2022-03-30 Satipatthana (50) Concepts-The Third Aggregate
3:08PM Mar 30, 2022
We are in the fourth foundation of mindfulness, looking at mindfulness of the five aggregates of clinging, or the five groups of clinging – the five divisions of how we take our whole experience as human beings, and cling. In the Buddha's division of clinging, when we cling to almost anything, we are actually clinging to these five areas. This is not all of who we are. But anything at all can fit into these categories.
The refrain of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta that we talked about many weeks ago, which shows the direction in which mindfulness practice is going, points to a place where we see the inconstant nature of our experience – the flow of experience, the appearing and disappearing of experience. The repeated emphasis on the rising and passing of experience is an alternative to being stuck – being caught up in some thought, idea, concept or feeling. It is an alternative to clinging.
If the river is flowing and you want to stop the river, if you grab it or put up your hand to block it, that does not work. The river keeps flowing. But the stress of trying to hold the river back remains in our hands as we try to block it. But if we can appreciate that what the river does is flow, then we might allow ourselves to be carried – if it's a nice safe river – to be floated along in the current of the river. We can go far, and we can make it eventually, maybe, to the great peaceful ocean.
The same way with our experience. It is much more fluid and changeable than our concepts tell us. Concepts and ideas – when we cling to them, hold on to them, or are obsessed by them – give a sense of continuity, a kind of constancy to what we think is there and what we think is going on. We think we can cling – we think it works to cling. When we see that these concepts and ideas are part of the river of change, then we can learn to float on them. We do not reject the concepts, but we see their fluid inconstant nature.
In the five aggregates – the five heaps or five groups – the third one is saññā. It is usually translated in English as "perception", but I do not think that is an appropriate translation. I think "perception" implies too much a non-conceptual perception: seeing, hearing, tasting – how we perceive at the different sense doors. The word saññā has the meaning of "to mark something, to label it". It means the simple concept we have of things. There are things that we might see that we do not have any concept for. We might not even have a word for them, and we say, "it's something – just something".
Some of these concepts are very fluid and changeable. I have this wonderful bowl, or bell. We call it a bell, but if I did not have any bowls to eat my breakfast with, this would make a perfect bowl. Rather than using it as a bell, it could become a bowl – my breakfast bowl or my soup bowl. Or maybe I don't need the bell anymore, but I have a lot of pens, so it could become a pen holder and they could sit in there. Or it could become some other holder. What this object is, is changeable. It could be a flowerpot.
We often label it by its function. The concept we have of things is functional, and the function can change, so the label changes. This points to the idea that concepts are fluid and changeable. They are not absolute. They are relative, provisional, and situational.
The same way with our ideas of safety, and our ideas of well being, happiness, and suffering. These ideas appear as simple concepts that we get caught in, and then we get involved in associations and complicated stories and ideas about them. To be mindful of saññā – of these simple concepts. I prefer to translate saññā as "concepts". These simple concepts give us a vantage point to be wise about how we get swept away by the more complicated ideas we have.
As practice deepens, we start seeing that all the concepts we have – as concepts, as ideas, as the recognizing function of the mind – are there very, very briefly. Then they appear again, and again. If I make up the sentence," I am speaking words", then each of those words is a concept: "I...am...speaking... words". When we speed read, it all blurs together into one large concept, and we understand the overall meaning. But we can step back and see, feel, and recognize the individuality of each of those words before we string them together and make them into a larger meaning." I am speaking words".
We cannot go around in ordinary life paying this kind of detailed attention to concepts all the time. It is just not efficient. It is efficient to string words together in a sentence and get the meaning right away. But as meditation quiets our mind and we become stiller, then there are times when we see the exquisite, exquisite appearance of a concept. Sometimes at the end of meditation, when I open my eyes, before I have a concept, there is seeing, but there is not quite the recognition yet. There is a shape or a color – there is something briefly. Then I can feel or see or recognize that my mind makes makes a concept.
Right now I am looking at my laptop – "Oh, laptop". There is a little gap between what I would call "perception" – just taking in the sense data – the sight object without the concept – and then the recognition of the overlay of the concept on top of the sense data. I might see a bell like this, and, as I pointed out, this does not have to be a bell – it could be a bowl, a pen holder, all kinds of things – a flowerpot. Because all those things are not inherent in the object, it is possible to see the object without the label. Then see the label arise in the mind. See the thought arise: "Bell". It can be exquisite to see that, rather than just having it happen on automatic pilot. To see the brilliance of the mind that makes these concepts, and see the concept arise without any clinging, holding on, grasping, or any kind of extra baggage. Just: "Bell". "Bowl".
In deep meditation – quiet still meditation – this is where the exquisiteness gets more and more special. We are down at the primary, primal level of experience. We see the arising – the beginning of this complicated world we live in. But we are not seduced by the complicated world. We are able to see it as just the arising of a concept that gives birth to other concepts and ideas. We could just stay there watching it appear and dissolve, come and go. It can be as delightful as sitting on the riverbank watching the river go by – maybe spending long periods of time just watching the flow of the current, the little waves, the flow. It is very relaxing and nice to see that.
In the same way, it is possible to see the current, the river of concepts as they appear. In mindfulness practice, we are using these concepts a little to help us stay present. This is the purpose of a mental label, where we repeat the concept. Maybe the original concept is almost subconscious as it appears, but then we use a mental note to recognize: "river", if we are looking at the river; "in" as we breathe in; "out" as we breathe out; "warm", if we feel warm; "restless", if we feel restless.
This is a way of using a little more emphatic note. It is a little more intentional. It is a way of staying in the flow of the present moment – being right there, being right there, being right there with it – letting it just flow and move through as it does.
As we do this, we begin letting go of clinging. As we let go of clinging in a deeper and deeper way, then, at some point, the flow of experience does not get limited by the particular grouping of the five aggregates. Because that itself is a concept. Each of these five aggregates are concepts that the mind has produced, as the Buddha says. These concepts begin to dissolve, because they are secondary concepts. They are more abstract concepts, and they dissolve. Then at some point, the awareness doesn't remain as selective – focussed on one aspect of our experience. Awareness becomes more panoramic, where we are just here and present in a panoramic way. We are just in the flow of experience without grouping it into the five groups.
Today, as you go about your day, see if you can notice the arising of concepts and the provisional nature of them – the fluid nature of them – what is sometimes called "the empty nature" of them. Or, notice the opposite. Notice how the concepts seem so solid, real and important – "it has to be this way". Notice what we add to the simplicity of these simple concepts that appear in the mind. Thank you very much, and we will continue tomorrow.