By Acharn Lee Dhammadharo
(translated from Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

What follows is a discussion of the Buddhist way, a way discovered by a human being whom large numbers of people have respected and praised as being a worthy person who has shown us the way as well. When we study his teachings, we are free to believe them or not, as we see fit; the man who discovered them never laid down any rules coercing us in any way.

When a group of people sees that a doctrine can lead them to become good and they give that doctrine their respect and adherence, it is said to be their religion. As for the religion or doctrine of the Buddha, it can be summarized in three points.

1. We should refrain from doing anything at all in thoughts, word, or deed that would be evil or destructive, that would cause suffering to ourselves or to others. Even if we find ourselves already doing such things, we should make an effort to stop.

2. We should develop within ourselves all qualities that we know to be good and virtuous, maintaining the virtues we already have – this is called arakkha-sampada – and constantly aiming at developing the virtues we haven’t yet been able to acquire.

3. Whatever activities we may engage in, we should do so with purity of heart. We should make our hearts pure and clean. If we can’t keep them that way constantly, we’re still doing well if we can make them pure from time to time.

All three of these points are the aims of the Buddha’s teachings.

The Buddha taught in line with the true nature of the world. He said, “Khaya-vaya-dhamma sankhara, appamadena sampadetha,” which means, “All sankharas, once they have arisen, decay by their very nature. Don’t be heedless or complacent. Be thoroughly mindful and completely self-aware, and you will attain peace and security.”

What this means is this: All things that appear in the world arising from actions (kamma) are called sankharas – fabrications, fashionings, compounded things. Sankharas, by their nature, or of two sorts – sankharas on the level of the world and sankharas on the level of the Dhamma.

1. “Sankharas on the level of the world” refers to the eight ways of the world: status, fortune, praise, and pleasure, which are things to which we all aspire but – sankharas being what they are, unstable and inconstant – results of another sort may interfere: Having had status, we may lose it. Having had fortune, we may lose it. Having been praised, we may be criticized. Having tasted the pleasure that come from material wealth, we may become needy and destitute, afflicted with suffering and pain. Therefore the Buddha taught us not to be heedless as to be deluded by these things. If we can’t keep this point in mind, we’re sure to suffer.

2. “Sankharas on the level of the Dhamma” refers to the properties (dhatu), aggregates (khandha), and sense media (ayatana) that lie within us and that result from unawareness and the sankharas concocted by the mind giving rise to dhamma-sankharas on the outer level.

a. Dhatu: The properties that are fashioned into sankhara of the level of the Dhamma are six –

(1) The solid or dense components of the body, such as bones, muscle, and skin, are called the earth property.

(2) The liquid aspect, such as the blood, permeating throughout all parts of the body, is called the water property.

(3) The forces, such as the in-and-out breath, that flow through the body are called the wind property.

(4) The aspect that gives warmth to all the parts of the body is called the fire property.

(5) The empty spaces in the body, where the other properties can move, enter, and leave, the passages that permit air to enter and leave, and allow us to move – such as the ear canal, the nasal passages, and mouth, all the way to the pores – are called the space property.

(6) These various aspects of the body, if there’s no consciousness overseeing them, are like a dead flashlight battery that can no longer produce the power to give rise to brightness or movement. As long as consciousness is in charge, it can cause the various qualities and parts of the body to be of use to living beings. Good and evil, merit and demerit can arise only if consciousness is giving the orders. Thus, good and evil come ultimately from awareness itself. This is called the property of consciousness.

All six of these properties are one class of sankharas on the level of the Dhamma.

b. Khandha: The various categories of things that we experience are called the five aggregates –

(1) Form: All visible sense data, both within us and without, are called the aggregate of form.

(2) Feeling: the feelings of pleasure, pain, and neither pleasure nor pain that result when consciousness and sense data come into contact with one another are called the aggregate of feeling.

(3) Perception: The act of labeling and identifying people and things, both within and without, is called the aggregate of perception.

(4) Fabrications: the thoughts and mental constructs that arise from the mind – good, bad, right, wrong, in line with the common nature of all thinking – are called the aggregate of fabrications.

(5) Consciousness: Distinct awareness in terms of conventional suppositions – for example, when the eye sees a visual object, the ear hears a sound, a smell comes to the nose, a taste comes to the tongue, a tactile sensation comes to the body, or an idea arises in the intellect – being clearly aware through any of the senses that, “This is good, that’s bad, this is subtle, that’s fine”: To be able to know in this way is called the aggregate of consciousness.

All five of these aggregates come down to body and mind. They are sankharas on the level of the Dhamma that arise from unawareness.

c. Ayatana: This term literally means the “base” or “medium” of all good and evil. Altogether there are six sense media: the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, feeling, and ideation.

All of these things are sankharas on the level of the Dhamma. The Buddha taught that all of these sankharas are undependable, fleeting, and unstable. They appear, remain for a moment, and then disband. Then they appear again, going around in circles. This is inconstancy and stress. Whether they’re good or bad, all sankharas have to behave in this way. We can’t force them to obey our wishes. Thus the Buddha taught they’re not self. Once we’ve developed precise powers of discernment, we’ll be able gradually to loosen our attachments to these sankharas. And once we’ve stabilized our minds to the point of Right Concentration, clear cognitive skill will arise within us. We’ll clearly see the truth of sankharas on the level of the Dhamma, and will shed them from our hearts. Our hearts will then gain release from all sankharas and attain the noblest happiness as taught by the Buddha, independent of all physical and mental objects.

Although this discussion of these two topics has been brief, it can comprehend all aspects of the Buddha’s teachings.

To summarize: Heedfulness. Watchfulness. Non-complacency. Don’t place your trust in any of these sankharas. Try to develop within yourself whatever virtues should be acquired and attained. That’s what it means not to be heedless.