The Phena Sutta – Emptiness and The Five Clinging-Aggregates

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Introduction

The Phena Sutta is another sutta on emptiness as the Buddha uses the term. In this sutta he teaches the emptiness of The Five Clinging Aggregates and the emptiness of creating self-identities by clinging to fleeting objects, events, views and ideas. The Buddha teaches the emptiness of perceptions rooted in ignorance – foam on the river or a drop of water, the emptiness of magical teachings, and the ignorance necessary to follow mirages – the futility of following “dharmas” lacking the true heartwood of his Dhamma.

This sutta follows from what the Buddha awakened to. The Buddha awakened to Dependent Origination which shows that from ignorance of Four Noble Truths, through twelve observable causative links, all manner of confusion, deluded thinking, and ongoing disappointing and unsatisfactory experiences follow.

The Five Clinging-Aggregates [1] are form, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications, and resulting thinking rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths. These five clinging-aggregates provide the appearance, the mirage, of the establishment of a substantial and permanent “self” to a mind ignorant of these truths. These five clinging-aggregates are “empty” of wisdom and understanding.

The Buddha’s entire teaching is always in the context of Four Noble Truths: to empty oneself of this initial ignorance and to recognize and abandon all self-referential views arising from this initial ignorance.

The reference to “appropriately or clearly examining” or “clearly seeing” impermanent phenomena arising and passing away means observing life unfolding from the refined mindfulness of the framework and guidance of the Eightfold Path supported by the concentration developed through Shamatha-Vipassana meditation.

The Phena Sutta

Samyutta Nikaya 22.95

The Buddha was staying with the Avojjhans on the banks of the Ganges River. He addressed those assembled “friends, suppose that a large glob of foam were floating down the river, and a person with good eyesight saw it and clearly examined it. To them it would appear empty, void, without any substance. For what substance could there be in a glob of foam?

“In the same way, any practitioner well-versed in the Dhamma observes and appropriately examines any form that is past, future, or present, any form that is internal or external, obvious or subtle, common or extraordinary, near or far. To those well-versed in the Dhamma it would appear empty, void, without any substance. For what substance could there be in form (that is constantly changing?).

This is in reference to the “form” aggregate. “Constantly changing” is a reference to The Three Marks of Existence. [2]

“Now suppose that in the rainy season it is raining fat heavy drops and a water bubble appears and disappears on the water. A person with good eyesight sees this and clearly examines it. The water bubble would appear empty, void, and without substance. For what substance could there be in a water bubble?

“In the same way any practitioner well-versed in the Dhamma observes and appropriately examines any feeling that is past, future, or present, any feeling that is internal or external, obvious or subtle, common or extraordinary, near or far. To those well-versed in the Dhamma it would appear empty, void, without substance. For what substance could there be in feelings (that are constantly changing)?

This is in reference to the “feeling” aggregate.

“Now suppose during the hot season a mirage was shimmering. A person with good eyesight sees it and clearly examines it. The mirage would appear empty, void, and without substance. For what substance could there be in a mirage (that is constantly changing)?

“In the same way any practitioner well-versed in the Dhamma observes and appropriately examines any perception that is past, future, or present, any perception that is internal or external, obvious or subtle, common or extraordinary, near or far. To those well-versed in the Dhamma it would appear empty, void, without substance. For what substance could there be in perceptions (that are constantly changing)?

This is in reference to the “perception” aggregate.

“Now suppose that a person with good eyesight is seeking heartwood? In seeking heartwood they went to a forest with a sharp ax. There they find a large banana tree. They cut it at the root and remove the top. They peel away the outer skin and fail to find even sapwood, to say nothing of finding heartwood. Having good eyesight they clearly examine the banana tree and the tree would appear empty, void,  without substance and regard to heartwood for what substance (heartwood) could there be in a banana tree?

“In the same way any practitioner well-versed in the Dhamma observes and appropriately examines any fabrications that are past, future, or present, any feeling that is internal or external, obvious or subtle, common or extraordinary, near or far. To those well-versed in the Dhamma fabrications would appear empty, void, without substance. For what substance could there be in fabrications (that are constantly changing)?

This is in reference to the “fabrication” aggregate.

“Now suppose a magician were to display a magic trick and a person with good eyesight clearly sees the trick. The trick would appear empty, void, without substance. For what substance could there be in a magic trick?

“In the same way any practitioner well-versed in the Dhamma observes and appropriately examines any consciousness that is past, future, or present, any consciousness that is internal or external, obvious or subtle, common or extraordinary, near or far. To those well-versed in the Dhamma any consciousness (ongoing thinking rooted in ignorance) would appear empty, void, without substance. For what substance could there be in consciousness (that is impermanent and rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths)?

This is in reference to the “consciousness” aggregate.

“Seeing these Five Aggregates clearly, the well instructed follower of the dhamma grows disenchanted with form, they grow disenchanted with feelings, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications, and disenchanted with thinking rooted in ignorance.

“They grow disenchanted with The Five Clinging-Aggregates.

“Disenchanted they grow dispassionate. Through dispassion they are released. With release there is the knowledge that they are released (from clinging to ignorant views). They know that birth is ended,  the fully integrated life has been lived,  and the path complete. They know here will be no more moments rooted in ignorance.”

“Form is like a glob of foam;
Feeling, a bubble;
Perception, a mirage;
Fabrications, a banana tree;
Consciousness, a magician’s trick;

When you observe them
and appropriately examine them
It is clear
they are empty, void,  and without substance.
To anyone who sees them clearly they are empty of ignorance. [3]Beginning with the body
when seen with profound discernment
as taught by the Buddha
Form is rejected, cast aside.
When bereft of wrong views,
The emptiness of form
is seen clearly like a magic trick,
an idiot’s babbling.
No substance is found here.

A well-informed Dhamma practitioner,
their persistence aroused,
Should continually view the aggregates
mindful and alert.

They should discard greed, aversion, and deluded thinking,
and make themselves their own refuge,
and take to the dhamma as if their head was on fire
In hopes of gaining nibhana.”

End of Sutta

 

  1. Five Clinging Aggregates
  2. The Three Marks of Existence
  3. The Arahant Sutta

My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings  (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland and Maurice Walsh, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.

Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.

I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.

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