The five aggregates
The teaching of The Five Aggregates or The Five Skandhas, is an analysis of personal experiences and a view on cognition from a Buddhist perspective.
The teaching also provides a logical and thorough approach to understand the Universal Truth of Not-self. In the last issue's "Buddhism in a Nutshell", we conclude that self is just a convenient term for a collection of physical and mental personal experiences, such as feelings, ideas, thoughts, habits, attitude, etc. However, we should go on to analyse all our personal experiences in terms of The Five Aggregates. The Five Aggregates are:
They are called aggregates as they work together to produce a mental being. As Heart Sutra says, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva illuminates and sees the emptiness of the Five Skandhas.
Impermanence is one of the characteristics of emptiness. and the aggregates are also governed by the principle of impermanence. Therefore each of the aggregates is undergoing constant changes. Aggregates are not static things; they are dynamic processes.
By understanding the Five Skandhas, we attain the wisdom of not-self. The world we experience is not constructed upon and around the idea of a self, but through the impersonal processes. By getting rid of the idea of self, we can look at happiness and suffering, praise and blame, and all the rest with equanimity. In this way, we will be no longer subject to the imbalance of alternating hope and fear.
This is the last in the series of twelve sessions that we have spent together, and in this last session we are going to look at the teaching of the five aggregates (Skandhas): Rupa, Vedana, Samjna, Samskara and Vijnana. In other words, we are going to look at the Buddhist analysis of personal experience or the Buddhist analysis of the personality.
Throughout the last lectures, I have had occasions a number of times to make the point that Buddhist teachings have been found relevant to modern life and thought in the fields of science, psychology and so forth. Here, in regard to the analysis of personal experience into the five aggregates, this is also the case. Modern psychologists and psychiatrists have been particularly interested in this analysis. It has even been suggested that in the Abhidharma and in the analysis of personal experience into the five aggregates, we have a psychological equivalent to the table of elements worked out in modern science. What we have in the Buddhist analysis of personal experience is a very careful inventory and evaluation of the elements of our experience.
What we are going to do today is basically an extension and a refinement of what we were doing at the end of last week’s lecture. There, we spent some time on the teachings of impermanence, suffering and notself. In the course of looking at the teaching on not-self, we have explored briefly how the analysis of personal experience can be carried out along two lines, and that is with regard to the body, and with regard to the mind. You will recall that we have examined the body and mind to see whether in either of them we can locate the self, and we have found that the self is not to be found in either of them. We have concluded that the name ‘self’ is just a convenient term for a collection of physical and mental factors, in the same way that the name ‘forest’ is just a convenient term for a collection of trees. This week, we are going to take our analysis still further, and rather than looking at personal experience simply in terms of body and mind, we are going to analyze personal experience in terms of the five aggregates.
Let us first look at the aggregate of matter or form (Rupa). The aggregate of form corresponds to what we would call material or physical factors. It includes not only our own bodies, but also the material objects that surround us - the earth, the oceans, the trees, the buildings, and so forth. Specifically, the aggregate of form includes the five physical sense organs and the corresponding physical objects of the sense organs. These are the eyes and visible objects, the ears and sound, the nose and smell, the tongue and taste, and the skin and tangible objects.
But physical elements by themselves are not enough to produce experience. The simple contact between the eyes and visible objects, or between the ears and sound cannot result in experience without consciousness (Vijnana). The eyes can be in conjunction with the visible object indefinitely without producing experience. The ears too can be exposed to sound indefinitely without producing experience. Only the co-presence of consciousness together with the sense organ and the object of the sense organ produces experience. In other words, it is when the eyes, the visible object and consciousness come together that the experience of a visible object is produced. Consciousness is therefore an indispensable element in the production of experience.
Before we go on to our consideration of the mental factors of personal experience, I would like to mention briefly the existence of one more set of an organ and its object, and here I speak of the sixth-sense -the mind. This is in addition to the five physical sense organs - eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. Just as the five physical sense organs have their corresponding physical objects, the mind has for its object ideas or properties (dharmas). And as in the case of the five physical sense organs, consciousness is present to unite the mind and its object so as to produce experience.
Let us now look at the mental factors of experience and let us see if we can understand how consciousness turns the physical factors of experience into personal conscious experience. First of all, we must remember that consciousness is mere awareness, or mere sensitivity to an object. When the physical factors of experience, as for example the eyes and a visible object, come into contact, and when consciousness too becomes associated with the physical factors of experience, visual consciousness arises. This is mere awareness of a visible object, not anything like what we could call personal experience. The way that our personal experience is produced is through the functioning of the other three major mental factors of experience and they are the aggregate of feeling, the aggregate of perception and the aggregate of mental formation or volition. These three aggregates function to turn this mere awareness of the object into personal experience.
The aggregate of feeling or sensation (Vedana) is of three kinds - pleasant, unpleasant and indifferent. When an object is experienced, that experience takes on one of these emotional tones, either the tone of pleasure, or the tone of displeasure, or the tone of indifference.
Let us next look at the aggregate of perception (Samjna). This is an aggregate which many people find difficult to understand. When we speak of perception, we have in mind the activity of recognition, or identification. In a sense, we are talking about the attaching of a name to an object of experience. The function of perception is to turn an indefinite experience into an identified and recognized experience. Here, we are speaking of the formulation of a conception of an idea about a particular object. Just as with feeling where we have a emotional element in terms of pleasure, displeasure or indifference; with perception, we have a conceptual element in the sense of introducing a definite, determinate idea about the object of experience.
Finally, there is the aggregate of mental formation or volition (Samskara). This aggregate may be described as a conditioned response to the object of experience. In this sense, it partakes of the meaning of habit as well. We have spent some time discussing the component of mental formation when we considered the twelve components of dependent origination. You will remember that on that occasion, we described mental formation as the impression created by previous actions, the habit energy stored up from countless former lives. Here, as one of the five aggregates also, the aggregate of mental formation plays a similar role. But it has not only a static value, it also has a dynamic value because just as our reactions are conditioned by former deeds, so are our responses here and now motivated and directed in a particular way by our mental formation or volition. Mental formation or volition therefore has a moral dimension just as perception has a conceptual dimension, and feeling has a emotional dimension. You will notice I use the terms mental formation and volition together. This is because each of these terms represents one half of the meaning of Samskara - mental formation represents the half that comes from the past, and volition represents the half that functions here and now. So mental formation and volition function to determine our responses to the objects of experience and these responses have moral consequences in the sense of wholesome, unwholesome or neutral.
We can now see how the physical and mental factors of experience worked together to produce personal experience. To make this a little clearer, let us take the help of a couple of concrete examples. Let us say after today’s lecture you decide to take a walk in the garden. As you walk in the garden, your eyes come into contact with a visible object. As your attention focuses on that visible object, your consciousness becomes aware of visible object as yet indeterminate. Your aggregate of perception will identify that visible object as, let us say, a snake. Once that happens, you will respond to that visible object with the aggregate of feeling - the feeling of displeasure, or more specifically that of fear. Finally, you will react to that visible object with the aggregate of mental formation or volition, with the intentional action of perhaps running away or perhaps picking up a stone.
In all our daily activities, we can see how all the five aggregates work together to produce personal experience. At this very moment, for instance, there is contact between two elements of the aggregate of form - the sound of my voice and your ears. Your consciousness becomes aware of the sound of my voice. Your aggregate of perception identifies the words that I am speaking. Your aggregate of feeling responds with an emotional response - pleasure, displeasure or indifference. Your aggregate of mental formation or volition responds with a conditioned reaction - sitting in attention, daydreaming or perhaps yawning. We can analyze all our personal experience in terms of the five aggregates.
There is one point that has to be remembered regarding the nature of the five aggregates, and that is that each and all of them are in constant change. The elements that constitute the aggregate of form are impermanent and are in a state of constant change. We discussed this last week - the body grows old, weak, sick and so forth. The things around us are also impermanent and change constantly. Our feelings too are constantly changing. We may respond today to a particular situation with a feeling of pleasure. To-morrow, we may respond to that same situation with the feeling of displeasure. Today we may perceive an object in a particular way. At a later time, under different circumstances, our perception will change. In semi-darkness we perceive a rope to be a snake. The moment the light of the torch falls upon that object, we perceive it to be a rope. So our perceptions like our feelings and like the material objects of our experience are ever changing and impermanent. So too, our mental formations are impermanent and ever-changing. We alter our habits. We can learn to be kind and compassionate. We can acquire the attitudes of renunciation and equanimity and so forth. Consciousness too is impermanent and constantly changing. Consciousness arises dependent upon an object and a sense organ. It cannot exist independently. As we have seen, all the physical and mental factors of our experience like our bodies, the physical objects around us, our minds and our ideas are impermanent and constantly changing. All these aggregates are constantly changing and impermanent. They are processes, not things. They are dynamic, not static.
What is the use of this analysis of personal experience in terms of the five aggregates? What is the use of this reduction of the apparent unity of personal experience into the various elements of form, feeling, perception, mental formation or volition, and consciousness? The purpose of this analysis is to create the wisdom of not-self. What we wish to achieve is to arrive at a way of experiencing the world which is not constructed upon and around the idea of a self. We want to see personal experience in terms of processes, in terms of impersonal functions rather than in terms of a self and what affects a self because this will create an attitude of equanimity, an attitude which will help us overcome the emotional disturbances of hope and fear. We hope for happiness, we fear pain. We hope for praise, we fear blame. We hope for gain, we fear loss. We hope for fame, we fear infamy. We live in a state of alternating between hope and fear. We experience these hopes and fears because we understand happiness and pain and so forth in terms of the self. We understand them as personal happiness and pain, as personal praise and blame, and so forth. But once we understand them in terms of impersonal processes, and once through this understanding we get rid of the idea of the self, we can overcome hope and fear. We can regard happiness and pain, praise and blame and all the rest with equanimity, with even-mindedness, and we will then no longer be subject to the imbalance of alternating between hope and fear.