III. The Law of Aggregates (or Sankharas)

Country Cemetery VisitAnother approach to the understanding of death is through an understanding of the law of aggregates or Sankharas which states that everything is a combination of things and does not exist by itself as an independent entity. “Sankhara” is a Pali term used for an aggregation, a combination, or an assemblage. The word, is derived from the prefix san meaning “together” and the root kar meaning “to make.” The two together mean “made together” or “constructed together” or “combined together.”

“All things in this world,” says the Buddha, “are aggregates or combinations.” That is to say, they do not exist by themselves, but are composed of several things. Any one thing, be it a mighty mountain or a minute mustard seed, is a combination of several things. These things are themselves combinations of several other things. Nothing is a unity, nothing is an entity, large or small. Neither is the sun nor moon an entity, nor is the smallest grain of sand an entity. Each of them is a Sankhara, a combination of several things.

Things seem to be entities owing to the fallibility of our senses — our faculties of sight, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting, and even thinking. Science has accepted the position that our senses are not infallible guides to us. A permanent entity is only a concept, only a name. It does not exist in reality. In the famous dialogues between King Milinda and Thera Nagasena, the latter wishing to explain to the King this law of aggregates, enquired from the King how he came there, whether on foot or riding. The King replied that he came in a chariot.

“Your Majesty,” said Nagasena, “if you came in a chariot, declare to me the chariot. Is the pole the chariot?” “Truly not,” said the King. “Is the axle the chariot,” asked Nagasena. “Truly not,” said the King. “Is the chariot-body the chariot?” — “Truly not,” said the King. “Is the yoke the chariot?” — “Truly not,” said the King. “Are the reins the chariot?” — “Truly not,” said the King. “Is the goading stick the chariot?” — “Truly not,” said the King.

“Where then, Oh King,” asked Nagasena, “is this chariot in which you say you came? You are a mighty king of all the continent of India and yet speak a lie when you say there is no chariot.”

In this way by sheer analysis, by breaking up what is signified by chariot into its various component parts, Nagasena was able to convince the King that a chariot as such does not exist, but only component parts exist. So much so that the King was able to answer thus:

“Venerable Nagasena, I speak no lie. The word ‘chariot’ is but a figure of speech, a term, an appellation, a convenient designation for pole, axle, wheels, chariot-body and banner staff.”

Similarly, “human being,” “man,” “I” are mere names and terms, not corresponding to anything that is really and actually existing. In the ultimate sense there exist only changing energies. The term “Sankhara” however refers not only to matter and properties of matter known as “corporeality” (rupa), but also to mind and properties of mind known as “mentality” (nama). Hence, the mind is as much a combination or aggregate as the body.

When it is said the mind is a combination of several thoughts, it is not meant that these several thoughts exist together simultaneously as do the different parts of the chariot. What is meant is a succession of thoughts, an unending sequence of thoughts, now a thought of hatred, thereafter a thought of sorrow, thereafter a thought of duty near at hand and thereafter again the original thought of hatred etc., etc., in endless succession. Each thought arises, stays a while and passes on. The three stages of being are found here also — uppada, thiti, bhanga — arising, remaining and passing away.

Thoughts arise, one following the other with such a rapidity of succession that the illusion of a permanent thing called “the mind” is created; but really there is no permanent thing but only a flow of thoughts. The rapid succession of thoughts is compared to the flow of water in a river (nadi soto viya), one drop following another in rapid succession that we seem to see a permanent entity in this flow. But this is an illusion. Similarly, there is no such permanent entity as the mind. It is only a succession of thoughts, a stream of thoughts that arise and pass away.

If I say that I crossed a river this morning and re-crossed it in the evening, is my statement true as regards what I crossed and what I re-crossed? Was it what I crossed in the morning that I crossed in the evening? Is it not one set of waters that I crossed in the morning, and a different set of waters that I crossed in the evening? Which of the two is the river, or are there two rivers, a morning river and an evening river? Had I re-crossed at mid-day, then there would also be a mid-day river. Asking oneself such questions one would see that every hour, every minute it is a different river. Where then is a permanent thing called ‘river’? Is it the river bed or the banks?

You will now realize that there is nothing to which you can point out and say, “This is the river.” “River” exists only as a name. It is a convenient and conventional mode of expression (vohara vacana) for a continuous unending flow of drops of water. Just such is the mind. It is a continuous stream of thoughts. Can you point to any one thought that is passing through the mind and say, “This truly is my mind, my permanent mind?” A thought of anger towards a person may arise in me. If that thought is my permanent mind how comes it that on a later occasion a thought of love towards the same person can arise in me? If that too is my permanent mind, then there are two opposing permanent minds.

Questioning on these lines one comes to the inevitable conclusion that there is no such thing as a permanent mind; it is only a convenient expression (vohara vacana) for an incessant and variegated stream of thoughts that arise and pass away. “Mind” does not exist in reality. It exists only in name as an expression for a succession of thoughts.

Chariot — river — body and mind — these are all combinations. By themselves and apart from these combinations they do not exist. There is nothing intrinsically stable in them, nothing corresponding to reality, nothing permanent, no eternally abiding substratum or soul.

Thus if body is only a name for a combination of changing factors and the mind is likewise only a name for a succession of thoughts, the psycho-physical combination called “human” is not an entity except by way of conventional speech. So when we say a chariot moves or a human walks it is correct only figuratively or conventionally. Actually and really, in the ultimate sense there is only a movement, there is only a walking. Hence has it been said in the Visuddhi Magga:

“There is no doer but the deed There is no experiencer but the experience. Constituent parts alone roll on. This is the true and correct view.”

Now, how does this cold and relentless analysis of mind and body become relevant to the question of death? The relevancy is just this. When analysis reveals that there is no person but only a process, that there is no doer but only a deed, we arrive at the conclusion that there is no person who dies, but that there is only a process of dying. Moving is a process, walking is a process, so dying is also a process. Just as there is no hidden agent back and behind the process of moving or walking, so, there is no hidden agent back and behind the process of dying.

If only we are capable of keeping more and more to this abhidhammic view of things, we will be less and less attached to things, we will be less and less committing the folly of identifying ourselves with our actions. Thus shall we gradually arrive at a stage when we grasp the view, so difficult to comprehend, that all life is just a process. It is one of the grandest realizations that can descend on deluded humans. It is so illuminating, so enlightening. It is indeed a revelation. With the appearance of that realization there is a disappearance of all worries and fears regarding death. That is a logical sequence. Just as with the appearance of light darkness must disappear, even so the light of knowledge dispels the darkness of ignorance, fear and worry. With realization, with knowledge, these fears and worries will be shown as being empty and unfounded.

It is so very easy to keep on declaring this. What is difficult is to comprehend this. Why is it so difficult?

Because we are so accustomed to thinking in a groove, because we are so accustomed to overlook the fallacies in our thinking, because we are so accustomed to wrong landmarks and wrong routes in our mental journeying, we are reluctant to cut out a new path. It is we who deny ourselves the benefits of samma ditthi (Right views). The inveterate habit of identifying ourselves with our actions is the breeding ground of that inviting belief that there is some subtle “ego” back and behind all our actions and thoughts. This is the arch mischief maker that misleads us. We fail to realize that the ego-feeling within us is nothing more than the plain and simple stream of consciousness that is changing always and is never the same for two consecutive moments. As Professor James said, “The thoughts themselves are the thinkers.”

In our ignorance we hug the belief that this ego-consciousness is the indication of the presence of some subtle elusive soul. It is just the mind’s reaction to objects. When we walk we fail to realize that it is just the process of walking and nothing else. We hug the fallacy that there is something within us that directs the walking. When we think, we hug the fallacy that there is something within us that thinks. We fail to realize that it is just the process of thinking and nothing else. Nothing short of profound meditation on the lines indicated in the Satipatthana Sutta can cure us of our “miccha ditthi” (false belief). The day we are able by such meditation to rid ourselves of these cherished false beliefs against which the Buddha has warned us times without number, beliefs which warp our judgment and cloud our vision of things, shall we be able to develop that clarity of vision which alone can show us things as they actually are. Then only will the realization dawn on us that there is no one who suffers dying, but there is only a dying process just as much as living is also a process.

If one can train oneself to reflect on these lines, it must necessarily mean that one is gradually giving up the undesirable and inveterate habit of identifying oneself with one’s bodily and mental processes and that one is gradually replacing that habit by a frequent contemplation on anatta (n’etan mama, this does not belong to me). Such contemplation will result in a gradual relaxation of our tight grip on our “fond ego.” When one thus ceases to hug the ego-delusion, the stage is reached when there is complete detachment of the mind from such allurements. Then shall one be able, cheerful and unafraid, to face the phenomenon of death with fortitude and calm.