Anicca vata sankhara
Upada vaya dhammino
Tesang vupasamo sukho
All conditioned things are impermanent
Their nature is to arise and pass away.
To live in harmony with this truth
Brings the highest happiness.
– Theravada Buddhist funeral chant
A while back, I posted about a Buddhist analogy of waves and water, which describes everything around us. The idea is that everything around us (including our feelings, thoughts, trends and such) are like waves: they arise, then disappear again, and then more waves arise, disappear, etc. This is a very popular analogy in Mahayana Buddhism (daijōbukkyō in Japanese 大乗仏教), but I’ve never seen it used in Theravada Buddhism (jōzabukkyō in Japanese 上座仏教).
However, when I saw this chant above today, I noticed that it basically expressed the same thing. I have noticed before that Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism often mean the same thing, but use different styles and different words to express it. Still, the meaning is the same. If someone is not familiar, they can seem like very different branches of Buddhism, but if someone is familiar enough with one kind of Buddhism, they can see the same teachings in other schools of Buddhism.
Anyhow, the title of this blog post comes from an article by respected monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi, when he says:
We learn to see the true nature of the sankharas, of our own five aggregates: as unstable, conditioned processes rolling on with no one in charge.
The Pali word sankhara means “formations”, as in something that arises from causes and conditions. In other words, the “waves” I mentioned before. ;) These waves keep rolling on, with no one in control. People keep making more waves because of things like ignorance and selfishness, and the cycle keeps going, whether you want it to or not.
The “five aggregates” (go-un 五蘊) mentioned above are the five pieces, five components, that make a living being:
- Physical Form (色) – Your body (physical brain, etc)
- Sensation (受) – Sight, sound, touch, etc.
- Perception (想) – Awareness of sight, sound, touch, etc,
- Mental Formations (行) – Thoughts like “it’s hot”, or “I see a tree”, “I smell bacon”, etc.
- Conscious thought (識) – Further thoughts like “That’s a big tree”, or “That bacon tastes good”.
You can see the Five Aggregates mentioned in the famous Heart Sutra (hannya shingyō 般若心経) here for example:
Kannon Bodhisattva saw into the nature of the Five Aggregates and found them equally empty [unstable, conditioned processes, with "no one in charge"] and overcame all pain
I’m digressing, but it’s interesting how these Buddhist truths get expressed both in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.