Confusion about the Five Aggregates

The Motivation for Working with the Five Aggregates

We began our discussion by exploring why we want to learn about the five aggregates that make up each moment of our experience. What is their importance? 

It’s a very standard approach in Buddhism to first examine the benefits of learning or developing something. Once convinced, then we tend to have a genuine interest in learning about it and developing it. This guideline applies both to why we would want to develop love, compassion and the wish to help others, and to why we would want to develop a clear, correct understanding of reality. If we know the benefits of each of these factors, as well as the reasons for developing them, we can put our whole hearts into the effort and proceed with confidence. That interest, enthusiasm and conviction about doing something, such as meditation, and knowing how and why it is beneficial, is what sustains us throughout the process of actually doing it.

The traditional Buddhist reference states that following this motivational guideline is helpful at the beginning, middle and end of any study or practice. In other words, it is helpful for actually entering into a practice, for being able to continue the practice, and to be able to actually complete the practice. Often, we may get tired of practicing, of meditating or coming to class. If we reaffirm this motivation – which includes our aim, the emotion behind it, and the understanding of the benefits of the actual practice, meditation or class – then we will continue all the way to the end. Of course, we might get tired, but we don’t act on that and just stop.

Also, it is essential that our motivation is sincere, that it is what we actually feel and deeply believe. For example, if we are aiming for liberation and enlightenment, but we have no idea what they actually mean and we’re not even convinced that it’s possible to attain them, how can we sincerely aim for attaining them? At that level, we can instead have the aspiration to one day aim for liberation and enlightenment, to eventually understand what they are, and to eventually be convinced that it’s possible to attain them. Further, in general, we can strive to understand that not only is it possible, but it is also possible for each of us to achieve. We can aspire to work toward that goal, but right now, perhaps, our aim is to improve the quality of our life. Perhaps that’s what we sincerely feel and that’s why we want to learn about the Dharma.

The same is true in terms of developing a motivation to improve our future rebirths, and to ensure they are with precious human rebirths. If we’re not truly convinced that there is such a thing as rebirth and don’t really understand what rebirth means, how can we sincerely aim to benefit our future ones? It becomes just words. 

It’s always crucial within Dharma practice to be completely honest with ourselves. In that situation, the honest motivation is that we are genuinely working to benefit this lifetime, to improve the quality of our lives because of the many problems and difficulties we face. We understand the Buddhist path and the other levels of motivation – to improve future rebirths, gain liberation and achieve enlightenment – and we look at our current motivation as a stepping-stone on the way. We intend to try to develop these more advanced motivations, but we’re not quite there yet. Without this honesty, our practice isn’t really genuine. Our hearts aren’t really in it.

However, it is essential that our ultimate aim is for liberation and enlightenment. It’s when we have that ultimate aim for liberation and enlightenment, as defined in Buddhism, that our practice actually becomes a Buddhist practice. Otherwise, if we are following Buddhist methods and teachings just to improve this lifetime alone, without this ultimate aim, then we are not really Buddhist practitioners. We are using Buddhism as a type of psychology and that’s fine, as long as we acknowledge that we are using it as a form of psychological therapy. 

Likewise, if we are adopting the Buddhist methods simply to improve our future lifetimes, without the ultimate aim and understanding of liberation and enlightenment then, again, we’re not following Buddhism. If we had faith in a Western religion, we might want to learn how to go to heaven. A motivation just to improve future lives is not very different from this desire to go to heaven, but it is not Buddhist. For it to be Buddhist, it has to be intended as a stepping-stone on the way to liberation and enlightenment.

What is liberation? It means freedom from uncontrollable recurring rebirth. Of course, to aim for liberation depends on understanding and belief in rebirth. However, even if we understand rebirth correctly, as explained in Buddhism, and believe it is true, if we just want a precious human life again and again, and don’t want to stop rebirth because we’re actually quite attached to this life and want many more like it, then, again, this is not quite Buddhist.

Along with the essential quality of having a sincere motivation, we also need to be honest about our accompanying emotions. If our motivation for achieving any of these goals is that it would be wonderful and nice, these are not the types of emotions that Buddhism emphasizes. The motivating emotions that we are trying to develop in Buddhism are quite different. They are emotions such as genuine disgust with uncontrollable, recurring problems and a true wish to really get out of this situation. In addition, we really have compassion for others and want to help them end uncontrollably recurring rebirth as well. Further, we want to get a precious human rebirth, a better type of rebirth, because we are completely horrified at the idea of a terrible rebirth. We really don’t want that because we want to continue on the spiritual path and eventually be of more help to everybody.

If we examine the three motivations in Buddhism, the structure is the same. With each, we want to get rid of something. We want to get rid of horrible rebirths, rebirth altogether and we want to get rid of everybody else’s suffering too and our inability to really help them. We’re rejecting something with the accompanying motivation of thinking, “How horrible it would be,” to experience worse rebirth states or to be stuck forever in recurring samsara. Or, empathizing with others, we feel how terrible it is that everybody else is suffering and we can’t really do very much about it.

If our basic emotional attitude is “how wonderful and marvelous,” then it is most helpful to direct that naturally arising emotion and devotion toward thinking how wonderful it would be if we could avoid worse rebirth, gain liberation from samsara, and really help everybody. Then we’re using our naturally arising emotion in a proper Buddhist way. After all, this is the way that we practice the four immeasurable attitudes in Mahayana Buddhism: How wonderful it would be if everybody were free from suffering and the causes of suffering. How wonderful it would be if everybody had happiness and the causes of happiness, etc. We need to approach the study of the five aggregates within the context of this type of motivating aim and emotion.


We have previously discussed the benefits of learning about the five aggregates in that it provides the context for our entire Buddhist practice. The five aggregates are a way of understanding our experience of every moment of our life, in every single lifetime. To understand true suffering and its causes, we need to look to what makes up our experience and look within the five aggregates that make up our experience each moment. If we want to experience a true stopping of suffering and its causes, where will that take place? It also occurs within the aggregate factors of our experience. In other words, with liberation, the aggregates will be without suffering and the causes of suffering. The type of mind that we want to develop that will bring about this elimination of suffering and its causes is something we want to add to the five aggregates of our experience, and we want it to be there all the time.

What is the main cause of our suffering, our problems and, in fact, our inability to help everybody fully as a Buddha? It’s our unawareness of reality. We just don’t know, or we understand incorrectly. The antidote to eliminate this unawareness would be to develop correct understanding of reality and how things truly exist. We want to get rid of the not knowing or the confusion that arises in each moment and have instead, in each moment, correct knowing. Why do we want to do this? Again, if we have a true understanding of reality, it will certainly improve the quality of our lives now. By recognizing the suffering and problems we experience in this lifetime when we are confused and really don’t know or know incorrectly what’s going on, we reach the point where we’ve had enough, and we work to get rid of our suffering. 

Thinking further ahead, we want to eliminate this type of confusion because it leads to worse rebirth states. Why? Because the more confused we are, the more destructively we act and the consequences of that are more sufferings with worse rebirths. If we want to gain liberation and enlightenment, what do we have to do? We have to get rid of this confusion that perpetuates our rebirths and gain the understanding of reality that will bring about liberation and our ability to best help others. Regardless of what our aim is here, basically we want to clean up our five aggregates and how we experience life.

To do this, we need to investigate this unawareness more closely. What is it that we don’t know? What is it that we’re confused about that causes our problems? We’re confused about our five aggregates. There are several levels of this confusion, but the overall problem is how we understand, pay attention to and regard our experiences. The problem is that we consider them incorrectly. There are four ways in which this occurs. These are called “the four incorrect considerations” – we consider things in ways that are not in accord with reality. Sometimes they’re called “discordant considerations.”

The Four Incorrect Considerations

Regarding Suffering as Happiness

The first of these incorrect considerations is that we regard suffering as happiness. We’ve previously described how each moment of our experience has some sort of unsatisfactory aspect to it; however, we don’t recognize that it’s problematic. We think it’s perfectly normal; in fact, we even think that it’s happiness.

For example, let’s focus on an unhealthy relationship. Unfortunately, almost everybody has been in an unhealthy relationship at some time or other. While in this situation, we are often in a state of denial and don’t want to face the fact that the relationship is unhealthy. Because we are insecure, we regard it as happiness, “I’m so happy, verbally abuse me again.” 

Of course, this is a very coarse example of what we’re talking about here. There are all sorts of problematic situations that we are satisfied with and consider to be sources of happiness. We are usually afraid if we give them up, things will be worse. We might fear that if we get out of this unhealthy relationship, for example, then we’ll be alone and that would be an even worse situation. We think we won’t find anybody and it’s better to be in our unhealthy relationship than with no one. In this way, we regard it as happiness.

We do this with everything, don’t we? We have some chronic problem, for example, a chronic sleep disorder, and rather than recognizing that it’s a problem we say this is all right; this is just the way that we sleep. Why don’t we want to do something about it? We’re afraid that the unknown alternative will be even worse. Therefore, we make do with what we should be trying to get rid of. That is how we regard suffering as happiness. 

Think about this for a moment to try to recognize this confusion we have.


Regarding What Is Unclean as Clean

The second type of confusion is translated literally as “regarding what is unclean as clean.” This refers to regarding something that is impure as pure. Of course, on the level of the body, we often think that the body is so clean, beautiful and wonderful. However, as the Indian master Shantideva pointed out, if we take some delicious food and put it in our mouths, chew it and spit it out, everybody would regard what we spit out as unclean. If that food goes all through our digestive system and comes out the other end, we certainly wouldn’t consider what comes out to be clean. If the body is so clean and wonderful, why does it make delicious food into something dirty and disgusting? Obviously if we look inside the body, peel off the skin, what we find certainly isn’t what we consider to be clean, attractive and beautiful. 

We can accept this level of explanation, but it can also be considered in a broader way. We might tend to look at people and situations only in terms of their good points; we often don’t want to look at the negative. Again, here, we’re examining our experience, our five aggregates. For example, we are in love with somebody, and we really don’t want to admit any negative aspects of this person. We just want to see the positive points. In another example, if our baby eats something and gets food all over her face, we laugh and say, “How cute.” If it were somebody else’s child, we might merely think, “What a mess.”

We are also inclined to think like this on other levels as well. For instance, we don’t really want to think about the fact that our loved one snores or smells badly when they sweat, and the like. We just focus on how wonderful this person is. We tend to exaggerate so many things. Here in Mexico, for instance, when someone invites us for a meal, many people will praise the host by saying, “Marvelous; it’s the most wonderful meal that I’ve ever had.” We might also describe a social event as being “the best party I’ve ever gone to.” In fact, there’s probably quite a bit that’s unsatisfactory in what we’ve experienced. 

However, we don’t want to look at the bad parts. We consider even the nasty parts to be beautiful and wonderful. For example, we are cuddling a puppy dog and the puppy dog sneezes, and we think, “Oh, how cute,” when actually a living creature has just sneezed in our face. If we were holding a drunken person next to us and they sneezed in our face, we wouldn’t think it was so cute. Our little child’s nose is running and we wipe it with our finger. We wouldn’t do that with the drunken person for sure.

In this way, we’re looking at what is unclean as clean, or impure as pure. We exaggerate things. We would like things to be like in a fairy tale – not one of monsters and witches eating little children, we want it to be like Bambi where everything is just really nice. We tend to look at things like this, even though they’re not so nice. 

So that is confusion about what we are experiencing. We don’t want to look at the downside of things, the unpleasant side of things. We would rather just live in a fantasy world. The English expression is: “Seeing things through rose-colored glasses.” That’s seeing what is unclean as clean. Let’s think about that and try to recognize this in our own experience. 


Considering What Is Non-Static to Be Static

The third of these discordant considerations is to regard non-static things as static. That’s usually translated as “to regard impermanent things as permanent,” but we have to remember what is meant by these terms. We’re talking about things that change from moment to moment and that we regard them incorrectly as unchanging. In other contexts, we incorrectly think that something that only lasts a short time is going to last forever. Both meanings of permanent and impermanent apply to this incorrect consideration.

For instance, perhaps in what makes up every moment of our experience – the aggregates – there is depression. We can think that this state of depression, sadness and low energy is always the same; it’s not changing. We could also think that it is going to last forever. Often we feel like that, don’t we? When we are in the dentist chair and the dentist is drilling our tooth, don’t we feel that it’s going to last forever and it’s never going to end? We don’t really consider that in each moment the level of pain is slightly different. Or, when we meet somebody and we fall in love, don’t we have this feeling that it’s going to last forever. We will live happily ever after, forever and ever. This is an incorrect consideration of the situation because, of course, in each moment of each day, things are going to change. It’s going to be different and nothing lasts forever.

This feeling of permanence is something that we all experience. A child may think, “I’m never going to grow up.” Or they think that the school day is going to last forever. Once again, this incorrect consideration is directed at the five aggregates of our experience. We think what we are experiencing is not changing, and what we are experiencing right now – with pain being the easiest example to understand – is going to last forever. 

Take a moment to think about this type of incorrect consideration.


Considering What Is Not the Self as Being the Self 

Finally, the fourth incorrect or discordant consideration is to regard the conventionally existent “me” or self that is part of our aggregate factors as being a solid “me,” a solid “soul,” existing in some sort of impossible way. In fact, our conventional self is not this type of impossible “soul,” or impossible “me,” sitting there as part of each moment of our experience. However, we think that there is and it feels like that. It really seems like we are each a soul or some sort of entity that exists all by itself and, if we believe in rebirth, now it’s come into our body and it has synced with all the aspects of our mind and our body, and there it is! Further, we think that this “me” uses this body and mind as some sort of machine to walk around with, as well as think and communicate. After some time, we believe that it’s going to disconnect, leave and find another body and mind. 

Even if we don’t believe in rebirth, still we feel that there’s some solid “me” that is the real “me,” and of course we feel that it doesn’t change. We go to sleep at night and wake up the next morning and, voila, there we are again! As we’re getting older, we certainly think that we are the same “me” that we were when we were a young person. It’s just this body is starting to fail; however, it is still the same solid “me” that has the same desires and habits. “Why are people looking at me like this, and treating me like I am old?” Nonetheless, this is not how we really exist. This type of impossible “me” is a myth. 

On a more subtle level, we think that there is a “me” that can be known all by itself, not in relation to a body or a mind and it feels like that. We think, “I want you to love me, and not just for my body, my mind, my money or my possessions. I want you to love me for just me,” as if there were a “me” that could be loved independently of a body and a mind, possessions, personality, and all these other things. We have all felt like that, but there is no such thing. We imagine that there is such an entity in each moment of our experience, and actually there isn’t. There is a “me,” but it doesn’t exist in this impossible way.

This is the fourth type of incorrect consideration. Bear in mind that the fallacies in the other types of incorrect consideration are not difficult to recognize. However, it is very difficult to recognize that this last one is incorrect. It is the crucial thing that the understanding of voidness or emptiness refutes. Please let’s take a few minutes to recognize it.


Rejecting Incorrect Consideration

We need to have a realistic attitude and understanding of the five aggregates. We need to recognize the incorrect considerations with which we regard them in false ways that do not correspond to reality. We have to realize that these beliefs are absurd and incorrect; they’re not referring to anything real. With the understanding that these false ways in which we regard our aggregates are absurd, that don’t correspond to reality – with that understanding, we refute and reject these incorrect views. We get rid of them and replace them with correct understanding.

It’s not sufficient to just superficially replace incorrect understanding with correct understanding, especially about how we exist. We need to reject our incorrect understanding by knowing that it is false and comprehending exactly how and why it is incorrect. Then, we can replace it with correct understanding. If we don’t reject, through understanding, our incorrect view, then if we try to override it with a correct view, we’re just repressing it and it will emerge again. 

Just understanding that it is incorrect and rejecting it, however, only just starts the process of getting rid of it. We really have to be deeply convinced of its falsehood and then integrate that understanding into our lives. We can intellectually know that our incorrect view about “me” is false, but still emotionally feel things in accord with that false view. We have to go beyond that step where we know that there is no “me” to love independently of my body, personality, mind and possessions, and so on. We know that, but still deeply, we want others to love “me.” Therefore, it takes a great deal of familiarity to really get rid of this incorrect view so that it doesn’t arise again. 


To review, we need to reject the first incorrect consideration, that what we are experiencing is happiness. In other words, we need to recognize what it means that each moment of our experience has suffering. Either we are experiencing something that we don’t like and want to be rid of, or we are experiencing something that we like and want it to continue, but it won’t last, and it doesn’t last. It’s not happiness because if it were really happiness it would be wonderful all the time, and it’s not wonderful all the time. What we feel is always going up and down; sometimes we feel happy, sometimes unhappy. Our feelings are constantly fluctuating and in each moment of our experience we’re perpetuating this rollercoaster. This is what is known as the all-pervasive suffering.

Likewise, we need to reject and replace the view that what we experience is clean and pure, when in fact it’s not. We think our body is so beautiful, but in fact it gets sick and not such nice things come out of it. We buy a new computer and think it’s so wonderful and will work forever; but actually, at some point it’s going to break down. We think that life is going to be so much better if we get a computer, e-mail and then a cell phone; but they actually bring on a tremendous amount of suffering. We experience suffering when they malfunction and break, or when we are constantly bombarded with pop-up ads, e-mails and spam. Let’s not forget that our cell phones also constantly interrupt us. In these examples, happiness is actually very problematic, isn’t it? It is very funny how sometimes now we think that the ideal holiday would be an unplugged one without any e-mail and without our cell phone.

We also want to remove the view that whatever we’re experiencing is not going to change, that it’s going to last forever. Lastly, we want to reject and replace the feeling that there is some sort of solid “me” with the understanding that there is no such thing. Although there is what we call the conventional “me,” there isn’t some sort of creature, like some entity from outer space, that is sitting inside us, talking in our heads, pulling the switches and the strings to make the body move and the mind think this and that.


My confusion pertains to who is experiencing karma? I tend to solidify the “me” that is going to experience the results of karma.

This is very natural. It happens to everybody automatically. There is continuity of a “me,” but it’s not like some piece of luggage moving on a conveyor belt in the airport that is a solid entity moving through time.

What we are refuting when we negate a solid “me” and a solid “you” is that there is such an entity, an impossible “soul” that exists as “me” or “you,” as if it were encapsulated in plastic, existing all by itself. Buddhism says that there is no such thing. It’s not that we are encapsulated in plastic like some ping-pong ball, and that’s the “me.” It’s not that we are so statically permanent, as if “I have to keep my integrity and be true to myself,” or something like that. Rather, being without that solidity allows for relations with others. If the “me” were encapsulated in plastic, we would truly be isolated and could never relate to anybody else. The “me” is defined in terms of relationships.

Our belief in an imagined, impossible “me” arises within the context of each moment of our experience, within the context of the five aggregates. However, the actual “me” that does exist, the conventional “me,” also arises within the context of the five aggregates. Our first step, then, for ridding ourselves of this misunderstanding about ourselves is to understand the five aggregates. With the five aggregates as the basis, we can then speak about how they lack this impossible “me.” We can examine how the impossible “me” doesn’t exist, and how the actual conventional “me” does. But, because this issue of how you or I exist is so vital and essential for overcoming suffering, we need to approach this very delicate and subtle topic step by step, in an orderly fashion. We need to build up what we need to know first, in order to have the basis to continue toward a stable and correct understanding. What we need to know first are the five aggregates.