The Aggregate of Distinguishing


We’ve been looking at two of the aggregates that make up our experience: we’ve been looking at forms of physical phenomena and, likewise, feelings of some level of happiness. And we’ve seen that each of these aggregates, each of these categories of changing phenomena, is made up of many, many items, and we are experiencing an assortment of them in each moment. They’re all networking together to make up that moment of experience. And none of these aggregates are experienced just by themselves; all of them are going on at the same time – I mean the experience of items from each of them is going on at the same time.

The point of all of this in meditation practice is to be able to recognize in each moment all the different factors from all the different aggregates that are going on. We need to be able to analyze and deconstruct each moment of our experience into all the component parts that are networking together, and then to be aware of the fact that they all are changing continuously and that each component is changing at a different rate, and then there is no solid “me” in this. Remember, what we want to do is to remove the confusion with which we identify with what’s going on and say, “That’s me.” And instead of having each moment of our experience containing, as one of the components, the confusion about “me,” we want to reject that, see that this is based on absolute nonsense, and have each moment of our experience accompanied with one of the factors being correct understanding.

I just mentioned this in brief, without going into detail here. This is where we were heading with this discussion. Right? Because as we are observing all these various aggregate factors, then we reach a point where we have to analyze: is there a “me” separate from all of this that’s watching it, that’s observing it? It might feel as though there is; but, if we actually analyze, where is it? Well, that’s where we’re heading with this topic here.

Awareness of Constant Momentary Change

You were talking about being able to deconstruct our experience; every moment of experience. But you also said that reality is changing moment by moment. So this deconstruction should also be at that same speed?


How do we do that?

How do you do that? Practice. How do you play sixty-fourth notes? Well, only with a lot of practice are you able to play the notes that quickly. It’s the same thing.

Now as to how to observe this change and to stay with it, what we’ll see with the five aggregates is that accompanying each moment of our experience is attention; attention to what’s going on now. So that’s going on in each moment. What's going on in our experience is changing rather rapidly, that’s true. But to have attention accompanying each moment doesn’t necessarily mean that in each moment we (in our minds) are having a computer printout of all the items that are occurring now, and that we’re actually mentally labeling them all; naming them all. We don’t need to do that.

Take the example of our car. If we are quite aware of all the moving parts that make up the engine and the car, then we can be aware that all of them are moving and changing each moment – just the fact that they are changing. We don’t have to be aware that now this gear is at this position, and now that gear is at that position. We don’t have to be aware of the specifics, but just aware of the fact that here is a very complicated machine made up of an enormous amount of parts, and they’re all moving and changing at the same time. Now if something goes wrong with the car – we’re having some trouble with the car – then we would want to analyze in that particular situation what actually is wrong: What’s the faulty part? And the only way that we can identify the faulty part is if we know all the parts that make up the car and how they interact with each other. And then we can identify, “Ah, this one isn’t working.”

A doctor would do the same thing in terms of analyzing all the systems of the body if something is wrong. They know that the body is made up of an unbelievable amount of parts and systems that are changing, far more than a car. And when there’s trouble then, if you know all the systems, you can try to figure out which part of it isn’t working, and realize, of course, it’s affecting other parts of the system.

We need to approach our experience in the same manner as a doctor and be aware that our experience is made up of so many different parts and so many different factors that are changing all the time and interacting with each other. And when we are having some trouble, some difficulties – in a difficult mood or experiencing emotional upset or difficulties – then at that point analyze more specifically what’s going on, and to see where the trouble lies.

It can be very simple: for example, we really are feeling very uncomfortable. But if we really analyze and notice what’s going on: it’s the physical sensation of my clothing on my body; it’s too tight. So then we can buy a larger size. The solution could be a simple one; it could be a more complex and deep one. I just need to have larger size pants.

The Spectrum of Experience

When you were saying that a Buddha is not actually a sentient being (he’s beyond that), does that mean either or both of these two things: He can experience all the spectrum of visual, auditory, olfactory – all the spectrum. And he can also feel all the spectrum between happiness and unhappiness.

Yes. Now the different levels of happiness and unhappiness – we’re talking about samsaric happiness and unhappiness – that a Buddha experiences would be connected to the mental continuum of other people, other beings, not his own continuum. It’s part of somebody else’s mental continuum, not a Buddha’s mental continuum.

You talked about, for example, some range of possibility of experience within the human realm between pleasure and pain and between happiness and unhappiness. Is that range the same one for every single individual human being? Or, among different human beings, that range is changeable?

That range will be slightly different for each person, but it will be limited to some part of the spectrum of pleasure and pain.

Now those of you who might be familiar with my work, I differentiate Dharma-Lite from “The Real Thing” Dharma. Like Coca-Cola Light from “The Real Thing” Coca-Cola. So the Dharma-Lite version of the six realms is that they’re all psychological states that human beings can experience; they’re sort of metaphoric. As long as we identify that as Dharma-Lite and don’t confuse that with The Real Thing Dharma, okay. But that really is not The Real Thing Dharma. There are certainly some humans that experience more intense suffering and unhappiness than others, true. But in Buddhism when we speak about the six realms of being, we’re talking about different rebirth states that we can have and that others are in – so that we will develop compassion for them – which is way beyond the limitations that we can experience with the human limited apparatus.

So it’s important with Real Thing Dharma to think beyond this lifetime, beyond this life form: that my mental continuum is capable of experiencing far greater pain and unhappiness than any human could possibly experience without passing out. And if we take that seriously then we would look to see what are the causes for my experiencing that, and I really don’t want to build up more and more causes for that. And if I do have causes for that already, I want to get rid of them. That’s the point. It doesn’t really matter what the hell-creatures look like and where they live.

So we can experience both pleasure and pain, and both happiness and unhappiness. But happiness and unhappiness are like the two faces of one same coin, because what we experience as happiness can become unhappiness and what we experience as unhappiness can become happiness. Is that correct?

It’s not that our experience of happiness itself is an experience of unhappiness. It could change from moment to moment. So one moment of happiness can be, in the next moment, a moment of unhappiness.

Now we can transform negative circumstances into positive circumstances. Here we’re talking about something else. We sprain our ankle and we experience that with some physical pain and unhappiness. Maybe we’re not going to be able to stop the physical pain, but we can stop the unhappiness with which we experience the pain by looking at it in a different way and saying, “Wow, I’m really fortunate that I didn’t break my leg. I only sprained my ankle. And I’m happy about that.”

Now we have to differentiate upsetting feelings from non-upsetting feelings. If that feeling of happiness or unhappiness is accompanied by confusion, we exaggerate it; we make it into a big thing, a big deal. Then we get craving together with that: craving to: “I’ve got to get rid of this pain. It’s the most horrible thing in the world.” or “I’ve got to hold on to this pleasure. It’s the most marvelous, wonderful thing in the world.” And that’s upsetting. But we can also experience happiness and unhappiness in a non-upsetting way, without the confusion. In other words, we view these various things that we experience just as “Well, it’s just a feeling of happiness or unhappiness. No big deal.” So that’s not upsetting. Of course we would prefer not to feel the unhappiness, I would prefer not to feel it, but it’s not that I’m craving: “I’ve got to get rid of it.”

Feelings go up and down; that’s the nature of samsara. The thing is not to make a big deal out of them. If we have to go to work every morning, then sometimes we experience having to go to work with happiness, sometimes with unhappiness. So what? We go to work anyway. We don’t make a big deal out of feeling unhappy about having to go to work. We just go. Don’t let it upset you. “I’m not happy about going to work… So what else is new?” That’s really the way to do it: don’t make a big deal out of anything.

Pleasure and Pain, and Happiness and Unhappiness

It's important to remember to be precise with our terminology. Pleasure and pain are physical sensations; they're in the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. When we’re talking about feeling happiness and unhappiness, it is either a mental state that accompanies the experience of some sensory object – not only physical sensations, but also seeing, hearing, smelling or tasting something – or it is a mental state that accompanies the experience of some mental act, like thinking about something or remembering something.

We can experience physical pain with happiness or unhappiness. We can get some sort of physical treatment from a chiropractor or something like that; or some massage. And the general principal is: if it doesn’t hurt, it’s not doing anything; it’s not helping. So if it’s hurting, getting that massage, then we feel happy about that because: “Ahh, it’s actually going to get that tight muscle loose.” So we’re talking about this dimension of happy and unhappy that would accompany the physical sensation or the mental state. That’s what we mean by physical happiness and mental happiness, physical unhappiness and mental unhappiness. Okay. Is that clear? All right.

The Aggregate of Distinguishing

The third aggregate is the aggregate of distinguishing. We are, in each moment, distinguishing a characteristic feature of some object, either a form of physical phenomenon or some mental object. We’re distinguishing characteristic features that make something a validly knowable object as distinct from other things in our sense field.

What does this mean? We are looking at the room here, so we have a whole collection of colored shapes. That’s actually what we are seeing. If we took a picture and put it on the computer screen, it would be a collection of pixels of colors. Now we’re not just seeing colored shapes: we put together, in our experience, a set of colored shapes into some sort of validly knowable object. It’s very interesting how we do that.

We’re looking around the room here at all these colored shapes, and how is it that I’m able to put some of those colored shapes together into the object of a face of a human being? And I’m not connecting those colored shapes with the colored shapes of the wall next to it and trying to make that into some sort of object? It’s very interesting, because there are no solid lines around these colored shapes, are there, that put a certain group of them into one object and another group of them into another object. It’s really quite fascinating how it works. If we don’t distinguish some sort of characteristic features in the sense field that will enable us to distinguish one knowable object from another knowable object, then it’s hopeless: we can’t take in all that information and understand at all what we’re experiencing in the sense field, can we? Otherwise it’s just an incomprehensible collection of colored shapes, like an abstract painting. Amazing isn’t it?

This is working in every moment. This mental factor of distinguishing is part of every single moment. It’s how we put colored shapes together into objects. We don’t need to have seen the object before. We don’t have to know what the object is. We don’t have to know the name or the word for that object. But we see something new that we’ve never seen before and we can distinguish it from the wall. I can distinguish it from the table. There’s something on the table; I haven’t the slightest idea what it is, but there’s something there.

Therefore when this aggregate is translated as the “aggregate of recognition,” that is misleading. We’re not recognizing something. To recognize something means that we have experienced it before: we compare what we’re experiencing now with our previous experiences, and then we recognize it. Re-cognize it. Cognize it again. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about something far more basic; far more fundamental. Babies can do this as well. They can distinguish hot from cold, light from dark. We don’t have to have a name for it. They certainly don’t have a name for it. They’re distinguishing something from other things within a sense field. We don’t even have to distinguish it as an object. We can just distinguish this color from that color. It is the awareness of a characteristic feature of something. Now of course we can get into a whole philosophical discussion of where are those characteristic features. But we don’t need to go there. That’s going much deeper.

The same thing is when we think. When we think something, again we have to be able to distinguish the characteristic features of the thing we’re thinking about; otherwise, how can we think about it? We distinguish it from everything else that I could think about, don’t we? And this happens with all the sense fields as well. We hear the sounds of the traffic and the sounds of a bird. We don’t put that together into one object that is making the sound of both the traffic and the bird at the same time. We distinguish one from the other, don’t we?

And also what we are experiencing is over many moments, and so we need to distinguish – now here’s an interesting thing – distinguish words. If we listen to a language and we can’t even distinguish words within those sounds, it’s just a whole string of sounds. But if we know the language, or at least a little bit of the language, we can start to distinguish words in that language, even though we might not even know what the word means. It’s going on all the time, isn’t it? It’s not recognition. We’re not recognizing it. We’re not comparing it to something in the past. But we are able to distinguish units; knowable objects. Very, very interesting. Very interesting.

Listen to somebody speaking Chinese. And there are tones in Chinese. And the Western ear can’t even distinguish one tone from another, whereas a Chinese person hearing it hears two totally different tones; totally different words. Okay? I’ll give you an example of that, just for fun: Ma Mama ma ma ma, ma ma Ma Mama ma? It’s a Chinese sentence. Did Mrs. Ma yell at the horse, or did the horse yell at Mrs. Ma? Ma Mama ma ma ma, ma ma Ma Mama ma? So we can’t even distinguish the words there.

Distinguishing is again an aggregate, and we are distinguishing many things at the same time because we are experiencing different sense fields at the same time. So let us look around the room – and just focus here on the visual sense field – and try to notice how we are distinguishing various objects out of the colored shapes that we are seeing. Very amusing – if you wear glasses and you take your glasses off, then it really is looking at an abstract painting. We can’t distinguish any of the objects. But put the glasses back on and now we can. So let us try to notice this aggregate of distinguishing. And notice that this does not involve giving names to things or knowing what something is. We distinguish one object from another object, and one object from the background. Okay?


Different Levels of Distinguishing

That’s a little bit of an idea of what distinguishing means. Our capacity to distinguish things can be different among different people in different situations. For instance, we can be given a certain amount of data, let’s say, about somebody’s behavior that we have been experiencing, but we may or may not be able to distinguish a certain characteristic feature of that behavior which would enable us to then see it as some knowable object – say a depression or paranoia or whatever – and that would enable us to figure out how to treat the person. We need to be able to distinguish some characteristic feature, put it together into a knowable object.

We distinguish that something is wrong with our friend. What are we doing? We’re distinguishing some sort of characteristic feature of their behavior, and how they look, and how they sound, and so on. We might not know what’s wrong, but we can distinguish – we’re putting something together and distinguishing: “Hey, there’s something going on here.” We’re able to distinguish a validly knowable object. And sometimes we can distinguish incorrectly; there’s nothing wrong with putting things together that don’t go together.

See how we can have incorrect distinguishing? Somebody puts together and distinguishes what they think is a characteristic feature of different parts of our behavior that don’t go together at all. Someone does that with paranoia and then thinks that: “Ah, there’s something going on here. The person doesn’t like me. The person’s against me.” There’s a difference here: If we distinguish something’s wrong, and there is something wrong but we just identify it incorrectly. Or we distinguish that there’s something wrong when there isn’t anything wrong at all. Those are two different possibilities.

So this is distinguishing, and it’s part of every moment of our experience. Otherwise our experience is just too abstract. Let’s take another moment to digest that.


We human beings live within the boundaries of a certain part of the spectrum between pleasure and pain and between happiness and unhappiness. In other realms of existence that is a different range. And it seems to me that we, as human beings, have the possibility of looking for some balance. I mean of working with purpose and trying to achieve some balance between happiness and unhappiness, while in other, miserable realms that seems like it’s not possible. So the question is: How is it that in the human realm we, as humans, are able to generate the motivation and generate the wish for either having a better rebirth or to leave samsara altogether? Given the fact that we have this third aggregate of distinguishing, how does that happen – that we can generate the wish or the aim of leaving this realm of existence altogether?

The reason why as human beings we are in a better position than any other life form for developing the wish to get out of our suffering, to gain liberation, and so on, is because of another mental factor here, which is in another one of the aggregates. Which is – in very simple language – intelligence. More technically, it’s discriminating awareness.

We are capable, as human beings, to discriminate what is beneficial and what is harmful, and not just in a very immediate sense. I mean, an animal can tell that it’s going to be harmful to walk into the fire. Not all animals can do that. A moth doesn’t know that; it can’t distinguish it. The moth flies into the fire. Some animals have a little bit of ability to do that, but certainly not as much as a human being. And we can discriminate – that’s intelligence; it’s not the same as distinguishing – we can discriminate between what is going to be beneficial and harmful on the long term.

So it’s because of that intelligence, human intelligence – His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes: What is our greatest gift as human beings? It’s intelligence. We need to use that. It is really amusing and very, very interesting, this whole factor of discriminating awareness – to be able to distinguish between not only what’s beneficial and what’s harmful, but what’s correct and incorrect. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asking these brain scientists, neurologists: What’s the difference, purely from a physiological or chemical point of view or electric point of view, of thinking “one plus one is two” and “one plus one is three?” And there’s absolutely no difference whatsoever in thinking those two thoughts. This is an indication that there’s something more than just a physical process – that’s what we call mind – that is able to have discriminating awareness between what’s correct and what’s incorrect. “One plus one is two” is correct. “One plus one is three” is incorrect. You cannot tell that just on the basis of an encephalogram or a CAT scan.