The concept of no-self in Buddhism is an important key to enlightenment. It is impossible for us to achieve liberation and realize nirvana when there are still “marks of the self” in us. Please be reminded that “marks of the self” and all other Buddhist terms, such as the five aggregates, four noble truths, three poisons, and nirvana, and their definitions came from the Buddha and can empower Buddhist practitioners to follow His path and teachings.
The Buddha preached that there are five aggregates that can be found in all human beings. We experience them in our everyday life. These five aggregates are dharmas that constantly arise and cease and are subject to change, brought forth by causes and conditions without an intrinsic nature. The Buddha explained the essence of the five aggregates in many sutras: The form aggregate resembles foam, the sensation aggregate resembles bubbles, the perception aggregate resembles a mirage, the formation aggregate resembles the reach of a banana tree, and the vijnana aggregate resembles an illusion. These analogies denote the five aggregates as dharmas that are ever changing and impermanent and are thus illusory and deceitful. For this reason, practitioners should not mistake the five aggregates for the authentic and permanent self. Let us briefly look at each of the five aggregates.
1. Form aggregate: The physical body is referred to as the form aggregate in Buddhism. Most human beings consider their physical body their “self” because “I” possesses it. Simply put, when people get hit, for instance, they will say, “I got hit!” In this case, the person who got hit considers the material body the “self.”
2. Sensation aggregate: Most of us consider the various sensations of pleasantness, unpleasantness, and neutrality generated by the physical body and the conscious mind the “self.” For example, I may say, “I have fever and feel like I’m dying!” As it is “I” who experiences these sensations, then these sensations are considered the “self.”
3. Perception aggregate: When we are suffering or are feeling happy, disliking and liking perceptions, respectively, will also emerge in us. When we like something, we want to have it, and when we dislike something, we naturally want to stay away from it. As it is “I” who experiences and possesses these perceptions, we may thus be led to consider these countless likes and dislikes of ours pointing to the “self.” The perception aggregate can thus be taken as the “self.”
4. Formation aggregate: We carry out bodily, verbal, and mental activities to realize our thoughts and intentions. These, in turn, generate wholesome and unwholesome behaviors. As it is “I” who carries out all these bodily, verbal, and mental activities and executes all the wholesome and unwholesome behaviors generated by them, we can be led to consider these activities and behaviors the “self.”
5. Vijnana (consciousness) aggregate: Most of us consider the mental ability to differentiate the six sense objects and the seeing, hearing, perceiving, and knowing functions of the perceptive mind belonging to the vijnana aggregate the “self.”
Buddhist practitioners can verify for themselves that the five aggregates of form, sensation, perception, formation, and vijnana are all part of people’s daily life experiences. We can all determine how often we have considered our ever-changing sensations and perceptions (impermanent dharmas) our authentic “self.”
The Buddha also explained the impermanent dharmas through the metaphor about “making rice out of sand.” Given the nature of sand, no matter how you cook it, it will always be sand and will never become rice. In other words, the dharmas that keep arising and ceasing in the three realms (i.e. the desire realm, the form realm, and the formless realm) can never lead us to the state of nirvana, which neither arises nor ceases. The Buddha categorized the human body and mind into five aggregates to demonstrate the illusory nature of our appearance existence.
The foregoing are brief insights into the five aggregates that explain what the notion of no-self is in Buddhism. If Buddhist practitioners want to be authentic (in their cultivation), they should not allow themselves to get attached to their physical body or five-aggregate “self” as they cannot attain true liberation or realize nirvana (enlightenment) when there are still “marks of the self” in them.
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