Bare Attention

In last week’s blog I talked of the teaching I attended by Ajahn Vimokkha, a Thai Buddhist monk  teaching at the Buddhist society. As part of this teaching he had us explore a traditional teaching of the Buddha’s, the five khandhas, translated as the five aggregates. Through these five phenomena the Buddha describes what the self is, and why there is no fixed or permanent entity which can be called me or I. As you might appreciate, this is a very involved teaching, but the monk had a beautifully simple way to demonstrate it.

The five khandhas were taught by the Buddha in response to the question “what is is that suffers?”

The Five Aggregates are (with the Pali – the language the Buddha spoke):

  1. material form, or the physical world (rūpa)
  2. feeling or sensations (vedanā)
  3. perception (saññā)
  4. mental formations (saṅkhāra), and
  5. consciousness (viññāṇa)

1. Material form is the body which is comprised of the elements earth, water, fire, air and space.

2. As a result of having a body there are the organs of eye, ear, tongue, nose, the skin and the mind. Feeling or sensationis the sense of pleasure or pain that arises as the six senses come into contact with their object of perception. As well as the five senses we are familiar with – the eye seeing objects, the nose smelling odours etc, Buddhism also says the mind is a sense that observes thoughts. As the mind observes thoughts a feeling of pleasure, pain or neutrality will arise depending on how the thoughts are experienced, in the same way as seeing an object that we like gives rise to a feeling of pleasure, or smelling a bad odour gives rise to a feeling of pain.

3. This brings us to perception. As the senses come into contact with their object, the perception of what is seen, heard, tasted, smelt, touched or thought arises and we recognise it. Perception  names the object and as a result of this recognition a feeling of liking, disliking or feeling neutral about the object arises. In this way the teaching is starting to show that these aggregates are interdependent. There is no single part that can be isolated and said to be uniquely ‘me’. For perceptionto exist there must also be a bodyand the sense organs and as a result of perceptionthe feelingof liking, disliking or feeling neutral arises.

4. Mental formationsarise as a result of the information gathered by feelingsand perception. The eye comes into contact with an object and we see this object, perception tells us it is a cream cake and the feelingarises of pleasure as we recognise it as something we like and then the mental formationof wanting the cake arises as we reach out to take it.

Mental formations are connected to karma as they give rise to actions that may be skilful or unskilful – if the cake we see is on a market stall and we take it without paying and run, then we have performed an unskillful action. If we see the cake and think of our friend, buy it and give it to our friend, then we have made positive karma through being generous.

5. Consciousnessis the awareness of something before perceptionhas named it, before  there is recognition. Consciousness is aware that something is there, but perceptiondetermines what it is. I hear a sound (consciousness) and recognise it is a cat meowing (perception). It is by learning to stay in this place of bare attention that as we meditate we observe thoughts without then identifying with them, or hear a sound and let it just be sound, without then naming it and having an emotional reaction to it of liking it or hating it.

Remember that mind is a sense, so there is also mind consciousness that is there as bare attention before perceptionhas named the thoughts or we have a feelingtowards thoughts as something we like or dislike or have mental formationsarising as a result of reacting to a thought by wanting it to continue or wanting it to end (i.e. going into a sexual fantasy after the image of a person we find attractive has arisen briefly in the mind – here mind has observed the image and perception has named it as ‘desirable person’ and there is a feeling of pleasure, the mental formations that then arise are of a phantasy of how this person would give us pleasure if we were with them. Or we might see the image of a person, perception names them as someone we dislike, and we go into a feeling of pain and meantal formations arise of thinking how awful this person is or how we would like to see them suffer. The way to stop this process of getting lost in our thoughts is to rest in bare attention, in the consciousness that is there before a thought is named or there is an emotional reaction to it. Of course, we get lost in thoughts all the time, but each time we notice, we come back to resting in consciousness, in bare attention.

The monk demonstrated this by having five of us stand up and represent the five aggregates, with me representing consciousness. At first he had the three mind aggregates holding me by the arms. This, he said, was the monkey mind of perceptions, feelings and mental formations that bind consciousness so that it cannot be free. What is needed is to set consciousness free – and with this he brought his hand down on my arm and set me free from the monkey mind of perceptions, feelings and volitions. He then said that for consciousness to stay fully present without being bound to the monkey mind it has to embrace the body. With this he instructed me to hug the man representing the body. Now, this is the Buddhist Society. It has a very quiet and calm way of doing things and suddenly having me throwing my arms around this man was not really what was usual! But it did demonstrate his point: be present in the body rather than lost in thought and the thoughts will subside.

His point was that for consciousness to stay as bare perception it needs to rest in the body, simply noting sensations as sensations rather than then naming them as something we like or dislike. He is suggesting that as we meditate we notice getting lost in our thoughts but come back to having consciousness embrace the body and simply feel sensations as raw data and notice thoughts without reacting to them. This opens the door to the true nature of mind – free, luminous and spacious.

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