The five aggregates are groupings with which we can classify the various aspects of our experience to help us better understand what is happening in each moment. After all, the focus of Buddhist study and practice is our own experience and how we experience life.
The various types of suffering and difficulties that we have all occur within our experience. We experience life in terms of feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness, which ripens from the karmic potentials built up from our previous compulsive behavior. Sometimes we experience things in life with unhappiness, which we usually refer to as suffering. We also experience things with ordinary happiness; however, in fact, this is a problem as well. Our usual happiness doesn’t last or fully satisfy; it’s never enough. We’re never content with it, and we never know what’s coming next. There’s always a level of uncertainty.
Our lives go up and down like this all the time. We feel happy and then unhappy; we have a lot of energy, then no energy; sometimes we feel like meditating or working, sometimes we don’t. We can never predict what we’re going to feel like in the next moment and this produces a never-ending insecurity. This is really what life is like and sometimes it’s not very satisfactory, is it?
The deeper problem is that this cycle of happiness and unhappiness keeps on perpetuating. What makes it just go on and on? It’s actually the very nature of our bodies and our minds. Unfortunately, what we have is very limited: people get tired, sick, and so on. Eventually, we die as well. In fact, if we look more deeply, our body is falling apart every moment, getting closer and closer to our death. There is a very lovely Western joke about what is the definition of life: Life is defined as a sexually transmitted disease with a hundred percent mortality rate! Faced with all of this, what can we do about it?
Confusion as a Cause for Suffering
If we examine more closely the cause for the up-and-down unsatisfactory nature of our lives, we find an underlying confusion within each and every single moment of our experience. This confusion comes from not knowing the reality of how we and others and everything exist or knowing it incorrectly. However, when we look more deeply beyond our ordinary bodies and minds at the true nature of the mind, we find that it is naturally pure. It’s not tainted by confusion.
When we have total non-conceptual focus on voidness – the total absence of anything real that corresponds to our misunderstanding – we don’t have any confusion. Therefore, this demonstrates the fact that confusion can’t be an intrinsic part of the mind because there are situations in which it is not present. It’s possible to actually gain a true stopping of this confusion by sustaining a state of non-conceptual focus on voidness all the time. If we achieve this stopping, our experience would be untainted, and we wouldn’t experience these ups and downs any more.
Voidness of the Four Noble Truths
We need to gain a state of mind that will act as a true pathway to liberation. This is the state of mind that has the non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of suffering, of the cause of suffering, of the cessation of suffering, and of this understanding itself. In other words, we need the non-conceptual understanding of the voidness of the four noble truths.
Of course, voidness is not terribly easy to understand. However, for now, let’s just say that voidness refers to a total absence of impossible ways of existing. Typically, our minds make things appear in a way that does not correspond to how things actually exist. In very simple words, our minds make everything exist as concrete entities. It is as if everything is like ping-pong balls, separate and encapsulated in plastic. We think that each thing is solid and concrete, just by itself, and then we make a big deal out of everything. But this doesn’t correspond to reality at all. Things don’t exist as isolated units; everything is interrelated.
Within our experience, it seems as though the various things that make it up are like these ping-pong balls, solid, concrete and separate from each other. Because it appears and feels like that, in our confusion we believe it to be true. Nonetheless, what we believe to be truly established like ping-pong balls is not true at all. This is what we mean when we say there’s no truly established existence. What we think is true is not true. It doesn’t correspond to how things actually exist.
When we are experiencing, for example, being depressed, this appears and feels like something solid, unrelated to anything else. We identify with it and believe that it will last forever. We make a huge big deal out of it. The same is true for an illness, or a disappointment in life, or even something going well in our lives; we make a big deal out of things when, in fact, this is how life fluctuates in every moment. Sometimes things go well, sometimes they don’t. Nothing special.
Thus, we want to get rid of the confusion that causes these things in our life to appear so solid, as well as the belief that they are true, that they correspond to reality. When we believe and feel that things exist in this solid concrete way, we suffer, don’t we? For example, we feel really unhappy and sad when we’re criticized, when things are not going well, or when we hear bad news. On the other hand, we feel so happy when we are praised, things are going well, or we hear good news. However, nothing lasts. Life goes up and down.
How to Eliminate Confusion
If we could get rid of this confusion, we could stop producing the causes that perpetuate this terrible cycle. How exactly can we get rid of this rollercoaster of feelings of happiness and unhappiness? How can we eliminate the confusion from each moment of our experience, and have instead a correct understanding?
The key is to deconstruct what we are actually experiencing. As we’ve discussed, when we are feeling depressed, we tend to make a big deal out of it, identify with it, and experience it as this big solid never-changing thing. What can help is if we begin to analyze: What are we actually experiencing in this moment? We can investigate all the causes, as well, if we want to go deeper into what brings about what we experience in each moment. To analyze and deconstruct in this way, we need some tool, some analytical method to help us. This is where the five aggregates are useful. In each moment there is an entire network of many items from each of these aggregates, functioning together to make up this moment. Everything is interdependent and related to everything else.
In this moment we’re not just feeling depressed, are we? After all, we are still seeing a whole sense field of colored shapes and an array of sounds, smells, and at least the taste of the saliva in our mouths. We are also experiencing physical sensations such as the temperature, the clothing on our bodies, and the feel of the chair underneath us. We feel our bodies as well as various forms of physical phenomena that can only be known by the mind, such as the mental sound of a voice complaining in our heads. All of these factors are part of that aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. It’s clearly not just the depression going on.
With each of these various objects, we’re feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness, enjoying or not enjoying things, wanting them to continue or not. These various feelings are also networking together. One may be predominant, but actually there are many different feelings of happiness and unhappiness going on at the same time. We might feel so unhappy about our depressed mood or whatever it might be, that we don’t enjoy seeing anything, listening to music, or even eating. This can certainly happen. However, again, what is the level of unhappiness that we feel with regard to these other objects? Even while depressed, we can enjoy our favorite music a little. All of this is part of that aggregate of feelings, of the different levels of happiness and unhappiness.
In each moment, we are also distinguishing something. We distinguish each of these objects that we do or don’t enjoy. It’s not, though, that our experience is like an abstract painting. We put together the various pieces of sense data into knowable objects and distinguish them from other things and from the background. This is just the basic mechanism here of distinguishing. To give a name to it – to identify it as this or as that – is another mental factor. Sometimes we distinguish correctly and sometimes incorrectly. We have this depressed mood and we put it together incorrectly with some strange, disturbing thoughts; for example, we distinguish our depressed state as a big deal, concrete, horrible and unchanging. This forms the basis of thinking, “I want to die. I can’t handle this anymore.” It can be quite an incorrect distinguishing. All of these examples are part of the aggregate of distinguishing.
Through this process of analyzing and deconstructing each moment of experience into all its component parts, we can observe, over a series of moments, that’s everything is constantly changing. With this level of awareness, we can begin to recognize some of the aspects within our experience that are mistaken. Those mistakes cause problems like when, with incorrect distinguishing, we group certain things together that don’t really go together, and then we feel that it’s the worst thing in the world and that we can’t survive, change or overcome it.
What we’re doing with our analysis of the five aggregates is actually troubleshooting. We are trying to discover the mistaken aspects and components of our experience, so that we can come in like a good repairman to either take out the part that is causing the trouble or replace it with something else. We have to be very careful, though, in this process, not to believe what it feels like. It feels like there is a separate “me,” the repairman coming in, observing, making the repairs, and then sending us a bill afterwards. This is a real fantasy. What are we actually experiencing when this happens? In the West, it is known as alienation. We are alienated from our bodies, our feelings and our mind; in this state of alienation, we try to do something to fix it, as if there is a separate independent “me” coming in to do this. The point is to just eliminate what needs to be taken out and replace what needs to be replaced or add what needs to be added. Just do it. Not as a separate “me” doing it, but just do what needs to be done.
When we drink a glass of water, we don’t think that there is a “me” inside our bodies and there is this hole in my face. We aren’t thinking that now we will lift this object and pour the liquid into this hole, this mouth, in our face. We don’t do that, do we? We just pick up the glass and drink. We’re not self-conscious, thinking of a “me” separate from the whole process.
Similarly, we need to approach the analysis and deconstruction of the moments of our experience by just doing things without any self-consciousness. Don’t make a big deal out of anything. We don’t congratulate ourselves for finding our mouths and not pouring water into our noses, or whatever. We’re not babies anymore; we don’t need to say good job for distinguishing how to drink from a glass by ourselves. The same thing applies to changing our attitudes about what we experience. In terms of correcting the way that we experience things, we just do it as a way of working on ourselves.
One of the most helpful lessons while becoming more familiar with voidness – using a colloquial phrase – is to not make a big deal out of anything. Nothing is a big deal. Nothing is special. It might be a little bit disappointing because we would like things to be very dramatic – in neon lights, and so on – but that’s not the way things really are. It doesn’t mean that life is boring; it just means that things are the way they are. Imagine, for example, we get up in the middle night and we bang our foot in the dark. We experience a physical sensation of pain. So, what else is new? It’s no big deal. Our foot hurts and it will pass. Of course, it’s going to hurt. What do we expect?