Components of existence in the 21 century

It seems that the 5 khandhas where a common way of thinking about the nature of self which existed at the time that the Buddha taught the first sermon.

If the Buddha where to awaken, instead, in 2022, what/how would the Buddha categorise the self by?

Would there be implications on how we understand teachings on the 3 characteristics?

I’m especially curious within the context of ‘pop-pyschology’, ‘pop-neuroscience’ and ‘self-help’ whether this is possible? There are so ‘dhamma talks’ which are couched in these modern terms yet seem to leave a sniff eternal self remaining.

P.S on my walk down from my kuti to get wifi, I realised I’m not sure what I am trying to draw out here. So run with this as you wish…



I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, in terms of my own efforts to understand the Dhamma as someone who does not come from a traditionally Buddhist culture. And I actually think the Buddha’s approach is surprisingly modern/forward-thinking.

I resonate a lot with those scholars such as Sue Hamilton who read the aggregates not as much about trying to define what a person is, but instead as faculties relating to how people interact with, and are therefore bound to, samsara. This, and much of the Dhamma, is less about ontology and more about phenomenology and epistemology.

Obviously, I’m not claiming that the Buddha saw the world as a modern Westerner. But I don’t see very much conflict at all between what I know of modern psychology and this understanding that people interact with the world via their bodies, sensations, emotions, feelings/cognitions, and consciousness. And the acknowledgement that each can be disordered by past actions of ourselves and others and must be healed.

Anyway, just my two cents.

I have a feeling (see what I did there?) that a more contemporary 5 khandhas might split up the middle three a bit differently, but I don’t see how that would have any effect on the three characteristics.

Like, I think we could probably substitute in the periodic table for the four elements without changing the point much: carbon and hydrogen are just as impersonal as dirt and water.

So, while there is lots of discomfort around the idea of “not-self” (we seem to have a new thread about it every day around here), to me that just shows how radical and relevant the Dharma still is. :man_shrugging:


I think the 3 characteristics of the 5 khandhas are very good point, and practical for peaceful mind!

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It’s very interesting to me that modern psychology and branches of psychotherapy emphasizes how feelings, emotions, cognitions and a “sense of who I am” (ie consciousness) are distinct and should not be conflated or treated as “really me.” Because while I’m obviously glossing the Pali terms a bit, this seems very much in line with what the Buddha was saying millennia ago. So I agree with you Venerable; how revolutionary and insightful the Dhamma is!

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Obviously, to awaken now vs. 2500 years ago, the Dhamma wouldn’t be any different; his discovering the ancient city and the ancient path would be the same. Yet, to address the people of today might very well be different.

The culture of the Buddha’s world was pretty diverse and there seemed to be quite a free spectrum of thought. But I think that there has been a significant shift in the last century or so towards a deeper, more permanent sense of and identity with a Self, perhaps not philosophically but more non-consciously internal.

The 3 characteristics haven’t changed. Yet, here is the U.S. there is a very deeply ingrained right to free individualism that underpins a person’s right to have no dukkha (couched in the elusive pursuit of happiness :rofl:), to keep what one has rightfully earned and to cling to and parade one’s own personal truth. The latter is really weird, particularly in recent years. Talk about a Self!

Also, with pop psychology there’s so much emphasis on therapising one’s emotions and less of any sort of kamma. But perhaps it’s always been that way! :laughing:

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Maybe a little change in the tilakkhana because maybe people nowadays even feel more in control?
There are all kind of pain killers, treatments, healthcare is very much developed.
When suffering is so unavoidable as it used to be, and there are just is no treatments, i can imagine that ones atttitude towards suffering is different. For us, nowadays suffering is not really accepted. Also psychiatrics (a Belgian i know) talk about this. They meet people who do not accept any suffering in their life anymore, not physical, not mental. They demand a solution. Our mentallity has become that anything is achievable. Happiness is a choice. Suffering is for loosers, is a mentallity.

There is an elemental connection between Air as the basis of meditation on the breath, and a growing awareness of it in the millennial generations, particularly as triggered by covid. With a less sophisticated medical availability, it’s underestimated how important Air was in the Buddha’s time, where it was recognized as vitally important to life, and this had an intensifying effect on meditation.

"Pneuma (πνεῦμα) is an ancient Greek word for “breath”, and in a religious context for “spirit” or “soul”.[1][2] It has various technical meanings for medical writers and philosophers of classical antiquity, particularly in regard to physiology, and is also used in Greek translations of ruach רוח in the Hebrew Bible, and in the Greek New Testament.

“In classical philosophy, it is distinguishable from psyche (ψυχή), which originally meant “breath of life”, but is regularly translated as “spirit” or most often “soul”.[3]”—Wikipedia

The rise of conscious breathing:

'You’ve had what we call a cosmic orgasm': the rise of conscious breathing | Health & wellbeing | The Guardian

“According to the data collated through ‘The Impact of Indoor Air Quality on Millennials’ Return to Work and Travel’, which was conducted by Carbon Lighthouse, an overwhelming majority of millennials say they will feel safer returning to the office (82%) with access to real-time, transparent information on indoor air quality.”—Millennials value air quality transparency for safe return to offices

“never before has indoor air quality (IAQ) entered the mainstream consciousness the way it did in 2020. There is now ever-more persuasive evidence that we all must care about the air inside the places we work, travel, and play — with health and wellness benefits that extend well after vaccinations are prevalent.”—TTRW

"### Our lives depend on our breathing, the movement we create within our bodies and the constant exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

If our breathing becomes restricted we may limit the effectiveness of this process and this may show up in physical illness, general lack of energy, or feeling emotionally drained. Indeed restricted breathing can be caused by emotional upset. We hold our breath to prevent ourselves being overwhelmed by our feelings and when this becomes habitual we lose the ability to breathe deeply and connect to our bodies and our selves."—Transformational Breath Foundation UK

In this statement can be seen the components of the first and second tetrads of the Anapanasati sutta, and their aims to develop awareness of the body and develop positive feeling from it.

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We got the standard model of particle physics for now, much smaller than the periodic table, and most of them don’t play much of any role in making up the periodic table, basically, only 3 (up, down quarks and electron) are needed, ignoring radioactive decay and forces.

It’s not easy for me trained in physics to see matter as 4 elements. I rather see it as quantum field excitations. But I dunno how important is it to have the 4 elements as a matter of direct empirical experience instead of a concept based on many complicated experiments, data and maths.


I was thinking along the lines of what Ven. @Khemarato.bhikkhu was saying about the 4 elements becoming the periodic table, or quarks and electrons.
@NgXinZhao does this mean instead of 4 elements meditation you scan your body and do quarks and electrons? :smiley: I don’t know enough beyond high school physics to be able to do this!

Basically what I was wondering is if there is a modern scheme by which the self is portrayed which could be co-opted in the way the Buddha took existing schemes but twisted them to explain the Dhamma.
I wasn’t proposing that the 3 characteristics where anything other than the way they are presented by the Buddha. I was just wanting whatever was proposed to be able to stand up to them… but then everything which is conditioned does.
Also, I notice that people are referring to vedana as’ feelings’, in the manner that they are ‘emotions’ when my understanding is that it’s just pleasant experience, neutral experience and unpleasant experience.


And smaller must be better, right? :laughing:

I’ve never seen an up quark. Have you?

I have seen Carbon: in pencils and coal. I’ve never seen a down quark, but I have used electrolysis to split water into Oxygen and Hydrogen. Collect them into two balloons and see one fills up twice as fast. And when you mix them together and light it: : :boom: :sweat_drops: You get water again.

I think it’s important that our Vipassanā not get too abstract. Imagining yourself as part of the great cosmic quantum fields is a basically a Hindu meditation, not a Buddhist one. It’s important to recognize the subtle difference here.

Seeing the body as equal to every other object you interact with on a day-to-day basis has the potential to knock some sense into your habitual ego-grasping. Being in love with conceptual abstractions—be they theories of self or theories of God or theories of quantum fields or thinking “the universe is infinite” or thinking “the universe is finite,” etc, etc—all these abstractions just intensify clinging to ideas. They don’t lead to freedom the same way as directly seeing: ah, this arm here is just made of meat and bones.

When I was first learning about Buddhism, I was a committed scientific materialist. Funny enough, I never had any problem accepting the three characteristics. From the materialist point of view: of course there’s no self. There’s just quarks and electrons, atoms and molecules, cells and tissues, organs and limbs bound by gravity to a wet rock floating around an average star in a quiet corner of an uninteresting galaxy on its way to colliding with another. How silly of me to think I exist!

So yeah, it was all quite obvious to me from the beginning :man_shrugging:

Of course, I struggled with rebirth for a long while :joy: But that’s another story! :joy:

I have my own rant about this too :joy: In brief, look at the loka sutta. How does the Buddha define “loka” (the world)? He says it’s just the six senses.

In the same way, all the emotions and premonitions and sensations and experiences which we might call “feeling” are just painful, pleasant, or neutral.

If we look at the loka sutta and say “ah! so the word ‘loka’ means just the phenological sphere” then this misses the point of the discourse entirely, doesn’t it?

So, in response, I ask: what are emotions if not “pleasant experiences, neutral experiences and unpleasant experiences”? Right? That’s all they really are. Any “meaning” we assign to our emotions beyond that is just our delusion.


Not possible in principle. To get the quarks out of confinement, we have to put in so much energy that they can plug out other quarks from the vacuum and become another hadron.

Smaller as in fewer things to remember. 4 elements are very little things to remember, expand it to 12 characteristics of the 4 elements, not so easy to remember. Hard, soft, smooth, rough, heavy, light, hot, cold, pushing, supporting, flow, cohesion. (From Knowing and See (Fifth Revised Edition) - Google Play Books pg 117)

The periodic table got 100 over things, and most of what we experience are actually molecules of many different complicated arrangements. We don’t even have enough senses to detect individual molecules, at most have to use imagination as well.

I tried imagination, which I think is sort of valid for asubha practise having to imagine the internal organs. So quantum field theory says, there are only fields, as in magnetic field, gravitational field, but for particle fields. Particles are just the value of the field having higher energy at that location, it emerges from the vacuum as particle. However, as we go to quantum realm, there’s no stable position or momentum, the uncertainty principle reigns supreme. Virtual particles can pop up and interact with any “real” particles and pop back into vacuum. As long as they obey the energy-time uncertainty principle. The bigger (more mass, more energy) the particle-anti particle pair which pops out of the field, the smaller the time it can remain in existance before having to return the borrowed energy.

So it’s a quantum foam chaos down below. Happening everywhere, all the time. I imagined this body as just excitations of the quantum field, so when walking, the previous position where the body was those quantum fields at those locations had de-excited to go down back to vacuum. The new location where the leg is occupied has the quantum fields excited to give rise to the appearance of particles being there. The coherence of the body depends on the laws of physics working perfectly. It can become so scary.

If we take into account that even while sitting still, the earth is rotating and orbiting, the solar system is moving, etc, it’s even scarier. The body is appearing and disappearing all the time. How can something which is so insubstantial, so impermanent be held onto as self? But well, it only works for the body, I am not convinced that the mind is a quantum field.

I didn’t do this very often, not that easy to do. Maybe not enough discipline to see the fear too.

I am halfway through this book: The Quantum Revelation — Awaken in the Dream by Paul Levy

The author of quantum Buddhism Graham Smetham said pagalized his idea.

Basically from Graham’s book of Quantum Buddhism and the Higgs discovery, he equates the emptiness with quantum field vacuum. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. There’s no identification of the quantum field as self.


Doesn’t everyone do this? :wink:

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That would be a logical outcome of the EBT lack of emphasis on anicca as a foundation.

The Buddha used a pre-existing Indian notion of the 5 kandhas as the nature of the self? Could you point to some sources on that, please?

I think concepts are very much related to cultural habits, language, goals, etc. Thus probably there are infinite ways to try to convey the meaning of what the Buddha understood under the Bodhi Tree.
But the most important question is, from what the Buddha taught 2000 years ago, what still applies and makes sense to us.
I think the main issue to be discussed on this topic is the relation between body and mind. The message of the Buddha can be interpreted in a more modern fashion- as somebody wrote below- as an explanation about experienced phenomena, rather than a description of their ontology. If the 5 kandhas are understood as the Abhidhammikas do, as an indication of 5 existing sorts of entities, then we come to all the problems dualism has been identified to have. And it becomes more and more difficult to relate to modern science and not see it as in conflict with the Dhamma.
But mainly IMO what has indeed become outdated are the many explanations given in the Abhidhamma literature about how body and mind relate. For example, the idea that an external object, a sound, enters in direct contact with an organ that is a subtle matter inside the eyes… just doesn’t make sense anymore. We can see forms without external objects, without the eyes even, due to direct stimulation of the brain, for example. Actually, sense objects are creations of the brain.

But we can still meditate on the 4 elements, for example, because we have the experience of solidity, heat, etc. It is about our experiences, phenomena, not about what matter really is. So even though contemplating the reality of quantum fields might be helpful (I’d like to try that one :slight_smile: I think we can use the methods explained in the EBTs and interpret them according to our current knowledge, having in mind that they reflect experiences that the Buddha had and that led him to liberation.
Also, something good to remember is that the Buddha was not omniscient, he did not know everything. He didn’t know what is a quark, a photon, or that the earth orbits the sun. He didn’t know anything about evolutionary biology or its relation to our emotions, etc.
He knew liberation, the end of afflictions, and how to get there. That’s really what matters in anything he said about the 5 kandhas, for example.

Could you share that story? How did you come to terms with rebirth?

From time to time I struggle with the notion of rebirth and then just move on to another subject. What is ironic is that it feels good when I reach an understanding that makes rebirth possible. But actually, as a good Buddhist, what I really wish is that materialists were proved right and thus there would be no rebirth. Wouldn’t that be just wonderful! :sweat_smile: No samsara to haunt us.

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Yeah, it’s basically leaning into that openness. Allowing the possibility. And believing people who tell me they remember their past lives.

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Buddhists should repost Rebirth evidences more often and as a standard reply to those who have doubts about/do not believe in rebirth.

Read with open mind. Should help.

If materialist are right, there’s no point to the path as everyone automatically got end of rebirth at death. Buddha need not be bothered to teach.

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Thank you for sharing this. It is a struggle I have.

The discourse to the Kalamas is helping.

‘If it turns out there is another world, and good and bad deeds have a result, then—when the body breaks up, after death—I’ll be reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm.’ This is the first consolation they’ve won.
'If it turns out there is no other world, and good and bad deeds don’t have a result, then in the present life I’ll keep myself free of enmity and ill will, untroubled and happy.’ This is the second consolation they’ve won.

It’s a bit like Pascal’s wager, but I find it much more persuasive because the choice is living a good life, whereas in Pascal’s version it is adopting a particular belief system. Which doesn’t really help if there is an afterlife, but it’s not specifically Christian.

The Buddhist idea - which preceded Pascal by more than 2000 years - links your choice to the advantages of living a good life, which it develops through observation, not through adoption by faith.

Sutta here:


The thinking I am borrowing from (not originally my idea) is that the first sermon the Buddha references the 5 khandas in a very brief way in the 1stNT.

saṅkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā. Variant: pañcupādānakkhandhā → pañcupādānakkhandhāpi
In brief the 5 grasping aggregates are suffering

He goes on to explain them in a bit more detail the second sermon, but they aren’t actually fleshed out in any detail there either. ie the many kinds of vedana.

From this it seems that someone must have known what these 5 components are. Though apparently they have not been seen in earlier literature. I’m open to other theories :slight_smile: