Confusion about the Five Aggregates

The Motivation for Working with the Five Aggregates

We started our discussion of the five aggregate factors that make up each moment of our experience with the approach of wanting to understand why is it that we would like to learn about the aggregates. What is their importance?

This is a very standard approach in Buddhism. First we want to know the benefits of something. And once we are convinced of the benefits of learning something or developing something, then we will have interest in actually learning about it and developing it. So it’s a very important guideline to have before we study anything, or before we try to develop some good quality. To first learn about the good quality’s benefits, become convinced of that, and then, when we are convinced of that, then we can put our whole hearts into it. So this covers, on one side, why we would want to develop love and compassion and care to help others; and, on the other side, why we would want to develop a clear, correct understanding of reality. If we know the benefits of each of those, the purposes and so on, and the reasons, then we have confidence in it. So that interest and enthusiasm, and conviction that doing some kind of thing (like meditating) is beneficial, is what will sustain us through the process of actually doing it.

The traditional way of referring to that in Buddhism is that it’s helpful at the beginning, middle, and end: so, helpful for being able to get us to actually enter into the practice, and helpful for being able to continue the practice, and helpful for us to be able to actually complete the practice. That’s important to remember because often we get tired of practicing, we get tired of meditating, we get tired of coming to class, and so on, and if we reaffirm this motivation – which means the aim, the emotion behind it, and understanding the benefits of actually practicing and meditating and coming to class – then we will continue to do it, and do it all the way to the end and not get tired. Of course we might get tired, but we don’t act on that (being tired) by stopping.

Also I can’t stress enough how important it is that the motivation be sincere. In other words, it be what we actually feel and believe. For example, if we are aiming for liberation or for enlightenment, but we have really no idea – we can’t imagine what it actually means to be liberated or to reach enlightenment, and we’re not even convinced that it’s possible, let alone understanding what it actually means, how can we actually sincerely aim for it? We can have, at our level, the wish, the hope, the aspiration that I’d like to aim for liberation and enlightenment, and actually understand what it is, and be convinced that it’s possible – not only possible in general, but possible for me to achieve that. So I’m working toward that goal, but right now my aim is perhaps to improve the quality of my life. That’s what I sincerely feel. That’s sincerely why I’m coming here to learn about the Dharma.

The same thing is true in terms of a motivation to improve my future rebirth, to make sure that I always have a precious human rebirth. Well, if I’m not really convinced that there is such a thing as rebirth, and I don’t really understand what rebirth means, how can we aim sincerely to benefit our future rebirths? It’s just words, isn’t it? So in that situation I think the most honest thing – and it’s always important with the Dharma practice to be completely honest with ourselves – the most honest thing is that, okay, I’m working to benefit this lifetime, to improve the quality of my life, because there’s a lot of problems and difficulties in it. And eventually – I mean, I understand the Buddhist path and the levels of motivation to improve future rebirths, to gain liberation, to gain enlightenment, and so I look at my motivation now as a stepping stone on the way to that. And I intend it. I would like to try to develop these more advanced motivations, but I need a lot of work to get there; I’m not quite there sincerely yet. That honesty is extremely important, otherwise our practice isn’t really sincere. Our hearts aren’t really in it.

But it is essential that our ultimate aim is for liberation and enlightenment, and our practice of Buddhism is within the context of hoping to eventually aim for liberation and enlightenment, because it’s only if our ultimate aim is for liberation and enlightenment, as defined in Buddhism, that our practice actually becomes a Buddhist practice. Otherwise, if we are following Buddhist methods and the Buddhist teachings just to improve this lifetime without this ultimate aim for liberation and enlightenment, then we are not following Buddhism: We are not really Buddhist practitioners. We are using Buddhism as a psychology. And that’s fine as long as we acknowledge that we are using it as a psychology, but that’s not Buddhism. Likewise, if we are adopting the Buddhist methods simply to improve our future lifetimes, without the ultimate aim of liberation and enlightenment – when we understand what that is – then, again, we’re not following Buddhism. We are following a Western religion, which is to “I want to learn how to go to heaven.” It’s no different from that. So that’s still not Buddhist. For it to be Buddhist, it has to be – whatever we’re doing – it’s a stepping stone on the way to liberation and enlightenment.

Remember, what does liberation mean? Liberation means liberation from rebirth, from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Of course, to aim for that depends on understanding and belief in rebirth. But if we just want a precious human life again and again, that I don’t want to stop rebirth because I’m actually quite attached to this life, so I want to continue another life like this life – or I want to go to heaven, something like that – then, again, that’s not quite Buddhist, is it?

So, as I say, I think it is very essential to be sincere about our motivation, about our aim. And then, of course, to be honest with the emotion that is accompanying that. And if our motivation for achieving any of these goals is “Oh, how wonderful. It would be so nice,” and so on, that again is not a Buddhist motivation, is it, or the type of emotion that Buddhism is emphasizing.

What are we talking about in Buddhism in terms of the emotions that we are trying to develop as our motivations? We’re talking about things like disgust with uncontrollably recurring problems and I really want to get out of it. And I really have compassion for others: I really want to help them get out of it. And I want to get a precious human rebirth, a better type of rebirth in the future. Why? Because I am completely horrified at the idea of a terrible rebirth, and I really don’t want that because I want to be able to continue on the spiritual path because eventually I can be of more help to everybody.

If we look at these three motivations, these three aims in Buddhism, the structure is the same: We want to get rid of something. We want to get rid of horrible rebirths; we want to get rid of rebirth altogether; we want to get rid of everybody else’s suffering and our inability to really help them. So we want to get rid of something. We’re rejecting something. And the accompanying motivation is “How horrible it would be” in terms of worse rebirth states, in terms of being stuck forever in recurring samsara, and how horrible it is that everybody else is suffering and I can’t really do very much about it.

If the basic mode of our emotionality is “Oh, how wonderful. How marvelous,” and so on, then I think it is most helpful to try to direct that type of naturally arising emotion and devotion toward how wonderful it would be if I could avoid worse rebirth, how wonderful it would be if I could gain liberation from samsara, how wonderful it would be if I could really help everybody. Then we’re using this naturally arising mode of emotionality, if that’s what we have, in a proper Buddhist way. After all, that is the way in which we practice the four immeasurable attitudes in Mahayana Buddhism: How wonderful it would be if everybody were free from suffering and the causes of suffering. How wonderful it would be if everybody had happiness and the causes of happiness. Etc. We need to approach the study of the five aggregates within the context of this type of motivating aim and emotion.

And we saw that the benefits of learning about the five aggregates is that it provides the context for our entire Buddhist practice because the five aggregates are a way of understanding our experience, our experience of every moment of our life, every single lifetime. So if we want to understand true suffering, we need to look to what makes up our experience of life. And if we want to discover the causes of our suffering, where do we look? We look within the five aggregates that make up our experience each moment. If we want to experience true stopping of suffering and its causes, where will that take place? It will take place within the aggregate factors of our experience; in other words, they will be missing – they will be without the suffering and the causes of suffering. And what is the type of mind that we want to develop that will bring about the elimination of suffering and its causes? Well, that’s something which we want to add to the five aggregates of our experience; we want it to be there all the time.

What is the main cause of our suffering and our problems and also, in fact, our inability to help everybody fully as a Buddha? That would be our unawareness of reality: we just don’t know, or we understand it incorrectly. So either we don’t know or we know incorrectly. And what would be the antidote to that? What will eliminate that? It would be correct understanding, knowing correctly reality and how things exist. So we want to get rid of the not knowing in each moment – get rid of the confusion – and instead have, in each moment, correctly knowing. And why do we want to do that? Again, it is because if we do that it – well, it will certainly improve the quality of my life now. And I recognize the suffering and the problems that I have in this lifetime when I have confusion in each moment – or I really don’t know, or I know incorrectly – and I’ve had enough of that: it really is not fun; I want to get rid of that. Or we think further ahead: I want to eliminate this type of confusion because it’s just going to lead to worse and worse rebirth states. Why? Because the more confused I am, the more destructively I act. And if we want to gain liberation, what do we have to do? We have to get rid of that confusion and gain the understanding. And if we want to gain enlightenment, we have to do the same.

So, regardless of what our aim is here, we want to clean up our five aggregates, basically. I want to clean up how I experience life.

Now we need to look a little bit more closely at what is this unawareness. What is it that we don’t know? What is it that we’re confused about that’s causing our problems? First of all, what is the confusion focusing on? What are we confused about? We’re confused about our five aggregates. There are several levels of that confusion, but the problem is how do we pay attention to and regard our experience: How are we going to regard it? How do we understand it? How do we consider it? And the problem is that we consider it incorrectly. There are four ways in which this occurs.

Regarding Suffering As Happiness

First of all, we regard suffering as happiness. That means that – well, we’ve described that each moment of our experience has some sort of unsatisfactory aspect to it. Yet the problem is that we don’t recognize that it is suffering, that it’s problematic. We think it’s perfectly normal and, in fact, we even think that it’s happiness.

Think of a sick relationship that we might have been in; an unhealthy relationship. I’m sure that almost everybody has been in an unhealthy relationship with someone. And we are in a state of denial about that, that we don’t want to see that it is unhealthy. And because we are insecure, we regard it as happiness. “I’m so happy. Abuse me again.” So I think this is a very common happening – it’s a very coarse example of what we’re talking about here – all sorts of situations that are difficult and we have problems in them. We consider it happiness, and we are satisfied with it, because we are afraid if we give it up it will be even worse. “If I get out of this unhealthy relationship, then I’ll be alone. Oh, that will be even worse. I won’t find anybody. Better to be in my unhealthy relationship than with no one.” And so we regard it as happiness.

And we do this with everything, don’t we? We have some chronic problem, like you’re having a chronic sleep disorder, and rather than recognizing that it’s a problem – well, this is happiness; this is the way that I sleep. Right? Happiness. We don’t want it to end. Why don’t we want it to end? Because we’re afraid that it will be even worse. So we make do with what really we should be trying to get rid of. That’s regarding suffering as happiness. Let’s think about that for a moment to try to recognize this confusion that we have.


So this first type of confusion is confusion about our five aggregates; in other words, confusion about what we’re experiencing. And when we’re experiencing a suffering situation, then we view it as happiness in our confusion, basically because we’re insecure. And even if we don’t go to the length of regarding it as happiness, we at least regard it as normal and then we try to just make the best of it.

Regarding What Is Unclean As Clean

The second type of confusion is the confusion of – now here we have to be a little bit careful about the words – literally it is “regarding what is unclean as clean.” Now I think what this is speaking about is regarding something which is impure as pure. We could speak about this, of course, on the level of body. We think that the body is so clean, so beautiful, so wonderful. But, as the Indian master Shantideva pointed out, if we take some beautiful delicious food and put it in the mouth and chew it a few times and spit it out, everybody would regard what we spat out as unclean. So if the body is so clean and so wonderful, why does it make the food into something dirty and disgusting? Let alone if that food goes all through our digestive system and comes out the other end. And obviously if we look inside the body, peel off the skin and so on, we wouldn’t find the body so clean and attractive and beautiful. Well, we could leave it at just this level, but I think we can look at it in a broader way.

I think that we tend to look at people and situations just in terms of the good points, and we don’t really want to look at the negative aspects. So again we’re looking at our experience – our five aggregates. We are in love with somebody, we like somebody very much, and we really don’t want to look at the negative aspects of this person. We just want to see the positive aspects: “They’re so wonderful. Such a wonderful person.”

I’m just thinking of a small child: If we have a small child (it’s our own child) and they spill something or something dribbles on them, or things like that, we say, “How cute!” If it were somebody else’s child, we would say, “What a sloppy child.” But our own child: “Oh, how cute!” when they’re doing this or that.

So we tend to think that on other levels as well. Our loved one – we don’t really want to think about the fact that they snore or these other impure – unclean is the general word here – aspects of them. We just think of how wonderful this person is. Or I think here in Mexico perhaps you can understand it, that almost every meal that you eat it is: “So marvelous. It is the most wonderful meal that I’ve ever had,” or “It’s the most wonderful time that I’ve ever had,” and so on; whereas in fact there’s probably quite a bit of unsatisfactoriness in what we experience. We’re looking at what is unclean as clean, or impure as pure. “It’s marvelous. Wonderful.”

So we exaggerate things. We would like things to be like in a fairy tale. Not a fairy tale of monsters and witches eating little children and stuff, but we want it to be like Bambi – and everything is just really nice. And so we tend to look at things like that, even though they’re not so nice. So that is confusion about what we are experiencing. We don’t want to look at the down side of things, the unpleasant side of things. We would rather just live in a fantasy world where everything is beautiful and wonderful.

That’s seeing what is unclean as clean. Let’s think about that and try to recognize this in our own experience. The expression is: “Seeing things through rose-colored glasses.” We don’t want to look at the nasty parts. We consider even the nasty parts as beautiful and wonderful. For example, we are holding a puppy dog and the puppy dog sneezes, and we think “Oh, how cute!” when actually here is a living creature that’s just sneezed in our face. If we were holding a drunken person next to us and they sneezed in our face, we wouldn’t think it was so cute. Or our little child’s nose is running – “Oh, how cute! How dear” – and we wipe it with our finger. We wouldn’t do that with the drunken person: “Ick! His nose is running.”


Considering Nonstatic Things as Static

Let’s go on with the third (these are called incorrect considerations, or discordant: it’s not in accord with reality). This is to regard nonstatic things as static. That’s usually translated as “to regard impermanent things as permanent,” but we have to remember what we mean by impermanent and permanent here. We’re talking about things that change from moment to moment, but we regard it as unchanging. Now these terms, usually translated as permanent and impermanent, can also in other contexts have the meaning of: we think that something that is going to only last a short time, we think it’s going to last forever. And, in this particular context, I think that we can include both meanings of permanent and impermanent.

For example, we experience in our aggregates – in other words, in what’s making up our experience in each moment – depression. And we can think that this state of depression, this state of sadness and low energy and so on, is always the same; it’s not changing. “I’m still in this depression.” And we could also think that is going to last forever. Often we feel like that, don’t we? When we are in the dentist chair and the dentist is drilling our tooth, don’t we feel that it’s going to last forever? Right? It’s never going to end. And we don’t really consider that, each moment, the level of pain is slightly different, do we? And when we meet somebody and we fall in love, don’t we have this feeling that: “Ah, it’s going to last forever. We will live happily ever after, forever and ever.” This is an incorrect consideration of the situation because, of course, in each moment of each day, it’s going to change. It’s going to be different, and it’s not going to last forever.

So this is something that we all experience, don’t we? A child thinks, “I’m never going to grow up.” They don’t want to be an adult: “I’m never going to be an adult.” It’s just lasting forever. School is lasting forever. We all think that, don’t we? So let’s think about this incorrect consideration. This third type of incorrect consideration is again directed at the five aggregates of our experience. We think what we are experiencing is not changing, and what we are experiencing right now is going to last forever. The easiest example to understand is when we have pain.


Considering What Lacks a “Solid Me” as Having a “Solid Me”

Then the fourth incorrect (or discordant) consideration is to regard our aggregate factors (again, in other words, what’s making up our experience in each moment) to contain a – we’ll put it in simple words – a solid “me,” a solid “soul” that exists in some sort of impossible way. And in fact it doesn’t. In other words, there really isn’t this type of impossible “soul,” this type of impossible “me,” sitting there as part of each moment of our experience. But we think that there is. And it feels like that, as if I am a soul that has come into my body – as some sort of entity that exists all by itself, and now it’s come into my body and it has clicked with all the places where it would have to click with the mind and the body, and there it is! And now it uses this body and mind as some sort of machine to walk around with and to think and to communicate. And then, at some point, it’s going to disconnect and leave and find another body and mind. And we feel that that’s the real “me.” And of course we feel that it doesn’t change: I went to sleep last night and then I woke up this morning and, hey, here I am again! And any of us who are getting older certainly think that we are the same “me” that we were when we were a young person, and it’s just this body is starting to fail, and so on, but still it is the same solid “me” that has the same desires and the same things and – “Why are people looking at me funny because I am old and my body looks this way?”

But that’s not how we exist. That type of impossible “me” is a myth. Or, on a more subtle level, we think that there is a “me” that can be known all by itself, not in relation to a body or a mind. We feel that, don’t we? “I want you to love… not my body. I don’t want you to love my mind or my possessions or things. I want you to love me. Just me.” As if there were a “me” that could be loved independently of a body and a mind, and possessions, and personality, and all these other things. I don’t think there’s anybody who hasn’t felt that, is there? But there is no such thing. We imagine that there is such an entity in each moment of our experience, and actually there isn’t. There is a “me,” but it doesn’t exist in this impossible way.

So this is the fourth type of incorrect consideration. Let’s take a few minutes to recognize it. And please bear in mind that the other three types of incorrect consideration are not that difficult to recognize that they are incorrect. This one is very difficult to recognize that it’s incorrect; and it is the topic of what we call voidness or emptiness.


Rejecting Incorrect Consideration

We need then to have a more realistic attitude and understanding of what makes up our experience in each moment (the five aggregates). We need to recognize the different types of incorrect consideration with which we regard our aggregates in a false way that doesn’t correspond to reality. We have to recognize that they are absurd, incorrect; they’re not referring to anything real. And with that understanding then we refute it; we get rid of it. With that understanding – that this is absurd, this doesn’t make any sense, it’s not referring to reality – with that understanding, we reject, we get rid of this incorrect view and we replace it with correct understanding.

It’s not sufficient to just replace incorrect understanding with correct understanding. We need to reject the incorrect understanding by knowing and understanding full well how it is incorrect and that it is incorrect, and then you can replace it with correct understanding. If we don’t reject, through understanding, the incorrect view, then we’re just repressing it, and it will come up again if we try to override it with a correct view. Just understanding that it is incorrect and rejecting it, that just starts the process of getting rid of it. We really, really have to be convinced of it very, very deeply and get used to it. We can know that this is not right, this is not correct, but I still feel that way. So we have to go beyond that step. “I know that there is no ‘me’ that you could love independently of my body and my personality and my mind and my possessions, and things like that. I know that, but still I want you to love ‘me.’”

So it takes a great deal of familiarity to really get rid of this incorrect view so that it doesn’t arise anymore. So we need to get rid of this view, reject this view, that what we are experiencing is happiness. In other words, we need to recognize – to go back to our discussion yesterday – what it means that each moment of our experience has suffering. That means that either we are experiencing something that we don’t like, we want to be rid of; or we are experiencing something that we like and we want it to continue, but it won’t and it doesn’t. And also this goes up and down. So sometimes we feel happy, sometimes we feel unhappy. It’s constantly going up and down. And in each moment of our experience we’re perpetuating this. This is the suffering state. And it’s not happiness because if it were happiness it would be wonderful all the time, and it’s not wonderful all the time.

Then we likewise need to reject and replace the view that what we experience is clean and pure when in fact it’s not. We tend to think, for instance, that – we buy a new computer and it is so pure and it’s so wonderful, but actually it’s going to break, isn’t it? Or our body is so beautiful, but in fact it gets sick and not such nice things come out of it. And so on. We’re like that, aren’t we? It’s quite true. We think, “Ah, life is going to be so much better if we get a computer and we get e-mail and we get a cell phone,” and all these things, but actually they bring on a tremendous amount more of suffering, don’t they? We have computer suffering: they break all the time; we are constantly bombarded with e-mail and spam. We are constantly interrupted in what we are doing with the cell phone ringing. Happiness is actually very problematic here, isn’t it? It is very funny how sometimes now we think the ideal holiday would be a holiday without e-mail and without the cell phone.

And we also want to remove from our way of experiencing – our aggregates – the view that whatever we’re experiencing, it is not going to change and it’s going to last forever.

And we want to reject and replace the feeling that there is some sort of solid “me” there every moment with an understanding that there is no such thing. Although there is what we call the conventional “me,” but there isn’t some sort of creature, an entity from outer space, that is sitting inside me and talking in my head, and pulling the switches and the strings and making my body move and my mind think this and that.


In psychoanalysis there is a phrase that “me is another.” This refers to a cultural situation in which we are immersed in some culture and it’s like the culture possesses us. And then it’s like this possession of the power of the culture to which we pertain – that speaks through us. Is that what you mean?

No, not exactly. When we view a “me” as being the possession of a culture then that is making some sort of entity out of the culture, as if that culture existed statically, independent of all the various individuals that make it up; as if all the individuals were totally uniform and the same. And that then I am possessed by that: I am another sheep in the flock.

Now there is a theory within contextual therapy from Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy that speaks of – he has a very strange term for it, the ontic dimension, which is the dimension of being, which is suggested from the teachings of Martin Buber – that the self only has its existence in terms of interrelations to others; that our very existence depends on relations with others. If we had no relation with others, let’s say an elderly person that nobody comes to visit, and nobody cares about, and they feel that “Nobody cares about me” – they very, very quickly die. So our existence is dependent on relations with others. Right? That’s been demonstrated clinically. So this is more like the Buddhist way of thinking, but again we don’t make “you” and “me” into some sort of solid entities.

My confusion comes when I think about karma. Who is experiencing karma? I understand there is no solid “me,” but still there is this confusion that I tend to solidify the “me” that is going to experience the results of karma.

This is of course very natural. It happens to everybody automatically. There is continuity of a “me,” but it’s not like some piece of luggage moving on a conveyor belt in the airport that is actually a solid entity moving through time.

But all these questions about the “me” and how the “me” exists, hopefully will be clarified during the next days, because our imagined, impossible “me” is within the context of each moment of our experience; within the context of the five aggregates. And the actual “me” that does exist, the conventional “me,” that’s also in relation to and within the five aggregates. So first we need to understand the five aggregates. So once we have the basis of the “me,” which is the five aggregates, then Monday or Tuesday we can speak about the voidness of the impossible “me.” How the impossible “me” doesn’t exist, and the actual conventional “me” does. But because this issue of how I exist and how you exist are so important and essential for overcoming suffering, that we have a correct understanding of this, then we need to approach this very delicate and very subtle topic step by step, in an orderly fashion: build up what we need to know first, in order to go on to what we would understand on the basis of that.

Let me just add one thing to the previous question. What we are refuting here, what we are negating in terms of the “me” and the “you” is that there is such an entity (what’s called an impossible “soul”) that exists that’s “me” or “you,” as if it were encapsulated in plastic, existing all by itself. And what Buddhism says is that there is no such thing. It’s not that we are encapsulated in plastic and that’s the “me,” and I have to keep my integrity and be true to myself, and all of that – like a ping-pong ball, or something like that – but rather, without that, it allows for relations back and forth with others. If the “me” were encapsulated in plastic, we could never relate to anybody else. So the “me” is defined in terms of relationship; this is what we mean by that.