“Rupam aniccam, vedana anicca, sanna anicca, sankhara anicca, vinnanam aniccam.
Rupam anatta, vedana anatta, sanna anatta, sankhara anatta, vinnanam anatta.
Sabbe sankhara anicca. Sabbe dhamma anatta ti.”
“Form is impermanent, feeling is impermanent, perception is impermanent, mental formations are impermanent, consciousness is impermanent.
Form is not self, feeling is not self, perception is not self, mental formations are not self, consciousness is not self.
All conditions are impermanent. All things are not self.”
(Chanted every morning in Buddhist monasteries)
In the ancient Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the Greek words gnothi seauton, or ‘know yourself,’ were inscribed in the forecourt of the building. This injunction was a driving force behind the explorative philosophy of the great wisdom-lover Socrates, as detailed in the numerous Platonic dialogues. But it’s not only the classical Greeks that have been concerned with finding out the truth of who we really are. Another great wisdom-lover was the Lord Buddha, who meditated on the true nature of self and discovered the teaching of anatta (not-self).
Not-self is the way the Buddha described all the things that we normally take to be the self, whether they be mental or physical (nama and rupa respectively in the Pali scriptures). That which is usually presumed to be ‘me’ is found to be not self when deeply reflected upon, leaving behind the delusion of a separate selfhood and the suffering that arises thereof. This is enlightenment or awakening – ‘bodhi.’
The Buddha classified those elements that are normally assumed to be the self into five groups or aggregates, which are called pancupadanakkhandha (the five groups of grasping), or the five aggregates (pancakkhandha) for short. It is by clinging to these aggregates that the delusion of selfhood is retained. The five aggregates are:
- Rupakkhandha – bodily group
- Vedanakkhandha – feeling group
- Sannakkhandha – perception group
- Sankharakkhandha – mental-formations group
- Vinnanakkhandha – consciousness group
Our experiences fall into the above categories, with vinnana (consciousness) being associated with one of the other aggregates to form a conscious moment. (If consciousness is not present, then there’s no experience, of course, as there’s nothing to be conscious of it.) For example, if I’m aware of a positive feeling arising, then that’s consciousness of the feeling group, and when dreaming, I’m conscious of a mental formation. In deep sleep, when there’s nothing experienced, there’s no conscious present either, as that experienced (rupa, vedana, sanna or sankhara) and consciousness are interdependent; you can’t have one without the other. The one exception to this is nirvana, enlightenment, when the conditioned realm of conscious experience is transcended to the unconditioned (asankhata)…but that’s another story.
Ajahn Chah taught on the five aggregates frequently, and he said that as everything physical or mental is without exception conditioned, it should be let go of. He also said that both mind and body do not belong to anyone, but are natural phenomena that appear to be self when the mind is deluded by things. Seeing that everything is impermanent, imperfect, and impersonal (the three characteristics of existence), the five khandhas can be let go of, revealing the innate state of enlightenment that lies beneath all particular things. When this is released, one is an arahant (‘noble one’), enlightened as the Buddha was, and there’s no longer an illusory self to be reborn, just the transcendent reality of the deathless (amata).