A Diversion from the Original Aim

ฐานิสสโร ภิกขุ

A Diversion from the Original Aim

In his first discourse, the Buddha explained to the group of five monks that suffering was the act of clinging to any of the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, fabrication, or consciousness.

As a result of that discourse, one member of the group gained his first glimpse of awakening. In the succeeding days, the Buddha gave instructions to the remaining members of the group until all five had gained the same glimpse.

He started his second recorded discourse—the one that led the five to total awakening—with a series of assertions to the effect that each of the five aggregates is not-self.

His first argument in support of these assertions was that none of these aggregates could qualify as self because they don’t lie totally under your control—the implication being that if they were really you, they would always follow in line with your wishes.

He then went on to cross-question the five monks about each of the aggregates: Is it constant or inconstant? Inconstant. If something is inconstant, is it easeful or stressful? Stressful. And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: “This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am”? No.

He followed this questionnaire by pointing out that you should see all instances of the aggregates, regardless of their level of subtlety or where they are in space or time—inside or out; near or far; past, present, or future—as, “This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.”

When you see this, you grow disenchanted with the five aggregates. From disenchantment comes dispassion, and from dispassion, release.

Apparently the five monks, while engaged in this questionnaire and listening to the Buddha’s conclusions, examined their own aggregates in real time and applied the Buddha’s lessons to what they saw, because the discourse ends by saying that, while the Buddha’s explanation was given, their minds were released through not clinging (SN 22:59) Pañca Sutta, The Five (Brethren).

The Buddha had many occasions throughout his teaching career to engage other listeners in the same questionnaire and to draw the same conclusions, the result being that he led many of his listeners either to partial or to total awakening.

In every case, these instructions were aimed at getting the listeners to focus on examining the aggregates as they experienced them and to develop the disenchantment and dispassion that would lead to release.

In the millennia since, many people who have read or listened to reports of these instructions have been able to use them to gain dispassion for the aggregates, while many others, on reading them, have focused their attention on a different aim.

They have tried to draw out the logical implications of these instructions to answer a metaphysical question: Is there a self, or is there no self ?

Even though this question diverts attention from the Buddha’s original aim, it has long been a central issue in Buddhist philosophy.

This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the (2023) Miscellaneous Essays, “Just Right as It Is, The Teaching: All Phenomena Are Not-self.