fire, and wind] are the cause and condition for the discernibility of the form aggregate. Contact is the cause and condition for the discernibility of the feeling... perception...fabrication aggregate. Name-and-form is the cause and condition for the discernibility of the consciousness aggregate.
M.109

200. What do you call 'form' (rupa)? Because it is afflicted (ruppati), thus it is called 'form.' Afflicted with what? With cold and heat and hunger and thirst, with the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and reptiles. Because it is afflicted, it is called form.

What do you call feeling? Because it feels, thus it is called feeling. What does it feel? It feels pleasure, it feels pain, it feels neither-pleasure-nor-pain. Because it feels, it is called feeling.

What do you call perception? Because it perceives, thus it is called perception. What does it perceive? It perceives blue, it perceives yellow, it perceives red, it perceives white. Because it perceives, it is called perception.

What do you call fabrications? Because they fabricate fabricated things, thus they are called fabrications. What do they fabricate into a fabricated thing? From form-ness, they fabricate form into a fabricated thing. From feeling-ness, they fabricate feeling into a fabricated thing. From perception-hood...From fabrication-hood...From consciousness-hood, they fabricate consciousness into a fabricated thing. Because they fabricate fabricated things, they are called fabrications.

What do you call consciousness? Because it cognizes, thus it is called consciousness. What does it cognize? It cognizes what is sour, bitter, pungent, sweet, alkaline, non-alkaline, salty, and unsalty. Because it cognizes, it is called consciousness.
S.XXII.79

201. Maha Kotthita: Feeling, perception, and consciousness: are these qualities conjoined or disjoined? And is it possible, having divided them, to describe their separateness?

Sariputta: Feeling, perception, and consciousness are conjoined, not disjoined, and it is impossible, having divided them, to describe their separateness. What one feels, one perceives; and what one perceives, one cognizes....'
M.43

202. Form. Sariputta: And what, friends, is form as an aggregate of sustenance? The four great existents and the form derived from them. And what are the four great existents? They are the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, and the wind property.
And what is the earth property? The earth property can be either internal or external. What is the internal earth property? Whatever internal, within oneself, is hard, solid, and sustained [by craving]: head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, contents of the stomach, feces, or whatever else internal, within oneself, is hard, solid, and sustained: This is called the internal earth property. Now both the internal earth property and the external earth property are simply earth property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: 'This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.' When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the earth property and makes the earth property fade from the mind....

And what is the liquid property? The liquid property may be either internal or external. What is the internal liquid property? Whatever internal, belonging to oneself, is liquid, watery, and sustained: bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine, or whatever else internal, within oneself, is liquid, watery, and sustained: This is called the internal liquid property. Now both the internal liquid property and the external liquid property are simply liquid property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: 'This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.' When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the liquid property and makes the liquid property fade from the mind....

And what is the fire property? The fire property may be either internal or external. What is the internal fire property? Whatever internal, belonging to oneself, is fire, fiery, and sustained: that by which [the body] is warmed, aged, and consumed with fever; and that by which what is eaten, drunk, chewed, and savored gets properly digested, or whatever else internal, within oneself, is fire, fiery, and sustained: This is called the internal fire property. Now both the internal fire property and the external fire property are simply fire property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: 'This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.' When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the fire property and makes the fire property fade from the mind....

And what is the wind property? The wind property may be either internal or external. What is the internal wind property? Whatever internal, belonging to oneself, is wind, windy, and sustained: up-going winds, down-going winds, winds in the stomach, winds in the intestines, winds that course through the body, in-and-out breathing, or whatever else internal, within oneself, is wind, windy, and sustained: This is called the internal wind property. Now both the internal wind property and the external wind property are simply wind property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: 'This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.' When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the wind property and makes the wind property fade from the mind....
M.28

203. Sariputta: There comes a time, my friends, when the external liquid property is provoked, and at that moment the external earth property vanishes [e.g., in a flood]. And so, in the external earth property-so vast-inconstancy will be discerned, the principle of decay, passing-away, and change will be discerned. So do 'me,' 'mine,' or 'I am' pertain to this body-fleeting and sustained [by craving]?

All that pertains there is a 'no'....

There comes a time when the external liquid property is provoked and it carries away village, town and city, country-side and rural area.

There comes a time when the waters of the ocean recede one hundred leagues, two hundred... seven hundred leagues. There comes a time when the water in the ocean stands only seven palm trees deep, six... one palm tree deep. There comes a time when the water in the ocean stands only seven fathoms deep, six fathoms...one fathom deep. There comes a time when the water in the ocean stands only half a fathom deep, hip deep, knee deep, ankle deep. There comes a time when the water in the ocean is not enough to wet even the joint of a finger. And so, in the external liquid property-so vast-inconstancy will be discerned, the principle of decay, passing away, and change will be discerned....

There comes a time when the external fire property is provoked and consumes village, town and city, country-side and rural area, and then, coming to the edge of a green district, the edge of a road, the edge of a rocky district, to the water's edge, or to a lush, well-watered area, it goes out from lack of sustenance. There comes a time when people try to make (lit. 'search for') fire even with a wing bone and tendon parings. And so, in the external fire property-so vast-inconstancy will be discerned....

There comes a time when the external wind property is provoked, and carries off village, town and city, country-side and rural area. There comes a time when, in the last month of the hot season, they make ('search for') wind with a fan or a bellows, and even the grasses hanging in the drip-fringe of the thatch do not stir. And so, in the external wind property-so vast-inconstancy will be discerned, the principle of decay, passing-away, and change will be discerned. So do 'me,' 'mine,' or 'I am' pertain to this body-fleeting and sustained [by craving]? All that pertains there is a 'no'....
M.28

204. Feeling. Sister Dhammadinna: There are three kinds of feeling: pleasant feeling, painful feeling, and neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling....Whatever is experienced physically or mentally as pleasant and gratifying is pleasant feeling. Whatever is experienced physically or mentally as painful and hurting is painful feeling. Whatever is experienced physically or mentally as neither gratifying nor hurting is neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling....Pleasant feeling is pleasant in remaining and painful in changing. Painful feeling is painful in remaining and pleasant in changing. Neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling is pleasant when conjoined with knowledge and painful when devoid of knowledge.
M.44

205. Fabrications. And what are fabrications? There are these six classes of intention: intention aimed at sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas. These are called fabrications.
S.XXII.56

206. Three kinds of fabrications: meritorious fabrications [ripening in pleasure], demeritorious fabrications [ripening in pain], and imperturbable fabrications [the formless states of jhana].
D.33

207. Consciousness. Consciousness is classified simply by the condition in dependence on which it arises.
When consciousness arises in dependence on eye and forms, it is classified simply as eye-consciousness.
When consciousness arises in dependence on ear and sounds, it is classified simply as ear-consciousness.
When consciousness arises in dependence on nose and smells, it is classified simply as nose-consciousness.
When consciousness arises in dependence on tongue and tastes, it is classified simply as tongue-consciousness.
When consciousness arises in dependence on body and tactile sensations, it is classified simply as body-consciousness.
When consciousness arises in dependence on intellect and ideas, it is classified simply as intellect-consciousness.

Just as fire is classified simply by the condition in dependence on which it burns-a fire burning in dependence on logs is classified simply as a log fire...a fire burning in dependence on rubbish is classified simply as a rubbish fire; in the same way, consciousness is classified simply by the condition in dependence on which it arises.
M.38


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