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Fundamental of Vipassana

Mahasi Sayadaw

translated by Maung Tha Noe


Calm and Insight

What do we meditate on? How do we develop insight? This is a very important question.

There are two kinds of meditation: meditating to develop calm and meditating to develop insight. Meditating on the ten devices only gives rise to calm, not insight. Meditating on the ten foul things (a swollen corpse, for example), too, only gives rise to calm, not insight. The ten recollections, like remembering the Buddha, the Law and others, too, can develop calm and not insight. Meditating on the thirty-two parts of the body like hair, nails, teeth, skin -- these too, are not insight. They develop only concentration.

Mindfulness as to respiration is also concentration-developing. But one can develop insight from it. Visuddhi-Magga, however, includes it in the concentration subjects and so we will call it as such here.

Then there are the four divine states, love, pity, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, and four formless states leading to formless jhanas. Then, there is the meditation on the loathsomeness of food. All these are subjects for concentration meditation.

When you meditate on the four elements inside your body, it is called the analysis of the four elements. Although this is a concentration meditation, it helps develop insight as well.

All these forty subjects of meditation are subjects for developing concentration. Only respiration and analysis of elements have to do with insight. The others will not give rise to insight. If you want insight, you will have to work further.

To come back to our question, how do we develop insight? The answer is: we develop insight by meditating on the five aggregates of grasping. The mental and material qualities inside beings are aggregates of grasping. They may be grasped with delight by craving in which case it is called "grasping of the sense objects" -- or they may be grasped wrongly by wrong views -- in which case it is called "grasping through wrong views." You have to meditate on them and see them as they really are. If you don't, you will grasp them with craving and wrong views. Once you see them as they are, you no longer grasp them. In this way you develop insight. We will discuss the five aggregates of grasping in detail.


The five aggregates of grasping are matter or form, feelings, perception, volitional activities and consciousness. What are they? They are the things you experience all the time. You do not have to go anywhere else to find them. They are in you. When you see, they are there in the seeing. When you hear, they are there in the hearing. When you smell, taste, touch, or think, they are there in the smelling, tasting, touching or thinking. When you bend, stretch or move your limbs, the aggregates are there in the bending, stretching or moving. Only you do not know them to be aggregates. It is because you have not meditated on them and so do not know them as they really are. Not knowing them as they are, you grasp them with craving and wrong view.

What happens when you bend? It begins with the intention to bend. Then come the forms of bending one by one. Now in the intention to bend there are the four mental aggregates. The mind that intends to bend is the cons-ciousness. When you think of bending and then bend, you may feel happy, or unhappy, or neither happy nor unhappy, doing so. If you bend with happiness, there is pleasant feeling. If you bend with unhappiness or anger, there is unpleasant feeling. If you bend with neither happiness nor unhappiness, there is neutral feeling. So, when you think of bending, there is the "feeling" aggregate. Then, there is perception, the aggregate that recognizes the bending. Then there is the mental state that urges you to bend. It seems as though it were saying "Bend! Bend!" It is the volitional activities. Thus, in the intention to bend you have feelings, perception, volitional activities and consciousness -- all four mental aggregates. The movement of bending is matter or form. It is the material aggregate. So, the intention to bend and the bending together make up the five aggregates.

Thus, in one bending of the arm, there are the five aggregates. You move once and the five aggregates come up. You move again and there are more of the five aggregates. Every move calls up the five aggregates. If you have not meditated on them rightly and have not known them rightly, what happens we need not tell you. You know for yourselves.

Well, you think "I intend to bend" and "I bend", don't you? Everybody does. Ask the children, they will give the same answer. Ask adults who can't read and write, the same answer. Ask someone who can read, the same answer still if he will say what he has in his mind. But, because he is well-read, he may invent answers to suit the scriptures and say "Mind and matter." It is not what he knows for himself. Only inventions to suit the scriptures. In his heart of hearts he is thinking: "It is I who intend to bend. It is I who bend. It is I who intend to move. It is I who move." He also thinks: "This I have been before, am now, and will be in the future. I exist for ever." This thinking is called the notion of permanence. Nobody thinks, "This intention to bend exists only now." Ordinary people always think, "This mind existed before. The same that have existed before am now thinking of bending." They also think, "This thinking I exist now and will go on existing."

When you bend or move the limbs, you think: "It is the same limbs that have existed that are moving now. It is the same I that have existed that am moving now." After moving you again think, "These limbs, this I, always exist." It never occurs to you that they pass away. This, too, is the notion of permanence. It is clinging to what is impermanent as permanent, clinging to what is no personality, no ego, as personality, as ego.

Then, as you have bent or stretched to your desire, you think it is very nice. For example, as you feel stiffness in the arm, you move or rearrange it and the stiffness is gone. You feel comfortable. You think it is very nice. You think it is happiness. Dancers and amateur dancers bend and stretch as they dance and think it is very nice to do so. They delight in it and are pleased with themselves. When you converse among yourselves you often shake your hands and heads and are pleased. You think it is happiness. When something you are doing meets with success, again you think it is good, it is happiness. This is how you delight through craving and cling to things. What is impermanent you take to be permanent and delight in. What is not happiness, not personality, but just aggregates of mind and matter, you take to be happiness, or personality, and delight in. You delight in them and cling to them. You mistake them for self or ego and cling to them, too.

So, when you bend, stretch or move your limbs, the thinking "I will bend" is aggregate of grasping. The bending is the aggregate of grasping. The thinking "I will stretch" is the aggregate of grasping. The stretching is the aggregate of grasping. The thinking "I will move" is the aggregate of grasping. The moving is the aggregate of grasping. When we speak of aggregates of grasping to be meditated on, we mean just these things.

The same thing happens in seeing, hearing, etc. When you see, the seat of seeing, the eye, is manifest. So is the object seen. Both are material things. They cannot cognize. But if one fails to meditate while seeing, one grasps them. One thinks the whole body with the eye is permanent, happy, self, and grasps it. One thinks the whole material world with the object seen is permanent, beautiful, good, happy, and. self, and grasps it. So the form eye and the form visible object are aggregates of grasping.

And when you see, the "seeing" is manifest, too. It is the four mental aggregates. The mere awareness of seeing is the aggregate consciousness. Pleasure or displeasure at seeing is the aggregate feeling. What perceives the object seen is the aggregate perception. What brings the attention to see is the aggregate volitional activities. They constitute the four mental aggregates. If one fails to meditate while seeing, one is inclined to think that seeing "has existed before, and exists now." Or, as one sees good things, one may think "seeing is good." So thinking, one goes after good and strange things to enjoy seeing. One goes to watch plays and films at the expense of money, sleep and health because one thinks it is good to do so. If one does not think it is good, one will not go to waste money or impair one's health. To think that what sees or enjoys is "I", "I am enjoying", is to grasp with craving and wrong view. Because they grasp, the mind and matter that manifest themselves in seeing are said to be aggregates of grasping.

You grasp in the same way in hearing, smelling, tasting, touching or thinking. You grasp all the more to the mind that thinks, imagines and reflects as being the "I", the ego. So, the five aggregates of grasping are none other than the mental-material things that manifest themselves at the six doors whenever one sees, hears, feels or perceives. You must try to see these aggregates as they are. To meditate on them and see them as they are -- that is insight knowledge.

Knowledge and Freedom

"Insight meditation is meditating on the five aggregates of grasping." This is in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha. The teachings of the Buddha are called suttas, which means "thread." When a carpenter is about to plane down or saw off a piece of timber he draws a straight line using a thread. In the same way when we want to live the holy life we use the "thread" or sutta to draw straight lines in our actions. The Buddha has given us lines or instructions on how to train in morality, develop concentration and make become wisdom. You cannot go out of the line and speak or act as you please. Regarding the meditation of the five aggregates, here are a few excerpts from the suttas:

"Material shape, monks, is impermanent. What is impermanent, that is suffering. What is suffering, that is not the self. What is not self, that is not mine, that am I not, this is not my self. As it really comes to be, one should discern it thus by right wisdom." -- Samyutta Nikaya ii 19

You must meditate so that you will realize this impermanent, suffering, not-self material form is really impermanent, dreadfully suffering, and without a self or ego. You should meditate likewise on feelings, perception, activities, and consciousness.

What is the use of looking upon these aggregates as impermanent, suffering and not-self?

The Buddha tells us:

"So seeing all these things, the instructed disciple of the Aryans disregards material shape, disregards feeling." -- Samyutta Nikaya iii 68

He who realizes the impermanent, suffering, not-self nature of the five aggregates is wearied of material form as he is of feelings, perception, activities and consciousness.

"By disregarding he is passionless."

That is to say, he has reached the Ariyan Path.

"Through passionlessness, he is freed."

Once he has reached the Ariyan path of passionlessness, he has arrived at the four fruitions of freedom from the defilements, too.

"In freedom the knowledge comes to be 'I am freed.' "

When you are freed, you know for yourself that you are so. In other words, when you have become an arahat in whom the defilements are extinguished, you know you have become one.

All these excerpts are from Yad anicca Sutta and there are numerous suttas of this kind. The whole Khandhavagga Samyutta is a collection of them. Two suttas are especially noteworthy: Silavanta Sutta and Sutavanta Sutta. In both suttas the venerable Maha Kotthika puts some questions to the venerable Sariputta, who gives very brief but vivid answers. Maha Kotthika asks:

"What things, friend Sariputta, should be attended to thoroughly by a monk of moral habit?"

Note the attribute "of moral habit" in this question. If you want to practise insight meditation with a view to attaining the Path and Fruition and Nirvana, the least qualification you need is to be of moral habit. If you don 't even have moral habit, you can't hope for the higher conditions of concentration and wisdom. The Venerable. Sariputta answers:

"The five grasping aggregates, friend Kotthika, are the things which should be thoroughly attended to by a monk of moral habit, as being impermanent, suffering, as a disease, as a boil, as a dart, as pain, as illness, as alien, as decay, as void, as not-self."

What is the good of meditating like that? In answer the Venerable Sariputta goes on,

"Indeed, friend, it is possible for a monk of moral habit so thoroughly attending to these five aggregates of grasping" to realize the fruits of stream-winning.

So, if you want to be a stream winner and never to be reborn in the four lower states, you have to meditate on the five aggregates to realize their impermanence, suffering, and not-self nature. But that is not all. You can become an Arahat, too. The venerable Kotthika goes on to ask,

"What things, friend Sariputta, should be attended to thoroughly by a monk who is a Stream-winner?"

The Venerable Sariputta answers that it is the same five aggregates of grasping that should be thoroughly attended to by a stream-winner, as impermanent, suffering, not-self. The result? He moves on to Once-returning. What does Once-returner meditate on? Again the same five aggregates of grasping. He then becomes a Non-returner. What does the Non-returner meditate on? The five aggregates again. Now he becomes an Arahat. What does the Arahat meditate on? The five aggregates again. From this it is clear that the five aggregates are the things one has to meditate on even when one has become an Arahat.

What good is it to the Arahat by meditating so? Will he become a silent Buddha? Or, a supreme Buddha? No, neither. He will end his round of rebirths as an Arahat and enter Nirvana. The Arahat has no defilement left unremoved or uncalmed yet. All the defilements have been removed and calmed. So, he has nothing to develop in order to remove the defilements left unremoved or to calm those left uncalmed. Neither has he any moral habit, con-centration or wisdom yet to perfect. All the moral habits, concentration and wisdom that ought to be perfected have been perfected in him. So, he has no need to work for the perfection of what ought to be perfected, nor has he any need to increase those already perfected. The insight practice brings no such benefits to the Arahat.

One of the benefits the Arahat receives by meditating on the five aggregates is the happy condition in this world. Notwithstanding his being an Arahat, if he remains without meditation, disquiet and discomfort keep coming up at the six sense-doors, now here, now there. Here, disquiet does not mean mental distress. As the sense-objects keep coming up despite himself, he finds no peace of mind. That is all. Not to speak of Arahats, our meditators of today feel ill at ease to meet with the sense-objects, eager though they are on insight. As they return home from the meditation centre, they see this thing, hear that thing, get engaged in such and such business talks, and there is no peace at all. So they come back to the centre. To some, however, the disquiet does not last very long. Just four, five or ten days. Very soon the homely spirit gets the better of them and they are happy with their home life and set to household cares again. The arahat never returns to his old habits. If he meets with various sense-objects without meditation, only disquiet results. Only when he is absorbed in insight meditation does he find peace of mind. Thus meditating on the five grasping aggregates brings to the Arahat a happy condition in this world.

Again, as he lives in earnest meditation, mindfulness and comprehension of the impermanence, suffering and not-self keep rising in him. This is another benefit. The Arahat in whom mindfulness and comprehension keep rising is said to be in a chronic state of life. Such a one can enjoy the attainment to fruition at any time and for as long as he desires. For these two benefits -- a happy condition in this world and mindfulness-comprehension -- the Arahat lives in meditation.

The above are the answers given by the venerable Sariputta in Silavanta Sutta. The same answers are found in Sutavanta Sutta too. The only difference is in the terms silavanta, "of moral habit" or "virtuous", and sutavanta, "instructed" or "well informed." All the other words are the same. Based on these two suttas and other suttas on the aggregate the dictum has been formulated: Insight knowledge comes from meditating on the five aggregates of grasping.

Now to come back to the grasping that rises through the six sense-doors.

When people see, they think of themselves or others as being permanent, as having existed before, as existing now, as going to exist in future, as existing always. They think of them as being happy, good, or beautiful. They think of them as being living entities. They think likewise when they hear, smell, taste or touch. This "touch" is widespread all over the body -- wherever there is flesh and blood.

And wherever touch arises, there arises grasping. The bending, stretching, or moving of the limbs mentioned earlier are all instances of touch. So are the tense movements of rising and falling in the abdomen. We will come to this in detail later.

When one thinks or imagines, one thinks, "The I that have existed before is now thinking. Thinking, I go on existing," and so one thinks of oneself as being permanent, as an ego. One also thinks the thinking or imagining as being enjoyable, as being very nice. One thinks it is happiness.

If told that the thinking will disappear, he cannot accept it. He is not pleased. This is because he is clinging to it.

In this way one clings to whatever comes through the six sense doors, as being permanent, as being happy, as ego, as self. One delights with craving and clings to it. One mistakes with wrong view and clings to it.

You have to meditate on the five aggregates that can cling or grasp.

The Right Method

When you meditate, you have to meditate with method. Only the right method can bring about insight. If you look upon things as being permanent, how can there be insight? If you look upon them as being happy, beautiful, as soul, as ego, how can there be insight?

Mind and matter are impermanent things. These impermanent things you have to meditate on to see them as they really are, as being impermanent. They rise and pass away and keep on oppressing you, so they are dreadful, they are sufferings. You have to meditate to see them as they are, as sufferings. They are processes lacking in a personality, a soul, a self. You have to meditate to see that there is no personality, no soul, no self. You must try to see them as they really are.

So, every time you see, hear, touch or perceive, you must try to see the mental and material processes that rise through the six sense doors as they really are. When you see, the seeing is real. This you must note seeing, seeing. In the same way when you hear, note hearing. When you smell, note smelling. When you taste, note tasting. When you touch, note touching. Tiredness, hotness, aches, and such unbearable and unpleasant sensations arise from contact too. Observe them: tiredness, hot, pain, and so on. Thoughts, ideas, may also turn up. Note them: thinking, imagining, pleasure, delight, as they arise.

But to the novice it is hard to observe all that come up through the six sense doors. He must begin with just a few.

You meditate like this. When you breathe in and out, the way the abdomen moves rising and falling is especially conspicuous. You begin observing this move-ment. The movement of rising you observe as rising. The movement of falling you observe as falling. This observation of rising and falling is void of the lingo of the scriptures. People who are not used to meditational practice speak of it in contempt: "This rising and falling business has nothing to do with the scriptures. It is nothing." Well may they think it is nothing because it is not done up in scriptural jargon.

Theoretically, however, it is something. The rising is real, the falling is real, the moving air element is real. We have used the colloquial words rising and falling for convenience's sake. In scriptural terminology, the rising-falling is the air-element. If you observe the abdomen attentively as it rises and falls, the firmness is there, the motion is there, the bringing out is there. Here, the "firmness" is the characteristic of the air-element, the motion is its property, and the bringing out is its manifestation. To know the air-element as it really is means to know its characteristic, property and manifes-tation. We meditate to know them. Insight begins with the determination of mind and matter. To achieve this the meditator begins with the matter. How?

"(The meditator) should.... seize by way of characteristic, function and so on." -- Visuddhi-magga ii 227

When you begin meditating on matter or mind, you should do so by way of either the characteristic or the property (function). "And so on" refers to the manifesta-tion (mode of appearance). In this connection the Compendium of Philosophy is quite to the point.

"Purity of view is the understanding of mind and matter with respect to their characteristics, function (property), mode of appearance (manifestation) and proximate cause."

The meaning is this: insight begins with the analytical knowledge of mind and matter. In the seven purities, first you perfect the purity of morals and the purity of mind, and then you begin the purity of views. To achieve the analytical knowledge of mind and matter and the purity of views, you have to meditate on mind and matter and know them by way of their characteristics, property (function), manifestation and proximate cause. Once you know them thus, you gain the analytical knowledge of mind and matter. Once this knowledge grows sharper, you develop the purity of views.

Here, "to know them by way of their characteristics" means to know the intrinsic nature of mind and matter. To know "by way of property" is to know their function. Manifestation is their mode of appearance. It is not yet necessary to know the proximate cause at the initial stage of meditational practice. So we will just go on to explain the characteristics, function and manifestation.

In both the Path of Purity and the Compendium of Philosophy just quoted it is not indicated that mind and matter should be meditated on by name, by number, as material particles or as incessantly coming up processes. It is only shown that they should be meditated on by way of their characteristics, function and manifestation. One should take careful note of this. If not, one can be led to concepts of names, numbers, particles or processes. The commentaries say that you should meditate on mind and matter by way of their characteristic, function and manifestation, and so when you meditate on the air element, you do so by way of its characteristic, function and manifestation. What is the characteristic of the air-element? It is the characteristic of support. This is its intrinsic nature. It is the air element itself. What is the function of the air-element? It is moving. What is its manifestation? It is bringing out. Manifestation is what appears to the meditator's intellect. As one meditates on the air-element, it appears to the meditator's intellect as something bringing out, pushing, and pulling. This is the manifestation of the air-element. As you meditate on the rising-falling of the abdomen, all the firmness, moving, bringing out, become clear to you. These are the characteristic, function and manifestation of the air-element. This air element is important. In the postures and comprehension, contemplation of the body, Satipatthana-sutta, the commentator has laid emphasis on the air-element. Here is the Buddha's teaching:

"Gacchanto va gacchami ti pajanati."
(When he walks, he is aware "I am walking.")

The Buddha is instructing us to be mindful of the form walking by noting walking, walking, every time we walk.

How knowledge is developed from meditating thus is explained by the commentator:

"The thought I am walking arises. This produces air. The air produces the intimation. The bringing forward of the whole body as the air-element spreads is said to be walking."

The meaning is this: The meditator who is used to meditating -- walking, walking, every time he walks realizes like this. First the idea "I will walk" arises. This intention gives rise to tense movement all over the body, which in turn causes the material body to move forward move by move. This we say "I walk," or "He walks." In reality there is no I or He that walks. Only the intention to walk and the form walking. This the meditator realizes. Here, in this explanation of the Commentary, the emphasis is on the realization of the moving of the air-element. So, if you understand the air-element by way of its characteristics, function and manifestation, you can decide for yourself whether your meditation is right or not.

The air-element has the characteristic of support. In a football it is air that fills and supports so that the ball expands and remains firm. In colloquial speech we say the ball is full and firm. In philosophical terms the air-element is in support. When you stretch your arm you feel some stiffness there. It is the air-element in support. In the same way when you press an air-pillow or mattress with your body or head, your body or head will not come down but stay high above. It is because the air clement in the pillow or mattress is supporting you. Bricks pile up as the ones below support those above. If the bricks below are not supporting, the ones above will tumble down. In the same way the human body is full of the air-element which gives support to it so that it can stand stiff and firm. We say "firm" relatively. If there is something firmer, we will call it "lax". If there is something more lax, it becomes firm again.

The function of the air-element is moving. It moves from place to place when it is strong. It is the air-element that makes the body bend, stretch, sit, rise, go or come. Those unpractised in insight meditation often say, "If you note bending, stretching, only concepts like arms will appear to you. If you note left, right, only concepts like legs will appear to you. If you note rising, falling, only concepts like the abdomen will appear to you." This may be true to some of the beginners. But it is not true to think that the concepts will keep coming up. Both concepts and realities appear to the beginner. Some people instruct the beginners to meditate on realities only. This is impossible. To forget concepts is quite impracticable at the beginning. You must combine concepts with realities. The Buddha himself used concepts and told us to be "aware 'I am walking' " when we walk, bend or stretch. He did not use realities and tell us to be "aware 'It is supporting, moving'," etc. Although you meditate using the language of concepts like "walking, bending, stretching," as your mindfulness and concentration grow stronger, all the concepts disappear and only the realities like support and moving appear to you. When you reach the stage of the knowledge of dissolution, although you meditate walking, walking, neither the legs nor the body appear to you. Only the movement itself is there. Although you meditate bending, bending, there will not be any arms or legs. Only the movement. Although you meditate rising, falling, there will be no image of the abdomen or the body. Only the movement out and in. These as well as swaying are functions of the air-element.

What appears to be bringing out or drawing in to the meditator's mind is the manifestation of the air-element. When you bend or stretch your arm, it appears, something is drawing it in or pushing it out. It is plainer when walking. To the meditator whose concentration is grown sharper, by noting walking, right step, left step, lifting, putting forward, putting down, this moving forward as if being driven from behind becomes quite plain. The legs seem to be pushing forward of their own accord. How they move forward without the meditator making any effort is very plain. It is so good walking noting like this that some spend a lot of time in it.

So, when you meditate on the air element, you should know it by way of its characteristic of supporting, its function of moving, and its manifestation of bringing out. Only then is your knowledge right and as it should be.

You may ask, "Are we to meditate only after learning the characteristic, function and manifestation?" No. You need not learn them. If you meditate on the rising mind-and-matter, you know the characteristic, the function, and the manifestation as well. There is no other way than knowing by way of the characteristic, function, and manifestation when you meditate on the rising mind-and-matter. When you look up to the sky on a rainy day you see a flash of lightning. This bright light is the characteristic of the lightning. As lightning flashes, darkness is dispelled. This dispelling of darkness is the functions of lightning, its work. You also see what it is like -- whether it is long, short, a curve, a circle, straight, or vast. You see its characteristic, its function, its manifesta-tion, all at once. Only you may not be able to say the brightness is its characteristic, dispelling of darkness is its function, or its shape or outline is its manifestation. But you see them all the same.

In the same way, when you meditate on the rising mind-and-matter, you know its characteristic, its function, its manifestation, everything. You need not learn them. Some learned persons think that you have to learn them before you meditate. Not so. What you learn are only concepts. Not realities. The meditator who is contemplating the rising mind-and-matter knows them as if he were touching them with his own hand. He needs not learn about them. If there is the elephant before your very eyes, you need not look at the picture of an elephant.

The meditator who is meditating on the rising and falling of the abdomen knows the firmness or laxity thereof -- its characteristic. He knows the moving in or out -- its function. He also knows its bringing in and pushing out --its manifestation. If he knows these things as they really are, does he need to learn about them? Not if he wants the realization for himself. But if he wants to preach to others, he will need to learn about them. When you meditate right step, left step, you know the tenseness in every step -- its characteristic. You know the moving about-- its function. And you know its bringing out -- its manifestation. This is proper knowledge, the right knowledge.

Now, to know for yourselves how one can discern the characteristic and so on by just meditating on what rises, try doing some meditation. You certainly have some hotness, pain, tiredness, ache, somewhere in your body now. These are unpleasant feelings hard to bear. Concentrate on this unpleasantness with your intellect and note hot, hot, or pain, pain. You will find that you are going through an unpleasant experience and suffering. This is the characteristic of suffering -- going through an unplea-sant experience.

When this unpleasant feeling comes about, you become low-spirited. If the unpleasantness is little, there is a little low-spiritedness. If it is great, then low-spiritedness is great too. Even those who are of a strong will have their spirits go low if the unpleasant feelings are intense. Once you are very tired, you can't even move. This making the spirit go low is the function of unpleasant feeling. We have said "spirit"-- the mind. When the mind is low, its concomitants get low too.

The manifestation of unpleasant feeling is physical oppression. It manifests itself as a physical affliction, something unbearable to the meditator's intellect. As he meditates hot, hot, pain, pain, it comes up to him as something oppressing in the body, something very hard to bear. It shows up so much that you have to groan. If you meditate on the unpleasant feeling in your body as it rises, you know the undergoing of undesirable tangible object its characteristic, the waning of associated states -- its function, and the physical affliction -- its manifestation. This is the way the meditators gain knowledge.

The Mind

You can meditate on mind, too. Mind cognizes and thinks. So what thinks and imagines is mind. Meditate on this mind as thinking, imagining, pondering, whenever it arises. You will find that it has the intrinsic nature of going to the object, cognizing the object. This is the characteristic of mind, as it is said, "Mind has the characteristic of cognizing." Every kind of mind cognizes. The conscious-ness of seeing cognizes the object, as do the consciousness of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking.

When you work in collective, you have a leader. Consciousness is the leader that cognizes the object that appears at any sense door. When the visible object comes up to the eye, consciousness cognizes it first of all. It is then followed by feeling, perception, desire, delight, dislike, admiration and so on. In the same way, when the audible object comes up to the ear, it is consciousness that cognizes it first. It is more obvious when you think or imagine. If an idea comes up while you are meditating "rising", "falling" etc, you have to note the idea. If you can note it the moment it appears, it disappears immediately. If you can't, several of its followers like delight, desire, will come in succession. Then the meditator realizes how consciousness is the leader -- its function.

"Mind precedes things." --Dhammapada

If you note consciousness whenever it rises, you see very clearly how it is acting as leader, now going to this object now going to that object.

Again it is said in the commentary: "Consciousness has the manifestation of continuity." As you meditate rising, falling, etc., the mind sometimes wanders away. You note it and it disappears. Then another consciousness comes up. You note it and it disappears. Again another consciousness appears. Again you note it and again it disappears. Again another comes up. You have to note lots of such comings up and goings away of consciousness. The meditator comes to realize: "Consciousness is a succession of events that come up and go away one after another. When one disappears, another appears." Thus you realize the continuous manifestation of consciousness. The meditator who realizes this also realizes death and birth. "Death is nothing strange after all. It is just like the passing away of the consciousness I have been noting. To be born again is like the coming up of the consciousness I am now noting that has risen in continuation of the one preceding it".

To show that one can understand the characteristic, function and manifestation of things even though one has not learnt about them, we have taken the air-element out of the material qualities and the unpleasant feeling and consciousness out of the mental qualities. You just have to meditate on them as they arise. The same applies to all the other mental and material qualities. If you meditate on them as they arise, you will understand their characteristics, function and manifestation. The beginner in meditation can meditate on and understand the mental-material aggregates of grasping only by way of these characteristics, function and manifestation. At the initial stage with the analytical knowledge of mind and matter and the knowledge by discerning conditionality, which are elemental in insight meditation, understanding that much is enough. When you come to real insight knowledges like the knowledge of investigation, you know the characteristics, impermanence, suffering, and not self as well.

What time?

The question now arises: What do we meditate on the grasping aggregates for? And, as regards time, what time do we meditate on, the past, the future, the present, or indefinite time?

What do we meditate for? Do we meditate on the aggregates of grasping for worldly wealth? For relief from illness? For clairvoyance? For levitation and such supernatural powers? Insight meditation aims at none of these. There have been cases of people who get cured of serious illnesses as a result of meditational practice. In the days of the Buddha persons who got perfected through insight meditation had supernatural powers. People today may have such powers if they get perfected. But fulfilment of these powers is not the basic aim of insight meditation.

Shall we meditate on phenomena past and gone? Shall we meditate on phenomena not yet come? Shall we meditate on the present phenomena? Or, shall we meditate on phenomena which are neither past, future, nor present, but which we can imagine as we have read about them in books?

The answer to these questions is: we meditate to not grasp and we meditate on what is arising.

Yes, people not practised in meditation grasp at the rising mind-and-matter every time they see, hear, touch, or become aware of. They grasp at them with craving – are pleased with them. They grasp at them with wrong views, as permanent, happy, as the I, the ego. We meditate in order not to let these graspings arise, to be free from them. This is the basic aim of insight meditation.

And we meditate on what is arising. We do not meditate on things past, future, or indefinite in time. Here we are speaking of practical insight meditation. In inferential meditation we do meditate on things past, future, and indefinite in time. Let me explain. Insight meditation is of two kinds, practical and inferential. The knowledge you gain by meditating on what actually arises by way of characteristic, function and manifestation is practical insight. From this practical knowledge you infer the impermanence, suffering and not-self of things past and future, things you have not experienced. This is inferential insight.

"The fixing both (unseen and seen) as one by following the object..." -- Patisambhida

The Path of Purity explains this statement as follows:

" following, going after the object seen, visually determining both (the seen and unseen) as one in intrinsic nature: 'as this (seen) one, so what goes as complex broke up in the past and will break up in the future also'." -- Visuddhi-magga

"The object seen"-- this is practical insight. And "going after the object seen ... determining both ... in the past ... in the future" -- this is inferential insight. But here note: the inferential insight is possible only after the practical. No inference can be made without first knowing the present. The same explanation is given in the commentary on Kathavatthu.

"Seeing the impermanence of even one formation, one draws the conclusion as regards the others, as 'impermanent are all the things of life'."

Why don't we meditate on things past or future? Because they will not make you understand the real nature and cleanse you of defilements. You do not remember your past existences. Even in this existence, you do not remember most of your childhood. So, meditating on things past, how can you know things as they really are with their characteristics and functions? Things of the more recent past may be recalled. But, as you recall them, you think, "I saw, I heard, I thought. It was I who saw at that time and it is I who am seeing now." There is the "I" notion for you. There can even be notions of permanence and happiness. So recalling things past to meditate on do not serve our purpose, You have grasped them and this grasping is hard to overcome. Although you look on them as mind and matter with all your learning and thinking, the "I" notion persists, because you have already grasped it. You say "impermanent" on the one hand, you get the notion "permanent" on the other. You note suffering, but the notion "happiness" keeps turning up. You meditate on not-self, but the self notion remains strong and firm. You argue with yourself.

In the end your meditation has to give way to your preconceived ideas.

The future has not yet come, and you can't be sure what exactly it will be like when it comes. You may have meditated on them in advance but may fail to do so when they turn up. Then will craving, wrong view, and defilements arise all anew. So, to meditate on the future with the help of learning and thinking is no way to know things as they really are. Nor is it the way to calm defilements.

Things of indefinite time have never existed, will not exist, and are not existing, in oneself or in others. They are just imagined by learning and thinking. They are high-sounding and look intellectual, but on reflection are found to be just concepts of names, signs and shapes. Suppose someone is meditating, "Matter is impermanent. Matter rises moment to moment and passes away moment to moment." Ask him: What matter is it? Is it matter of the past or the present or the future? Matter in oneself or in others? If in oneself, is it matter in the head? The body? The limbs? The eye? The ear? You will find that it is none of these but a mere concept, an imagination. So we do not meditate on indefinite time.


But the present phenomenon is what comes up at the six doors right now. It has not yet been defiled. It is like an unsoiled piece of cloth or paper. If you are quick enough to meditate on it just as it comes up, it will not be defiled. You fail to note it and it gets defiled. Once defiled, it cannot be undefiled. If you fail to note the mind-and-matter as it rises, grasping intervenes. There is grasping with craving -- grasping of sense-desires. There is grasping with wrong view -- grasping of wrong views, of mere rite and ritual, of a theory of the self. What if grasping takes place?

"Conditioned by grasping is becoming; conditioned by becoming is birth; conditioned by birth, old age and dying, grief, suffering, sorrow, despair and lamentation come into being. Thus comes to be the origination of this entire mass of ill." -- Majjhima Nikaya i 333; Samyutta Nikaya ii 1-2.

Grasping is no small matter. It is the root-cause of good and bad deeds. One who is grasped works to accomplish what he believes are good things. Everyone of us is doing what he thinks is good.What makes him think it is good? It is grasping. Others may think it is bad, but to the doer it is good. If he thinks it is not good, of course he will not do it. There is a noteworthy passage in King Asoka's inscriptions: "One thinks well of one's work. One never thinks evil of one's work." A thief steals because it is good to him to steal. A robber robs people because he thinks it is good to rob. A killer kills because he thinks it is good to kill. Ajatasattu killed his own father, King Bimbisara. He thought it was good. Devadatta conspired against the life of the Buddha. Why, to him it was good. One who takes poison to kill himself does so because he thinks it is good. Moths rush to a flame thinking it is a very nice thing. All living things do what they do because they think it is good to do so. To think it is good is grasping. Once you are really grasped you do things. What is the outcome? Well, it is the good deeds and the bad deeds.

It is a good deed to refrain from causing suffering to others. It is a good deed to render help to others. It is a good deed to give. It is a good deed to pay respect to those to whom respect is due. A good deed can bring about peace, a long life, and good health in this very life. It will bring good results in future lives, too. Such grasping is good, right grasping. Those who are thus grasped do good deeds like giving and keeping precepts and cause thereby to bring about good karma. What is the result then? "Conditioned by becoming is birth." After death they are born anew. Where are they born? In the Good Born, in the worlds of men and gods. As men they are endowed with such good things as a long life, beauty, health, as well as good birth, good following, and wealth. You can call them "happy people." As gods, too, they will be attended by multitudes of gods and goddesses and be living in magnificent palaces. They have been grasped by notions of happiness and in a worldly sense, they can be said to be happy.

But from the point of view of the Buddha's teaching, these happy men and gods are not exempt from suffering. "Conditioned by birth are old age and dying." Although born a happy man, he will have to grow into an old "happy" man. Look at all those "happy" old people in this world. Once over seventy or eighty, not everything is all right with them. Grey hair, broken teeth, poor eye-sight, poor hearing, backs bent double, wrinkles all over, energy all spent up, mere good-for-nothings! With all their wealth and big names, these old men and women, can they be happy? Then there is the disease of old age. They cannot sleep well, they cannot eat well, they have difficulty sitting down or getting up. And finally, they must die. Rich man, king, or man of power, dies one day. He has nothing to rely on then. Friends and relatives there are around him, but just as he is lying there on his death-bed he closes his eyes and dies. Dying he goes away all alone to another existence. He must find it really hard to part with all his wealth. If he is not a man of good deeds he will be worried about his future existence.

The great god, likewise, has to die. Gods too are not spared. A week before they die, five signs appear to them. The flowers they wear which never faded now begin to fade. Their dresses which never got worn-out now appear worn-out. Sweat comes out in their armpits, an unusual thing. Their bodies which always looked young now look old. Having never felt bored in their divine lives, they now feel bored. When these five signs appear, they at once realize their imminent death, and are greatly alarmed. In the days of the Buddha, the Sakka, (King of the gods) himself had these signs appear to him. Greatly alarmed that he was going to die and lose his glory, he came to the Buddha for help. The Buddha preached the dhamma to him and he became a stream-winner. The old Sakka died and a new Sakka was reborn.

It was lucky of him that the Buddha was there to save him. Had it not been for the Buddha, it would have been a disaster to the old great god.

Not only old age and dying "... grief, suffering, sorrow, despair and lamentation come into being." All these are sufferings. "Thus comes to be the origination of this entire mass of ill." So, the good life resulting from grasping is dreadful suffering after all. Men or gods, all have to suffer.

If the good life resulting from good deeds is suffering, had we better not do them? No. If we do not do good deeds, bad deeds may come up. These can lead us to hell, to the realm of animals, to the realm of ghosts. The sufferings of these lower planes are far worse. Human and divine life is suffering compared with the happiness of deathless Nirvana but compared with the sufferings of the lower states, human or divine life is happiness indeed.

Right grasping gives rise to good deeds. Likewise wrong grasping gives rise to bad deeds. Thinking that it is good to do so, some kill, steal, rob, do wrong to others. As a result they are reborn in bad bourn -- in hell, in the realm of animals, in the realm of ghosts. To be reborn in hell is like jumping into a great fire. Even a great god can do nothing against hell fire. In the days of the Buddha there was a great mara-god by the name of Dusi. He was contemptuous of the Buddha and the members of the holy Order. One day he caused the death of an arahat. As a result of this cruel deed the great god died and was reborn in Avici hell. Once there he was at the mercy of the guardians of purgatory. Those people who are bullying others in this world will meet the same fate as that met by the great god Dusi one day. Then, after suffering for a long time in hell, they will be reborn animals and ghosts.

How grasping arises

So grasping is dreadful. It is very important too. We meditate to let this grasping not be, to put an end to it. We meditate not to grasp with craving or wrong view, not to grasp as permanent or happy, not to grasp as self, ego, the I. Those who fail to meditate grasp whenever they see, hear, feel or perceive. Ask yourselves if you don't grasp. The answer will be too obvious.

Let's begin with seeing. Suppose you see something beautiful. What do you think of it? You are delighted with it, pleased with it, aren't you? You won't say, "I don't want to see, I don't want to look at it." In fact, you are thinking, "What a beautiful thing! How lovely!" Beaming with smiles you are pleased with it. At the same time you are thinking it is permanent. Whether the object seen is a human being or an inanimate thing, you think it has existed before, exists now, and will go on existing for ever. Although it is not your own, you mentally take possession of it and delight in it. If it is a piece of clothing, you mentally put it on and are pleased. If it is a pair of sandals, you mentally put them on. If it is a human being, you mentally use him or her and are pleased, too.

The same thing happens when you hear, smell, taste or touch. You take pleasure on each occasion. With thoughts the range of your delights is far wider. You fancy and take delight in things not your own, long for them, and imagine them to be yours. If they are your own things, needless to say, you keep thinking of them and are pleased with them all the time. We meditate to check such taking delights in and graspings. We grasp with wrong views, too. You grasp with the personality view. When you see, you think what you see is a person, an ego. Your own consciousness of seeing, too, you take as a person, an ego. Without a thorough insight knowledge we grasp at things the moment we see them. Think of yourselves and you will see for yourselves how you have got such grasping in you. You think of yourself as well as of others as an ego that has lived the whole life long. In reality there is no such thing. Nothing lives the whole life long. Only mind and matter rising one after another in continuation. This mind-and-matter you take as person, ego, and grasp. We meditate to not let these graspings with wrong views be.

But we have to meditate on things as they come up. Only then will we be able to prevent the graspings. Graspings come from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking. They come from six places -- six doors. Can we cling to things we cannot see? No. Can we cling to those we cannot hear? No. The Buddha himself has asked these questions.

"Now what think you, Malunkya's son? As to those shapes cognizable by eye, which you have not seen, which you have never seen before, which you do not see now, which you have no desire to see in future, -- have you any partiality, any passion, any affection for such shapes?"

"Not so, my lord." -- Samyutta Nikaya iv. 72

What are those shapes you have not seen before? Towns and villages and countries you have never been to, men and women living there, and other scenes. How can anyone fall in love with men and women he or she hasn't ever seen? How can you cling to them? So, you do not cling to things you have never seen. No defilements arise in respect of them. You do not need to meditate on them. But things you see are another matter. Defilements can arise -- that is to say, if you fail to meditate to prevent them.

The same is true of things heard, smelled, tasted, touched, thought on.


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last updated: 01-06-2003

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