For the meditator who sees things as they really are, explains the late Mahasi Sayadaw, there is no “I” or “being”—only mental and physical phenomena coming together in the present moment.
Seeing the mind (mental phenomena, which incline toward sense-objects) and body (physical phenomena, which change) as they really are is the purification of view.
—Visuddhimagga 2, 222
A meditator will rarely have wandering thoughts once concentration becomes strong. Instead, there will be an uninterrupted flow of pure noting mind most of the time. If a wandering thought does enter the mind, the meditator will be able to note it immediately and the thought will pass away. The meditator sees physical phenomena as they really are: that they are subject to alteration and that they are not able to know or experience anything. They are insensible (abyakata), inanimate, just like a log or stone.
As the meditator is noting, it becomes obvious that the noting mind resembles running to and sticking with the noted object. Likewise, it becomes obvious that the six types of consciousness—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking—seem to go to their respective sense objects. The meditator is seeing and understanding mental phenomena as they really are, seeing their characteristic of inclining, or being drawn toward, sense objects.
For the meditator who sees things as they really are, it is obvious that the mental and physical phenomena are different. They are not taken as one and the same anymore, as they were before the practice of meditation. When the meditator observes the rising movement (of the abdomen when breathing in), he or she can at least discern between the rising movement and the noting mind. Similarly, the meditator can differentiate between the falling movement (of the abdomen when breathing out) and the noting of it; the sitting posture and the noting of it; the intention to bend, the bending movement, and the noting of it; the intention to stretch, the stretching movement, and the noting of it; the visible form, the eye, the seeing, and the noting of it.
Before a drum is beaten, its sound does not exist in the drum itself, the drumstick, or anywhere in between. Even though a sound occurs when the drum is beat, the sound does not originate from the drum or the drumstick. The physical phenomena of drum and drumstick are not transformed into a sound nor does the sound originate from anywhere in between drum and drumstick. In dependence on the drum, the drumstick, and the hitting of the drum, the sound is a completely new phenomenon each time the drum is hit. The drum and the stick are different from the sound.
In the same way, before you see something or someone, seeing does not exist in the eye, in the visible form, or anywhere in between. The seeing that takes place neither originates in the eye nor in the visible form. The seeing consciousness neither originates in the eye nor in the visible forms, which are physical phenomena. It also does not originate from anywhere in between. Seeing is actually a new phenomenon that arises due to the combination of the eye, the visible form, light, and your attention. Thus, the eye and the visible form are different from the seeing. The same is true for the other senses.
When you understand the difference between mental and physical phenomena, you are likely to reflect that neither the mind nor the body alone can perform actions such as sitting, standing, walking, bending, stretching, seeing, hearing, and so on. Only the mind and body together can perform these activities.
Because of this, the mind and body together are mistaken for “I.” One thinks, “I am sitting; I am standing up; I am going; I am bending; I am stretching; I am seeing; I am hearing,” and so on. In reality, there is no “I” or “being” that sits, stands up, and walks, but only mental and physical phenomena. That is why the Visuddhimagga (2, 231) says:
In reality, mind conditions matter, and matter conditions mind. When the mind wants to eat, drink, speak, or change posture, it is the body that actually eats, drinks, speaks, or changes posture.
When we expand on this, we can say:
The volition to eat is mental, but what actually eats is the body.
The volition to drink is mental, but what actually drinks is the body.
The volition to speak is mental, but what actually speaks is the body.
The volition to sit down is mental, but what actually sits down is the body.
The volition to stand up is mental, but what actually stands up is the body.
Some meditators may use similes to describe their experience of mental and physical phenomena. The Visuddhimagga (2, 228) gives these similes:
A coach is so called because of the way that its components are assembled: the axles, wheels, body, and shafts. However, if you examine each component separately, there is no coach to be found. A house is so called when its materials, posts, beams, etc., are fit together. Other than these materials, however, there is no house that can be found. A tree is so called because it includes a trunk, branches, and leaves, and so on. But apart from these parts, no tree can be found.
In the same way, a being is so called because he or she is composed of the five aggregates of clinging, i.e. mental and physical phenomena. However, if you pay attention to each of these phenomena separately, you will no longer have the conceit that, “I am so and so,” or the wrong belief that, “I am a person.” You realize that, in terms of ultimate reality, there is no being that exists. All that exists is the mind, which is able to incline to the object and know the object, and matter, which is not able to know the object and is subject to alteration. This realization is called “seeing things as they really are.”
Being able to come up with a good simile, however, doesn’t matter. Without thinking deliberately, while you are simply noting, you are able to discern between mental and physical phenomena, and you understand that in this body there are only mental phenomena that are able to know objects and physical phenomena that are not able to know objects. Besides these two phenomena, there is no being, I, soul, or self. This understanding comes naturally and is the peak of the insight knowledge of mental and physical phenomena. This insight knowledge in turn is called “the purification of view,” as it helps to remove the deluded view that a being really exists (atta-ditthi). That is why the Mahātīkā [the commentary to the Visuddhimagga] says:
The phrase “seeing mind and matter as they really are” means seeing them as just phenomena and not a being by observing their individual characteristics, thus: “This is mind; this much is mind; there is nothing more than this (i.e., no being). This is matter; this much is matter; there is nothing more than this (i.e., no being).” This is purification of view, as it eliminates the deluded view that a being really exists. Thus should it be understood.
The individual characteristics of physical phenomena (such as alteration or roughness and hardness) and individual characteristics of mental phenomena (such as inclining toward the object, mental contact with the object, feeling, perceiving, or knowing of an object) only really exist in the moment they occur—not before or after. That is why you can only be truly aware of the specific characteristics of mental and physical phenomena when you observe them from moment to moment. In this way, you understand that there is no “I” or being, but only mental and physical phenomena. This understanding is called the purification of view. It means that this understanding can eliminate the wrong view of a person or being.
When the characteristics of mind and matter have been understood as they truly are by noting the presently arising objects, the meditator comes to see the causes of those phenomena. With this, the insight knowledge of conditionality will arise: the realization that certain causes give rise to certain phenomena, whether in the past, present, or future. This insight knowledge can take various forms, depending on a person’s aspiration, spiritual maturity, and intellectual ability. The Visuddhimagga identifies five forms, which are explained in the sections below.
The First Way of Seeing Conditionality
Seeing the Causes of Matter
Some meditators see the causes of matter. They see that physical phenomena have been continuously occurring, from birth up to the present moment, due to the four causes of ignorance, desire, clinging, and volitional actions in the past. They also see that the nutrition they receive in the present preserves the body, and that the desire to sit, bend, and so forth results in the physical actions of sitting, bending, etc. As well, they see that hot and cold environments give rise to hot and cold physical sensations.
A meditator can empirically observe the present causes for physical phenomena, such as nutrition, consciousness, and weather. But one cannot directly observe the causes from the past, such as ignorance, desire, clinging, and volitional actions. However, even before beginning meditation practice, a vipassana meditator has already accepted intellectually that wholesome actions lead to a good life and beneficial results, whereas unwholesome actions lead to a bad life and unbeneficial results. Therefore, when one practices and empirically observes ignorance, craving, clinging, and volitional actions in the present, one will inferentially realize that they were also operating in the past.
The mental and physical phenomena that make up our lives are all unsatisfying. Attachment to them is the cause of suffering. Not knowing this truth is called “ignorance of suffering and its cause.” Believing that the phenomena of life are actually satisfying and the cause of happiness is called the “delusion of pleasure and its cause.” These two kinds of delusion are deeply rooted in the hearts of ordinary people. They devote themselves day and night to enjoying as much pleasure as possible. Day and night, they do everything they can to get the most out of their present life and to enjoy better lives in the future. These delusions, therefore, cannot be overcome simply through study.
On the other hand, the cessation of the defilements and volitional actions as the causes of suffering leads to the complete cessation of all mental and physical phenomena at the time of entering parinibbana. One is no longer reborn as a human or deva, man or woman. This is called the truth of cessation.
Ignorance of the peace and happiness of nibbana, as well as ignorance of insight practice and the path (the causes of happiness and peace), can be called “ignorance of suffering and its cause.” Believing that nibbana must be awful and that insight practice and the path are causes of suffering can be called the “delusion of pleasure and its cause.” In other words, these are distorted and wrong understandings of the truths about the cessation of suffering and the way leading to its cessation.
If these two kinds of ignorance are very strong, one may actually fear nibbana, thinking that after parinibbana nothing will arise, nothing can be known or experienced, and one cannot meet others anymore. One may even make disparaging comments about liberation, saying, “Nibbana is complete annihilation. It can’t possibly be good. Practicing to attain it is simply going to a lot of trouble, mentally and physically, to attain annihilation!” For ordinary people, this active form of ignorance and wrong understanding of the four noble truths occurs only at certain times. However, it occurs in its dormant form along with every object that is not noted. Therefore, if ignorance is noted at the time of its occurrence, it can be empirically seen by the meditator.
In addition, if these mental and physical phenomena are mistakenly believed to be satisfying, liking and attachment arises. As a result, the desire to become more prosperous arises. This is clinging. Because of clinging, various activities—volitional actions—are performed.
Craving, clinging, and volitional actions can be seen by noting them as they are occurring and by recollecting them from the past. When the meditator sees in practice how volitional actions have their origins in ignorance, craving, and clinging, he or she realizes that because of volitional actions in the past there is continuous arising of physical phenomena in this life starting at the moment of rebirth-linking (the consciousness that gives rise to rebirth after death based on karmic accumulation). At the same time, the meditator understands that these physical phenomena also arise because of ignorance, craving, and clinging. We call this “realizing the causes of physical phenomena empirically and inferentially.”
Seeing the Causes of Mind
When seeing is noted, the meditator understands and comprehends that seeing occurs when there is the eye and a visible form. Or the meditator understands and comprehends that with the meeting of the eye, the visible form, and the seeing, there is contact between the object and the mind. The same is true for all the senses. Furthermore, when a meditator notes “seeing,” or “hearing,” or “touching,” or “thinking,” etc., he or she can see that contact with the object arouses pleasure or displeasure in the body or mind.
Pleasure is enjoyed and therefore the desire for continuous enjoyment arises. The meditator wants to get rid of the displeasure and wants pleasure instead. The clinging to pleasure causes actions of body, speech, and thoughts with the aim of gaining enjoyment. In this way, the meditator empirically sees the causes of the mind in an adequate manner.
Inferential Knowledge Regarding the Past and Future
Once a meditator has empirically seen the causes of mental and physical phenomena in the present life, he or she concludes with inferential knowledge that they must be the same in the past and future: “In the past, there were only these mental and physical phenomena which occurred due to certain causes. In the future, there will only be these mental and physical phenomena which will occur due to certain causes.”
Overcoming the Sixteen Kinds of Skeptical Doubts
A meditator who understands and comprehends that in the past, future, and present, there are only mental and physical phenomena that give rise to other mental and physical phenomena can abandon and overcome the belief in a self and the related sixteen kinds of doubts, which are as follows:
Five doubts about one’s existence in the past:
1. Did I exist in previous lives? (the notion that the “I” has existed forever)
2. Did I not exist in previous lives? (the notion that the “I” only exists in this present life)
3. What was I in previous lives? (rich or poor, lay, ordained, Myanmar, Indian, brahma, deva, human or animal, etc.)
4. What did I look like in previous lives (tall, short, fat, thin, fair, dark, etc.), and who or what created me in previous lives (God, Brahma, or another celestial being or did I spontaneously come into existence)?
5. What type of person was I in previous lives?
Five doubts about one’s existence in the future:
6. Will I have another life after death? (the notion that the “I” is indestructible and eternal)
7. Will I not have another life after death? (the notion that the “I” will disappear after death)
8. What will I be in my next life?
9. What will I look like in my next life, and who or what will create my next life?
10. What type of person will I be in my next life?
Six doubts about one’s existence in the present:
11. Is there an “I” (being, self, soul, spirit) in this body?
12. Is there not an “I” in this body?
13. What is this “I”? (rich or poor, lay, ordained, Myanmar, Indian, brahma, deva, human, or animal, etc.)
14. What does this “I” look like?
15. From where or what previous life did this “I” transmigrate?
16. To where or what future life will this “I” transmigrate?
These sixteen kinds of doubt only arise in those who believe in the existence of a “self.” They do not arise in those who understand that there is only a succession of mental and physical phenomena based on cause and effect—devoid of a “self” or an “I.”
One can only have doubts about whether or not a rabbit has horns if one does not really know what a rabbit looks like. If one has actually seen a rabbit, however, it would not be possible to entertain this doubt.
The Second Way of Seeing Conditionality
Some meditators experience the conditionality of mental and physical phenomena arising as follows:
I see due to the eye and visible forms. I hear due to the ear and sounds. I smell due to the nose and odors. I taste sweet, sour, and so forth, due to the tongue and flavors. I know touching sensations due to the body and tangible objects. I think, reflect, and note objects due to the heart-base and various mental objects. Due to wise attention, living in a suitable place, associating with virtuous people, listening to the dhamma expounded by the wise, and having mature paramis (virtues or perfections), there arises wholesomeness and the ability to practice insight meditation. Due to unwise attention, living in an unsuitable place, associating with evil people, listening to the words of immoral people, and having poorly developed paramis, there arises unwholesomeness.
Wholesome volitional actions based on delusion, craving, and clinging result in a fortunate rebirth, in good and pleasant objects at all six sense doors, and in many beneficial results. Unwholesome volitional actions based on delusion, craving, and clinging result in an unfortunate rebirth, in bad and unpleasant objects at all six sense doors, and in many unbeneficial results.
The physical phenomena that make up the heart-base, eye, ear, and so on, have been arising continuously since the first moment of this life due to past volitional actions.
The physical activities of sitting, walking, bending, and so on are caused by the intention or desire to do so.
The temperature of the external environment causes physical sensations of heat or cold. The nutrition in the food one eats gives energy to the body…
Meditators who understand and comprehend that in the present, there are only mental and physical phenomena that give rise to other mental and physical phenomena, inferentially understand that the same is true for the past and the future.
The Third and Fourth Ways of Seeing Conditionality
Some meditators see the arising, presence, and disappearance of conditioned phenomena while observing presently arising objects. From this, they understand that the first arising of the mind in this life is just another moment of arising of the mind. They also understand that death is just another moment of disappearance of the mind. They understand that aging is the successive presence of mental and physical phenomena. Therefore, the causes for mental and physical phenomena are understood. It can be understood in this way:
For aging and death, first there must be arising or rebirth.
Arising or rebirth in turn is generated by volitional actions.
Volitional actions are generated by clinging.
Clinging is caused by attachment to mental and physical phenomena.
Attachment results from pleasant and unpleasant sensations.
Sensations are brought about by contact between the mind and sense-objects
Contact originates from the sense-bases, the sensitive matter of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind (i.e., because of the eye-sensitivity and the mind, seeing occurs, and so on).
The sense-bases come into existence due to the mental and physical phenomena on which they depend (i.e., the sensitive matter of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body are based on the physical organs, and the mind is based on its physical base and the other mental elements).
Mental and physical phenomena are generated by various types of consciousness, such as rebirth-linking consciousness, the life-continuum and sense-consciousness.
Consciousness has its origin in volitional deeds that one has performed in past lives for one’s well-being.
Volitional actions arise from ignorance and delusion.
Noble beings, such as bodhisattas, fully realize conditionality in this way, by seeing dependent origination (paticcasamuppāda) in reverse order. Ordinary meditators are also able to realize conditionality this way and overcome the sixteen kinds of doubt. This is the third way of seeing the conditionality of mental and physical phenomena.
Other meditators realize conditionality by seeing dependent origination in forward order. That is, they realize that ignorance and delusion generate volitional actions, and that volitional actions generate consciousness, and so on. Noble beings, such as bodhisattas, fully realize conditionality in this way. Ordinary meditators are also able to realize conditionality this way and overcome the sixteen kinds of doubt. This is the fourth way of seeing the conditionality of mental and physical phenomena.
The Fifth Way of Seeing Conditionality
Some meditators see the conditionality of mental and physical phenomena in terms of the relationship between volitional acts and their results. This relationship between volitional action and its results is divided into the cycle of volitional actions (kamma-vatta) and the cycle of results (vipāka-vatta). The cycle of volitional actions includes ignorance and delusion, volitional action, attachment, clinging, and existence based on volitional actions (kamma-bhava). The cycle of results includes consciousness, mental and physical phenomena, the sense-bases, mental contact, and feeling.
If a meditator considered conditionality in detail, he or she would see each of the five causal factors and the five resultant factors. If a meditator considered it in general, he or she would not differentiate each individual cause and result. Instead, he or she would simply see volitional action as the cycle of volitional acts, and would see the kammic results of volitional actions as the cycle of results.
In the following sections, I explain how the Patisambhidāmagga, in the Pali Canon, explains the cycle of volitional actions and the cycle of results.
Causal Factors from Previous Lives
The volition generated as one plans to perform a wholesome or unwholesome action is sankhāra. It is the volition that compels one to perform that action right away. However, the volition that is generated while actually performing the wholesome or unwholesome action is kamma-bhava.
Here’s an example of kamma-bhava: while giving something to someone, you let go of the thing and hand it over to the recipient so that he or she can do with it as he or she pleases. In the case of killing, you do that act so that the other being dies. In this way, the action is completed. It is just the same with other wholesome or unwholesome deeds.
There are five causal factors that occur as follows:
Ignorance and delusionlead to craving
Craving leads to clinging
Clinging leads to volition involved in preparing to act
Preparing to act leads to volition involved in carrying out the act
After carrying out the act one mistakenly thinks that the act is a cause for happiness and that the result to be experienced will be happiness
With this, ignorance is generated again, followed by craving, clinging, and so on. In this way, volitional actions, supported by ignorance and craving, can lead to rebirth.
Resultant Factors in the Present Life
When a meditator is noting mental and physical phenomena from moment to moment, it is obvious that successive moments of consciousness (seeing, hearing, etc.) are part of an ongoing mental process. In the same way, the moment of rebirth-linking consciousness of this present life can be understood as the successor to the last moment of consciousness (i.e., death) of the previous life.
If a meditator notes phenomena continuously from moment to moment, he or she will see new phenomena coming into existence. He or she can then realize inferentially that the phenomena at the moment of rebirth arose in the same manner. The same is true for the six senses, contact, and feeling. These resultant phenomena eventually give rise to the five causal phenomena when the six sense-bases mature.
Causal Factors in the Present Life and Resultant Factors in Future Lives
When the sense bases become mature in this present life, the five causal factors are generated: ignorance or delusion, wholesome or unwholesome volition, craving, clinging, and volitional action that result in new life. These five factors are generated when performing volitional acts in the present life and are the causes of future rebirth.
These present causal factors lead to the arising of the five resultant factors in the future:
In the future, there will be rebirth-linking consciousness, mental and physical phenomena, the six sense-bases, contact between the mind and sense-object, and feeling or sensation. These five resultant factors will arise in future existences caused by volitional acts performed in this life.
The five causal factors that were generated in past lives are the same as those generated in the present life. Also, the five resultant factors that will be generated in future lives will be the same as those generated in the present life. Therefore, if one empirically perceives the causal and resultant factors in the present life, one will also inferentially realize the causes generated in past lives and the results that will be generated in future lives.
These five resultant factors are all contained within one moment of consciousness. Therefore, if one is aware of these resultant factors in a general way, one will see all of them together as a whole. For example, when one notes a pleasant or unpleasant object, one is aware that the sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought simply arises of its own accord as the result of past volitional action. One is not aware of each resultant factor separately, noticing, “This is consciousness; these are the mental and physical phenomena,” and so on.
Instead, one experiences all five of the causal factors together during a single moment of noting, seeing that they are the past causes. One then realizes that all volitional activities performed for the sake of one’s well-being, whether physical, verbal, or mental, whether in this life or the next, constitute volitional action that will lead to rebirth. However, one doesn’t see the resultant factors separately as, “This is ignorance; this is volitional action,” and so on.
Because the meditator finds only the causal and resultant factors at the time of noting, he or she concludes, “In past lives too, there was only volitional action and its result. In future lives too, there will only be volitional action and its results. There is only volitional action and its results, and no individual or personality who produces volitional action or enjoys or suffers its results.”
MAHASI SAYADAW was born in Burma in 1904 and ordained as a Buddhist monk at age twenty. He published many volumes of Buddhist literature in Burmese, including a Burmese translation of the Visuddhimagga. The teaching presented here is adapted from his newly translated Manual of Insight, edited by Steve Armstrong and Deborah Ratner-Helzer. Many of the early Insight Meditation teachers in the West were trained in Mahasi Sayadaw’s tradition of vipassana meditation. In 1979 he traveled to the West and taught at the newly founded Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. He died in 1982.