The True Causes of the Sufferings of Change and Samsara

We looked at the unawareness of behavioral cause and effect and how that underlies our experience of unhappiness. Now we need to look at the second type of unawareness, a much deeper type of unawareness, which is unawareness of reality: how we exist, how others exist and how everything exists. This is underlying our experience of ordinary happiness, as well as our experience of unhappiness. It underlies both of them. What it leads to and what then supports it is known as “grasping for impossible ways of existing.”


Grasping (‘dzin-pa) – we need to understand that this word has two meanings.
The first is that the mind projects impossible ways for things to exist, such as, for instance with ourselves, that, “I am the center of the universe. I am the most important. I should always have my way. People should pay attention to me. What I believe is important.” It leads to why people feel nowadays, because the world is so unpredictable, that if somehow they broadcast their thoughts and feelings on Twitter or on Facebook, then somehow it makes them real: “I tweet, therefore I exist; I have a Facebook page, therefore I exist.” If you don’t have a Facebook page, you don’t exist, you can’t have friends. In fact, having a Facebook page establishes or proves that you exist. It’s really quite bizarre.

In any case, we have this term “grasping.” What it means is that the mind projects some impossible way of existing like, “I’m the center of the universe” – that’s the background – and the word “grasp” means we perceive that.
The second meaning is that we believe that it corresponds to reality. So, “grasping” has these two levels of meaning. 

In other words, “My mind makes me feel as though I’m the center of the universe,” and we believe that is true. That is again based on a hardware problem, where we close our eyes and everything outside disappears. “Well, I’m still there! So, somehow, I can shut out the world, and I’m the center of my universe.” That’s really based on a hardware limitation, isn’t it? We perceive things like that and it feels like that, so we believe it. That’s what the word “grasping” means It’s very important to understand this.

We have this jargon in Buddhism; we have definitions and explanations for all the terms. That’s what makes the Tibetan tradition so rich: it’s that it actually does have definitions for all the terms, so we can learn them. It’s very, very helpful. Because we’re unaware of how things exist, then when our mind projects all these impossible ways in which things seem to exist, we believe it. We’re unaware that it doesn’t correspond to reality. Being unaware of that, we have disturbing attitudes and then disturbing emotions.

Disturbing Attitudes

A disturbing attitude (nyon-rmongs lta-ba-can) is a state of mind that fits this general definition we saw: It’s a state of mind that, when it arises, you lose peace of mind and you lose self-control. What it does is it lashes out: it reaches out to various things and it wants to throw onto them, or project onto them, some sort of attitude, basically; a way of understanding something, a way of perceiving it.

Here, the most common one is throwing out this net, as it were, of “me” and “mine” onto everything (‘jig-lta, a deluded attitude toward a transitory network). We think, “I’m the center of the universe,” and then we throw it out onto everybody and everything, “You should pay attention to me! What I say is important! This computer is mine, don’t use it! That’s my chair, don’t sit on it!” This type of disturbing attitude. That’s just an example, there’s a whole list of them.

Based upon these misconceptions about ourselves that we project, there can be further misconceptions that come up. This can lead to compulsion, which is what karma means – the mental factor that leads us into a compulsive act. It could be compulsive destructive behavior, or it could be compulsive constructive behavior. Based on “That’s my computer. Don’t use it,” our projection of “me” and “mine” could underlie getting angry with someone, if anybody wants to use it, “You’re going to ruin it!” We’re very attached to it – these types of things. So, there’s a disturbing emotion that’s there as well.

Compulsive Constructive Behavior

It’s very important to recognize this syndrome in compulsive constructive behavior as well. What would be an example of that? An example would be being a perfectionist, to feel that we constantly have to clean our house, because we project: “I have to be perfect and my house has to be perfect.” We just cleaned it before, but we feel we have to clean it again. Or constantly washing our hands; or if we’re writing a paper for school, having to go over it again and again and again. Always correcting it, trying to make it perfect, pushing ourselves, “I have to be good.” This sort of stiffness that some people have, “I have to be the good one.” 

It’s constructive, it’s not that we’re hurting anybody, and it will give us some short-term happiness. Cleaning our house is a very good example, actually – because we’ve just cleaned it and now everything is perfect and clean, we feel happy; but of course that doesn’t last, does it? Very quickly, “Oh, there’s a spot over there.” And we’re worried that our child is going to spill something, so we’re constantly on the look-out. We’re compulsive, out of control, and it’s certainly not a peaceful state of mind. 

When you think about karma, don’t just think about destructive behavior. It’s also our ordinary constructive behavior when it’s compulsive. We might use the more psychological term “neurotic”; this is what is involved here. This compulsive constructive behavior is the karmic cause for our ordinary happiness. But it’s based on this misconception with which we project onto everything “me” and “mine”: “It’s my house, I have to make it perfect, I have to be perfect, my house has to be perfect. The paper that I write has to be perfect,” and we’re never satisfied. 

It’s interesting, you’re never satisfied. I know that because I write a lot. You’re never satisfied, it’s never good enough. That’s also a very good example of this compulsive constructive thinking, “I’m never good enough, so I always have to try to do more.” That’s not a healthy way of developing ourselves. That’s a very compulsive, neurotic way of helping ourselves, based on a big “me, me, me! I have to be perfect.” It’s a big misconception about ourselves, and because of that, we’re further confused about the effect of our behavior. We think it will bring us lasting happiness, but it never does.

All our confusion is based on unawareness: We just don’t know that our projections and expectations do not correspond to reality, or we know in a completely inverted, opposite way – we think it does correspond. It’s also a good thing to reflect upon for a moment and try to recognize it in our own behavior.


Another good example is compulsively correcting other people. Some people are like that, they always have to correct the other person whether or not they want to be corrected and whether or not it’s appropriate. Correcting how your daughter raises her children, how she keeps her house, how she dresses: these types of things are not appreciated at all. There are many levels to this, aren’t there? Because you think, “Well, I’m just trying to be helpful.” You think that it’s helpful, but actually it’s not helpful at all, so you’re also confused about the effects of your behavior. You can see there’s a whole mixture of different levels of confusion. There are different levels of confusion and levels of compulsiveness that are involved in perpetuating these problems of up and down, up and down, happy/unhappy.


Now we need to go to a deeper level. The deeper level is how our unawareness of how we exist and how others exist, how everything exists, is the true cause of the all-pervasive suffering of uncontrollably recurring aggregates. Now we get a whole bunch of technical jargon: “uncontrollably recurring tainted aggregates.” 

Aggregates (phung-po), to put it very simply, refer to the body and the mind. To make it a little bit more complex, we’re talking about the body, the mind, the emotions, the feelings, the whole package that we have. They are tainted. 

Tainted (zag-bcas) is another technical term. It’s defined as being generated by unawareness of how we exist; so, our aggregates come about from that unawareness. Another word used in connection with this is obtainer aggregates (nyer-len-gyi phung-po). “Obtainer” means they contain within them the unawareness that will obtain for us yet more aggregates. This is the whole problem here, that these aggregate factors perpetuate themselves. They come from our unawareness or ignorance and they contain that unawareness or ignorance and will perpetuate more. They’re uncontrollably recurring, that’s the whole point. The type of body and mind and emotional makeup and so on that we have will be the basis with which we experience ups and downs, happy/unhappy, happy/unhappy. They come from our unawareness and will perpetuate themselves, so we will experience these more. What we want to do is somehow change or get rid of that type of basis.


The misconception that we might have from the non-Buddhist Indian systems, where they talk about liberation, is that you can just escape from these recurring aggregates to an existence in some sort of transcendent state or realm, totally disassociated and independent from having a body or mind. Buddhism says that there is no such thing. That’s a fantasy. We can only exist on the basis of a body and mind. But the type of body and mind that we want to have when liberated is one that is not tainted, that is not coming because of our confusion about how we exist, but one that is based on correct understanding. That will be a completely different type of body and mind. 

Although a liberated being might go through the motions of being a baby and growing up and stuff like that, it won’t experience this type of happy and unhappy. It will experience a completely different quality of happiness called bliss as a Buddha, or if we are just a liberated being, then a type of untainted happiness or a neutral state when we are very deep in some sort of meditation.

We shouldn’t think that the Buddhist teachings are that somehow samsara is here, and nirvana is over there; and we want to leave this place and go to that place. “Now we’re in nirvana; life is some sort of paradise!” It’s not like that. What we want to do is change the basis for our experience of life and get rid of this limited basis, this limited hardware.

The Five Aggregates

Now I suppose I should explain a little bit more fully what we mean by the aggregates, because we have tainted aggregates now, received from our unawareness and we want to have untainted ones. We’re always going to continue with aggregates, even a Buddha has five aggregates. You shouldn’t think that a Buddha doesn’t have five aggregates; it’s just a completely different quality of aggregates. 

What is this word “aggregate?” Again, jargon. The word aggregate means a network of different things. A lot of people use the word “collection,” but collection sounds like a collection of stamps, a stamp album. It’s not as though, here’s one stamp, here’s another stamp, here’s another stamp and you have a collection. But, rather it is many things that interact and work with each other. They network together.

The aggregates are just a helpful scheme for classifying and understanding or analyzing what makes up each moment of our experience. It’s not as though they are boxes that exist somewhere, and this part of our experience fits in this box and that part fits in that box. Don’t misconceive these aggregates as actual boxes that exist somewhere. 

Each moment of our experience is made up of many different components. If we can become aware of them, we realize that each of these components is changing all the time and at a different rate from each other. Realizing this enables us to deconstruct our experience and see that, “Wow, there are so many different things that are changing, so many variables.” That allows us to see which are the ones that are causing problems, and which are the ones that we need to adjust in this way or that way. We get rid of this one, increase that one and so on, but without there being a separate “me” that is doing the fixing, that is controlling and saying, “Aha, I have to wear my hair differently,” or do something like that. Then it comes in and does that to the body, as if it were a separate “me” that’s in there; it’s not like that.

Form Aggregate

In each moment of our experience, we have forms of physical phenomena. Forms of physical phenomena include sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations such as hot, cold, soft, hard, or the physical sensation of motion. There are all sorts of physical sensations. Then there are more subtle forms of physical phenomena, like in our dreams – the so-called mental sights, sounds and the physical sensations and so on that we experience in dreams. There are also the sensors, which are the photo-sensitive cells of our eyes, the sound-sensitive of the ears, smell-sensitive of the nose, taste-sensitive of the tongue, and sensation-sensitive of the body. In general, you could say our whole body is part of the form aggregate. 

In every moment of our experience, we are experiencing usually more than one of these, because we hear and see at the same time, don’t we? If we can become aware of them, we also feel the physical sensation of the temperature of the room, the pressure of the seat that we’re sitting on, the feeling of our clothing on our body, the physical sensation of the tongue in our mouth – that’s a really weird one – the taste of our saliva, the smell of the room. All of that is there; that information is coming in. We experience all of this – I don’t know if you can call it information? That gets into technical jargon. Anyways, we have all this sense data. That’s the form aggregate. All of that’s changing every moment, obviously. People are moving, we’re moving and so on.

Types of Consciousness

Then we have consciousness. Unlike the Western idea of consciousness, which is just one thing, here we speak of different systems; but we’ll stay with the simple one of six types of consciousness. This has to do with what channel we’re on, if we put it into simple language. During this experience of forms of physical phenomena, “Am I on the seeing channel, the hearing channel, the smelling channel, tasting channel, feeling a physical sensation channel or mental channel? Thinking, dreaming.” 

Specifically, this aggregate refers to types of primary consciousness. Primary consciousness (rnam-shes) is the awareness of the essential nature (ngo-bo) of its object. It’s aware that this is a sight and this is sound. We can think again in terms of computers. If all this data – excuse me, I’m not a computer engineer so I may be over-simplifying it, or incorrect in my analogy – but if everything is digital, primary consciousness decodes the digital information: this is visual information and this is audio information. It’s amazing that a computer can do that, but this is what we’re talking about when we talk about consciousness. It’s just aware of what type of data it is that we’re experiencing.


To experience something, we need what is often translated as “recognition,” which is a terribly misleading translation. It is distinguishing (‘du-shes). “Recognizing” implies that we already knew what something was and then we recognize it again, based on our previous experience of it. This is not what this aggregate is talking about. What it’s talking about is distinguishing. 

Consider a sense field, for instance sight. On one level, we can analyze what we see as: “Okay, I’m looking now and what do I see? I see colored shapes.” Or we could take it on a subtler level: “I’m seeing pixels, colored pixels.” 

Now, we don’t just see colored pixels or colored shapes, do we? To be able to experience things, to be able to deal with life, we have to put them together, don’t we, and distinguish these colored shapes as a knowable object. We’re in pretty bad shape if we can’t put the colored shapes that we perceive into proper, conventionally accepted objects. A baby can do that, a worm can do that, everybody can do that. That’s distinguishing; so, we’re talking about something very, very basic. When we talk about these aggregates, it has to be so basic that even the worm has this ability. A newborn infant can distinguish things; it doesn’t know what anything is, but a newborn infant can distinguish between the physical sensation of hunger and not-hunger.


Feeling (tshor-ba), the aggregate of feeling, is how we experience things. It’s only talking about the spectrum of happy and unhappy. That’s all it’s talking about, so don’t get misled. I don’t know about other languages, but in English the word “feeling” also includes emotions. But emotions are not included here; we’re only talking about the variable of happy and unhappy. This is what differentiates us from a computer. If you think about it, it’s very profound. A computer will take in information, it will decode it in terms of visual or audio data and it will distinguish words within all the digital information. It can do all that, but it doesn’t feel happy or unhappy about it, does it? That’s the difference between a machine and a living being. 

A sentient being is a life-form with a mind. A plant is not a sentient being. Why? We’re not talking about life, we’re not talking about biology, we’re talking about those beings that have a mind; and having a mind means experiencing things. Experiencing things means, based on intentional behavior, usually compulsive behavior, experiencing what we do and what happens to us with happiness or unhappiness. That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about sentient beings. By that definition, a plant is not a sentient being. 

A lot of us Westerners get very confused, because we think in terms of life and biology. It’s not that. What distinguishes us as sentient beings – what I call a being with a limited mind, a limited being, for short – is that we experience, in the form of a feeling of happiness or unhappiness, what is occurring in the other aggregates. We experience with a feeling of some level of happiness or unhappiness seeing the sight of an object that we distinguish from the background of the rest of our visual sense field.

Other Affecting Variables

The fifth aggregate is everything else that changes – in other words all other variables (‘du-byed). It’s not at all symmetrical, you don’t have an even number of things in the five, it’s not like that at all. This other aggregate is everything else that changes and that affects our experience. This is where we have all the emotions and all the mental factors that enable us to perceive anything, such as attention, interest or concentration – all these sorts of things. All these are in the fifth aggregate. 

We can see that there are many, many parts that make up each moment of our experience. I’m seeing someone, I’m distinguishing someone from the rest of the visual background, but what am I paying attention to? I could be looking at somebody that I’m distinguishing from the people around them, but what I’m paying attention to is their hair, for example, or what they’re wearing, or I could be paying attention to the expression on their face. 

There are many things that are going on at the same time and are changing at different rates. What we’re looking at is changing, what we’re listening to and hearing is also changing. The emotions that are there are changing and my interest as well. I may be interested in their hair, but someone else may be interested in their expression because they’re concerned about how that person is feeling. There are so many different variables and each of them comes from its own cause, its own tendency and is affected by all the other factors that are simultaneous with it. It’s very complex, which is wonderful, because that allows us to deconstruct what we are experiencing and see that there’s nothing solid going on in our experience at all. 

When we talk about the five aggregates, we’re talking about a very practical scheme that allows us to deconstruct the seemingly solid feeling of our moment to moment experience, as in for example, “I’m in a depression, I’m depressed” as if it were one solid, heavy thing. You might be unhappy, your energy might be low, but there are many other mental factors accompanying the moment. We might have no strong aim or no willpower to do anything – a classic depression. But also, at the same time, we’re looking at something, we’re seeing something, we’re hearing something. We are either interested, or not interested in what we’re seeing. It’s all changing moment to moment, so the scheme of the five aggregates is very helpful for deconstruction.

What We Want to Get Rid Of

We want to change the basis of our experiencing life – meaning the whole body/mind complex – and experience life with a different type of basis. Now, if we just think on a physical level, we experience life on the basis of a body that is going to grow old and get sick, with a brain that is going to develop dementia – that type of thing. Don’t just think in terms of a human body. Think of what our experience would be if, all of a sudden, we’re born with the brain of a worm, or a fly, what our experience of life would be like. With the eye sensors of a fly what we would see would be completely different from what we see with human eye sensors. 

We want to get rid of having those types of limited body and limited mind, whether born as a human or a fly. In either case, we can’t do or understand terribly much: we want to have a completely different type of body and mind that is not generated by unawareness, we want so-called “pure untainted aggregates.” 

There are two levels of untainted aggregates. There’s the level of what a liberated being, an arhat has, and the level that a Buddha has. An arhat, a liberated being who is free from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, has a type of body that is spoken of as being a “light body” – something like a dream body – so it’s subtler than our human type of body. As an arhat, our mind doesn’t experience unhappiness or ordinary happiness. It doesn’t have those types of experiences, but our mind still makes things appear in impossible ways. In this sense, our mind is still limited, but as an arhat, we don’t believe that this appearance corresponds to reality. An arhat knows that “This is garbage!” For instance, it appears that you just came into this room out of nowhere. Bam! There you are! I know that that is ridiculous, that you obviously have a life. You came from what you were doing before, so I know that the appearance is deceptive – it’s like an illusion. I’m not fooled by it into thinking “You should just be paying attention to me.” You might have had a very difficult day. There is a reason for why you might not be so alert.

The Unlimited Mind of a Buddha

An arhat has that type of limited mind; it still makes things appear to exist in impossible ways, though it doesn’t believe that the way things appear to exist corresponds to how they actually exist. So, an arhat has grasping in the first sense of the word: the projection and perception of impossible ways of existing, but not in the second sense of believing it corresponds to reality.

A Buddha has gotten rid of grasping in both senses of the word, so a Buddha’s mind is, in this sense, unlimited. The highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, speaks about the subtlest level of mind, known as the “clear light mind.” It naturally neither projects appearances of impossible ways of existing nor believes that they correspond to reality. A Buddha has only that subtlest level of mind. 

There’s a physical basis, a physical counterpart to that subtlest level of mind, or mental activity, and that is called the subtlest life-supporting energy, known as subtlest wind. A Buddha’s body is made of that, and the Buddha’s mind is that subtlest type of mind.