The Five Aggregates and the Five Buddha Wisdoms


In the first session, we started our discussion of the five types of deep awareness. These refer to Buddha-nature factors, which we all have that enable us to achieve the state of a Buddha – the various Buddha Bodies. We discussed how we can work with these on a basis, pathway and resultant level. It’s important to recognize that we all have the basis level of them, and how on the pathway level we work to develop these qualities further and remove the various impediments that limit their abilities. Then, on the resultant level, we need to understand that, in the end, when fully developed, these will become the various aspects of the Bodies of a Buddha.

In general, these five types of deep awareness are the basic ways in which we experience things, the basic mechanism of how our mental activity works. When fully developed, they become features of the omniscient, all-loving mind of a Buddha – the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya. The five types of deep awareness are:

  • Mirror-like deep awareness, which is the deep awareness with which we take in information. The image of a mirror is not quite exact here, because a mirror reflects information and this is just talking about taking in information from any of the six types of consciousness: visual, audio, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, or mental. To be more precise, we’re taking in information from the six cognitive fields.
  • Equalizing deep awareness is putting information together into a group that shares something in common.
  • Individualizing deep awareness enables us to be aware of a particular item as an individual item, not just a member of a group.
  • Accomplishing deep awareness allows us to relate to an object, either to do something with it or do something to it.
  • Reality deep awareness, on the most basic level, is the awareness of what information has arisen, what type of group it belongs to, which individual item it is, what specifically to do with it and what conventionally it is. On a deeper level, we can also be aware of the reality of something, for instance that this information changes from moment to moment. Such awareness allows us to interact and handle change during a conversation. It allows for flexibility.

All of these five types of deep awareness work together as a network. We can see that quite readily in a conversation with somebody. For instance, when we are with somebody, we take in the information of what they look like and the sound of their voice. While we are speaking with someone, with the equalizing and reality types of deep awareness, we put the visual and audio information together with similar previous information and are aware that this is a woman, a woman of a certain age, from a certain background, certain nationality, a certain social class and so on. These aspects will be the general context in which we relate to this person.

However, this is not just any middle-aged, middle-class Mexican woman, for example. We’re not going to relate to her in some standardized way for every single middle-class, middle-aged Mexican woman. She is a specific woman, and with individualizing deep awareness and the reality type of deep awareness, we know that this is Gabi, for example. Then, accomplishing deep awareness allows us to relate to this person based on the information, the equalizing and individualizing types of awareness. We’re only able to relate in an appropriate way by using the information that we learn from the combination of these three types of deep awareness.

With equalizing deep awareness, we equalize further aspects of the information we gain with mirror-like information when we speak with this person, such as the tone of her voice and the expression on her face. We equalize these aspects with other experiences that we’ve had with her so that we can know, for example, with reality deep awareness that she is feeling sad. However, it’s not feeling sad in a general way. With individualizing deep awareness, we focus in on this specific instance of feeling sad and, with accomplishing deep awareness, we would relate to her accordingly.

All of these five types of deep awareness network and function together. Reality deep awareness allows us to know what information we’re taking in as the conversation unfolds, what equalizing factors apply to it, what individualizing factor can specify it, and what kind of relating is appropriate for it. As the conversation continues and we get more information, then reality deep awareness of change allows us to be flexible and to change our way of relating. Perhaps initially we analyzed the situation incorrectly or we didn’t really know what was going on. As we get more information, the deep awareness of reality allows us to be flexible and adjust the way we relate by means of accomplishing deep awareness.

As you can see, our interaction with others is totally dependent on these five types of deep awareness, isn’t it? Further, all five occur simultaneously. Also simultaneous with them is everything else included in the system of the five aggregates – the five aggregate factors, or skandhas, that make up each moment of our experience, including all the mental factors, such as attention. In any moment, we may pay more attention to one type of deep awareness than another; however, these five types of awareness are all present continuously.

Question about Recognition

Is the process of recognition the same as individualizing?

Recognition, when understood in the Western context, is a very complex process involving much more than individualizing something. Also, it’s not just a mental factor. To recognize something, we need to take in some information about it, distinguish a defining characteristic mark of that information, equalize it with other information having the same characteristic mark, be mindful of a category having the appropriate composite feature in which it could fit, and then use inferential understanding to determine if the information, according to convention, belongs to that category.

For example, it’s the same process with which we understand language. The sound of different voices saying certain acoustic patterns is different with each voice. Yet, how do we know that a certain acoustic pattern we hear – the sound of a combination of vowels and consonants – is actually a word? If we were listening to a foreign language, we wouldn’t know that what we heard was a word, would we? Further, 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, how do we know what that word actually means? How do we know that the sound of that word in so many different voice patterns are all referring to the same word with the same meaning? It’s a very complex process, isn’t it?

We can see that recognition involves various types of deep awareness, not just one, plus several mental factors. The recognition involved in understanding language is even more complex, in the sense that 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. To explain how we understand a whole sentence, we need to bring into the analysis the discussion of mental holograms in conceptual cognition that mentally represent a whole sentence so that we can get a meaning out of it. It’s incredibly complex process, one that Buddhism has analyzed quite a lot.

It’s the same process when we see somebody and recognize that it’s the same person we saw yesterday, even though they don’t look the same. For example, they’re probably wearing something different; their facial expression might be quite different. How do we know it’s the same person? When we are with somebody and they move and they do different things, how do we know that it’s the same person, considering that the visual information is quite different? It’s an amazing process, if you start to think about it. It could be a different person, couldn’t it? If we had some fault or flaw with our mental factors and types of deep awareness, we would be unable to put this 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 to the topic of voidness, also called emptiness. Let’s consider the example of seeing somebody during the course of an interaction with them in which they are moving, for instance when we’re playing a sport with them. Is it concretely the same person we see in a different position each moment? Are they a completely different person each time?

Think in terms of the conventional “me.” Is there some solid person who is totally identical with each body position as time passes? Are they totally the same or totally different? Neither is true. We need to examine and begin to understand what we mean by the conventional “me” or a conventional person. If there were a solidly existing person, exactly the same, he or she could never move.

We utilize this type of analysis for understanding voidness. 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. When first thinking about this point, if what we experience is confusion about how perception actually works, that’s very good because that makes us curious to go deeper and investigate further.

Practically speaking, when we think in an incorrect way – thinking that we’re always seeing the exact same person, for example – then we respond to that person exactly the same way as we did the day before. However, that’s not appropriate. The person may be in a different mood, and we’re still stuck on thinking that they’re in the mood from yesterday. This causes problems, doesn’t it? We need to understand this in order to avoid misunderstanding.

However, if we imagine that they’re a totally different person each time we see them, then we have another type of difficulty. For example, think of when somebody comes home from work and we’ve been at home all day. We might imagine that they’ve come from total nothing, as if they didn’t have a hard day at work before they walked into the house. They seem to be a totally different person than we expect. We might think, “Why aren’t you fresh? Why aren’t you excited to see me?” and so on. We think that they’re two totally different people: the one that was at work before and the one that walked through the door and is now home. These types of expectations obviously cause difficulties in relationships, don’t they?

The person is neither the same, identical, nor totally different and unrelated. It isn’t that they are both the same and different, as if part of the solid person has stayed the same and just part of the person is now totally different. That certainly is not the case either. It also isn’t that there is some sort of solid person that’s neither the same nor different at different times, existing in some weird transcendent category. This is the type of analysis that we use to understand that thinking that someone is a solid person is impossible. It’s an unrealistic way of existing.

Although this isn’t exactly our topic, it’s very helpful to combine it with what we’re studying here. It’s only on the basis of correctly understanding voidness, that our various types of deep awareness can be valid in all ways.

Question about 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?

Indirectly, it has something to do with rebirth. What we conclude is that these five types of deep awareness are primordial, in the sense that we’ve all had them as aspects of our mental activity from beginningless time. It’s not something new that we had to learn. We’ve had them in all our countless lifetimes with no beginning, regardless of which life form we’ve been reborn in. Afterall, animals and even insects have them as well.  

I was at somebody’s home yesterday and they had a cat. They said the Spanish word for food, time to eat, and the cat knew where to go and what to do. It knew how to respond to that word. I’m sure if another member of the household said the same words, the cat would still understand them. Clearly, there’s nothing special about us here in terms of being human beings. But what is special about us is that we can work with these five on a pathway level.

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

Let’s go deeper in our study of these five. There is a parallel between the five types of deep awareness and the five aggregate factors, the five skandhas, that make up each moment of our experience.

  • Mirror-like deep awareness, which takes in information, is parallel to the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. This includes the various types of information that we perceive: colored shapes, sounds, tastes, smells, and so on.
  • Equalizing deep awareness, which puts things together, is parallel to the aggregate of feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness. The most significant way of putting things together, in terms of achieving Buddhahood, is to realize, by putting 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 suffering and the causes of suffering.
  • Individualizing deep awareness, with which we individualize one thing within a group, is parallel to the aggregate factor of distinguishing. This is when we distinguish some object from the background or from other objects.
  • Accomplishing deep awareness, with which we relate to something, in that we do something with it or to it, is parallel to the aggregate of other affecting variables. This is because within the aggregate of other affecting variables, there is everything else that changes that’s not in the other four aggregates. The most significant of them is what we are translating as an “urge.” This is karma: the urge that brings us to a certain action to do something. This is the parallel between the fourth aggregate and accomplishing deep awareness.
  • Reality deep awareness, which on the most basic level knows what type of information something is that appears with mirror-like awareness, is parallel to the aggregate of consciousness. Like reality deep awareness, the aggregate of consciousness is aware of the essential nature of something, of what type of phenomenon it is – a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a physical sensation or a mental object.

When we speak of these five aggregate factors, they are factors that make up each moment of our experience. In a similar manner, when we speak of the five types of deep awareness, they too are factors that make up each moment of our experience.

The five aggregate factors, or skandhas, are part of the mechanism of samsara. They are examples of the third type of suffering: all-pervasive suffering. All these factors that are changing from moment to moment make up our samsaric experience. They come from confusion, contain confusion, and in most cases, unless we’re an arhat, perpetuate confusion. I’m speaking in general as not every Tibetan Buddhist school agrees with this. In any case, these aggregate factors are associated with confusion. Because of that association with confusion or ignorance, they are known as tainted aggregates, often translated as “contaminated aggregates.”

When we become a Buddha, just as we still have the five types of deep awareness, but now purified of all limitations, similarly we still have five aggregates, but now untainted and so also unlimited, not tainted with confusion. Afterall, as a Buddha, we still have concentration, love and compassion.

The Five Types of Deep Awareness Are Pure by Nature

What is often said, and we find this very much in tantra, is that each moment of a Buddha’s omniscient awareness is made up of the five pure types of deep awareness and not the five tainted skandhas. However, when we speak in terms of these five types of deep awareness, it’s explained in a different way. The main emphasis is that the deep awarenesses themselves are untainted. They’re pure by nature.

If we think about it, for example, when we take in all the information of a group of people in a room, we don’t pay equal attention to all of them, do we? We don’t notice all the specific 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. It’s our tainted mental factors, like attention, that limit what we understand and know.

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

What’s very remarkable and helpful is the presentation of how, when the five types of deep awareness are mixed with confusion, they act as a cause for having the five types of disturbing emotions:

  • When mirror-like deep awareness is clouded over with confusion, we have naivety. We’re not aware that someone is upset, for example. We’re naive in that we just don’t notice. However, the clouding over of confusion doesn’t affect the basic nature of the mirror to take in information.
  • When equalizing deep awareness is clouded over with confusion, we’re not aware of the equality of everyone. As a result, for example, we are miserly and don’t want to share with others.  We also are very proud and arrogant, thinking we are better than others. We’re clouded over in terms of the equality of everyone.
  • When individualizing deep awareness is clouded over with confusion, we have longing desire and attachment. We’re not just individualizing something or someone. Instead we’re making them into something really special that we have to have, or if we have them, we’re not going to let go and we want more.
  • When accomplishing deep awareness is clouded over with confusion, we have envy or jealousy. For example, another person received something, whatever it may be, and we didn’t get it. We’re not aware that they got it by accomplishing something; and if we wanted it, we’d have to accomplish something as well. However, when this understanding is clouded over, we just experience jealousy.
  • When reality deep awareness is clouded over, we have anger. This type of deep awareness knows that something is this and not that. Yet, 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.

Despite the fact that, when these five types of deep awareness are clouded over with confusion, we experience the five types of disturbing emotions, still these five types of deep awareness themselves always remain pure and untainted. This is why the five types of deep awareness are different aspects of Buddha-nature. They allow us to have the various aspects of a Buddha. A Buddha has the five types of deep awareness in their full form. To gain this level of them ourselves is just a matter of getting rid of the confusion that clouds them over. On the other hand, the five tainted aggregates taken as a whole are not aspects of Buddha-nature because many of the factors that make them up are mixed with confusion.

Nevertheless, within the five aggregates there are some mental factors, such as compassion, that we can say are aspects of Buddha-nature. Compassion is the wish, “May you be free from suffering and from the causes of suffering.” We all have some basic level of this, whether it’s in terms of taking care of and protecting the young or ourselves. There’s the basic factor of trying to prevent and alleviate suffering. When fully developed, we have the compassion of a Buddha that extends equally to all beings.

We’ve covered a lot of points and if we had a lot of time, it would have been better to pause after each one and reflect; but then, we would never get through the main part of the material in this session. Please be aware that there are some really extraordinary wonderful methods in the Buddhist teachings for dealing with each of these five types of disturbing emotions that we mentioned. If we quiet down and let the confusion settle, what we’re left with, underlying it, is a particular corresponding deep awareness.

For instance, when we’re so focused on just one person, and we have so much desire and attachment for that person, if we just quiet down the confusion and the exaggeration of that person’s good qualities, what are we left with? We are left with individualizing deep awareness. We are individualizing one person from other people. Then, we can realize that they are “nothing special.” That one person is just like any other penguin in the large flock of a hundred thousand in Antarctica.