No One In Charge

Anicca vata sankhara
Upada vaya dhammino
Upakituva nirujihanti
Tesang vupasamo sukho

All conditioned things are impermanent
Their nature is to arise and pass away.
To live in harmony with this truth
Brings the highest happiness.

— Theravada Buddhist funeral chant

A while back, I posted about a Buddhist analogy of waves and water, which describes everything around us. The idea is that everything around us (including our feelings, thoughts, trends and such) are like waves: they arise, then disappear again, and then more waves arise, disappear, etc. This is a very popular analogy in Mahayana Buddhism (daijōbukkyō in Japanese 大乗仏教), but I’ve never seen it used in Theravada Buddhism (jōzabukkyō in Japanese 上座仏教).

However, when I saw this chant above today, I noticed that it basically expressed the same thing. I have noticed before that Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism often mean the same thing, but use different styles and different words to express it. Still, the meaning is the same. If someone is not familiar, they can seem like very different branches of Buddhism, but if someone is familiar enough with one kind of Buddhism, they can see the same teachings in other schools of Buddhism.

Anyhow, the title of this blog post comes from an article by respected monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi, when he says:

We learn to see the true nature of the sankharas, of our own five aggregates: as unstable, conditioned processes rolling on with no one in charge.

The Pali word sankhara means “formations”, as in something that arises from causes and conditions. In other words, the “waves” I mentioned before. 😉 These waves keep rolling on, with no one in control. People keep making more waves because of things like ignorance and selfishness, and the cycle keeps going, whether you want it to or not.

The “five aggregates” (go-un 五蘊) mentioned above are the five pieces, five components, that make a living being:

  • Physical Form (色) – Your body (physical brain, etc)
  • Sensation (受) – Sight, sound, touch, etc.
  • Perception (想) – Awareness of sight, sound, touch, etc,
  • Mental Formations (行) – Thoughts like “it’s hot”, or “I see a tree”, “I smell bacon”, etc.
  • Conscious thought (識) – Further thoughts like “That’s a big tree”, or “That bacon tastes good”.

You can see the Five Aggregates mentioned in the famous Heart Sutra (hannya shingyō 般若心経) here for example:


Kannon Bodhisattva saw into the nature of the Five Aggregates and found them equally empty [unstable, conditioned processes, with “no one in charge”] and overcame all pain

I’m digressing, but it’s interesting how these Buddhist truths get expressed both in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “No One In Charge”

  1. Indeed, these core concepts seem to be shared by each Buddhist tradition, although sometimes I think they seem more obscure in some than others. I’ve always thought highly of the Heart Sutra (one of the first Buddhist texts I came across online — in musical form, no less) even though 90% of my reading has been strictly Theravada.

    On the theme of “no one in charge,” please also listen (Chant in Pali and English) at Wat Metta in California:
    [audio src="" /]

    May you be well, friend! 🙂


  2. Hi Hickersonia,

    Yeah, the Heart Sutra is definitely one of the best Mahayana texts, ironic since it wasn’t even composed in India. Thanks for the URL.


  3. Recently I met with a couple from a Theravada tradition to go over the wedding ceremony I am going to officiate for them later this spring. Initially I wondered if they were going to have a hard time with this since I am from a Mahayana lineage. As they read the ceremony I was surprised to see them both begin to tear up. They were both moved by the words and before we parted one of them commented that we seem have an idea that the different schools of Buddhism are pretty different, but how actually we seem to have more in common then we might suspect.


    1. Hi Doko OBrien,

      Same here. On paper, they’re pretty different, but I remember Ajahn Brahm once saying he was at a conference with other Buddhist monks and they sat down one nite and compared notes about meditation (monk to monk), and found a lot of common ground.

      If people want to see differences, they’ll find them, but the Lotus Sutra’s message of the One Dharma does hold true in my opinion.


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