The Aggregate of Distinguishing


Thus far, we have discussed two of the aggregates that make up our experience: forms of physical phenomena and the feelings of some level of happiness. Each of these aggregates of changing phenomena is made up of many items, and we experience an assortment of them networking together to make up each moment of our experience. The aggregates are not experienced just one at a time, but all five simultaneously. 

The relevance of this in meditation practice is to be able to recognize in each moment all the ongoing different factors within the different aggregates. We need to be able to analyze and deconstruct each moment of our experience into all the component parts that are networking together and be aware of the fact that they all are changing continuously, each at a different rate.

There is no solid “me” in any of this. Remember, we want to remove the confusion involved when we misidentify what’s going on and say, “That’s me.” Instead of having this confusion and misunderstanding in each moment of our experience, we want to refute and eliminate it. We want to see that this confusion is based on absolute nonsense, and have, instead, all that is experienced in each moment be accompanied by a correct understanding of the conventional “me.”

This is where we are heading with the study and understanding of the aggregates. As we observe the various aggregate factors, we reach a point when we have to analyze and question if there is a separate “me.” Is there a “me” watching and observing these aggregates, or controlling them, sitting somewhere in our heads? It might feel as though there is; but, if we actually analyze and search, where is this solid “me?” 


Awareness of Constant Momentary Change

You were talking about being able to deconstruct every moment of experience. If reality is changing moment by moment, is this deconstruction at that same speed?


How do we do that?

We do this with practice. How do we play sixty-fourth notes with a musical instrument? It is only with a lot of practice that we are able to play the notes that quickly. 

As to how to observe this change and to stay with it, this introduces the point that accompanying the five aggregates in each moment of our experience is attention to what’s going on now. Our experience is changing rather rapidly, that’s true; however, to have attention accompanying each moment doesn’t mean that in each moment, in our minds, we are having a computer printout of all the items that are occurring now, and that we’re actually mentally labeling and naming them all. We don’t need to do that.

Take the example of our car. We might be quite aware of all the moving parts that make up the engine and the car. We can be aware that they are moving and changing each moment. It is sufficient to just be aware of the fact that they are changing. We don’t have to be aware of each gear being in this or 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 number of parts, and they’re all moving and changing at the same time. If something goes wrong with the car, then we would want to analyze in that particular situation what is wrong and identify the faulty part. The only way to identify the faulty part is to know all the parts that make up the car and how they interact with each other. Then we can identify which one isn’t working correctly. 

If, for example, something was wrong with our body, a doctor would analyze all the systems of the body to find out what’s wrong. They know that the body is made up of an unbelievable number of parts that are changing, far more than a car. When there’s trouble or illness, with knowledge of all the systems, a doctor can detect and analyze which part isn’t functioning and realize how it’s affecting other parts of the whole.

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 factors that are changing all the time and interacting with each other. If we are having some trouble, for example, a difficult mood or experiencing emotional upset or trouble, at that point we analyze more specifically what’s going on, and to see where the trouble lies.

It can be very simple. For example, we are really feeling very uncomfortable. If we analyze and notice what’s going on, it might be the physical sensation of our clothing being too tight. Then, we know that we need to buy larger size clothing. The solution could be a simple one, or it could be more complex and deeper than just needing to have larger sized pants.

The Spectrum of Experience

You mentioned that a Buddha is not a sentient being as he’s beyond that. Can a Buddha experience all the spectrum of visual, auditory, olfactory etc. information and also feel the spectrum between happiness and unhappiness?

Yes. However, the different levels of 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. A Buddha experiences only non-samsaric blissful happiness – the happiness of being free of all obscurations. 

You talked about the range of possibility of experience within the human realm between pleasure and pain and between happiness and unhappiness. Is that range different among different human beings, and is it changeable?

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

If you are familiar with my work, I differentiate Dharma-Lite from “The Real Thing” Dharma in the same way as Coca-Cola-Lite is different from “The Real Thing” Coca-Cola. 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. That’s fine; but that really is not “The Real Thing” Dharma. There certainly are some humans that experience more intense suffering and unhappiness than others. But in Buddhism, when we speak about the six realms of being, we’re talking about different rebirth states beyond the experiential limitations of the human limited apparatus. 

With genuine Dharma it is essential to think beyond this lifetime and beyond this life form. Our mental continuums are capable of experiencing far greater pain and unhappiness than any human could possibly experience without passing out. We need to develop genuine compassion for the limited beings in all of these realms. We take this so seriously that we want to know the causes for experiencing this degree of suffering, and we really don’t want to build up any more causes for it to occur. If we have the causes for that suffering already, we want to get rid of them. That’s the crucial point. It doesn’t really matter what the hell-creatures look like or where they live.

What we experience as happiness can become unhappiness and what we experience as unhappiness can become happiness. Are happiness and unhappiness like the two faces of the same coin?

It’s not that our experience of happiness itself is an experience of unhappiness. It could change from moment to moment. One moment of happiness can be, in the next moment, a moment of unhappiness. That is known as “the suffering of change.”

We can also transform negative circumstances into positive circumstances, but that’s something else. For instance, 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. We can think, for example, that we are really fortunate that we didn’t break a leg and it is only a sprained ankle and be happy about that. 

Furthermore, we have to differentiate upsetting feelings from non-upsetting feelings. If that feeling of happiness or unhappiness is accompanied by confusion, we tend to exaggerate it and make it into a big deal. We add craving to the confusion and exaggerate what we’re feeling: “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.” Clearly, that’s an upsetting feeling. We lose our peace of mind. Nonetheless, we can also experience happiness and unhappiness in a non-upsetting way and without the confusion. In other words, we can view these various things that we experience as just simply a feeling of happiness or unhappiness. It’s no big deal and so it’s not upsetting. Of course, we would prefer not to feel the unhappiness, but it’s not accompanied by the desperate craving 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 – they’re nothing special. For example, if we have to go to work every morning, 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. We don’t let it upset us. “I’m not happy about going to work; what else is new?” That’s really the way to do it – don’t make a big deal out of anything – nothing special.

Pleasure and Pain, and Happiness and Unhappiness

It's important to be precise with our terminology. Pleasure and pain are physical sensations in the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. Feelings of happiness and unhappiness are either a mental state that accompanies a sensory experience – not only physical sensations, but also seeing, hearing, smelling, and 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. For instance, we can get a physical treatment such as a deep-tissue massage where the general principal is, if it doesn’t hurt, it’s not actually helping. If the massage actually hurts certain problem areas, then we feel happy because we know it’s going to loosen that tight muscle and help. We’re talking about this dimension of happy and unhappy that would accompany the physical sensation or the mental state. Hopefully, this clarifies what is meant by physical and mental happiness and unhappiness. Now let’s return to the rest of the aggregates.

The Aggregate of Distinguishing

The third aggregate is that 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 a characteristic feature that make something a validly knowable object as distinct from other things in our sense field.

What does this mean? When looking around a room, we see 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 colored pixels. But we don’t just see colored shapes; we also see commonsense objects. How do we put these colored shapes together so that they form individual commonsense objects in our perception? Let’s examine how we do this.

In looking around the room at all the various colored shapes, how is it that we’re able to put some of those colored shapes together into the object of a face of a human being? How do we manage to avoid connecting those colored shapes with the colored shapes of the wall next to it and try to make that combination into some sort of object? There are no solid lines around these colored shapes that designate 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 make a distinction between one knowable object and another knowable object, then it’s hopeless. Without this, we can’t take in all that information and understand what we’re experiencing in the sense field. Without this ability, it’s just an incomprehensible collection of colored shapes, like an abstract painting. Amazing isn’t it?

This mental factor of distinguishing occurs in every single moment. It’s how we put colored shapes together into objects. We do this by distinguishing a characteristic features, so-called “defining characteristic marks” in them. We don’t even need to have seen the object before. We don’t have to know what the object is, or even know the name or the word for that object. Still, we are able to see something new that we’ve never seen before and distinguish it from the wall and from the table. We can also distinguish that there’s something on the table. We haven’t the slightest idea what it is, but there’s something there.

Therefore, a common translation of this ability, the so-called “aggregate of recognition,” is misleading. 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” means to cognize it again. We’re not talking about this. We’re referring to something far more basic and fundamental; even little babies can do this. They can distinguish hot from cold, light from dark. They certainly don’t have a name for it; nonetheless, 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. Basically, it is the awareness of a characteristic feature of something. There is an entire deeper philosophical discussion concerning the location and manner of existence of those characteristic features; however, we don’t need to delve into this now.

All of this applies to thinking as well. When we think anything at all, we have to be able to distinguish the characteristic feature of the thing we’re thinking about; otherwise, how can we think about it? We distinguish it from everything else that we could think about, don’t we? This process also happens within all the sense fields. We hear the sounds of the traffic and the sounds of a bird. We don’t put them 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.

Another crucial aspect is the need to distinguish words. In any language, if we can’t distinguish words within the sounds being made, it’s just a whole string of sounds. 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 words mean. Distinguishing is going on all the time, isn’t it? It’s not recognition because we’re not comparing something that we are cognizing now to something we knew in the past. 

Basically, we are able to distinguish units and knowable objects. For example, listen to somebody speaking Chinese. There are tones in Chinese that the Western ear can’t even distinguish from one another. A Chinese person effortlessly hears two totally different tones and can distinguish two different words. For example, just for fun, listen to these words: Ma Mama ma ma ma, ma ma Ma Mama ma? It’s actually the Chinese sentence: Did Mrs. Ma yell at the horse, or did the horse yell at Mrs. Ma? We can’t even readily distinguish the different tones, let alone the different words.

We are constantly distinguishing many things within the different sense fields all at the same time. Let’s do an exercise to further clarify this aggregate. Look around the room and just focus right now on the visual sense field. Try to notice how we are distinguishing various objects out of the colored shapes that we are seeing. If wearing glasses, take them off; then it really is like looking at an abstract painting. We can’t distinguish any of the objects. When we put the glasses back on, now we can. Try to notice this aggregate of distinguishing and how it does not involve naming things or knowing what something is. We simply distinguish one object from another object, and one object from the background. This is what distinguishing means.


Different Levels of Distinguishing

Our capacity to distinguish things can also differ with varied people in varied situations. For instance, we can be given a certain amount of data about somebody’s behavior that we have been experiencing; however, we may or may not be able to distinguish a certain characteristic feature of that behavior to enable us to understand it as some knowable object, such as depression, paranoia or whatever. If we could distinguish that accurately, it would enable us to know how to interact with the person. We need to be able to distinguish some characteristic feature and put it together into a knowable object.

We can, for example, distinguish that something is wrong with our friend. When we do this, what are we doing? We’re distinguishing some sort of characteristic feature of their behavior about how they look, how they sound, and so on. We might not know specifically what’s wrong, but we can distinguish by putting some things together and concluding that there’s something going on. We’re able to distinguish a validly knowable object. Sometimes, however, we distinguish incorrectly. We can put things together that don’t go together.

How can we have incorrect distinguishing? For instance, somebody puts together and distinguishes what they think is a shared characteristic feature of different aspects of our behavior, but they don’t actually go together at all. In the case of paranoia, a person might think, “There’s something going on here. The person doesn’t like me. The person’s against me.” There are a few variables here: We could distinguish that something’s wrong, and, in fact, there is something wrong, but we identify it incorrectly. On the other hand, we could distinguish that there’s something wrong and, in fact, there isn’t anything wrong at all. Those are two possibilities of how we distinguish incorrectly.

Distinguishing is a crucial part of every moment of our experience. Without it, our experience is just too abstract. Let’s take another moment to digest this.


Distinguishing Is the Basis for Discriminating Awareness

It seems to me that, as human beings, with this aggregate of distinguishing, we have the possibility of trying to achieve some balance between happiness and unhappiness; while in other miserable realms it’s not possible. How is it that in the human realm, we are able to generate the motivation and the wish for having a better rebirth or to leave samsara altogether? How does this actually happen?

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

We are capable, as human beings, to discriminate between what is beneficial and what is harmful. It doesn’t always have to be just in a very immediate sense as with animals. For instance, most animals can tell that it’s going to be harmful to walk into the fire; however, a moth doesn’t know that; it can’t discriminate it. The moth flies into the fire. Clearly, some animals have a bit of ability to discriminate correctly, but certainly not as much as a human being. We can discriminate – that’s intelligence. 

It’s not, though, the same as distinguishing. First, we need to distinguish different types of behavior, for instance, and only then can we discriminate between which are going to be beneficial and which harmful in a long-term perspective. Distinguishing, then, is the basis for discriminating awareness.

It’s because of that human intelligence, that His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes that this is our greatest gift as human beings. We need to use our intelligence. This whole factor of discriminating awareness is of great interest. How amazing to be able to discriminate between not only what’s beneficial and what’s harmful, but also what’s correct and incorrect. 

His Holiness once asked a group of neuroscientists what the difference is – purely from a physiological, chemical, or electric point of view – between thinking “one plus one is two” and “one plus one is three.” The scientists said there’s absolutely no physical difference whatsoever in thinking those two thoughts. This is an indication that there’s something more than just a physical process. That is what we call “mind” in Buddhism, which is able to have discriminating awareness between what’s correct and what’s incorrect. “One plus one is two” is correct, while “one plus one is three” is incorrect. However, we cannot know that just on the basis of an encephalogram or a CAT scan.