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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > The Five Aggregates in the Context of the Four Hallmarks of the Dharma > The Five Aggregates in the Context of the Four Hallmarks of the Dharma

The Five Aggregates in the Context of the Four Hallmarks of the Dharma

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, 13 April 2004

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:56 hours)


This evening I’ve been asked to speak about the five aggregates, and this fits is in very well with what we were speaking about last night. Last night we were speaking about mind in Buddhism, and we saw that mind is basically the moment-to-moment individual, subjective experiencing of things. This is defined, we saw, as the arising or producing of a mental hologram of some object, which is equivalent to, or another way of describing, cognizing it, some sort of mental engagement with the object – either seeing, hearing, or thinking it. And we saw that this is occurring – that’s this third word, merely or only (tsam) – without there being a separate machine or mind as a thing which is actually doing that and without there being some separate person (“me”) which is operating that machine. So this goes on every single moment of each individual being’s existence. And these individual, subjective continuums of this experiencing of things have no beginning and no end, which is obviously rather difficult to really understand. But this is not really the occasion to go into the discussion of rebirth (although obviously it’s involved with the whole discussion of mind, so it’s absolutely fundamental in Buddhism).

The topic of the five aggregates is describing basically the contents of each moment of our experience. And so what’s included and what’s excluded from the five aggregates? What’s included is everything that’s changing, all nonstatic phenomena that make up our experience. So what’s excluded from it are all static phenomena. These are things that don’t change, and we saw a few of them last night. These are the categories. Categories don’t change. You can replace a category and so on, and it doesn’t do anything, but nevertheless we think with categories.

Like the category of tables. That doesn’t do anything, does it? It doesn’t really change or anything like that. I mean, sure, somebody initially had to invent a table. We think in terms of these categories like tables and chairs. That’s not included in this discussion of the aggregates. So it’s part of our experience, in a sense, because we think with them, but it’s not included in the discussion of the five aggregates.

So now, what’s always very nice – or helpful, I should say – in our discussion of any topic in Buddhism is to see where the topic fits into a larger context. Usually we try to understand where it fits into the presentation of the four noble truths or in the context of – there’s a long technical name – the four sealing points for labeling an outlook as based on enlightening words (lta-ba bka’-btags-gyi phyag-rgya-bzhi) or the four hallmarks of the Dharma (chos-kyi sdom-pa bzhi). That’s the technical jargon for them. What it means is the four characteristics that define a view, an outlook on life, as being a Buddhist one (i.e. it’s being based on what Buddha said). So the four features of a general teaching that make it Buddhist

It’s important to realize, by the way – and I think many of us don’t fully appreciate the fact – that a very, very large amount of what we find in the Buddhist teachings are not uniquely Buddhist. You find them in most of the other Indian systems. Buddha after all lived in India and taught to Indians within a cultural context. Some of them we find in Western systems as well, such as renouncing this life and wanting a better future life. We find that in Christianity as well, so that’s not at all particularly Buddhist. Right? Or all the teachings on concentration and these sort of things – I mean, you find them everywhere in Indian teachings.

So what we really always have to focus on in any teaching, starting from precious human rebirth on up, is making it a Buddhist teaching – in other words, fitting it into the four noble truths and these four sealing points. Otherwise it’s not Buddhist.

The Four Hallmarks of the Dharma

Okay, so let’s see how the aggregates fit into the discussion of these four sealing points.

All Affecting Variables Are Nonstatic

The first one is that all affecting variables (’du-byed) are nonstatic. That’s sometimes translated as all collected phenomena are impermanent, but I have objections to a lot of the standard vocabulary. All affecting variables: “variables” are something that changes. “Affecting” is that it’s affected by other things and it affects yet other things. Impermanent is very misleading because it gives the impression that something lasts only a short time. We’re not talking about that. Something could go on forever, like the mental continuum. We’re talking about something that’s nonstatic – it changes from moment to moment.

So these affecting variables, that’s the five aggregates. There’s all these different factors. Basically it’s everything that changes. All these things that arise based on causes, they arise based on causes and conditions and affect other things. So our parents, our environment, the weather, history – I mean, absolutely everything affects how we feel, our emotions, affects what we experience in life, doesn’t it? How we experience life and how we feel about it, that’s going to affect not only our own future experience but it affects everybody else’s experience that we interact with.

Affecting variable: it changes from moment to moment. And this point says all affecting variables are nonstatic. So that means that they change from moment to moment. Why? Because conditions and causes change from moment to moment, and they’re affected by them. That’s very, very profound to actually realize. Because for instance, when we are in a certain mood, we tend to think that this mood is here to last, but actually it’s changing absolutely every second, depending on what we’re seeing, what we’re looking at, what we’re hearing, our physical sensations. It’s changing all the time. There’s nothing solid about it.

This is referring to what we call subtle nonstaticness. There’s gross nonstaticness (mi-rtag-pa rags-pa) and subtle nonstaticness (mi-rtag-pa phra-mo):

  • Gross nonstaticness is when something actually comes to an end. Like for instance if we buy a car, eventually it’s going to break. Or the glass is eventually going to break. That’s gross nonstaticness. In this particular lifetime, our life is eventually going to end. When it ends, that’s the gross nonstaticness.

  • And the subtle nonstaticness is to realize not just that we’re going to die someday but that every single moment is changing and growing closer to that point when we will die.

Our death has to eventually come. It’s changing from moment to moment and getting closer and closer to its final end, and we’ll finally finish. Why? Because it’s an affecting variable. It’s a specific type of affecting variable. It arose based on causes and conditions, and those causes and conditions are fragile, and they’re changing all the time. And so because it’s dependent, when those causes and conditions are no longer there, it’s going to end.

There are certain types of affecting variables that are degenerating from when they start, like our lifespan. And there are other things which change all the time but which actually don’t degenerate, like the conventional nature of mind. That’s not going to degenerate, but still it’s a subtle type of nonstaticness because it has no beginning and no end, but still it’s going to change from moment to moment because obviously our experiencing of things changes as we experience different things, affected by what we experience. In other words, our experiencing of a certain situation arises based on so many causes and conditions that make that situation, and that’s constantly changing, so what we’re experiencing is constantly changing. But the experiencing itself, as a phenomenon, is not degenerating. It’s not getting weaker and weaker and drawing toward its final end, although a specific lifetime does.

It’s probably not so easy to understand. It’s a little bit difficult perhaps to understand. I don’t want to just leave you with something that’s puzzling. So if you think of a mental continuum, it’s like a line, forever – no beginning, no end. Right? So it’s not in general going to its end, because there is no end. But in each lifetime, that line sort of jumps up and then goes down like a hill to the end of that lifetime, and then it jumps up to the beginning of the next lifetime and then goes down again, and like that. So each lifetime is drawing to its end, but the continuity of the line goes on forever.

Depending on what we’ve done, our actions, and the tendencies and habits that we’ve built up, then – the five aggregates – what we’re going to experience in any particular lifetime will be associated with a particular life form and a particular type of life, like a dog experience or an experience of a cockroach lifetime or a Mexican human female lifetime or a Russian male lifetime. It’s changing all the time. It’s individual, but it doesn’t have one specific identity of one particular lifetime; it’s not that it’s always a female mental continuum or a dog mental continuum.

We could spend several years thinking about what I just said, and obviously it requires a very long time to actually digest that and all the implications of that, in terms of not only how we relate to ourselves but how we relate to absolutely everybody else, not just the cockroaches. So we’ll leave that. That’s only our first point, sorry.

Whatever Is Tainted Is Suffering

The second sealing point is that whatever is tainted is suffering or problematic. Tainted (zag-bcas) is usually translated as contaminated, but I don’t like that term; that’s really a bit gross. Tainted here means that it arises dependently on disturbing emotions and attitudes and on karmic urges – karmic causes, causes and conditions – so coming from disturbing emotions and karma.

Tainted phenomena are things that are ripening from basically karma, which is based on our disturbing emotions, and that is the five aggregates. They’re coming from basically our unawareness or ignorance. And also it can be, but not necessarily, accompanied by unawareness or ignorance, more disturbing emotions. Like with an arhat, it’s not necessarily still accompanied with it, although their body came from karma from before they died. And if it’s accompanied by these disturbing emotions or our unawareness, it brings on more (unless it’s the last moment before a true stopping of it).

So all of these are problematic, they’re suffering, these types of phenomena – our five aggregates, basically – tainted aggregates. So these are tainted aggregates we’re talking about. We’re not talking about the aggregates that make up a Buddha’s experience; they’re untainted.

When we talk about problematic or suffering, there are three types of suffering or problems, and we’re talking about the third type.

  • The first one is just the suffering of pain, unhappiness.

  • The second one is the problem of things changing all the time. That’s referring to our ordinary happiness – that it’s not going to last, and it’s never enough, it’s never satisfying, and we have absolutely no idea what’s going to come next, so it’s very insecure.

  • The third type of problem is called the all-pervasive problem. This is what we’re talking about here. If what we experience is coming from our disturbing emotions and karma, and if we’re not arhats (so it still has disturbing emotions and it’s building up more karma), it’s going to produce more moments of disturbing emotions, more karma, which will be the basis for the first two types of suffering, either pain and unhappiness or unsatisfying, ordinary happiness. That’s the all-pervasive problem.

This is also very profound, if you think of it. What I’m experiencing, this difficulty and so on, it’s coming because of my disturbing emotions and all this stuff in the past, and I’m still confused, and if I don’t do something about it, it’s going to go on forever. It’s going to be changing all the time – it’s nonstatic – it’s going to be one problem after another after another from one lifetime to another to another, forever. And so that is really, to put it in colloquial English, a drag. That’s the all-pervasive suffering. And no matter what’s going to happen to us, we’re going to get disturbing emotions, and we’re going to just make more of a mess and experience all of that.

All Phenomena Are Devoid and Lacking an Impossible Soul

The third sealing point is that all phenomena are devoid and lacking an impossible soul (bdag-med). That’s the terminology. That’s usually translated as void and selfless, but selfless is too vague a word.

Impossible soul. You have to use a general word like that to cover all the tenet systems. So what is this referring to? We had this already in our definition of mind with that word only (tsam, mere). What is the impossible soul that they’re talking about here? It’s what’s called the subtle impossible soul in most of the schools. This is referring to a “me” as a person that exists as a separate “soul” that is self-sufficiently knowable – that could be known by itself independent of the aggregates (in other words, independent of experience, what I’m experiencing) – that there’s some separate “soul.” It’s like what I was saying about the separate “me” that’s using a machine, “mind,” to experience things. So this is a soul. I mean, usually in most philosophies we think of that as a soul. I call it an impossible soul, which is much too confusing. So there’s no separate soul that could be known by itself (“That’s me”).

So here we have two terms, devoid and lacking an impossible soul. Devoid means that our aggregates, our experience, don’t have – they’re devoid of – a person, a “me,” that exists either as one or many self-sufficiently knowable souls. And then lacking an impossible soul is the conclusion that follows from it. So the conclusion that follows is that among all knowable phenomena, there’s no such thing as a person existing as a self-sufficiently knowable soul. So devoid means it doesn’t have one or many of these souls, and what’s usually translated as selfless is the conclusion “Well, there is no such thing as a self-sufficiently knowable soul.” That term lacking an inherent identity – that’s the way I used to translate it – is not general enough to cover actually the definition and usage in all the four tenet systems, so that’s why I say it doesn’t have an impossible soul.

So these aggregates, what’s making up our experience, don’t have a separate soul that can be known by itself. That’s very significant. You have to always put that in because that leads to a huge, huge discussion of what that means. Like “I’m trying to find the real me and know the real me,” as if I could know a real “me” separate from my experience.

I’m going into this in detail. I know that it’s not leaving very much time for the individual aggregates, but I know that you’ve been discussing and learning about these four points, and it’s important perhaps to get a little bit more clarity.

Nirvana Is Peace

The fourth point is nirvana is peace. This means that it is possible to gain liberation, that we can actually get rid of the tainted aggregates. In other words, if we can realize the third point (which is that these aggregates are lacking some separate, self-sufficiently knowable self, that there is no such thing), then we achieve liberation (that’s nirvana), and it’s peace (it’s the end of this all-pervasive suffering). So it all fits together actually very nicely with the four noble truths as well.

The Five Aggregates

So it’s very important to understand the five aggregates, all the changing things that make up each moment of our experience – how it’s all coming from karma and disturbing emotions and unawareness, how we’re perpetuating more – to understand really what’s going on with them so that we can get free of them. That’s the point of learning about the aggregates. It’s so we can get rid of these tainted aggregates and we understand how they’re conditioned and that they’re suffering and they’re changing all the time, all these sorts of things (the four points).

So nonstatic phenomena are included here:

  • And these can be those which are connected with our own mental continuum, like our body, our emotions, these sort of things.

  • Or they can be connected to the mental continuum of somebody else. I can see your body. I can know that you’re unhappy. So that object, that nonstatic phenomenon, is not part of our own mental continuum – it’s not connected to our mental continuum – but yet it’s part of our experience. We’re experiencing it. It’s not that people exist in our head, not at all.

  • And the third type that’s included here are nonstatic phenomena that are not connected with any mental continuum, like the table or this room. It’s not part of anybody’s mental continuum, yet we experience seeing it, being in it, and so on, and it certainly doesn’t exist in our heads.

Okay? So like that, all nonstatic phenomena can be included in our aggregates, which means that we can experience them all. The five aggregates are a convenient scheme to help us organize our experience and understand what’s going on. Aggregate (phung-po, Skt. skandha) means a collection. It’s a collection of many, many, many items that can be classified in these five sorts of bags, and every moment of our experience is going to have one or more item from this bag.

If we use an example from computers, since I think most people are familiar with computers: it’s like for instance there are five folders in which all the nonstatic phenomena could be included, so every moment is going to have one or more files from each folder. However, unlike a computer, these folders don’t exist anywhere. Right? They’re just mental categories, just a convenient organization scheme. There’s no hard disk on our mental continuum that contains all these things. It’s not that every nonstatic phenomenon is sitting somewhere in our head, it comes out onto the computer screen into the mental hologram of the moment, and then when it’s finished it goes back into the folder in our heads. It’s not like that. It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s not stored anywhere.

That’s very profound if you think about that and really starts to change our perception of ourselves, because we often think in the opposite way: we think that “Well, that anger is sitting inside me, like some sort of demon, and will come out at any moment, so I have to suppress it.” It’s not like that. Nothing is sitting in our heads. We have tendencies, perhaps to be angry, but this is more like a probability function. It’s not as though the tendency is sitting somewhere. Okay. So when they’re not part of our moment of experience, they’re not sitting somewhere in our mental continuum.

Okay, so what are the five? To start with, I won’t explain them in the traditional order, because it’s a little bit easier to understand them in a different order. And I’ll try to explain this in terms of the mental hologram that we were talking about – each moment of our experience is the production and cognizing, knowing in some way, a mental hologram. That’s what we’re talking about with the aggregates. We’re talking about what makes up this mental hologram. That is really weird when you start to think about it, experience as a mental hologram – each moment a different hologram.

The Aggregate of Primary Consciousnesses

First we have the aggregate of different types of consciousness (rnam-shes-kyi phung-po). In our Western way of thinking, we speak about just one thing, consciousness, but in Buddhism we speak about them individually – so sight consciousness, sound consciousness, smell, taste, physical sensation, and mental consciousness. And so it’s talking about the actual knowing of an object, the cognitive taking of an object.

And what the consciousness – it’s called primary consciousness – what it does is it cognitively takes or cognizes the essential nature of a phenomenon. The essential nature (ngo-bo) is what sort of phenomenon is it – is it a sight? is it a sound? is it a smell? is it a taste? is it a physical sensation? is it some sort of mental thing? – and that’s the only thing. That’s part of our experience. This is one part. It’s basically like a television channel. What station are we on? Are we on the seeing station? Are we on the hearing, smelling, tasting, thinking, etc.? What channel are we on? So in each moment, there’s a hologram of one of the six channels. It’s like there’s six types of channels that the mind will operate on. And it’s not just one channel at a time, because we can see and hear at the same time, can’t we?

The Aggregate of Forms of Physical Phenomena

The second one that we’re going to speak about is the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena (gzugs-kyi phung-po). When we talk about the contents of our experience, one side of it is the knowing side, in a sense, the cognizing side, and the other side of it is the object. Both of those make up the content of our mental hologram of a moment of experience. There are many things that could be the object of what we’re cognizing at the time, but one that is very often the case is some form of physical phenomenon. There are eleven types. We have:

  1. Sights.

  2. Sounds.

  3. Smells.

  4. Tastes.

  5. Physical sensations (remember there’s not only the touch of something – there’s also hot, cold, motion, that type of thing).

Then there’s also what’s called the five cognitive sensors (dbang-po). It’s usually translated as sense powers, but that is very misleading. What it’s talking about is the cells of the body:

  1. Photosensitive cells of the eyes.

  2. Sound-sensitive cells of the ears.

  3. Smell-sensitive cells of the nose.

  4. Taste-sensitive cells of the tongue.

  5. Physical-sensation-sensitive cells of the body.

Obviously it includes the whole body because the whole body is the sensor for physical sensations. It’s not the whole eye – we’re not talking about the whole thing – it’s just the cells, the photosensitive cells, individual cells. Okay, so that’s involved in every moment.

And then:

  1. Forms of physical phenomena that can’t be known by the senses but only by the mind. Like atoms or what appears in dreams or in our imagination, these sort of things. Or when we think in words, what seems to be sounds in our head. It’s a subtle form of physical phenomenon. It could even be darkness, like when we’re asleep.

So in every moment there’s something. And our body is there all the time anyway, so there’s at least that.

The Aggregate of Distinguishing

Then there’s the aggregate of distinguishing (’du-shes-kyi phung-po). That’s sometimes called recognition, but that’s too sophisticated a word because remember we’re talking about what all beings experience, including the worm – a mental continuum’s experience even when it is in a particular life as a worm.

Distinguishing occurs in two situations. One is in nonconceptual cognition – in other words, seeing, hearing (sense cognition). So here what we’re doing is distinguishing the characteristic mark of something being a knowable object. In other words, what are we seeing? I’m seeing colored shapes. That’s actually what we’re seeing, unless you want to take one of the theories that says we’re only seeing pixels of color (there’s one Buddhist theory that describes it that way). So I’m seeing colored shapes – let’s take this theory (it makes it a little bit easier to understand) – and I’m distinguishing one colored shape, or maybe a collection of some colored shapes, as a knowable object, like wall or picture. I’m distinguishing that from everything else in the sense field. So there’s some sort of characteristic mark – some of the tenet systems say there’s like a line around it, but in the deepest system it says there’s no line around it – it is something that sort of makes it into a thing (you don’t just see pixels or colored shapes). We certainly don’t know what it is – we’re not giving it a name, we’re certainly not recognizing it – we’re just seeing it. We may know what it is, but that comes later; that’s part of another process. But it’s just seeing, like the worm seeing. What we’re talking about is distinguishing objects, distinguishing one object from the other objects in a field of vision, and a baby can do that – light from dark, yellow, this sort of thing. Right? We don’t have to know what it is. So we’re distinguishing it from everything else in the field of vision – or hearing or smell or whatever – but this is only in sense consciousness.

Now, in conceptual consciousness, what we are distinguishing is a feature of the object, the feature of some object concerning a convention of what it is. In other words, this is where we are ascribing to it a category. We are distinguishing it as a table – not just as a knowable thing, but now we’re putting it into some category. We’re distinguishing it as a table and nothing else, so we’re distinguishing it from anything else. Okay? So this has to do with categories. Again it doesn’t have to be a word category, because the worm does this as well: it distinguishes an object as a knowable object in front of it (that’s just when it sees it), and then mentally it distinguishes it in a category of food.

That gets into a very complicated discussion in terms of recognition, because recognition implies that we knew it before. The question is: Can you ever learn something for the first time? Can a baby learn something for a first time? And obviously it can. Or can you know a new invention for the first time? Otherwise the absurd conclusion follows that there were always computers – in the days of the dinosaurs as well – and so we only know a computer now, when it was invented, because we knew one before. But this gets into a very interesting discussion. That’s why the word recognition doesn’t work here. As I say, it’s very interesting. How does a baby learn for the first time “This is an apple.” The first time it distinguishes apple, did it have to know it before and recognize it? Obviously not. So we’re not talking about recognition.

The Aggregate of Feelings of Levels of Happiness

Then the next one’s the aggregate of feelings (tshor-ba’i phung-po). Feelings is a very, very difficult word in our Western languages. We do not have a word that corresponds exactly. And what we’re talking about here is feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness. We’re not talking about the general Western word feeling, which covers emotion, intuition, and all sorts of other things. We’re not talking about feeling hot or cold, and we’re not talking about feeling angry or feeling it’s going to rain tomorrow. We’re not talking about any of that. Here we’re talking specifically about tainted feelings – that they are coming from karma, accompanied by disturbing emotions: “I want this happiness to last. I really can’t stand this suffering,” and so on.

The Aggregate of Other Affecting Variables

Then the final one here (in the order that we’re presenting it) is the aggregate of other affecting variables (’du-byed-kyi phung-po). This is everything else, all other nonstatic phenomena that are affecting our experience that are not included in the other four. These include all our emotions, both the negative and the positive ones – not just anger and greed but also love, compassion, and unawareness. But it includes also many mental factors that are involved with the actual, in a sense, almost mechanical process of knowing – making a mental hologram, of knowing one – things like concentration, attention, these types of things.

And what really is quite usually emphasized in this aggregate is urges (sems-pa). An urge is, in many of the tenet systems, equivalent to mental karma. I mean, it is mental karma. It’s the urge that brings you to a certain object to actually give rise to this mental hologram. It causes the mental activity to face an object or to go in its direction. That’s the definition. So that’s karma according to most schools. And another one that’s usually very emphasized here is intention (’dun-pa), which is what are you going to do with the object or what’s the aim or the purpose, and so on, of taking this object. Or it’s the intention to do something, like I see you and then the intention to say something. So it’s because of those two factors being emphasized, the urge and intention, that often it’s translated as the aggregate of volition. But that really limits our understanding of it because actually it includes everything that’s not in the other four.

In this huge aggregate of affecting variables, there are some things which have – the word is not very easy – five concomitant features (mtshungs-ldan lnga, five congruent features) with the primary consciousness. In other words, they share five things with the primary consciousness. All the things we’ve mentioned so far share five things with the mental consciousness:

  • So all of these – so seeing and then all the emotions that accompany it, and the intention, and all this sort of stuff – all rely on the same cognitive sensors. So for instance, if it’s the emotion that’s coming up and the concentration and all these things, then if it’s with seeing, it’s all dependent on working through the eyes.

  • And they’re all aimed at the same focal object (dmigs-yul). It’s all part of this one hologram. Right? It’s like a chandelier: The central big bulb is the primary consciousness, and all these other things (they’re called mental factors) are like the little bulbs around it. They’re all illuminating the same object, going through the same electric line.

  • And they all give rise to the same aspect (rnam-pa). In other words, they’re all giving rise to the same hologram.

  • And they’re all occurring at the same time.

  • And they all have the same… the technical term is natal source (rdzas). What it means is that they all come from various karmic tendencies and so on that have the same slant (ris-mthun). In other words, they all fit together harmoniously into one hologram. You don’t have things that are totally the opposite that couldn’t go together, like love and hate, in one hologram. Those would have to be two separate holograms.

And then there’s also here some things that are nonconcomitant (ldan-min, noncongruent), that don’t share these five things together, so that would be things like tendencies and the conventional me.


There’s more material here that I could discuss, but I can see that everybody is tired, so there’s no point in pushing to cover everything (I’m in the middle of page two, near the bottom of page two). But the point is that these are very important to understand.

They’re in a certain order for a certain reason. The order is the forms, and then the feelings, then distinguishing, then the other variables, and then consciousness – in terms of going from gross to subtle.

Participant: Usually it’s like that?

Alex: That is the order. I presented it in a totally untraditional order which makes better sense in terms of first learning about them. There are many reasons why they’re in this order and many reasons why feeling and distinguishing are separate, and so on, but I can leave this with Israel. He can explain this to you.

[See: The Five Aggregates: Conventional and Deepest Reasons for Their Structure.]

It’s important to understand this. We want to realize that there’s no separate “me.” Basically we usually identify our mind as a separately knowable “me.” So the consciousness, that’s “me.” And all the other things, we usually identify as “mine” – my feelings, my body, my emotions, my happiness, this type of stuff. That’s our confusion. It’s as if these things were a separate “me.” So this is why we really have to work with all of this.

So that’s a general introduction into the five aggregates, what makes up our experiencing – in other words, what makes up this mental hologram that we’ve been talking about. And on the basis of this, in the next two days we can get into our discussion about voidness, the whole thing that there’s no separate self-sufficiently knowable self and that none of this exists in any impossible way.

Questions and Answers

Okay, so we have time for a couple of questions, if you have any.

Participant: I want to understand the difference between several things you were saying. Are there things in Buddhism that cannot be demonstrated directly (so postulates) or demonstrated on the basis of other reasonings or lines of reasoning? For example, you said that the mental continuum has no beginning and has no end. The way you just said it, it sounds as though this is something I have to accept as a postulate. Or is it the case that this particular phrase, for example, can be demonstrated based on something else?

Alex: From the Buddhist point of view, everything… I mean, there are things that exist and things that don’t exist. If it exists, it can be validly known. If it doesn’t exist, it can’t be validly known. We can think that there are invaders from the fifth dimension in the other room that are going to get us. So we can think that, but we can’t validly know invaders from the fifth dimension – there is no such thing. Right? So all the time, we think that there’s true existence; but we can’t know that validly, because there is no such thing. It’s a nonexistent thing. We know nonexistent things, but not validly. So this means that things such as the mental continuum having no beginning and no end can be known validly. And then you have to take it as a fact. If it’s a fact, if it’s an existent phenomenon, it can be known validly.

We can know things validly in two ways. So either we can know it with bare perception (mngon-sum) – like seeing it, knowing it nonconceptually, like a Buddha would know nonconceptually that mind has no beginning and no end – or the other way, which is how we would have to, is through valid inferential cognition (rjes-dpag tshad-ma), inferring it from logic. The proofs of beginningless and endless mind are obviously quite complex, but it all deals with the issue of continuities and it not making any sense that a continuity has an absolute beginning and an absolute end. So it’s not just a theory, it’s something that can be known by logic. It’s like the law that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed.

Participant: But I wasn’t talking about believing it, just postulating it.

Alex: A postulate is a guess, it’s a theory, and then you want to prove it.

There are certain things that you can’t figure out purely by lines of reasoning – like the mind has beginning and no end, like somebody’s name that you don’t know. So either you have to ask [the person his or her name] or, if you can’t ask, you have to rely on a valid source of information. But then there’s the whole line of reasoning of proving that this person is a valid source of information about this other person’s name. That’s still inference. But that you can prove through logic, that this person is a valid source of information.

Participant: Do we need to see the five aggregates as an inherent part of the process of the making of the mental hologram?

Alex: No, it’s not inherent at all. It’s a convention which just helps us to understand that there’s no separate “me.” A mental hologram is just a convenient convention. There’s nothing on the side of the mental hologram, like lines that separate five portions of it into the five aggregates. There’s nothing inherent on the side of a hologram.

Participant: Do the individual continuums of all sentient beings go to emptiness?

Alex: It’s not that anything goes to emptiness. Voidness is referring to none of them existing in impossible ways – voidness means an absence, so an absence of an impossible soul – it doesn’t exist like that. It’s just talking about how it exists. But let’s leave our questions about voidness for the next two days since that’s what we’re talking about.

Participant: Yesterday I understood that mind and brain are two separate things. But they are interconnected, and so how do they interconnect with one another? That’s not clear for me.

Alex: When we speak about mind, we’re talking about mental activity, so it’s the mental activity of the brain. You could also have a dead brain. That’s just a piece of matter, a piece of meat. But mind is talking about the mental activity when it’s alive, when it’s functioning. When we speak about mind, we’re not talking about a description of it from a physical point of view (the chemical and electrical things that are going on). It’s a description of the mental activity from the point of view of subjective experience.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama had discussions about the brain at a conference with doctors and brain scientists, and he asked them very innocently (like he can): From strictly a physical point of view, is there a difference between thinking “one plus one is two” and “one plus one is three”? Innocent means that there’s an ocean of wisdom behind his question, but he’s asking it in a very playful type of way, a simple monk with sandals. And the scientists had to admit: no – just from purely the brainwaves and all that stuff, there’s absolutely no way of differentiating those two thoughts. So he said, “Ah, obviously there has to be more than just a physical basis.” Very skillful, His Holiness.

Participant: I think I understood it clearly. You said that mental activity is just the events that are happening moment by moment. There is no storage of it in the hard disk somewhere in the brain; that doesn’t exist. But how do we understand all those unconscious tendencies and all those memories and things that we really feel exist somewhere and sometimes appear, our inner demons and all that. How can I understand that?

Alex: That’s not a very simple question to answer. It requires a bit of an explanation. It’s going to take a little while to explain this. I’ll try to be brief, but it’s not a brief topic you asked.

We’re talking here about tendencies, and a tendency (sa-bon, Skt, bija; seed) is – well, the word that I like to use to describe it, to make a little bit easier for us, is an abstraction. So we have certain events which are similar, such as being angry, but it’s not constant – it’s only sometimes – and so we can make an abstraction on the basis of that and say that there’s a tendency to be angry. Like if there was a series of dots, then in our minds the abstraction would be making a line that sort of makes sense of it. But it can’t be found anywhere. I mean, this abstraction doesn’t sit somewhere in our head. It just helps us to describe this series of similar events – what happens is events that are similar. This is what we’re referring to when we talk about imputation or mental labeling, which I’ll get into in the next two days.

It’s the same thing with what we would call memory. I mean, there’s no equivalent word in the way that Buddhism analyzes. The word that would be translated as memory actually is the mental activity of remembering, and actually it’s the word “to be mindful,” “mindfulness.” So what is that? That’s a series of events in which there is the production of a mental hologram that resembles the first mental hologram. That’s all that’s happening. I’m remembering: I am thinking now of something that resembles – because it’s not the exact same hologram – that resembles a mental hologram experienced before. And so likewise there’s a tendency. Mindful just means a mental hold. It’s like a mental glue that’s holding on to the object.

There are many, many technical terms, which are all defined differently. You have to be very careful with this word mindfulness (dran-pa) and attention (yid-la byed-pa) and alertness (shes-bzhin). They’re all different, so you have to be really super careful with the definitions and how you choose your words. You have to be very careful not to use the wrong term when another term is meant. You can’t be casual about these terms.

So mindfulness, remembering, is a mental hold on a hologram that resembles something before. And because we have many instances of these similar holograms, we’d say there’s a memory – there’s a tendency to think that way. That’s all from the Buddhist analysis.

Let me open a door and give you a little peek of a more advanced level here (it’s a really big discussion and very profound): What happens in between? How does something arise again? This gets into the realm of a no-longer-happening (’das-pa) of something and a not-yet-happening (ma-’ong-pa) of it again. How is that maintained? And how does one change into another? Buddhism has a lot to say about that. So it’s not a simple topic. And to really understand how karmic tendencies work… How is it that you get angry again without there being anything findable there that’s stored in a memory disk? So the point is, why I bring that up, is that it’s not just a theory and stuff like that. They really, really analyzed incredibly deeply and in detail how all this possibly works.

I think this is a good place to end for this evening, to whet your appetite for going deeper and deeper.

So we think that whatever understanding we’ve gained, whatever positive force has been built up by this – may the understanding go deeper and deeper, may the positive force grow stronger and stronger, and network together with all my other things I’ve understood, network together with all the other positive force I’ve built up, and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Thank you.