The Aggregate of Feelings

The Meaning of Feelings in the Context of the Five Aggregates

The second aggregate is the aggregate of feeling. Here it means specifically feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness. It’s not referring to feelings in the sense of emotions. It’s only dealing with this one dimension here in terms of happiness or unhappiness. And we’re speaking of a spectrum here, all the way from the greatest degree of unhappiness to the greatest degree of happiness. And we are referring here to happiness or unhappiness either on a physical level or a mental level.

Understanding this dimension of happiness or unhappiness actually is very helpful for being able to gain some sort of appreciation of the different types of life forms that are discussed in Buddhism. Since this is a particularly difficult point to understand in Buddhism, the six realms of beings, these types of limited beings or sentient beings that there are, let me digress for a few minutes.

Feelings in Relation to the Six Realms of Limited Beings

In Buddhism we speak about limited beings or sentient beings. A sentient being is someone with a limited mind; a Buddha is not a sentient being. That is why I prefer “limited being” here. Limited doesn’t mean handicapped, you know, or deformed; it just means the mind is limited and also the body is limited. So there are many different limited life forms which can experience ripenings of our karma. Or, to be more precise, different life forms in which or through which we can ourselves experience the results or ripenings of our karma; our previous actions, because we can be reborn in any of these different life forms. Any mental continuum, ourselves or anybody else, is not limited to one life form; it can manifest in any life form in any lifetime.

Now when we talk about the aggregate of feelings – feeling a level of happiness – we are talking about how we actually experience the ripenings of our karma. So when we see things, when we hear things, when we feel physical sensations – how do we experience it? Do we experience it with some happiness or some unhappiness? For instance, we could have a group of people and they’re served some sort of very spicy chili, and some people eat it with pleasure, other people experience and eat it with displeasure. So how we experience it, it’s not really dependent on the object; it’s dependent on the ripening of our karma, actually.

We have different types of apparatus – body and mind – with which we can experience the ripening of karma. And different types of bodies and minds can experience different portions of a large spectrum of what’s visible, what’s audible, etc.; and also what is feelable, in terms of levels of happiness and unhappiness. So our eyes, as humans, can experience or sense only certain levels of intensity of light, for example. As we get older, that field of what we can experience becomes more limited; we can’t see in the dark. There are eyes of certain animals that can see very well in the dark, or seeing infrared or ultraviolet on the light spectrum. Some physical organs would be able to see that, of some certain life forms. I believe insect eyes, although I’m not sure of this, but I believe I’ve heard that insect eyes can sense different parts of the spectrum than animal eyes.

Also in terms of sounds. We can hear only sounds of certain frequencies with human ears, but dogs can hear sounds of much higher pitch. A dog nose can smell the scent of somebody who has passed by on a road long ago, and human noses certainly cannot smell that. Now just because human sense apparatus cannot detect light frequencies or sound frequencies or smells that animal sense organs can, that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to sense these other frequencies. In fact, certain animal sense organs can. Just because we can’t sense it, doesn’t mean that it can’t be sensed. So that’s something that we can accept, isn’t it? We need a moment to think about that and confirm that this is actually true. Just because human apparatus cannot sense some sort of sense data, doesn’t mean that it cannot be sensed.

So now if this is the case with the different types of sense objects, let’s transpose the same principle, the same understanding, to the spectrum of feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness. I think we can understand this best with the example of the physical sensations of pleasure and pain. Please keep in mind that pleasure and pain are physical sensations and so are included in the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. They are not the same as the feelings of happiness and unhappiness with which we experience pleasure and pain. But, since we normally feel unhappy when experiencing pain – we want it to end – and happy with experiencing pleasure – we want it not to stop, I think we can understand the point of our feelings being limited because of the hardware of our bodies by considering our experiences of pleasure and pain.

With human apparatus, the human body, there is a certain threshold, and when our experience gets beyond that threshold we automatically shut off. In other words, when pain, and so unhappiness with it, reaches a certain threshold then we fall unconscious. When it becomes so intense, reaches a certain point, the body automatically shuts off. It can’t experience any more, so we become unconscious. The same thing with pleasure and the happiness with which we experience it. When a pleasure becomes too intense, we automatically destroy it. Like, for instance, the pleasure of approaching an orgasm. The more intense it becomes, the more rapidly we want to experience it; which actually destroys it. The same thing with an itch. If you think of an itch – an itch is actually very intense pleasure. An itch is not pain; an itch is pleasure. But it is so intense that we have to scratch it; destroy it.

So our bodies, our sense apparatus, is limited in terms of how much on the spectrum we can experience of pleasure or pain, or so it is limited with respect to how much of the spectrum of happiness and unhappiness it can experience. Now if it is the case that sensory apparatus and the minds of other types of life forms can experience things in the visual dimension or the audio dimension beyond the thresholds that the human apparatus can – if that’s the case, why can’t that also be the case in terms of the spectrum of pleasure and pain and so also the spectrum of happiness and unhappiness? Doesn’t it seem reasonable that there could be life forms that can experience further on that spectrum of pain and unhappiness than a human can, and further on that spectrum of pleasure and happiness than a human can?

Thinking in this way then that becomes far more acceptable to consider that, yes, there can be these more unfortunate life forms than human. So-called hell-creatures. I like to call them the trapped beings in the joyless realms; that’s literally what the words mean in Sanskrit and Tibetan. So these beings can experience far more pain and unhappiness than humans can. And the clutching ghosts also experience far more unhappiness than we can as humans. And, on the other dimension, the celestial beings, the so-called gods, can experience way further on the other side of that spectrum, in terms of more intense happiness – without destroying it. We destroy it; we block off being able to experience that intense pleasure and happiness and that more intense pain and unhappiness.

That, I think, is the way of thinking that enables us to eventually accept these other types of life forms that we ourselves can be born as. That, depending on what karma that we’ve built up and is activated at the time we die, we will be reborn in a life form with a 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 and the clutching ghosts can experience really intense pain and unhappiness, and as the dial goes up a little bit more toward the side of pleasure and happiness they automatically cut off; they can’t experience that. “The joyless realm” is literally the Sanskrit word. And on the other side, these celestial beings – you know, if we’re born as that, we’ll be able to experience way, way further on the side of pleasure and happiness. And when it approaches a little bit the side of discomfort or displeasure and unhappiness, it shuts off; they don’t experience it. This makes sense, doesn’t it? If you think about it. Why not? There is no logical argument against that.

So let’s think about that. We don’t have to worry about what does the body actually look like in these realms, and where are they. That’s not really the point. The point 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? So think about that. I personally have found this the most convincing argument, and the only real way as a Westerner to approach these other types of life forms; the six realms. Otherwise it’s just too weird for us as Westerners.

Does that start to make sense? I would suggest that the next time you experience an itch, try to observe the itch. It is pleasurable. It is pleasure, so enjoy it. In fact, that’s the only way to deal with a chronic itch – is to recognize that it’s pleasure, and to enjoy the pleasure of the itch. And don’t scratch. We notice how we compulsively want to destroy that pleasure. So sit back and try to enjoy it. It’s a very interesting exercise to do. As I say, if you have a chronic itch problem – a rash, or a mosquito bite, or something like that – it really is the only way to handle it without damaging yourself by scratching so much that you produce wounds. This method might sound a bit perverse, but view the itch as pleasure and experience it as such. Just sit back and enjoy it. But actually it really is the only way to deal with that type of situation. We have many opportunities for doing this type of exercise; because when we sit and do meditation, inevitably we start to itch.

That aggregate of feelings is the way in which we experience the ripening of our karma. 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. And unhappiness is that feeling which, when we experience it, we would like to be parted from it; we would like it to end. And we experience some level of happiness or unhappiness in each moment, somewhere on the spectrum that our physical form is capable of experiencing. Right? And that level is the result of our karma.

Now the intensity of the happiness or unhappiness doesn’t have to be terribly dramatic. Often when we think of “I want to be happy,” we tend to think that it has to be super intense, wonderful, like out of some Hollywood movie – we’re dancing down the street, singing, and everything is just so wonderful. But, in fact, happiness can be much more subtle than that, 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 this particular moment. Because we might say, “Well, I don’t feel anything.” Now that is not really possible. We could experience somewhere exactly, exactly in the middle between happiness and unhappiness – so a neutral feeling – but that’s really quite rare because if it’s a millimeter to one side or the other side it’s already in the zone of happiness or unhappiness.

Recognizing the Level of Happiness or Unhappiness We Are Experiencing

How do we recognize the level of happiness with which we experience a sight when we're seeing something? We need to connect this with the previous aggregate. We see various visual sights, we see various colored shapes, and if we continue to look at them, then that indicates that we are experiencing them with happiness. Happiness is that feeling that when we experience it we don’t wish to be parted from it. And if we look away and look at something else then we experience that sight with unhappiness; we want to be parted from it. If we put it in different words: If we enjoy seeing something, we continue looking at it. If we no longer enjoy it or we don’t enjoy it at all (to see something), we look away. So that level of enjoying or not enjoying, happiness or unhappiness, when experiencing seeing a sight, that’s the aggregate of feelings.

Okay. So let us take a few minutes to actually try to recognize the experiencing of a level of happiness or unhappiness that accompanies our seeing various visual objects as we look around the room. As we look around the room, we see visual sights of certain objects and we enjoy it, we like it, we continue looking at it; our eye stays there. Other things – we see it and immediately our eye moves on; we don’t enjoy seeing it; it doesn’t give us pleasure at all. It isn’t that: “Arrgh, it makes me feel so horrible!” It doesn’t have to be so dramatic. This is why sometimes when we talk about suffering or not suffering, it’s spoken in terms of things are satisfactory or not satisfactory, we’re content or discontent, you have satisfaction or you don’t have satisfaction. It’s the same dimension here: happiness or unhappiness. Okay. So let’s try this with sights.


Recognizing Our Aggregate of Feelings during Sensory Cognition

Were you able to recognize a little bit what we were talking here in terms of a level of happiness or unhappiness? I think that we can also notice quite easily how with one object in the beginning we might experience it with happiness. We like to look at it. But then what happens? We get tired of it, and then it’s no longer experienced with happiness; it’s experienced with unhappiness, and we look away at something else. That is certainly the case with television programs, isn’t it? But also with something like just seeing somebody, as well, isn’t it?

Now we experience a level of happiness with the other sense fields as well. Like with sounds. We’ve just been hearing the sound of sirens – of maybe police or a fire engine, I don’t know what. We’re experiencing it with happiness: we’d like to continue hearing it for the entire afternoon? Or would we prefer that it stop and we 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 would experience it with unhappiness. There are other things that we, when we hear it, we’d like to continue hearing it; for instance, our favorite music, or there’s the sound of somebody’s voice that: “It really is wonderful. I could listen to you speaking all day long. It gives me pleasure.” And there are other people, just the sound of their voice and I go: “Eek! I can’t bear this person’s voice.”

So 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 it; we’re enjoying it or we’re not enjoying it. So let us try to notice the level of happiness that we’re feeling with the various sounds that we’re hearing. That includes hearing silence. Some people experience hearing silence with great happiness. Other people experience hearing silence with great anxiety and displeasure; they have to have music playing all day long; they can’t even walk down the street without an iPod in their ears.


Experiencing Different Feelings

Now it starts to become very interesting, because when we’re hearing the sound of traffic as well as the sound of the birds singing, we might have experienced the sound of the street traffic with unhappiness, but the same time we were experiencing the sound of the birds with happiness. And maybe we were looking as well, and we experience seeing one person with happiness and find it pretty. And somebody else that might also be in the field of vision, we don’t really pay attention to because it doesn’t give us pleasure; we don’t enjoy seeing this person. So we’re having many different feelings of happiness and unhappiness all networked together at the same time. It’s very interesting.

We can’t 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. Right? Toward one object we could waver back and forth. One moment I like it; one moment I don’t like it. One moment I’m happy with it; one moment I’m unhappy with it. But not at the same moment; simultaneous. So in one moment do I actually feel happy or unhappy? Or is it actually a network putting together many, many different feelings of happy and unhappy with respect to all the different types of sense objects, and also what I am thinking as well, all sort of put together? That’s why we call it an aggregate of feelings. It’s a network of many, many feelings with respect to all the different objects that we’re experiencing at the same time, that we have in each moment. We’re experiencing a network of feelings.

It can be very interesting actually, especially when we make that into some sort of solid thing, which obviously it isn’t. That’s why good restaurants try to make it so that you experience happiness in what you’re seeing, and happiness in the music that you’re hearing, and happiness in the taste of the food that you’re tasting – all at the same time. Because, in fact, we could be eating a certain food with tremendous happiness and listening to horrible loud music and be very unhappy with that. And sometimes the unhappiness with that music is so strong that we no longer enjoy the food. So it’s a very interesting topic, to analyze in our own experience happiness and unhappiness.

So this is the aggregate of feelings of a level of happiness. Let’s see what level of happiness we experience with the drinks and sweets of our coffee break.