The five khandhá, or aggregates, which constitute a living being together with his entire experience of the world, are in a condition of perpetual change. They are continually arising and passing away, and though the body may appear to alter slowly, the changes of the mind can be seen to follow each other in rapid succession; and so long as rága, dosa and moha, or lust, hate, and delusion, have not been destroyed, the five aggregates continue to arise life after life.
An Arahat is one who succeeds in destroying, once for all, his lust, hate, and delusion: this destruction, as we have seen, is known as saupádisesá nibbánadhátu, or the Extinction Element with Remainder. The remaining basis -- due to former lust, hate, and delusion -- comprises the Arahat's five faculties -- eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body -- and permits his experiences of pleasant and painful sensations while he yet lives. He does not, however, delight in, nor is he affected by, these various feelings, since he has destroyed lust, hate, and delusion; and when he dies his feelings cease. That is to say: his five faculties break up at death, and, being rid of lust, hate, and delusion, he is free from birth; the faculties, therefore, will not again come into existence, and there can consequently be no fresh sensations dependent upon them -- in other words, his feelings 'will become cold':
(Vedaná Samyutta, 7)
Not only are feelings extinguished at the death of an Arahat, but the entire five aggregates, being inseparable, no longer arise:
This is called anupádisesá nibbánadhátu, or the Extinction Element without Remainder.
The important thing to notice is that both the Extinction Elements are either destruction or cessation. The Extinction Element with Remainder is destruction of lust, hate, and delusion: it is the destruction, and not the remainder -- the faculties -- nor the sensation dependent upon it, that is called the Extinction Element. (In much the same way it is the absence of disease that is called 'health', and not the body itself, which can only be said to 'possess health' or to 'be healthy'.) This destruction, furthermore, is permanent, since lust, hate, and delusion, once destroyed, can reappear neither in this lifetime nor hereafter: and also, since the presence of these three things is necessary for mental suffering to arise, this destruction, or Extinction Element, is pleasant, in the sense that absence of mental distress is pleasant. (Bodily suffering, as we have seen, is not affected so long as the faculties remain.) With the Extinction Element without Remainder, the remainder -- the faculties --, which was not destroyed earlier, now breaks up, and the five aggregates finally cease to arise. This Extinction Element too -- final cessation -- is permanent, and it is pleasant in the sense of complete absence of all feelings whatsoever, mental or bodily:
Thus, neither of the Extinction Elements is stated as containing, or consisting of, all or any of the five aggregates; both are stated in terms of absence of undesirable things; both are permanent and pleasant. Nibbána then, or extinction, is negative, as 'minus three oranges' is negative: but just as there must have been a pile of oranges in the first place before we can say 'minus three oranges', so there must have been a living being full of lust, hate, and delusion, before we can say 'nibbána'. Nibbána is not nothing: it is cessation of the process of existence.
And is this not annihilation? So, indeed, it will appear to anyone who believes that there is something permanent and unchanging, a lasting self, to be annihilated:
Only when the world of the five aggregates is no longer thought of as permanent and unchanging self (and we shall see that the idea of self is merely a mistaken view of the five aggregates), only then will extinction of becoming cease to appear as annihilation of self.
The second discourse of the Buddha to the first five monks, the Anattalakkhana Sutta (Khandha Samyutta 59), is one of the better-known Suttas, and no-one now disputes that the Buddha categorically denied the existence of attá, self or soul, in the five aggregates. But belief in self is strong, and hard to abandon; and many people, forbidden to look for self inside the five aggregates, hope to find it outside;[a] and they sometimes come to think that nibbána must contain, or be, attá.
In thinking that nibbána is attá, two mistakes are made. The first may be seen from this text:
(Khandha Samyutta 47)
All thoughts about self are necessarily, whether the thinker is aware of it or not, thoughts about the five aggregates of clinging; and to think of nibbána as attá is to think of nibbána as consisting of one or more of these five aggregates.
The second mistake is to believe that there really is such a thing as self. The following text leaves no doubt about the matter.
(Avyákata Samyutta 10)
Whatever the significance of sabbe dhammá anattá (a matter that will be discussed later), it is clear that an affirmative answer to the question 'Does self exist?' would not have been in accordance with the Buddha's knowledge.
It is quite evident that 'nibbána is attá' cannot be said.
Depending upon whether water is present or not, a piece of cloth may be either wet or dry; there is no third possibility: and it might seem that this alternative applies to all things. Whatever is not wet must be dry; whatever is not dry must be wet. Just so, it may be thought that whatever is not attá must be anattá, and whatever is not anattá must be attá. Since we cannot say 'nibbána is attá', it follows that nibbána must be anattá. But suppose a hole is made in the cloth by cutting a small piece of material from the middle: though the cloth itself must indeed be either wet or dry, the hole, as such, is neither. A hole is a negative, an absence of some material substance -- in this case, of cotton threads --, and we cannot ascribe to it qualities, such as wet and dry, that properly apply only to actual material substance. Nibbána, like the hole in the cloth, is a negative, an absence of what formerly was present; and attá and anattá can properly apply -- attá mistakenly, and anattá correctly -- only to the positive five aggregates. The attempt to ascribe these attributes to nibbána lands us in absurdities, as we may see when the Anattalakkhana Sutta (Khandha Samyutta 59) is travestied by substituting nibbána for the five aggregates:
To say that nibbána is attá is to think that we can alter our personal extinction to suit our taste, which is a very curious idea: but to say 'nibbána is anattá', in our haste to correct the mistaken view that nibbána is attá, is merely to assert that extinction leads to affliction -- to change, decay, and death --; and we escape out of the fire, but only into the frying-pan. Those who hold the view that nibbána is attá are, indeed, doubly mistaken -- they misunderstand nibbána, and they believe in the reality of attá. But although those who hold that nibbána is anattá may not believe in the existence of attá, or may think they do not believe in it,[b] they still confound nibbána, consciously or unconsciously, with the five aggregates.
If it is remembered, that permanent abiding attá can only be thought of in connexion with the five aggregates; that, in fact, such a thought is mistaken, since it rests on an ontological deception, a mirage, the illusion 'I am'; that the five aggregates are consequently without attá, or unchanging principle or essence; that, since they have no unchanging principle or essence, they are powerless to resist impermanence and inevitably 'lead to affliction' -- to change, decay, and death --; and that this impotence in the face of change is the characteristic of anattá: and if it is also remembered that nibbána is both void of the five aggregates and permanent, -- then it should not be difficult to see why nothing is attá, why the five aggregates are anattá, and why it cannot be said that nibbána is either.
Certainly, a statement by the Buddha that nibbána
is attá or that it is anattá is nowhere to be found it the
II. SANKHÁRÁ & DHAMMÁ
They are interpreted in this way. Sabbe sankhárá means everything that is sankhata, or formed; or, in other words, everything excluding the asankhata, the unformed, nibbána. Sabbe dhammá means both sankhata and asankhata; that is to say, everything, nibbána included. Nibbána is thus anattá.
At first sight this passage seems convincing; and it is only on closer examination that the argument based on it is seen to be falacious. For this reason, and also because it provides a salutary warning against treating the Buddha's teaching as an exercise in logic, it is dealt with here. It is clear enough that, in this Sutta, the asankhata, or nibbána, is referred to as a dhamma. But to suppose that the term dhamma can therefore always apply to nibbána would be a mistake, for it is said elsewhere,
Since nibbána, as we saw earlier, is both permanent and pleasant -- pleasant precisely because it is void of suffering --, it is evident that the word dhamma does not always have exactly the same meaning. It is not intended to prove that nibbána is never referred to as dhamma, but simply to show that any syllogistic reasoning using the term dhamma -- 'All things (dhammá) are anattá: nibbána is a thing (dhamma): therefore nibbána is anattá.' -- is suspect and unreliable. And, in fact, reference to the full text of the Sutta passage in question shows dhammá in the company of the words buddha and sangha -- a context where dhamma means '(The Buddha's) Teaching' or 'Doctrine' or 'Norm'. This is clearly a quite different order of meaning of dhamma from that in sabbe dhammá anattá, and the above argument is consequently invalid.
The earlier discussion should leave no doubt that sabbe dhammá anattá cannot possibly refer to nibbána; but if this is once admitted, it becomes necessary to account for the change from sankhára to dhamma in the three statements, sabbe sankhárá aniccá, sabbe sankhárá dukkhá, and sabbe dhammá anattá. Why not simply sabbe sankhárá aniccá, dukkhá and anattá? In the absence of an explanation by the Buddha, all that we can hope for, and, indeed, all that we can really want, is a simple interpretation that should not conflict with the Suttas and should be in conformity with the general intention of the Buddha's teaching. What follows does not pretend to be more than a tentative opinion: it is a suggestion rather than an assertion.
Like the colours of the rainbow, the meanings of sankhára and dhamma are many and various; and just as the blue merges into the green, and the green into the yellow, without any abrupt change, so each meaning of these two words merges into another, and that into a third, without our ever being able to say where one ends and the next begins: under these circumstances, exact definition is impossible, and formal logic, as we have seen, misleading. Some of these meanings -- káyasankhára, 'in and out breaths', for example, and dhamma and adhamma, 'right' and 'wrong' -- are clearly irrelevant to the problem; others, just as clearly, are essential to it. The task is to decide where the dividing line shall be drawn. Quotations from the Suttas are here chosen according as they seem to illustrate various relevant meanings of sankhárá and dhammá (in their plural form); and their general sense, indicated by these quotations, which cover for each word a certain limited range of meanings, will be found to give a reasonable intepretation of the three statements under discussion.
All the volitions of a living being, which arise in connexion with objects either of senses or of the mind, all his affective reactions to experience, his desires and aversions, his likes and dislikes, are called sankhárá, or -- as it is translated here -- formations, and are included in the aggregate of formations. In this passage, therefore, sankhárá are just volitions, and compose one of the five aggregates.
Sankhárá are no longer merely volitions: though still one of the five aggregates, they are now seen in their dynamic function. Sankhárá 'form what is formed'. And what is formed? The five aggregates are formed; all existence is formed. This simply means that the present existence of a living being -- the five aggregates -- is conditioned by his volitions in the past, and that his present volitions condition his future existence.
Sankhárá are first, volitions; secondly, what form the formed; and thirdly, the five aggregates, the living being. Volitions, thus, are what form the formed; and what is formed is the living being. Combining these, we get a single phrase, 'volitions form the living being', which covers all three meanings. This we shall take as expressing the general sense of sankhárá. The emphasis, in particular contexts, on any one of these three aspects may be more than on the others, as the quotations show; but if the general sense is entirely forgotten in such contexts, the essential background connecting different uses of the word sankhaárá is lost; and many passages, thus isolated, become hard to understand. If the context does not indicate any one particular aspect, then sankhárá may be understood in its general sense.
It will be seen that the general sense of sankhárá, 'volitions form the living being', describes a process taking place in time -- past volitions form present beings, present volitions form future beings. Since the chief characteristic of a temporal process is change, we may say 'every formation of living beings by volitions is a process of change', or more shortly, 'all formations are impermanent'; and we thus arrive at sabbe sankhárá aniccá.
A general sense of sankhárá has been found by putting together three particular and connected meanings: the result is, as it were, the Lowest Common Multiple. The meanings of dhammá, however, seem to be related rather differently, and the general sense may perhaps best be arrived at by finding a formulation that is true of all of them -- a kind of Highest Common Factor.
In these quotations, and in many other passages, dhammá -- here translated as the neutral word 'things' -- means anything that can be the object of mind-consciousness (as opposed to eye-consciousness and so on), or in brief, 'objects of the mind'.
The second quotation shows that dhammá, as objects of the mind, are impermanent. Nibbána, being permanent, is clearly not an object of the mind; for if it were, consciousness and nibbána would both cease together, and lust, hate, and delusion, would return to plague an Arahat upon his death -- a strange state of affairs.
The man, when he is reflecting, actually sees only the stumps at the ends of his arms and legs -- for there is nothing else to be seen --, and from the fact that he no longer sees his hands or feet he infers that these are cut off. In much the same way, the Arahat sees only his own undefiled mind, and from the fact that he no longer sees his former defilements he infers their destruction -- which is nibbána. Even if an Arahat is not engaged in reflecting on the state of his mind, still lust, hate, and delusion, remain absent, and nibbána endures. To think about nibbána is to entertain an idea or a concept; to realize nibbána is to destroy lust, hate, and delusion;[c] to infer or reflect upon nibbána is to compare two states -- before, and after, destruction of lust, hate, and delusion --: but just as we can never actually see, only infer, 'minus three oranges', so in no case can nibbána itself -- namely, 'minus lust, hate, and delusion' -- be directly an object of the mind.
Even though dhammá -- as objects of the mind -- cannot, perhaps, include nibbána, yet it may still be maintained that sabbe dhammá -- all things -- cannot possibly exclude nibbána. Nevertheless, here, surely, is a passage where sabbe dhammá does not refer to nibbána:
The meaning of dhammá in this text is less easy to determine precisely than in those considered first. Desire, in one way or another, is the root condition of all sentient existence; and feeling, as the Buddha explains at length in the Mahá Nidána Suttanta (Dígha 15), is the source of tanhá, or craving, which is responsible immediately for much of the suffering of this existence, and more remotely for rebirth in the next. But sabbe dhammá, although it undoubtedly refers to sentient existence in general, has a more definite meaning. 'All things -- sabbe dhammá -- are born of attention' and 'originate with contact', and they are therefore not separate from consciousness; for when there is no consciousness there is neither attention nor contact. Furthermore, concentration, mindfulness, understanding, and release, all of them relate only to the mind. A meaning of dhammá that suggests itself as valid throughout this Sutta is 'experiences', understood in a wide sense to include all mental events: without experiences there is no sentient existence; experiences are not separate from consciousness; and also, concentration and other mental states are experiences in the sense intended here. Nibbána, the deathless, brings all experiences to an end.
Here, dhammá are one of the four satipattháná, or stations of mindfulness. The body, feelings, and mental states, the first three satipattháná, are, for all their variety, fairly simple entities, and they can be observed more or less immediately. They originate and pass away together with sustenance, contact, and mentality-and-materiality, respectively; independently, that is to say, of whether they are deliberately made the objects of mindful contemplation or not. But dhammá, as described in the Satipatthána Sutta (Majjhima 10), are the complex elements of five quite different elaborate analyses of various aspects of existence -- five hindrances, five aggregates, six internal and external bases, seven factors of enlightenment, and four noble truths. These elements are entities that have been observed and identified by analysis and given a mental label.
Here, the observed entity is the lustful emotion that has arisen, and 'sensual desire' is the label. This labelling, and the elaborate analysis of the situation that accompanies it, are only possible in a deliberate contemplative effort of the mind; and the identified entities, the elements of analysis, the dhammá, can only occur in the mental process of analysing experience, irrespective of whether the original entities are mental or material. That is why dhammá only last as long as attention (manasikára) is being paid to them, and why 'with the cessation of attention there is the passing away of dhammá'. This suggests a more specific meaning of dhammá, having particular reference to the fourth satipatthána, namely, 'elements of mental analysis'.
From the discussion in the last paragraph, it is apparent that dhammá as 'elements of mental analysis' represents what is common to both dhammá as 'objects of the mind' and dhammá as 'experiences' (in its widest sense); for 'elements of mental analysis' are experiences that have become objects of the analysing mind. We can now formulate a general sense of dhammá that is valid at least within the range of meanings indicated by the Suttas that have been considered: dhammá are 'objects of mental analysis'. This general sense has been derived, not as an exact definition of dhammá, but as a guide to the implication of sabbe dhammá anattá.
When this result is applied, sabbe dhammá anattá becomes 'all objects of mental analysis are not-self'. Since attá, or self, arises in the first place merely as a delusive figment of the mind, and is then attributed by the deluded mind to its objects -- 'the five aggregates of clinging or one of them' --, a statement that mental analysis finds no attá in any of its objects is equivalent to an absolute denial of attá. Remembering this, and also the fact that the mind is the only means there is of investigating anything at all, the foregoing interpretation of sabbe dhammá anattá may not seem unreasonable.[d]
What more remains to be said? We have sabbe sankhárá aniccá because change is the characteristic of sankhárá, a synthesis, a process involving time: sabbe sankhárá dukkhá because suffering is a characteristic of change: and sabbe dhammá anattá because dhamma implies an analysis, a tally of the state of affairs at a given moment, in which no self can be found.
If a length of cable is looked at sideways, the strands can be traced without difficulty from end to end, but it is hard to tell how many there are, and to make sure that not one is overlooked. Sabbe sankárá aniccá is existence seen sideways, as a process: impermanence is easy to observe, but can we be certain there is no hidden core of self inside? If a cross-section of the same cable is looked at, although the strands cannot be seen as they run through the cable they can be counted immediately, and not one will pass unnoticed. Sabbe dhammá anattá is existence seen in cross section, as a state: although impermanence is not immediately not evident, a hidden core of self inside would be noticed at once.
Seen as sankhárá, the five aggregates are aniccá, seen as dhammá, they are anattá. Existence -- the five aggregates -- may be looked at, like the cable, in one way or in another: but in whichever way it is looked at, it is still anicca, dukkha, and anattá.
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 From this point to the end the argument is seriously at fault and hopelessly misleading. Ñánavíra. 12.iii.65. [Back to text]
[c] 'To realize nibbána and 'to destroy lust, etc.' are synonymous expressions. Extinction is cessation of craving (and consequently of the five aggregates). When craving is put aside (pahíná), nibbána is ipso facto achieved or realized (sacchikatam); and this happens when the eightfold path is developed (bhávito) and suffering is thereby penetrated (pariññátam) -- i.e. by seeing the five aggregates as impermanent, suffering, and not-self. In the path (which is sankhata) both sammásati and sammásamádhi are present, and the object of the latter is the four satipattháná (Cúlavedalla Sutta, Majjhima 44). Thus the object of the mind at the moment of the path is the five aggregates or (which amounts to the same thing) the four satipattháná, and not nibbána. To say that nibbána is seen at the moment of the path is only to speak figuratively. [Back to text]
[d] Perhaps the most satisfactory translation of dhamma in this sense is 'phenomenon' -- that of which a sense or the mind directly takes note, immediate object of perception (Concise Oxford Dictionary). 'All formations are impermanent, all formations are suffering, all phenomena are not-self.' [Back to text]
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