The Aggregate of Feelings

The Meaning of Feelings in the Context of the Five Aggregates

The second aggregate is the aggregate of feelings. In this context, it means feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness. This aggregate is not referring to emotional feelings; instead, it deals with the single dimension of happiness or unhappiness – across a spectrum – from the greatest degree of unhappiness to the greatest degree of happiness. It is a mental factor that accompanies both sensory cognition – feeling happy or unhappy while seeing or hearing something – and mental cognition – feeling happy or sad while thinking about or remembering something. 

Understanding this dimension of happiness or unhappiness is helpful in gaining an initial appreciation of the different types of life forms that are discussed in Buddhism. The six realms and the types of limited sentient beings found in them are a particularly difficult point to understand in Buddhism. Let’s digress briefly to shed some light on this subject.

Feelings in Relation to the Six Realms of Limited Beings

In Buddhism, we speak about limited beings or sentient beings. A sentient being is, literally, someone with a mind that is limited by obscurations and is therefore not omniscient and all-loving. Also implied is someone with a limited body, unable to manifest simultaneously in countless forms to help all others. A Buddha, then, is not a sentient being; therefore, the term “limited being” seems more applicable. “Limited” doesn’t mean physically or mentally disabled in the ordinary sense of the term, but just that the body and mind are limited in their abilities to help all beings. 

There are many different limited life forms through which we can experience the results or ripening of our karmic potentials. We can be reborn in any of these different life forms. Any mental continuum, ours or anybody else’s, is not limited to one life form; it can manifest in any life form in any lifetime.

The aggregate of feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness is actually how we experience the ripening of our karmic potentials. When we see, hear, taste and feel things, how do we experience them? Do we experience them with some happiness or some unhappiness? For instance, we could have a group of people served a very spicy chili; some eat it with pleasure, while others eat it with displeasure. How we experience something is not really dependent on the object itself. It’s actually dependent on the ripening of our karmic potentials.

The ripening of karmic potential can also manifest in the type of body and mind with which we are born. In terms of levels of happiness and unhappiness, these various types of bodies and minds can experience different portions of a large spectrum of what’s visible, audible, felt, etc. The human eye can only experience or sense certain levels of intensity of light, for example. As we get older, this ability becomes more limited. For instance, we can’t see in the dark. There are eyes of certain animals that can see very well in the dark and even see infrared or ultraviolet along the light spectrum. This capability differs depending on the cognitive organs of diverse life forms, such as the eyes of an insect versus the eyes of an animal or a human.

In terms of sounds, we can only hear certain frequencies with human ears; however, dogs can hear sounds of much higher pitch. A dog nose can smell the scent of somebody who has passed by on a road a long time ago, whereas human noses certainly cannot. 

This is something that we can accept, isn’t it? We need a moment to think about this and confirm if it is actually true. Just because human sensory apparatus cannot detect all sense data doesn’t mean that this information cannot be sensed. Transpose this same basic principle to the spectrum of feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness. This is best understood with the example of physical pleasure and pain. Actually, pleasure and pain are physical sensations and so are included in the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. The feeling of happiness and unhappiness with which we experience pleasure and pain is a mental factor. However, since we normally feel unhappy when we experience pain and want it to end, and happy when we experience pleasure and want it to continue, we can use this point to investigate the limited hardware of our bodies.

With the sensory apparatus of a human body, there is a certain threshold, and when our experience goes beyond that threshold we automatically shut off. In other words, when pain and accompanying unhappiness become so intense and reach a certain threshold, we fall unconscious. The body can’t tolerate any more; it basically shuts down. The same thing occurs with pleasure and the accompanying happiness with which we experience it. For instance, with the pleasure of approaching an orgasm, the more intense the sensation becomes, the more rapidly we want to experience it, which actually destroys it and shuts it off. The same occurs with an itch. An itch is actually very intense pleasure, not pain; nonetheless, it is so intense that we have to scratch it to destroy it.

The next time you experience an itch, try to observe it. Is it pleasurable? This method might sound a bit perverse but try to view the itch as pleasure and experience it as such. In fact, the only way to deal with a chronic itch is to accept and enjoy the pleasure of the itch and not scratch it. Notice how we compulsively want to destroy that pleasure. Instead, sit back and try to enjoy it. It’s a very interesting exercise. With a chronic rash, or a mosquito bite, it really is the only way to handle it without damaging the skin by scratching too much. 

The sensory apparatus of our human bodies, then, is limited in how much on the spectrum we can experience pleasure or pain. Likewise, it is limited with respect to how much of the spectrum of happiness and unhappiness it can experience. If it is the case that bodies and minds of other types of life forms can experience things in the visual or audio dimension beyond the thresholds that human apparatus can, why can’t this also be the case in terms of the spectrum of pleasure and pain and happiness and unhappiness? Doesn’t it seem reasonable that there could be life forms that can experience different tolerance levels than humans can on that spectrum of pleasure and pain and happiness and unhappiness?

Thinking in this way makes it a bit more acceptable to consider that there can be more unfortunate life forms than human, for instance the so-called “hell-beings.” The word in Sanskrit and Tibetan for these beings literally means, “trapped beings in the joyless realms.” This translation is a more accurate depiction of these unfortunate beings, as they can experience far more pain and unhappiness than humans. The clutching ghosts – called in Chinese “hungry ghosts,” referring to the spirits of dead ancestors who are not given food offerings – also experience far more unhappiness than humans. The celestial beings, the so-called gods, can experience way further on the other extreme of this spectrum, in terms of more intense happiness and they can do so without destroying it. On the other hand, human beings block out any experience of intense pleasure and happiness or intense pain and unhappiness that fall beyond our scope of tolerance.

As we can see, this way of thinking enables us to eventually accept these other types of life forms. Depending on what karmic potentials that we’ve built up that is activated at the time of our deaths, we will be reborn in a life form with physical and mental apparatus that will be able to experience just a certain portion of that spectrum of happiness and unhappiness. These trapped beings in the joyless realms can experience really intense pain and unhappiness; however, as the meter-dial approaches a bit more toward the side of pleasure and happiness, they automatically cut off. They can’t experience this level, which is why they exist in what are called “joyless realms.” On the other side, celestial beings are able to experience far more pleasure and happiness, but as the meter dial approaches a bit more toward the side of displeasure and unhappiness, they shut off and can’t experience it. This makes sense, doesn’t it? Why not? There is no logical argument against this.

We don’t have to worry about what the bodies actually look like in these realms, or where these beings exist. That’s really not the point. The question is whether or not a mental continuum, particularly our own mental continuum, can experience the entire spectrum of pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness. That’s the issue. Can we experience the entire spectrum, depending on what type of body we are born with? I have found this the most convincing argument, and an effective way for a Westerner to approach these other types of life forms in the six realms. Otherwise, it may be too unfamiliar for us to work with.

The Aggregate of Feelings Is How We Experience the Ripening of Karmic Potential 

This aggregate of feelings is the way in which we experience the ripening of our karmic potential. It’s how we experience objects and things, either physical or mental. Happiness is that feeling which, when we experience it, we would like not to be parted from it. Unhappiness is that feeling which, when we experience it, we would like to be parted from it. We experience some level of happiness or unhappiness in each moment, somewhere along the spectrum of what our physical form is capable of experiencing. That level ripens from our karmic potentials.

The intensity of happiness or unhappiness doesn’t have to be terribly dramatic. Often, when we think of wanting to be happy, we tend to imagine that it has to be super intense and wonderful. We imagine it’s like in some Hollywood movie. We’re dancing down the street, singing and everything is just so fantastic. However, in fact, happiness can be much more subtle than this, and it usually is.

It’s very interesting when we start to analyze and try to recognize the level of happiness that we’re experiencing in any particular moment. We might say that we don’t feel anything, but that’s not really possible. We could experience something exactly in the middle between happiness and unhappiness and that would be a neutral feeling; however, that’s really quite rare. If it’s a millimeter to one side or the other, it’s already in the zone of happiness or unhappiness. When Buddhism speaks of neutral feelings – feelings that are neither happy nor unhappy – it is referring to what is experienced in an extremely deep meditative absorption in which all feelings are temporarily blocked.

Recognizing the Level of Happiness or Unhappiness We Are Experiencing

How do we recognize the level of happiness we are experiencing when we see something? We need to connect this with the previous aggregate, forms of physical phenomena. For instance, we see a visual sight, the various colored shapes of commonsense objects, and if we continue to look at them, this indicates that we are experiencing them with happiness. Remember, happiness is the feeling that when we experience it we don’t wish to be parted from it. If we look away, close our eyes or look for something else, then we experience that sight with unhappiness; we want to be parted from it. In other words, if we enjoy seeing something, we continue looking at it. If we no longer enjoy seeing it or we don’t enjoy seeing it at all, we look away. That level of enjoying or not enjoying – in other words, that level of happiness or unhappiness while seeing a sight – that’s the aggregate of feelings.

Take a few minutes to actually try to recognize the experiencing of a level of happiness or unhappiness that happens when we see various visual objects. Looking around, we see visual sights of certain objects and if we enjoy them, we like them, and we continue looking at them. Our eyes stay there. With other objects, immediately our eyes move on; we don’t enjoy seeing these objects. They don’t give us pleasure. It isn’t that they make us feel horrible. It doesn’t have to be so dramatic. This is why sometimes when we discuss suffering or not suffering, it’s spoken in terms of things being satisfactory or unsatisfactory and whether we’re content or discontent. It’s the same dimension regarding happiness or unhappiness. Look around and try this with sights.


Recognizing Our Aggregate of Feelings during Sensory Cognition

We can also notice quite easily how in the beginning we might experience a sight of an object with happiness. We like to look at it; however, we often get tired of it, and then it’s no longer experienced with happiness. At this point, it’s experienced with unhappiness, and we look away toward something else. That is certainly the case with television programs, isn’t it?  

We experience a level of happiness with all the other sense fields as well. With sounds, for example, imagine hearing the sound of a police siren or a fire engine siren. If we had an emergency, we might experience the sound with happiness, but would we like to continue hearing it for the entire afternoon or would we prefer to stop hearing it? It may not be within our power to turn it off like a radio or a television – maybe we could stick our fingers in our ears so that we don’t hear it so loudly – but we certainly would experience it with unhappiness. There are other sounds we’d like to continue hearing, for instance, our favorite music or the sound of a loved one’s voice. With some people, it really is wonderful to listen to their voice; it gives us pleasure. There are other people, though, that we can’t bear to hear.  

Once again, all the various sounds that we hear, we experience with either happiness or unhappiness, depending on whether or not we would like to continue listening to them. We’re either enjoying it or we’re not. This also includes hearing silence. Some people experience silence with great happiness. Other people experience it with great anxiety and displeasure, so much so that they need to have music playing all day long. They even find it unpleasant to walk down the street without headphones in their ears. 

Let’s pause and take a moment to begin to notice the level of happiness that we feel with the various sounds that we’re hearing based on wanting them to continue or stop.  


Experiencing Different Feelings

This discussion about the levels of happiness and unhappiness can become very detailed and multi-layered. When we hear the sound of traffic as well as the sound of birds singing, we might experience the sound of the street traffic with unhappiness, and at the same time, the sound of the birds with happiness. Maybe we’re looking around as well, and we experience seeing one person’s coat with happiness; we find it pretty, for example. We don’t really pay attention to somebody else in our field of vision because it doesn’t give us pleasure; we don’t enjoy seeing this or that person. In fact, we’re having many different feelings of happiness and unhappiness all networked together at the same time.  

We can’t, however, experience both happiness and unhappiness at the same time toward the same object; but we can experience different levels of happiness or unhappiness toward different objects at the same time. Also, we can waver back and forth in our feelings toward one object. One moment, we like it, and in another moment, we don’t. Similarly, one moment we’re happy with it and in another, we’re unhappy with it. Again, the two contradictory feelings do not occur simultaneously. 

More accurately, what we feel is a network putting together many different feelings of happiness and unhappiness with respect to all the different types of sense objects, including all our thoughts, that we have in any moment. That’s why we call it an aggregate of feelings. It’s a network of many feelings with respect to all the different objects that we’re experiencing at the same time in each moment. 

It can be very useful to analyze the network of our feelings, especially when it’s being made into some sort of solid thing, which obviously it isn’t. For example, good restaurants try to ensure that we experience happiness in what we see in the décor and in the presentation of the food, what we hear in the background with some soothing music and what we taste with the food – all occurring at the same time. In fact, however, we could be eating a certain food with tremendous happiness and listening to horrible loud music. Sometimes the unhappiness with the music is so strong that we no longer enjoy the food. It’s a very revealing topic, to analyze in our own experience happiness and unhappiness in this way.