The Five Aggregates and the Five Buddha Wisdoms


Yesterday we started our discussion of the five types of deep awareness. And we saw that these are referring to Buddha-nature factors that we all have that will allow us to achieve the state of a Buddha – of the various Buddha-Bodies. We saw also that we can work with these on a basis, pathway, and resultant level. In other words, we need to recognize the basis level that we all have; we need to recognize how we can work to develop these qualities further and remove from them the various limitations that they have; and we saw that in the end they will result, on the resultant level, in the various aspects of a Buddha. We also looked at what these five types of deep awareness are in general, and we saw that they are the basic ways in which we experience things; the basic mechanism of how mental activity works.

  • The mirror-like deep awareness – the first of them – is the awareness with which we take in information. The image of a mirror is not quite exact here, because a mirror reflects information and here we’re talking about just taking in information – either visual, audio, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, or mental information; so from any of the six types of consciousness. We’re taking in information from – to be more precise – the six cognitive fields.
  • Then there is equalizing awareness. Equalizing is putting information together into various patterns – not necessarily into a pattern, but just putting it together; but in most cases it’s putting it into a pattern.
  • Then there is individualizing awareness with which we are able to be aware of a particular item as an individual item, not just a member of a group.
  • Then there is accomplishing awareness, which is the awareness that allows us to relate to an object, either do something with it or do something to it.
  • The last one is reality awareness. The most basic level of that is to be aware of what something is, what type of information something is, what type of group things belong to, which individual item this is, and what specifically to do with it. And on a deeper level we can also be aware of the reality of something, in the sense that it changes from moment to moment. That allows us to interact in a changing way during a conversation, for example. It allows for flexibility.

We also mentioned that all of these five work together as a network. So we can see that quite easily or readily in a conversation with somebody. When we are with somebody, then, we first of all take in the information of what they look like and the sound of their voice and, while we are trying to speak with them, we are aware of putting them together with other aspects – in the sense that this is a woman, and this is a woman of a certain age and from a certain background, certain nationality, a certain social class, and so on. So that will be a general context within which we’re going to relate to this person.

But this is not just any middle-aged middle-class Mexican woman. With individualizing awareness – so we’re not going to relate to her just in the standard way to every single middle-class middle-aged Mexican woman, but this is a specific one – so, individualizing awareness: this is Gabi. And then there is the accomplishing awareness, which allows us then to relate to this person based on the information, the equalizing, and the individualizing. It’s only a combination of those three types of awareness, and what we learn from these three types of awareness, that we can relate in a proper way; in an appropriate way.

With this equalizing awareness, another aspect that we use that for is in listening to the information of the tone of her voice, and the expression on her face, and so on. We equalize this and put it together with other experiences that we’ve had with her so that we can know that she is feeling sad. But it’s not only feeling sad in general; it’s this specific instance of feeling sad. So we would relate in terms of that.

So all of these four types of deep awareness go together. We’ve also seen the reality awareness will allow us to know the type of information we’re taking in and what the equalizing factors are, what the individualizing factors are, what the way of relating needs to be. So that is there.

And as the conversation continues and we get more information, then the reality awareness of change allows us to be flexible and to change our way of relating. Because maybe initially we analyze the situation incorrectly or we didn’t really know what was going on. And so as we get more information, then, the deep awareness of reality will allow us to be flexible and to adjust the way in which we are using the accomplishing awareness to relate to it.

In this way, our interaction with this person is totally dependent on these five types of deep awareness, isn’t it? Further, all five occur simultaneously. Now, in each moment, we may pay more attention to one or another. Remember we have to bring in our whole discussion of the five skandhas (the five aggregates) and the various mental factors here, because that’s going on at the same time. But these five are present continually – the five types of deep awareness, that is. Let us take a few moments to digest that and to try to understand that and appreciate that point. Is that clear, how these five work together?


Is the process of recognition the same as individualizing?

Recognition, when we use that in the Western sense, that’s a very, very complex process; it’s not just a mental factor. First we need to take in information, then we need to put it together with other information, then we have to be mindful once more of the appropriate category, and then we have to basically use a certain type of inference – an inferential understanding – that allows us to infer that this information, according to convention, belongs to this category.

It’s a very difficult to understand and complex process. For example, it’s the same process with which we understand language. If you think about it, the sound of different voices saying certain acoustic patterns is different with each voice. Now how do we know that that acoustic pattern, that combination of vowels and consonants, is actually a word? If we were listening to a foreign language then we wouldn’t know that it was a word, would we? And how do we know – even if we know that it’s a word, and we put together the appropriate vowels and consonants, and make the break between one word and another – what that word actually means? And how do we know that the sound of that word in so many different voice patterns all are referring to the same word with the same meaning? It’s a very complex process, isn’t it?

So recognition is going to, of course, involve these various types of deep awareness, but not just one. And language is even more strange, because we hear only one sound or syllable at a time; we don’t hear a whole word, let alone a whole sentence, at the same time. And so then we get into this whole mechanism of mental holograms that mentally represent the whole thing so that we can get a meaning out of it. It’s incredibly complex. So an incredibly complex process and one that Buddhism has analyzed quite a lot.

Therefore, recognizing when we see somebody, that it’s the same person that we saw yesterday – they don’t look the same; they’re wearing something different, probably; their facial expression might be quite different – that’s the same process, isn’t it? How do we know it’s the same person? Even when we are with somebody and they move and they do different things, how do we know that it’s the same person? Because the visual information is quite different. That’s amazing, isn’t it, if you start to think about it. It could be a different person, couldn’t it?

If we had some fault with these mental factors and couldn’t put information together… Think about that. It makes us have much more respect for our minds, doesn’t it?

The Relevance of Understanding Voidness

This point leads us, of course, into a topic that we were discussing before. When we see somebody during the course of an interaction and they’re moving, is it concretely the same person? Are there two completely different people? Think in terms of the conventional “me.” Is there some solid person that’s there that is totally identical with each body position as time passes on? Are they totally different? Neither. That’s the way of thinking that gets us into trying to understand what we mean by the conventional “me” or a conventional person. If it were exactly the same, it could never move.

This is the type of thinking that we use for understanding voidness: that it’s impossible that the person exists as some solid entity or that the body is a solid entity. If it were, it could never move. Or, if it were solid, the body in different positions would be two totally different bodies, like two drawings of Mickey Mouse in a comic book in two different frames. Interesting, isn’t it? Think about it for a moment. And, when thinking about this point, if what we experience is just confusion and we start to wonder, well, how in the world does it work – how does perception work – that’s very good because that makes us curious to go deeper and to investigate deeper.

When we think in an incorrect way – that’s exactly the same person, for example – then we respond to them exactly the same way as we did yesterday. But that’s not appropriate. They’re in a different mood, and we’re still stuck on thinking that they’re in the mood from yesterday. And that causes problems, doesn’t it? So we need to understand this in order to overcome difficulties.

And if we imagine that they’re totally different people, then we have this very typical situation that somebody comes home from work and we’re at home – we’ve been at home all day – and they come in, and we imagine that they’ve come from total nothing, as if they didn’t have any hard day at work before they walked into the house, and that they’re a totally different person. “Why aren’t you fresh? Why aren’t you excited see me?” and so on. So we think that they’re two totally different people: the one that was just before they walked through the door, and the one that now is home. That obviously causes difficulties in our relationships, doesn’t it?

Okay. So they’re neither the same – identical – nor totally, totally different and unrelated. You have to think about that for a moment. This isn’t exactly our topic, but I think it’s very helpful to put it together with what we’ve been studying this week. And it isn’t that part of them is the same and part of them is totally different, either, in terms of the person that we’re relating to. It isn’t that they are both the same and different. That the solid person – that part of it has stayed the same and just part of it is now totally different. That certainly is not the case either. And it isn’t that there is some sort of solid thing that’s neither the same nor different either: some sort of weird transcendent category. So that’s the way of thinking that we use for understanding that the way we think they’re a solid person is impossible. It’s an impossible way of existing as if encapsulated in plastic. Laminated, I think, is the word.

The Universality of the Five Types of Deep Awareness

All these perceptual processes are quite complex, but still a young child of two or three years old can do it automatically. So does this have something to do with rebirth?

Well, indirectly it has something to do with rebirth. What we conclude from this is that this is primordial; that we’ve had this from beginningless time. It’s not something that one has to learn. That implies beginningless rebirth. I mean, that fits in together with beginningless rebirth. The animal has it as well, doesn’t it?

I remember yesterday I was at somebody’s home and they had a cat. And they said the Spanish word for food, time to eat, and the cat knew where to go and what to do – how to respond to that word. I’m sure if the man of the house (rather than the woman of the house) said the same word, the cat would still understand it. So there’s nothing special about us here in terms of being human beings. But what is – in terms of the basis level – what is special is that we can work with these on a pathway level.

The Parallel between the Five Types of Deep Awareness and the Five Aggregates

Now there is a parallel here between the five types of deep awareness and the five aggregate factors that make up each moment of our experience.

  • When we talk about the mirror-like awareness which takes in information, that is parallel to the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. That’s with forms of physical phenomena; this is the various types of information that we perceive: colored shapes, and sounds, and so on.
  • When we talk about the equalizing awareness, this is putting things together. And the most significant way of putting things together, in terms of achieving Buddhahood, is to realize (put everyone together) that everybody equally wants to be happy and not to be unhappy. That’s the basis for love (may they be happy and always have the causes for happiness) and compassion (may they be free from unhappiness or suffering, and have the causes for that). So this is parallel to the aggregate of feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness.
  • Individualizing awareness, with which we individualize one thing within a group, is parallel to the aggregate factor of distinguishing – when we distinguish some object from the background or from other objects.
  • Then accomplishing awareness, with which we relate to something – to do something with it or to it – this is parallel to the aggregate of other affecting variables. This is because the fact that within this fourth aggregate, the aggregate of other affecting variables, we have everything else that changes that’s not in the other four aggregates, and the most significant or noteworthy of them is what we were translating as an urge. Which is karma. The urge that brings us to a certain action to do something. So this is the parallel here between this fourth aggregate and accomplishing awareness.
  • And the reality awareness – which on the most basic level knows what type of information something is, in terms of the mirror-like awareness – this would be parallel to the aggregate of consciousness, which likewise is just aware of the essential nature of something, of what type of phenomenon it is: a sight, a sound, and so on.

Therefore, when we speak of these five aggregate factors, they make up each moment of our experience. And also when we speak of the five types of deep awareness, they too make up each moment of our experience.

Now we have to understand that the five aggregate factors – the five skandhas, to use the Sanskrit word – are part of the mechanism of samsara. They are examples of the third type of suffering: all-pervasive suffering. In other words, all these factors that are changing from moment to moment that make up our samsaric experience come from confusion, contain confusion, and in most cases (unless we’re an arhat) perpetuate confusion. With the exception of an arhat: I’m just speaking in general; not every Tibetan Buddhist school agrees with that, but let’s leave that aside. But, in any case, these aggregate factors are associated with confusion. That’s what tainted means.

But when we become a Buddha, we no longer have the five aggregates or the five skandhas. That doesn’t mean that as a Buddha we don’t have the various mental factors and we’re not aware of forms of physical phenomena. It’s not like that. It just means that we don’t have the tainted form of all of these; the form that is mixed with confusion. A Buddha has concentration, a Buddha has love, a Buddha has compassion – come on!

The Five Types of Deep Awareness Are Pure by Nature

Now what is often said (and you find this very much in tantra) is that instead of each moment of a Buddha’s awareness, omniscient awareness, being made up of the five tainted skandhas, that each moment is made up of the five pure types of deep awareness. But when we speak in terms of these five types of deep awareness, it’s usually explained in a slightly different way than the skandhas. It’s just how we talk about it. We don’t talk in terms of – I mean, skandhas means that they’re tainted, although you can speak of the mental factors separately from that, but the deep awarenesses… The main emphasis is that the deep awarenesses themselves are untainted. They’re pure by nature. If you think about it, we take in all the information – let’s say of the people in this room – we don’t pay attention to all of it, do we? We certainly don’t pay equal attention to all of it. We don’t notice all the details and things. That’s not the fault of taking in the information. The information is coming in, like taking a photograph of the room. So it’s the mental factors that go along with it that limit what we understand and what we know.

The Relation between the Five Types of Deep Awareness and Five Types of Disturbing Emotion

What’s very interesting is this whole presentation of how, when each of these five types of deep awareness is mixed with confusion, how that acts as a cause for having the five types of disturbing emotions:

  • When the mirror-like awareness is clouded over with confusion then we have naivety. We’re not naive that you were upset; we’re naive that we just don’t notice. The clouding over of confusion, that doesn’t affect the basic nature of the mirror to take in information.
  • When the equalizing awareness is clouded over with confusion, then we’re not aware of the equality of everyone. And so we are miserly – we don’t want to share – and we also are very proud and arrogant: I’m better than everyone else. We’re clouded over in terms of the equality of everyone. Miserly means we don’t want to share, just keep everything for myself.
  • Then when the individualizing awareness is clouded over with confusion, we have longing desire and attachment. We’re not just individualizing something; we’re making it into something really special that I have to have (or if I have it, I’m not going to let go).
  • When the accomplishing awareness is clouded over with confusion then we get envy or jealousy. In other words, the other person got this and I didn’t get it. We’re not aware of how did they got it. They got it by accomplishing something. And if we wanted it, we’d have to accomplish it as well; we’d have to do something. But when that’s clouded over, we just experience jealousy.
  • And when the reality awareness is clouded over, we get anger. In other words, when we have this function of being able to know what something is – it’s this and not that – then when mixed with confusion what happens? “You’re not doing what I want you to do. You’re doing something else.” Then we are angry. “You’re being naughty. You’re not being a nice well-behaved child.” We get angry.

But despite the fact that when these deep awarenesses are mixed with confusion – are clouded over with confusion – we experience the five types of disturbing emotions; nevertheless, these five types of deep awareness remain always pure; always untainted. This is why the five types of deep awareness are different aspects of Buddha-nature. They will allow us to have the various aspects of a Buddha. A Buddha has the five types of deep awareness; it’s just a matter of getting rid of the confusion that clouds them over; whereas the system of the five skandhas (the five aggregates), they’re not Buddha-nature. A Buddha doesn’t have the five skandhas, because of the way that they’re defined. They’re defined as (these various factors that make them up) being mixed with confusion. Whereas some of the mental factors themselves – we can say, okay, they’re Buddha-nature. Things like compassion. Compassion: may you be free from suffering and from the causes of suffering. So we all have that. There’s a basic level of it, whether it’s in terms of taking care of and protecting the young or whether it’s taking care of and protecting ourselves. There’s the basic factor there of taking care of and protecting from suffering.

So I’ve covered a lot of points here. If we’d had a lot of time, it would have been better to pause after each one and reflect on it, but then we’ll never get through the main part of the material this weekend. So please excuse that I’ve gone quickly over these points.

But we need to be aware that there are some really extraordinary wonderful methods in the Buddhist teachings for dealing with disturbing emotions by seeing that – with each of these five types of disturbing emotions that we mentioned – if we quiet down and let that confusion settle, that what we’re left with, underlying it, is a particular corresponding deep awareness. Like, for instance, when I’m so focused on you, and I have so much desire and so much attachment for you, if I just quiet down that confusion that’s exaggerating the good qualities of you, what am I left with? I’m left with individualizing awareness; it’s individualizing you from other people. And then one can realize “nothing special.” You’re just another penguin in the large flock of a hundred thousand in Antarctica.

Let’s reflect on that a moment.