You are in the archive Please visit our new homepage

The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Meditations for Recognizing the Five Aggregates > Session Six: The Aggregate of Other Affecting Variables

Meditations for Recognizing the Five Aggregates

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, April 2006

Session Six: The Aggregate of Other Affecting Variables

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, April 2006

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:32 hours)


Yesterday and the night before, we started our discussion of the five aggregates, and we saw that these are groupings or categories – or bags, if you want to look at it that way – with which we can classify the various aspects of our experience in each moment to help us to be able to understand it. After all, the area of work in Buddhism is our own experience: how we experience life.

And the various types of sufferings and difficulties that we have all occur within our experience. We experience life in terms of feeling, which is feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness that ripens from our karma; from our previous various actions. And sometimes we experience things in life with unhappiness. That’s what we usually think of as suffering. Sometimes we experience things in life with our ordinary, usual type of happiness, but this is a problem as well because it doesn’t last, it is never enough, it doesn’t satisfy, we’re never content with it, and we never know what’s coming next – there’s uncertainty.

Our experience of life like this goes up and down all the time. Sometimes we feel happy, sometimes we feel unhappy; sometimes we have a lot of energy, sometimes we don’t have any energy; sometimes we feel like meditating and working, sometimes we don’t. And we can never tell what we’re going to feel like in the next moment – this never-ending insecurity. Now that really is a drag and is really not fun. That’s really what life is like, isn’t it? And that’s not very satisfactory. The deeper problem of it is that it keeps on perpetuating; it just goes on and on and on. And what seems to make it just go on and on? It’s just the very nature of our bodies; the very nature of our mind. Because the type of bodies and the type of minds that we have are very limited: people get sick, they get tired, and so on, and eventually die as well. In fact, if we look more deeply, it’s falling apart every moment, getting closer and closer to our death. There is a very lovely Western joke about what is the definition of life: Life is defined as a sexually transmitted disease with a hundred percent mortality rate! Faced with that, what can we do about it?

Well, if we look a little bit more deeply to what is causing this unsatisfactory nature of our lives – it’s always going up and down – it is the confusion within each moment of our experience (in other words, it’s there every single moment) and that really is what is perpetuating this constant unsatisfactory situation of up and down. But if we look more deeply, not just at our ordinary minds and our ordinary bodies, but if we look more deeply at the nature of the mind, the nature of the mind is pure; it’s not tainted naturally by this confusion. That’s demonstrated by the fact that when we have total nonconceptual focus on voidness, we don’t have that confusion. So that confusion can’t be really part of the mind, an intrinsic part of the mind, because there are situations in which it isn’t there. That means that it’s possible to actually gain a true stopping of this confusion, of this cause of our problems, if we could sustain that state of nonconceptual focus on voidness all the time. And if we achieve that stopping of the cause of our problems, then our experience would be untainted by this confusion; it wouldn’t be up and down all the time.

So what we need to do is gain that true pathway of mind, that true state of mind that will act as a pathway to this liberation, which would be that state of mind that has this nonconceptual cognition of voidness. And that would be a voidness of the suffering, and the voidness of the cause of suffering, the voidness of the state of suffering being completely stopped, and the voidness of itself – of this understanding. In other words, the voidness of the four noble truths.

Now, of course, voidness is not terribly easy to understand, if we even have some clear idea of what we’re talking about here. But let’s just say that voidness is referring to a total absence of impossible ways of existing. Our mind makes things appear in a way which does not correspond to how things actually exist. Our mind makes things exist – in very simple words – as a sort of concrete entity: everything is just encapsulated in plastic, like ping-pong balls. I often use that analogy: everything is like ping-pong balls. And then we make a big deal out of everything. It’s solid, concrete, just by itself. And that doesn’t correspond to reality. Things don’t exist as isolated units, like isolated ping-pong balls. Everything is interrelated. Everything is interrelated. And so, within our experience, it seems as though various things are like these ping-pong balls: solid and concrete. And because it appears like that – it feels like that – with our confusion we believe it to be so. We believe it to be true. But what we believe to be true (or truly established) is not true at all. That’s what we mean when we say there’s no truly established existence; what we think is true is not true.

And so when we are experiencing something, for instance depression, it appears like a ping-pong ball, something solid, unrelated to anything else, and we identify with it and we think that it’s going to last forever and so on. We make a huge big deal out of it. Or a sickness, or a disappointment in life, or whatever, or something going really good in our lives, we make a big deal out of it. Now this we’re experiencing every moment of our life: sometimes things go well, sometimes things don’t go well.

We want to get rid of the confusion that is causing these things in our life to appear so solid, and which causes us to believe that they’re true. Because when we believe that things exist in this crazy way, the way that they feel as though they exist, then we have suffering, don’t we? We feel really unhappy and sad when we’re criticized, when things are not going well, when we hear bad news, and these type of things. And if we go, “Oh, I’m happy!” – well, it doesn’t last: when we are praised, and things go well, and we hear good news, and so on. So life goes up and down, up and down. So if we can get rid of this confusion within our experiences and what we would understand with the five aggregates, then we wouldn’t have these upsetting feelings that we were referring to yesterday, those upsetting feelings in terms of what we experience. And we would stop producing the causes that would perpetuate this terrible situation.

How can we get rid of this confusion? How can we eliminate the confusion from each moment of our experience, and put instead correct understanding? Well, what we need to do is deconstruct what we are experiencing. When we are in a terrible depression and we’re making a big deal out of it, and identifying with it as if it were some solid thing, then what can help is if we can analyze: What am I actually experiencing in this moment? And what are all the causes as well, if we want to go deeper into why I’m experiencing what I’m experiencing this moment. Well, to analyze and deconstruct what I’m experiencing, I need some sort of tool, some sort of analytical scheme that may help me. And this is where the five aggregates come in because, as we have seen, in each moment there are one or more (usually a lot more) items from each of these aggregates that’s making up – there’s a whole network, networking together to make up this moment. Everything is interdependent and related to everything else.

In this moment I’m not just feeling my depression, am I? I’m not just experiencing my depression. After all, I am seeing a whole sense field of colored shapes. Part of my experience are all these colored shapes. And all sorts of sounds, and smells, and tastes (even just the taste of the saliva in my mouth), physical sensations – temperature, clothing on my body, the feel of the chair underneath me – and my body as well, and various forms of physical phenomena that can only be known by the mind (for instance, the mental sound of that voice complaining about my depression in my head). All of these are part of that aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. It’s not just the depression going on; all these things are going on as well in this moment.

And each of these various objects, we’re feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness; we’re either enjoying it or not enjoying it; we’d like for it to continue or not to continue. And all of this, these various feelings, are networking together. We may have one that is predominant, but actually there are quite a lot of different feelings of happiness and unhappiness going on at the same time. I might feel so unhappy about my depression, about my sickness, that I don’t enjoy seeing anything, or listening to music, or eating, or anything like that. That can certainly happen. But, again, what is the level of unhappiness that we feel with regard to these other objects? And it may be different for each symptom: but sometimes, even when I am feeling a depression and feeling unhappy, I do enjoy my favorite music a little. So all of this we saw was in the aggregate of feelings: feelings of different levels of happiness and unhappiness.

And we are also, in each moment, distinguishing something. We are distinguishing each of these objects that we are either enjoying or not enjoying. It’s not that our experience is of something like an abstract painting. We put together the various pieces of sense data into knowable objects and distinguish them from other things and from the background. That is just the basic mechanism here of distinguishing. (To give a name to it, to identify it as this or as that, is another mental factor.) But sometimes we distinguish correctly and sometimes we distinguish incorrectly. We have the depression, and we put certain things together and we distinguish it into something – a big deal – and that forms the basis of thinking, “I’m going to die. I can’t handle this anymore.” So it could be quite an incorrect distinguishing. Well, this is the aggregate of distinguishing.

So we can see through this process of analyzing and deconstructing our moment of experience into all its component parts and noticing, over a series of moments, that’s it’s all changing. Then we can discover already some of the faults, some of the aspects within that experience which are mistaken, which are making some problems. Like here distinguishing, putting certain things together that really don’t go together, and then thinking, “I’m going to die. Oh, it’s the worst thing in the world.”

This is what we’re doing here with our analysis of the five aggregates; we’re troubleshooting. We are trying to discover which are the mistaken aspects, the mistaken components of our experience, so that we can come in like a good repairman and try to either take out the part that is causing the trouble – simply take it out – or take it out and replace it with something else. What we have to be very careful about in this process is not to believe what it feels like here, which is that there is a separate “me” as the repairman coming in, observing, making the check, and then making the repairs – and then sending us a bill afterwards. That is the real fantasy; although it feels like it, that there is a separate independent “me” doing all of this. What are we experiencing? We are experiencing what is known in the West as alienation. We are alienated from our bodies, from our feelings, from our mind, and coming in there and trying to do something to fix it. The point is to just replace what needs to be replaced, add what needs to be added, and so on. Just do it. Not as a separate “me” doing it, but just do it.

When we go to drink a glass of water, we don’t think, “Ah, there is a ‘me’ inside, and there is this dry hole in my face. And now, ah, I’ll go and lift this object here and pour the liquid into this hole in my face: my mouth.” We don’t do that, do we? We just do it. Just pick it up and drink. We’re not self-conscious, thinking of a “me” separate from the whole thing – that now I’m going to water my body by throwing this liquid into the big hole in the front of my head.

That’s the way that we need to approach this whole process. Just do it. Not self-consciously. And don’t make a big deal out of it – congratulating myself for finding that hole in the front of my head and not pouring it into my nose, or whatever: “Great! Wow! Good me. Smart me.” We’re not babies anymore that you have to encourage and say, “Oh, how wonderful! What a big girl. You are able to drink from a glass by yourself.” We don’t have to treat ourselves like that anymore, do we? So the same thing in terms of changing our attitudes about what we are experiencing and how are we experiencing. We just do it. So, as I say, the same thing with working on ourselves in terms of correcting the way that we experience things.

One of the big lessons of learning about voidness and becoming more and more familiar with it – if we can put it just in a colloquial phrase – is don’t make a big deal out of anything. Nothing is a big deal. It might be a little bit disappointing because we would like things to be very dramatic – in neon lights, and so on – but that’s not the way things are. It doesn’t mean that things are boring; it just means that things are the way they are. If we bang our foot in the dark when we get up at night, or something like that: And so my foot hurts. I’m experiencing a physical sensation of pain. So what else is new? No big deal. So it hurts; so what? It will pass. And what do I expect? Of course it’s going to hurt.

Okay. So now we need to analyze further what is making up our experience. It’s not just forms of physical phenomena, and feeling some level of happiness, and distinguishing various objects. There’s a lot more.

The Components of the Aggregate of Other Affecting Variables

The fourth aggregate is the largest collection of items, and I call it the aggregate of other affecting variables. “Variable” means that it changes, and “affecting” means that it affects our experience. And this contains all changing phenomena that are not included in the other aggregates. It’s the aggregate of everything else. This is where all the emotions are found, the positive ones and the negative ones, and all the various mental factors that help us to do things, like attention, concentration and interest. All these various types of what we call mental factors. They contribute to or qualify when we see a sight or hear a sound, and so on. Also what is included here are factors that change from moment to moment and which are not forms of physical phenomena and not ways of being aware of something, like, for instance, things like time, location, change, age – these sorts of more abstract things.

So let’s start to look at some of the major variables that are here, because this is really where we find our troublemakers; major troublemakers. Now there are various Buddhist texts which are going to list these different factors. We have lists of fifty-one factors, fifty-two factors, forty-eight factors, depending on the text, and the point here is that there are a lot more than just this number that’s specified. This is just an example of some of the various mental factors that can be here.

The Five Ever-Functioning Mental Factors

Now there are five factors that accompany every moment. We’ve already had two of these: a feeling of a level of happiness or unhappiness, and distinguishing.


The third one is what I translate as an urge. An urge is what causes our mental activity to face an object or go in its direction. Right? It’s what moves the mind, moves our mental activity in the direction of something. And obviously we can also move our body in accordance with that: we have to move our head to the side as we look at something else.

This is what karma is. Karma is an urge. “Karma” is used sometimes as a very broad statement for everything involved with cause and effect in terms of our behavior. But if we want to look more precisely within that at what karma actually is, it’s these urges to do things. When we act them out then there’s consequences. We have urges to do things which are quite innocent, quite neutral: the urge to scratch my head, the urge to look at you, the urge to telephone you, the urge to take a drink of water. It moves our activity, our mental activity, in the direction of an object, in the direction of doing something. Now it can also be an urge to do something destructive or constructive. It could be an urge to say something nasty to you, or it could be an urge to say something kind to you; could be an urge to help you or an urge to hurt you. It can also be an urge which is quite difficult even to recognize, that causes us to start thinking about something. And again you can think about something totally neutral, or something constructive, or something very destructive.

This is karma. We’re speaking about karma. These are the urges. We can think of it maybe as karmic urges. So this is part of every single moment, isn’t it? It’s what brings us to the next moment: what are we going to do next? And sometimes we plan what we are going to do next; sometimes we don’t plan. There are many classifications within this. We don’t have to go into the detail here.

There is an urge to take a step. And it could be with an intention to step on your foot, or no intention to step on your foot (it’s something else), but there is the urge to move our foot. Like, say, when we are dancing with somebody.

Is it clear what we mean by urge? I use urge here because it’s a mental factor. In English, when we talk about impulse, there are some interpretations of this which explain this as something physical – sometimes mental, sometimes physical. So “impulse” in English can cover both the mental and the physical, whereas “urge” in English is only mental. If we actually analyze a little bit more, these urges do have a sense of urgency about them: we act them out. And it actually is a difficult process, although one that we try to do in our training in Buddhism, is that when the urge comes up to say something nasty or something stupid that we don’t act it out. So there is a slight pause there, a space in which we can decide to act out the urge or not. Although that is not very precise, what I just said. The urge is actually bringing us into the action so it’s difficult to actually stop it.

It’s like our hand goes to pick up that fifth cookie during the coffee break; and while our hand is going to that fifth cookie and starting to put it into our mouth, at that point we could break in and say, “Come on, don’t be such a pig. You don’t need five.” The place where the space comes up is with the what we call “intention” – that the feeling comes: “I feel like having a fifth cookie,” and I have that wish to have that fifth cookie, so there’s the intention to take it. That’s when the break comes. Between that intention to take the cookie and the urge with which we actually then move our hand over to it and stuff it in our mouth (quickly, before anybody else takes it). Just from this example, you can start to see the precision that is involved here.

Actually karma ripens in these feelings of what I feel like doing. And then, with the urge, we act out what we feel like doing, then we create more karma. Karma ripens in getting fat and in feeling like eating more cookies. “I will allow myself to have five each coffee break.” Which is really weird. Then we have this dualism of a separate “me” that’s giving permission to this naughty “me” that would like to eat ten cookies.

Let us try to recognize these urges. The urge with which we would actually move our head to look at something else, or the urge to pay attention to something else, the urge to scratch our head, the urge to move our body a little bit. Try to recognize that there is at least one (if not more) urges going on in each moment. It’s not so easy to recognize. It’s quite subtle. The way that we recognize it is from its effect – that you scratch your head, or you move your head – and so there must have been an urge that caused that. Right? Also there’s the urge to continue looking at something, the urge to do nothing, the urge to continue sleeping, the urge that brings along a dream, the urge that brings on waking up. It’s what brings us to the next moment. The urge to close our eyes or to open our eyes. A little bit more difficult to recognize, isn’t it?

Questions about Urges

Question: Is my breathing part of these urges?

Alex: There’s an urge to breathe. Regardless of what we do, it is brought on by an urge.

Question: Has it also to do with basic survival? Like, for example, the urge for us to breathe.

Alex: Yes, it is involved with our basic survival. Yes, but obviously more significant are the urges that cause us to act destructively or constructively.

Question: This question of self-preservation – that, for example, you are speeding on the highway and you see the speedometer and you decide to slow down for self-protection; self-preservation. Is doing that also coming from an urge? Can an urge be not only to do something but an urge to avoid something?

Alex: Yes, an urge can be to do something or to avoid something. To avoid something is also an urge, isn’t it? It’s an action. To do nothing is an action.

With this breathing process – I mean, we haven’t covered all these things yet – but there is an intention. So there could be the urge that’s brought on by an intention to breathe, like for instance doing some sort of breathing exercise and I want to hold my breath, or breathe more slowly, or breathe more quickly. And so there is an intention that then causes the urge to breathe now or not to breathe now. Then there’s also: are we paying attention to our breathing or not paying attention to it? That’s another mental factor. So there are many, many mental factors involved with the most basic things that we do.

And in your example of slowing down, there is a mental factor of discriminating awareness to discriminate that driving at this speed is dangerous, and therefore then comes the whole decision-making process. There are a lot of factors involved here. The discriminating awareness that this is dangerous, the wish or the intention to avoid an accident, then the intention to actually slow down, decisiveness added to that, and then the urge with which we then ease our foot off the pedal. And it could also be accompanied by an attachment to “me” and my life and my car, or it could be accompanied by compassion for – “I don’t want to leave my children as orphans.” There could be various emotions that are accompanying this. There could be fear; could be no fear. All of these items are in this fourth aggregate of everything else.

Question: In each moment of our experience, we have an urge. That means that, of course, in the previous moment of experience we also had an urge. And this goes back. So what urges an urge to arise?

Alex: This becomes a very complex question because there are many, many factors. That’s why I said we can also analyze the causes for the various things that come up. One of the most simple factors here would be habits. Habits are also in this fourth aggregate. A habit is something which is not a form of physical phenomenon or a way of being aware of something. Habits, tendencies – this can influence it. Also various disturbing emotions can influence it. Other people can influence it. External circumstances – the weather, and all sorts of things. The media. Propaganda.

When we speak about habits and tendencies, then they have to have a previous cause, and a previous cause, and a previous cause,… and so on. And so naturally this leads us to the conclusion of no beginning. There can’t be an urge that comes up without a cause for it.

Participant: Trying to realize where my urges come from, I found myself trying to please myself, with this attachment to pleasure, to physical pleasure. It’s my ego, my misunderstanding of a solid “me,” misunderstanding of happiness.

Alex: This is correct. What is this source of karma? The deepest source for karma is basically our confusion.

You see, the process of purifying karma is basically… When we have these various tendencies and habits, there are certain things which will activate it. And here specifically we have craving, which is a mental factor in this fourth aggregate, which is when we have a feeling of happiness, we crave not to be separated from it. There’s really strong attachment. And when we have a feeling of unhappiness, suffering; we have this real strong craving to be separated from it. And in addition, of course, we have this feeling of happiness or unhappiness every moment. So there’s this strong craving. And there is, in addition, an identification. This confusion is causing an identification with what’s going on, in terms of a strong “me.” That’s what will activate karmic tendencies or habits so that then we will feel like repeating the action. And then if we feel like it, then the next urge comes to actually do it.

A craving is very strong. It’s like an obsession. The tendency and habit ripens into feeling like repeating it, like an intention or a wish, and then that brings on the urge to act next. The tendency does not ripen into the urge; never. A tendency ripens into the feeling to repeat an intention. Karma does not ripen into karma. That’s a sort of rule to remember.

So for purification, what you want to do is get rid of these factors, the craving and this grasping for “me,” that will cause the karmic aftermath (I call it) – the tendencies and habits to ripen. If there’s nothing that will activate those tendencies and habits, then we’re not going to experience any results of it. In that way we purify it, then you get rid of the habit and the tendency. So that’s why one could say (in the English language, at least) that one no longer will act impulsively, karmically, based on habits and tendencies, but one will act based on compassion and wisdom.