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The Five Aggregates: Conventional and Deepest Reasons for Their Structure

Alexander Berzin
Seattle, Washington, USA, April 2003

Session Two: The Reasons for Their Structure, and Their Voidness

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:54 hours)

By the way, when we do vipassana meditation in the Theravada tradition, one of the things that we are trying to do is to become aware of this changing, this impermanence of the aggregate factors of the emotions, of the physical sensations, of the mental states, of the feeling of happiness, of unhappiness – it’s the five aggregates. To be aware and to observe as it is happening, the moment to moment changing of all of them, first one at a time and then all of them together. They are all changing at these different rates. And then, that there is no solid “me” in all of this. That is the vipassana method in Theravada. They are very much connected with this. 

Question: When you spoke about grasping at inherent existence and talked about how the Gelugpa position was that it arises in every moment, when we have discussed it here at the center, my understanding was that they made a distinction between the misapprehension of inherent existence and the actual grasping at inherent existence. I thought they said that grasping at inherent existence occurs during periods of really strong emotions, where the “I” rises up in a really distinguishing form. If you cognize that “I am walking to the store,” the grasping in that isn’t really arising, just the misapprehension is there. 

Alex: The question is a very good question. It’s concerning grasping for true existence, or inherent existence – however we want to translate it, depending on what school we are talking about, since it is used in several schools and defined differently in several schools. Isn’t there a difference between an apprehension or cognition of true existence and grasping for true existence? What is going on here? 

Well that is a difficult question to explain simply because even within the Gelug position, there are different positions depending on which textbook you follow in the different monasteries. According to the Gelug position, the habits of grasping for true existence give rise to appearances of true existence in every moment. What we are talking about here is that the emphasis should be on the mental activity of giving rise to appearance of true existence. What we want to get rid of is that appearance-making activity. That is what you can get rid of. If an appearance actually existed “out there,” then you couldn’t get rid of it, erase it, or whatever. That is not what we are talking about. 

You are working with the mind, the mental activity. So everybody would agree within the Gelug school that the habits give rise every moment to the appearance-making of true existence. So then the question is whether you believe that those appearances correspond to reality. The grasping for true existence is sort of apprehending it or cognizing it to correspond to reality. Grasping is a bit too strong a word. The term is just “den-dzin” (bden-'dzin), it’s just to take an object. So it’s apprehending it, it’s not that strong word “grasping.” 

Full-fledged apprehension (or cognition) of true existence occurs only in conceptual cognition, because it is interpolating – it is adding something that is not there. That occurs only in conceptual cognition. Now according to the Jetsunpa textbooks that are followed in Sera Jey and Ganden Jangtsey monasteries, Jetsunpa says that there is a subliminal grasping for true existence, sort of a subconscious that underlies nonconceptual cognition or seeing and hearing. So it’s not manifest but it is subliminal, it is there, it is still a way of being aware of something. Whereas the Panchen textbooks – Panchen Sonam-dragpa, and Jetsunpa is Jetsun Chokyi-gyeltsen. But Panchen’s textbooks are followed by Drepung Loseling and Ganden Shartsey monasteries, and Panchen says that actually in each moment you would just say that the habit is there, it is not a way of being aware of something. But it is there in each moment – that’s the big Gelugpa position. The non-Gelugpas say that it is not there. That giving rise to an appearance of true existence is equivalent to believing in it. If you didn’t believe in it you wouldn’t give rise to it. So that only occurs in conceptual cognition, but their analysis of what happens in nonconceptual cognition is totally different from the Gelugpa. It isn’t equivalent at all. 

In any case, if we stick to Gelugpa, then it is not a matter of there’s only grasping for true existence when there is strong emotion, and when there is not strong emotion (when you’re just walking down the street) there is no grasping. It is not like that. Also you have to always bear in mind that nonconceptual sense cognition occurs for one sixty-fifth of a second. And that is it. And then immediately the conceptual process – well, there is another one sixty-fifth of a moment of nonconceptual mental cognition and then conceptual. So when we are seeing, we are not really just staying freshly with each one sixty-fifth of a second of nonconceptual cognition. There is always sort of an overlay. 

So we’re seeing what appears to us is true existence, that this is truly a man sitting in front of me. Well it gets into the whole explanation of what we mean by true existence. There are many levels of meaning to it, many interpretations. So it is a little bit complex. It is a very good question. But here, in Gelug, we do make a difference between giving rise to the appearance and cognizing it and believing it. And it is believing it that prevents liberation, and it’s giving rise to the type of appearance that prevents omniscience or enlightenment. 

You get rid of the believing in it first. It takes much longer to get rid of the habit that is constantly giving rise to that appearance. Arhats are still giving rise to that appearance of true existence. Only a Buddha doesn’t. And only in moments of nonconceptual absorbed concentration on voidness, so called meditative equipoise of an arya, then there is no giving rise to the appearances of true existence. And the clear light mental activity doesn’t give rise to appearances of true existence. Which is the great advantage – you can cognize voidness with it. This is one of its great advantages – it doesn’t give rise to appearances of true existence; that is only with grosser levels of mind, grosser levels of mental activity. 

– – –  

Now a little bit more about the aggregates. Why are the aggregates taught? They are taught to clear up the three bewilderments, it says in the text. 

  • The first is to eliminate confusion, the confusion of taking all the mental factors as one solid thing. To eliminate that confusion, feeling and distinguishing are listed as separate aggregates. They are not all put into one aggregate; you have the feelings and distinguishing as separate aggregates from the other affecting variables

  • Then to eliminate the confusion of taking forms as one solid thing. So the aggregate of forms is divided, and we speak about the sensors and the sensory objects as separate categories within the aggregate of forms. 

  • The third bewilderment is of taking mind or mental activity as one solid thing. To eliminate this bewilderment we speak about the primary consciousness and the various mental factors – the other affecting variables – as separate aggregates. That is one line which is given, of why they talk about the five aggregates – to show that mind isn’t one solid thing. So it talks about primary consciousness as the aggregate of consciousness and mental factors and other aggregates (like the aggregate of other affecting variables). Mental activity is not one solid thing, then we have primary consciousness in one aggregate and the mental factors in three other aggregates. 

It is to help us to deconstruct our experience, which is what it is all about, isn’t it? In terms of grasping for all of this to constitute a solid “me.” So if we see that all the parts that it’s based on are multiple and changing all the time, and changing at different rates, that helps us to break up our view of the solid “me” based on it. 

The above, I think that was in Vasubandhu. According to Asanga, he says that the five aggregates are discussed as they are the basis of the misunderstanding and grasping of “me” as consciousness and “me” as the possessor of the other four. So to help us to overcome that, there is the discussion of the five aggregates – to deconstruct that erroneous view that we take consciousness as “me” and everything else is the possessions of that “me”: my body, my feelings, “me” the possessor of these feelings, “me” who has this body or mind. 

And then why are feeling and distinguishing made into separate aggregates? According to Vasubandu in the Abhidharmakosha, they are made into separate aggregates because they are the basis for controversy for both lay and ordained people. He says that feeling induces craving for sense objects, for sensual objects. You feel happy; you feel pleasure; so you want this sense object that seems to bring that pleasure. It then causes lay people to argue about mine and yours: my wife, my land, my possessions, and so on. And so because feeling becomes the basis for arguments among lay people, it’s made into a separate aggregate. And distinguishing is made into a separate aggregate because it is the topic of arguing for the ordained people – arguing over philosophical views – that is based on correct and incorrect distinguishing of this view and that view, and that leads to distorted views. And so because that type of distinguishing causes arguments among the ordained people, that’s why it’s singled out as a separate aggregate. 

A second reason, it says, why they are made separate is because they are the roots of samsara. There are many different roots of samsara in different contexts, but here Vasubandu says that the different types of feeling of physical and mental happiness, or physical and mental suffering, or pain and indifference – they lead to craving, and craving leads to accumulating karma and acting impulsively, and that leads to uncontrollably recurring problems or samsara. Because of that, feeling is distinguished. It leads to that craving and karma and samsara. The distorted distinguishing leads to distorted views and that is the root of samsara – from the distorted views. This is why they are made into separate ones. 

The usual order of the five aggregates is: the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena, then feelings, distinguishing, other affecting variables, and then consciousness. That order of course is very important in terms of the process of coming out of clear light and evolving to grosser and grosser levels, and then dissolving back into the clear light subtlest mental activity. This sequence, going from grossest to the most subtle, is very important. 

On the anuttarayoga tantra level, we have first the aggregate of forms dissolves, and then feelings, and then distinguishing, and then the other affecting variables – which is mostly karmic impulses, that’s the most important aspect of that – and then the consciousness itself. We find this in the highest class of tantra, but also here in the sutra level of explanation. 

According to Vasubandu in Abhidharmakosha, it goes from the grossest to the subtlest in terms of what is easiest to understand. The form aggregate is the easiest to understand because that is what we see and what we hear. And then the feeling is easiest to comprehend in terms of the mental factors, because we all experience happiness or pain from what we touch, from what we see, from what we eat. And then more subtle is distinguishing. In order to be able to feel something, we need to do distinguish red from blue, and this from that, when we touch something or hear something (distinguishing words). And then more subtle than that are the other affecting variables. That would be the intention, which is significant here: the intention to experience something, the intention to touch something, or the intention to eat something. Then more subtle than that would be the consciousness. 

Also Vasubandu explains that the order of the aggregates is from the generation of disturbing emotions. Most people are very physical and so he explains that first we see things, for example, and then feeling comes from seeing a form. So that induces desire and attraction. Then that desire or attraction leads to incorrect distinguishing, inverted distinguishing, so we distinguish dirty as clean, suffering as happiness, nonstatic as static – this type of reversed distinguishing. Then we get the distorted view of ourself, which then leads to other disturbing emotions – that’s the affecting variables. And when we have all these disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes, then the primary consciousness as well becomes distorted and infected by that. So the order is deriving from the way in which the disturbing emotions are generated. That is a bit of what we find in both of the two major abhidharmas by Vasubandhu and by Asanga. 

Now we have another large topic left, which is not very easy to do in the time that we have left, but we’ll just speak about it a little bit. The topic is the relationship of voidness, the understanding of voidness in this context of the five aggregates. One of the components of the aggregate of other affecting variables is, as I said, made up of the affecting variables that are concomitant and nonconcomitant with the primary consciousness. The nonconcomitant ones include the conventional “me” and it’s an abstraction. 

So what do we mean by an abstraction or an imputation? With abstraction we don’t mean vague by that, rather it is abstracted on to it or imputed on to it. If we think in terms of a habit or a tendency, well what is that? There is a sequence of moments of experience that are similar. Let’s say drinking coffee. There was a moment of drinking coffee three days ago, two days ago, yesterday, today. That is all that there is. That is all that happened. But on the basis of that, we can impute that there is a tendency or a habit of drinking coffee. That habit is an abstraction, a way of putting it together, integrating it. In mathematics it is like the first integral, if you have a series of dots then you get a line. It’s an abstraction that makes a line out of a series of dots. Here we are making a habit out of a series of similar occurrences. 

That tendency – now I’m using the words loosely: tendency, habit, potential, etc. – is not a form of physical phenomenon. It is not a little coffee cup in our head. It is not a way of being aware of something that would be an active thing. It is not a subconscious way of being aware of something, either. It is just an abstraction, a way of organizing the data. Similarly when we say I have a memory. It is a legacy. I had a mindfulness, mental glue, a certain experience, and then a mental semblance of it. We would call it remembering it. Then maybe I have another moment of recollection of something similar. So as a way of putting it together, I would say I have a memory. But the memory isn’t located somewhere, or anything like that. It is a legacy of the original experience. That is why I use the word legacy. Seed is not quite the word. Potential, tendency, the tendency to remember, our Western categories don’t work very well here. 

Similarly we have each moment of our experience in continuity, unbroken continuity, individual, mental continuum, and how do we put it together? We would put it together with “me,” the conventional “me.” It is an abstraction, a sequence of moments of similar experience following a certain karmic pattern, an orderly sequence. So that is the conventional “me.” What happens is that because of the habits of unawareness, grasping at true existence, or on a more basic level, the habits of unawareness – unawareness means either not knowing how things exist or conceiving of it incorrectly – but because of this unawareness – “not knowing” is how Vasubandu and Asanga define it; Dharmakirti defines it as taking it in an inverted way. Different definitions from different Indian masters – the Tibetans take it in both ways. So because of that habit of unawareness, our mental activity gives rise to an appearance of true existence, an appearance of a false “me” let’s call it. And we think, we believe, that the conventional “me” exists in the manner of a false “me.” 

Now we have to distinguish between the giving rise to an appearance of what something is and giving rise to an appearance of how something exists. Here when we talk about the false “me,” what is arising (what it is) is the conventional “me.” That is not the problem. It is not so much a false “me,” but it is a false way in which the conventional “me” exists. That deceptive, distorted appearance is an appearance of an impossible way of existing for that conventional “me.” 

When we talk about voidness, voidness means an absence. It is an absence of an impossible way of existing. I used to call it a fantasized way of existing, but “fantasized” is problematic when you translate it into German, for example, because fantasy is a positive thing not just a negative thing in German. It has a different connotation. “Impossible” is actually better, because it is impossible. It doesn’t exist at all. It is impossible for that to be how things exist. It is an absence of that. And it is not that that impossible way existed at some point and then it no longer exists. It never existed; it is impossible. And that is what voidness is; it is a total absence of an impossible way of existing that was never there. It was the case all along; it is a fact, a static fact – never changes. That is why it is called permanent. 

What our problem is, is that because of these habits of our unawareness, then our mental activity gives rise to this deceptive appearance of an impossible way of existing with respect to “me.” It also does that with respect to everything, but here we speak in terms of “me,” the conventional “me,” this abstraction. It does this in terms of the relationship that this “me” has with the aggregates, with the rest of the aggregates, in terms of our experience. And so it gives rise to an appearance of a true identity to this “me.” How does it exist? It exists with an identity of being this or that. 

It gives rise to this appearance and we believe it. The problem is this grasping for true existence is not just believing. The horrible thing is why we believe it is true. It is not just that it appears like that, it feels like that. That is another usage of our Western word to “feel” like something, for instance to feel like you are flying. It feels as though I exist that way. That is what is so horrible, so deceptive. That is why we believe it. 

We can look at this on several levels. The first level of this false way of existing of the conventional “me” is usually translated as permanent, a permanent “me.” Well you have to watch out for that because the conventional “me” does last forever, it is eternal. We don’t mean permanent in that sense of forever, because the mental continuum is forever. So the conventional “me” can be labeled on the mental continuum forever – no beginning, no end, even when we are a Buddha. What it means here is that it is unchanging, which more specifically means it is unaffected by anything. That is a much better word. 

There is this appearance and this feeling, let us speak more in terms of feeling so we can relate it to our experience. It feels as though there is a “me” who is not affected by the aging process. “I am not affected by this trauma. I am not going to let that affect me. I am going to withdraw into myself. I am unaffected by what is going on, I can withdraw.” Like when we are beaten or dumped by a partner, “I am not going to let that affect me.” We deny what has happened. “I don’t feel anything.” So we have this feeling of a “me” that is unaffected by what goes on. 

Then the next characteristic is usually translated by the word “one.” “One” means that it is always the same. Actually, if we want to be more precise, “one” means without having any parts – that means monolithic – and we’re not just talking in terms of spatial parts, but we’re talking in terms of parts over time. So that means, actually, always one and the same. It is unaffected and always the same. In every situation there is this one and the same me. Now there is Alex in Germany, now there is Alex in Seattle, now there is Alex in India – it is the same me. We go to sleep and we wake up in the morning, “Here I am again!” One and the same me. It feels like that doesn’t it? That is what is so deceptive, what is so devious about it. It absolutely feels like that in every situation – “here I am.” 

Then the third aspect of it is that this “me,” this impossible way of existing, exists as something separate from the aggregates. By the way, we are talking about a combination of these three qualities. And actually again if we want to be more precise, we’re talking about an atman or a self as is taught in the various Indian non-Buddhist schools of philosophy. And we would have to learn about these in order to actually believe in such an atman or a “me.” But here I’m trying to simplify it and relate it to our ordinary experience, and there are many things in our own experience that we find that are very similar to these types of belief from these non-Buddhist Indian systems. So I’m speaking in a very general type of way here. 

So this impossible “me” is unaffected, always the same, and separate from the aggregates. When we act stupidly or we get drunk we feel, “Well that wasn’t the real me.” There is a “me” that is separate from that. Or we feel, “I am out of touch with my body. I am out of touch with my feelings”. As if there were a “me” that is separate from them, out of touch with them. This is a very dualistic type of thing. There is a “me” that can be the owner: my mind, my body, my feelings. As if it were separate. “I am a different person now after that experience” – separate from that experience, and now has become something else. So there’s this type of false or impossible “me” that we believe is actually me. It feels like that and we believe it. 

Then on top of that we believe that this type of “me” is the boss, it’s a substantial entity which is the boss that lords over the aggregates and can be known self-sufficiently, all by itself, without having to also know some aspect of our aggregates (our body and mind) at the same time. We have this little voice in our heads, “Well what should I do now?” As if there was a separate “me” talking in our head. “I will pick this up; I’ll go over there.” I am the boss and I press the button to move the arms and move the legs. It takes in the information from the video screen, and the sound, like a little cartoon character in our head, knowable all by itself, alone, at the control panel, who has to be in control – the whole control freak thing. Or completely freaks out if it’s not in control. “Arrgh, I am out of control!” It has to be the boss. So that is another level, more subtle level, of an impossible way of existing. 

Then we get into the Madhyamaka view, Prasangika specifically. Well, Madhyamaka in general – that there’s a truly existent me. It’s not only like that, but that exists not as something imputed. But when somebody sees me or hears me, although of course Gelug Madhyamaka accepts that we see and we hear a “me”, but what’s impossible is that we see or hear a “me” that is unimputed on the aggregates. And the Prasangika would add to that something further that’s impossible – that there is some inherent feature on the side of “me” that makes “me” me and not you, by its own power. There are many, many levels of impossible ways of existing and we need to deconstruct them all with the understanding of voidness. Voidness would apply in each of these levels. The absence of each of these impossible ways of existing is a voidness. So we go deeper and deeper. 

Now based on that grasping for true existence, or grasping for this false existence, the giving rise to that appearance of an impossible way of existing, and perceiving it, feeling like that, and believing it, then we get onto the list of the disturbing emotions. We have six root disturbing emotions. There is craving or attachment, anger or hostility, naivety, pride or arrogance, and indecisive wavering or doubt. Doubt really cripples us. “What should I do? Should I wear a blue shirt or a yellow shirt? What should I order?” Let alone what should I say to you and how should I treat you. This is indecisive wavering, very disturbing, debilitating. All of those are without an outlook on life; they’re not talking about an outlook on life. 

The sixth root disturbing emotion is the set of five that are with an outlook on life. That’s why I try to use the term “disturbing emotions and attitudes.” I don’t like this “emotional afflictions” – they are not all emotions, to start with, and “afflictions” sounds too physical. It’s disturbing: makes us uncomfortable and makes us lose self-control – that’s the definition. A disturbing emotion and attitude is one that when it arises it destroys peace of mind and incapacitates ourselves and makes us lose self-control – according to Vasubandhu. So these disturbing attitudes (they are not really emotions), there are five of them, sometimes called the speculative defilements (I used to use that term, I made that term up). 

The first is a false outlook [deluded outlook] towards the transitory collection or network. Transitory collection or network is referring to the aggregates. Transitory means that it is changing all the time. And the false outlook toward it is that we have this feeling and belief of a substantial “me” with all these impossible ways of existing: unaffected, always the same, separate from the aggregates, the boss of the aggregates, truly existent not just imputed, and something inherent on the side of “me” that makes “me” me and not you. So the false outlook is that we have this feeling of a substantial “me” – let’s use that as a convenient way of describing it. 

Then we look for an identity for this substantial “me,” this is where the aggregates come in. So we aim at the aggregates – something within the aggregates, some cluster of the aggregates – with incorrect consideration and we identify with it, basically. This could be something that is connected with our own mind-streams, like our body. We identify the “me” with my body, or something not connected with our mental continuum, like money. “I am defined by my money. I am defined by my possessions. I am defined by my youth, my good looks, by my body, my muscles,” whatever. 

So it is aimed at the aggregates and, with incorrect consideration, it is paying attention to it in the wrong way, in an incorrect way. It holds them to have the identity of being truly “me.” They constitute that true identity: “I am this body, I am short, fat and ugly.” “My identity is my mind; I am so clever.” So this is sometimes called grasping for “me.” 

Then we have what is incorrectly translated as grasping for “mine.” We are not talking about that, it is still grasping at the “me.” We’re talking about the object there as mine [in the sense that] it is focusing on the aggregates and incorrectly considering them to define the identity of the substantial “me” as being the possessor of them – as mine. So it is grasping for me and grasping for myself the possessor. That is a stronger, more substantial “me.” Not only “me” with this identity, but also “me” as something that possesses things as “mine.” So it is in that sense that it is grasping for mine. But it is not grasping at the objects. It is not an incorrect view of the object that we consider mine. It is an incorrect view of me as the possessor. You have to be careful about this otherwise we understand that incorrectly. 

It is like: “I am someone who has good looks, a lot of money, talents, intelligence. I am the possessor of that. That is how I define myself.” Or “I am the controller of them. I can use them for what I want to get” – pleasure, power, things. “I possess them as something I can use.” Or “I am the inhabiter of them. I inhabit them like my body.” Or “my existence is based on them” – that could be my money or my body. Or “I can affirm my true existence by using them” – people who have to touch things all the time, in a sense, to prove or establish that they really exist. Or they have to hear “I love you” all the time, or they have to say “I love you” all the time in order to somehow make more solid their existence, to feel secure. 

If we are dealing with someone else, then how they appear in our aggregates is defining our own identity: “I possess this person. This is my wife. I am someone who has this person as my wife, this person as my husband.” These are all things that we identify with. So all of that is this false outlook towards the transitory collection. How we identify with that “me” not only as unaffected, always one and the same, separate, boss; but now it is basing its identity on some cluster of the aggregates. 

The next disturbing attitude is an extreme outlook. We are aimed at those aggregates that we are regarding as constituting or acting as the basis for the true identity of “me” or myself as the possessor of them: my body, me the possessor of my body. We incorrectly consider them as either lasting forever – we are going to be eternally young; money is going to last forever; I am always going to be rich; I am always going to be attractive; I am always going to be a loser, whatever – so it either incorrectly considers them as lasting forever, or we deny that they are subject to cause and effect. We repudiate (the technical term) that they are subject to cause and effect. So I can dally with them – like a teenager, a young adolescent – I can abuse my body. I can substance-abuse my body, and stay up forever, and drive at irresponsible speeds, and it is not going to have any affect. No karmic consequence will come from that. I am not going to get sick. I’ll last forever – It is sort of a combination here. 

Then the next disturbing attitude is an outlook of false supremacy aimed at the aggregates involved in the prior two. We have incorrect consideration of them. We have these aggregates that define my identity and are going to last forever. Then with the outlook of false supremacy, we incorrectly consider them as totally clean, or beautiful by nature – that they are the source of true happiness: the body beautiful – that type of thing. Or that separation from them is going to be a source of true happiness – when we identify with some terrible pain that we have, getting rid of that will be my true source of happiness: a tumor, something like that. 

The next one is the outlook of distorted conduct as supreme. Here we act on the basis of the above three and think that on the basis of that; and if we indulge it, it is going to lead to liberation. “If I can just build my body strong enough, or achieve the perfect orgasm, this is going to lead to liberation.” It is not just talking about standing on one foot and that will lead to liberation. We have to relate it to our own experience. “If I could just buy enough stuff, that’s going to lead to my liberation from all my troubles. If I can just get enough money, that will lead to liberation.” This type of thing that we’re identifying with and we feel that things can last forever and are a source of happiness and so on.

Then the last one is a distorted antagonistic outlook. It is important to add here “antagonistic.” It is not just incorrect, but it is also antagonistic. It is to think or deny with hostility things like the explanations of cause and affect, karma. If you tell your teenager, “Well, drive carefully! If you don’t drive carefully and continue to drive recklessly and abuse drugs, you’re going to kill yourself!” And then really antagonistically denying that, they respond, “What do you mean? Don’t tell me what to do. You can’t tell me what to do!” This type of distorted antagonistic attitude. 

So you can see that’s based on the aggregates. We’re identifying a solid “me” with the aggregates and that leads to the various disturbing emotions: naivety, attachment (if I can just get more, that will make me secure), aversion (if I can get rid of this, that will make this solid “me” with this identity secure), and so on. That triggers impulses of karma so we act in a compulsive type of way, and that brings our own uncontrollably recurring problems – samsara. So what we need to realize is that these are impossible ways of existing. That although there is the conventional “me,” and although the conventional “me” might feel like there is a “me” that exists unaffected by anything, always one and the same, and separate from the aggregates, and the boss of the aggregates, and truly existent, and something inherent in it making it “me” – although it might feel like that, especially with this voice in my head, nevertheless that is an impossible way of existing. It doesn’t correspond to anything real. That is what is absent, a real referent to it; there is no such thing. Even though we perceive it, it is a nonexistent phenomenon that we perceive. It is not referring to anything real. We don’t validly perceive it. 

And this of course requires many, many different methods for being able to perceive that voidness. And the thing is that in spite of all this, in spite of the fact that the conventional “me” doesn’t exist in the manner of a false “me,” nevertheless, the conventional “me” functions like an illusion. That is the whole point of an illusion. It appears to exist in one way, but doesn’t exist that way. Nevertheless, it functions – an illusion can scare you. 

It is very important to realize that nevertheless it does function. This is a very deep and profound insight. This whole idea of “like an illusion.” Shantideva uses that as a theme in his ninth chapter on discriminating awareness. That if one understands that things are like an illusion, that things are devoid of existing in impossible ways, nevertheless they function like an illusion, then you can go deeper and deeper and deeper as to what is the illusion. 

You start with the Vaibhashika view, which seems very simple but is not so simple. Everything is made of atoms; nothing is solid. This chair is a collection of atoms. In spite of that, I can sit on it and it holds me. That is like an illusion, isn’t it? It is like an illusion. It is an illusion that it is solid, but yet it functions so that I can sit on it. If you start to think about that, that is really far out, that is really extraordinary. To accept and to understand that something can be like an illusion, nevertheless it functions. And if you can accept that it functions even though it is like an illusion, then you go deeper and deeper in terms of what is the illusion. What is this false appearance that despite things appearing in that impossible way, still they function? This is Shantideva’s big point in the beginning of his chapter. So we work in this way. 

There is one last thing I wanted to mention before we end. We should be clear when we look at Western equivalents here. There is a difference between the pair: conventional “me” and false “me,” and conventional ego and inflated ego. When we talk about ego in the West, we are talking about an awareness of “me,” we are not talking about the “me” itself. A sense of “me.” So the healthy ego, what we all need, is a sense of the conventional “me.” The conventional “me” we talk about in Buddhism is the object of the healthy ego. A healthy ego is functioning and working in terms of awareness of just conventional “me” that allows us to get up in the morning and get dressed and go to work and be responsible, take care of ourselves. Despite that being a very dualistic way of saying it, as though there is a “me” that is taking care of myself, as if there were two people there. Very weird. 

An inflated ego would be an awareness of a false “me.” The false “me” would be that object of an inflated ego. We are aware, we are conscious, we are thinking in terms of a false “me.” This would be the mental activity. So healthy ego and inflated ego are types of mental activity in a Western context. The objects which are these abstractions would be conventional “me” or false “me.” So we can fit two different ways of thinking together without getting too confused. 

We can see from this presentation that these aggregate factors come from confusion, in the sense that they come from karma. Karma is activated by confusion. That is the key to understanding how we get rid of karma. These habits and legacies are activated by grasping for true existence – it triggers them. And so it comes from that, and then these aggregates are generated as a ripening of our karmic legacies – what we experience in each moment. We are not just talking about the body that we are born with, but what we actually experience including happiness and unhappiness and what happens to us. So that comes from confusion; the confusion generates it, activates the karma. It is mixed with confusion because there is this appearance-making of true existence and the grasping for it, whether we speak about it in terms of conceptual cognition where it is manifest or nonconceptual where it is either subliminal or on the more habit level, which I guess in the West we would say an unconscious level. In any case, it is accompanied by confusion. Each moment contains confusion. And it perpetuates confusion because we act on that basis. And with that present grasping for true existence in this moment, we activate more karma that is going to bring the next moment of aggregates mixed with confusion.

And it is these aggregate factors which not only cause us uncontrollably recurring problems of suffering – so that’s pain, the aggregate of feeling – but is also the cause of happiness that is mixed with confusion (it is not going to last, it is not going to solve all our problems, we don’t know what is coming next), and the all-pervasive suffering. All-pervasive suffering is referring to having the aggregates like this that come from confusion, contain confusion, and perpetuate confusion. So we want to get rid of these aggregates.

So having that causes our suffering. Not only does it cause our suffering – it’s really quite interesting that when we become an arhat, before we die we still have the aggregates, but it is not going to perpetuate any more samsara, but it’s come from confusion; it doesn’t contain confusion, but it’s come from confusion. In any case, as long as we have these limited aggregates, even when they are not associated with confusion, say after an arhat dies – then again it depends on what school we are looking at and how we are talking about arhats – still it is limited. There is this appearance-making of true existence and so it prevents our omniscience. The way that we perceive the universe is like through a periscope – it’s like we are a submarine – and we have this limited perception because of the limitations of our apparatus (mind, mental activity, the body, the sensors, these sorts of things). And so we can’t perceive what is behind us. We can’t know what has happened in the past. We can’t know the huge combination of causes that have caused everything. We are looking through a periscope. That is why we need to get rid of completely not only the aggregates that are involved with samsara, but also limited mind, limited body. When we talk about a sentient being it means someone with a limited mind, limited mental activity. A Buddha is not a sentient being. A synonym for it is luchen (lus-can), someone with a limited body. It is the same thing. 

In order to become omniscient, we have to get rid of this giving rise to true appearances. The true appearance of an entity of this limited body, this limited mind, and so on. We have to get rid of those habits of grasping for true existence that give rise to these faulty appearances, so that we can finally become an omniscient Buddha. So our understanding of these aggregates is really very, very crucial. The aggregates themselves are true suffering. They come from, contain, and perpetuate the causes of true suffering – the second noble truth. A true stopping would be a stopping of them for liberation; it would be a stopping of them in a samsaric sense. Gaining omniscience would be Buddhahood; it would be a stopping of them on any sort of limited level that they might exist, even when they are not perpetuating more samsara. What will bring that about, true path, is the nonconceptual cognition of voidness – not only in terms of me and how I exist, but according to Mahayana, the understanding of the voidness of all phenomena. Whether they are included within the aggregates (they would be nonstatic), or not included in the aggregates (those would be the static phenomena). 

So that was our topic for this evening. We’re a little bit late. I don’t know if perhaps you have questions. Maybe we can do one or two questions and that’s it. I’ll try to keep my answers brief. 

Question: In a more introductory explanation, there was a great deal of emphasis on energy. How does energy fit in? 

Alex: Of course at the start of our study of the topic, we wouldn’t start with a more complex presentation like I have given this evening. It could be far more complex than I gave this evening, by the way, believe me! It is important to learn progressive stages of understanding this material, explaining the material. 

If we speak in terms of tantra there is subtle energy, and subtlest level of energy, and these sorts of things. That would fit in the aggregate of forms. It is a form of physical phenomenon. But I don’t think that was actually what you were asking. It was more in terms of a meditation process. And I think when you are speaking about energy, and slowing down the energy, that is probably a non-technical usage of the word “energy.” It is just referring to this approach in meditation, that I was describing earlier, that is used in vipassana, which is to become aware – pay attention is the mental factor – attentive of the changes. And you become attentive of these changes as it is changing which is our method for gaining the insight of impermanence, basically. You do this in vipassana by slowing it down, in a sense. We sit really still, so not much is happening in terms of rapid changes. In that sense, we slow down our energy so that we can recognize how these factors are changing from moment to moment, and changing at different rates, and how complex the composition is of each moment of our experience.