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Home Teachings Non-Self The Teaching of Non-Self - Volitional Activities

The Teaching of Non-Self - Volitional Activities

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Article Index
The Teaching of Non-Self
Material Body
Belief in Creation
Attachment to Self
Vipassana Meditation
Volitional Activities
True Dhamma
What Five Aggregates Are Like
Summary of Processes
All Pages

Volitional Activities

"Bhikkhus, volitional activities are not self."

Here, it should be noted that volitional activities are of two kinds: Conditioned things and conditioning things. The conditioned things are those aggregates that have arisen through such causes as kamma , mind, climate (seasonal conditions), and nutriments. Immediately after the rebirth consciousness, mental and material phenomena arising as resultants of kamma spring up.

Kamma-result types of consciousness with its concomitants and parts of the physical body are all conditioned things and resultant effects of kammic activities. They are called resultant volitional activities as they are conditioned by kamma. Likewise, mind produced bodily activities and also resultant volitional activities. Physical changes involved in acts of bending, stretching, moving, going, standing, sitting, talking, and smiling are examples of such resultant volitional activities.

Being born of thoughts generated by a person, they are known as resultant volitional activities conditioned by mind. With regard to mind and its concomitants, they are both mutually conditioned and conditioning, and we have volitional activities as causal agents as well as resultants. Bodily change produced by climatic conditions are resultant volitional activities. Bodily change that arise through intake of food are resultant volitional activities conditioned by nutriments.

Finally all the succeeding mental states with all their concomitants are resultant volitional activities being dependent on the preceding mental conditions and their concomitants for their arising. All such aggregates which arise because of kamma, mind, seasonal conditions, and food are resultant volitional activities conditioned by their respective causes. This is summarised in the famous formula:

Sabbe sankhara anicca; Sabbe sankharas dukkha-- All things conditioned by respective causes are impermanent; all things conditioned by respective cause are suffering.

These are the aggregates of mind and body which manifest themselves when seeing, hearing, etc. The five groups of grasping must be realized by Vipassana insight as being impermanent, unsatisfactory, and insubstantial. The Blessed One has exhorted in the above formula that they should be seen as such.

In order to see them in such light, one must take heedful note of every arising of these aggregates as they appear. While observing them in this way and as concentration gets strengthened, one becomes aware that the aggregates are arising and vanishing incessantly. Accordance to the Commentary statement, Hutva abhavato, it is impermanent because it perishes after having arisen, and according to the Commentary statement, Udayabbaya patipilanato, it is fearsome because of being oppressed by constant arising and perishing. This is the manner of contemplation conforming to the words of the Blessed One.


There are people who are damaging and harming the Buddha's Dispensation by teaching in a way diametrically opposite to what the Buddha had taught. According to them, the above formula means 'All activities are suffering, and therefore there is no need to do good deeds or merits.' Hence they admonish against any kind of activity such as giving alms, keeping precepts, and practising meditation. According to them, these activities will only produce suffering, and they advise, therefore, to keep the mind as it is. Such preachments find ready acceptance by uninstructed persons and by those who are not keen to put in efforts in meditation practice. It can be seen by anyone even with a limited knowledge of the teaching that such preachments are going against the words of the Buddha. Accepting such preachments which go against the words of the Buddha amounts to the rejecting of the teaching of the Blessed One, and once the teaching is rejected, one will find oneself outside the dispensation of the Buddha, and which is a matter for serious consideration.


Of the five aggregates, the aggregate of material body has the quality of being changed or transformed by opposing circumstances. It cannot by itself bring about any action or change, but it has substantive mass, and volitional activites are manifested in the material body, which then appear to be doing the action. The aggregates of feeling are the sensations experienced, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. It cannot effect any action productive of results, neither can the aggregate of perception which merely recognizes or remembers things, just like a clerk in a office records his note in the notebook for future reference.

The aggregate of consciousness also just knows that a sight is seen, a sound is heard, etc. It is not capable of causing any action. It is the aggregate of volitional activities which is responsible for physical, vocal, or mental deeds such as going, standing, sitting, laying down, bending, stretching, moving, smiling, talking, thinking, seeing, hearing, etc. The wish to go, stand, sit, or sleep is expressed by the aggregate of volitional activities. All the three kinds of physical, vocal, and mental activities are instigated and organized by this aggregate.

To think that all these activities are carried out by one's self is to hold the wrong view of self in the aggregate of volitional activities, and is known as Karaka atta clinging. To think that this self that is doing all the activities resides all the time as a living entity in one's body is to hold the wrong view of Nivasi atta clinging. Thinking that this self or living entity in one's body can act according to its wishes such that its actions are subject to its will is Sami atta clinging. The volitional activities are held to by all these three modes of clinging. In reality, however, there is no self or living entity to cling to but merely natural processes happening according to their own conditions and circumstances. The Blessed One, therefore, taught that volitional activities are not living entities that carry out these activities. From the viewpoint of common man, there obviously exists a living entity that executes the actions of going, standing, sitting, etc. But the Blessed One refutes his belief by stating:

"Bhikkhus, were volitional activities self, the inner core, they would not inflict and it should be possible to say of volitional activities, 'Let volitional activities be thus (all wholesome); let volitional activities not be thus (unwholesome), and manageable as one wishes.'"


These volitional activities are mental states headed by volition. There are fifty-two kinds of mental states, and besides the two states of sensation and perception, the remaining fifty mental states constitute the aggregate of mental formations. In the Sutta discourses, only the volition is enumerated as representing the volitional activities. But according to Abhidhamma, we have other mental formations such as attention (manasikara), initial application of thought (vitakka), sustained application (vicara), zest (piti), greed (loba), hate (dasa), delusion (moha), non-greed, non-hate, non-delusion, etc., that can produce kammic effects.

These fifty kinds of mental formations are responsible for all kinds of activities. It is these fifty mental formations which instigate and direct actions such as going, standing, sitting, sleeping, bending, stretching, smilling, speaking, etc. These actions are being carried out as directed and motivated by the volitional activities which also instigate and direct mental activities such as thinking, seeing-consciousness, and hearing-consciousness.


The Blessed One had urged us to reflect in this way: Were volitional activities that are responsible for all the actions of self or the living entity, they would not have been oppressing. Actually they are oppressing in many ways. Engaging in activities out of desire or greed, one finds oneself exhausted and distressed. Speaking something which should not be spoken, one finds oneself embarassed. Doing things which should not be done, one gets punished for criminal offences. One burns oneself with longing desires for which one suffers loss of appetite, loss of sleep, etc. Doing evil deeds such as stealing or telling lies, one lands up in states of woe undergoing intense miseries. Likewise, volitions accompanied by hate motivates vocal actions as well as physical ones that are not wise and produce distress and suffering. Volitions accompanied by delusion, conceit, and wrong views leads one similarly to distress and suffering in the present life and in the states of woe. These are the various ways which the volitional activities oppress. Were volitional activities self, it would not be oppressive in the manner.


Were volitional activities self or one's inner substance, it should be possible to arrange and organise in such a way that wholesome activities productive of beneficial results only as one wishes, and not those activities which will harm oneself. Actually it is not possible to manage their activities as one wishes. One will find oneself engaging in activities one should not do, speaking of things one should not speak of, and thinking of thoughts one should not think about. In this way it could be seen that volitional activities are not amenable to management and control and are therefore not self or one's inner core.

And the Blessed One had, to enable one to see thus, taught directly: "Bhikkhus, in reality, volitional activities are not self or one's inner core." For this reason, they tend to inflict distress. Furthermore, it is not possible to manage and say of volitional activities: 'Let volitional activites be thus (all wholesome); let it not be thus (all unwholesome).'" Volitional activities are, therefore, not self, not inner core, but they are of the nature of insubstantiality occurring in accordance with their own conditions and circumstances. These volitional activities are oppressing accordingly as described above.

Through bad companions, through defective guidance of poor teachers, and through wrong attitude of mind, one gets involved in activities which one should not do, one should not speak of, nor think about. With respect to mundane affairs, one gets engaged in blameworthy actions, illegal activities, and indulge in bad habits such as drinking, drug taking, and gambling. Also because of greed or anger, one speaks that which should not be spoken about. Such activities result in destruction of one's prosperity and punishment by legal authorities,and loss of friends and associates. From spiritual and moral standpoint, bad deeds of killing, telling lies, etc., produce bad results and lead even to miseries in woeful states. Thus volitional activities oppress by producing bad kamic effects.


For the meditators that constantly take note of the phenomena of mind-and-body, it becomes very obvious that volitional activities are not amenable to will and are unmanageable. While contemplating on the movements of the abdomen and the bodily motions, and note them as 'rising, falling, sitting, touching, etc.,' and when stiffness arises, note it as 'stiffness, stiffness,' the desire to change postures follows. This desire is nothing but mental activity headed by volition. It is volition that is giving silent instructions: 'Now, change the posture, change the posture.'

The meditator wants to continue on noting without changing position, but because of the insistent urgings of volition, he changes the posture. This is an unwanted volitional activity. Likewise, while noting the feelings of 'pain, heat, itchiness,' posture is changed as directed by the ungovernable volitional activities. Again, during the course of meditation, thoughts on sensual pleasures may appear. This is volitional activities which the meditator does not wish for. These have to be banished by incessant noting. At the same time, volitional activities may urge the meditator to go and interview someone, talk to some one, look around here or there, or to do some work.

These are all undesirable volitional activities which rise up all the same whether one likes it or not. These are instances of unmanageable and uncontrollable nature of volitional activities. They should not be welcomed but discarded by heedful noting. To think that there is a manageable, controllable self, inner core, is Sami atta clinging. The meditator who takes notes of the processes of mind-and-body as they take place, notices clearly that what one desires does not happen and what is not desired is happening. In this way he can get rid of the Sami atta clinging. As he observes the processes of origination and dissolution taking place in quick succession, and sees that which is desired to be maintained is getting dissolved, Sami atta clinging is abandoned. Nothing is seen to remain stable and everything is dissolving and perishing. In this way, the Nivasi atta clinging which believes in permanent existence of self or inner substance can be banished, too.

Then the meditator perceives also that any events that take place arise only when various factors concerned with the event come together to fulfill the necessary conditions for its happening. Take for instance the arising of eye-consciousness. There must be the eye, the object of sight, as well as sufficient light for it to occur. Then there must be the intention to look. When there is the eye and the object of sight, clear and visible, the act of seeing is bound to ensue. Likewise when a sound is heard, only when there is ear, sound, obstructionless space, and intention or bending the mind to hear, the act of hearing will surely take place. An act of touching will take place when there is object, tactile body, bodily impression, and intention to touch. Seeing that respective resultant events of seeing, hearing, and touching take place when corresponding factors necessary for the arising of the event have come together, the meditator decides that no self or living entity is capable of causing to see, hear, or touch exists. He thus banishes the Karaka atta clinging which holds that there is self or living entity masterminding over seeing all kinds of activities.

In order to remove this Karaka atta clinging, the Blessed One had taught that volitional activities are not self or living entity. We have fairly fully dealt with the exposition on volitional activities not being self. By virtue of having given respectful attention to this discourse on the Anattalakkhana Sutta, may you all attain and realize soon, the Nibbana by means of the Path and Fruition as you wish.


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