The Aggregate of Forms

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The Aggregates Only Include Nonstatic Phenomena

As mentioned, the five aggregates are a convenient scheme to help us organize and understand our experience. Each aggregate is a collection of various similar factors that make up each moment of our experience, and they include only nonstatic phenomena. 

To illustrate what is meant by a collection, let’s use the example of going food shopping. Every time we go food shopping, we put in our basket some items from each of these five departments of the store: dairy, fruit, vegetables, meat and everything else in the store. Each department has a collection of these items on its shelves and, each time we shop, the items change and so the collections also change. We never, however, put all the items from any of the departments into our basket, only some of them, and each time we choose different items, although we do have our favorites. 

The five aggregates are like these five departments in the food store, but they do not exist anywhere, nor are all the items comprising them happening all at once or all the time. But, in each moment, some item or items from each of the five aggregates is happening in our cognition, and they change all the time. 

Static Categories

The aggregates, however, do not include the static phenomena that also sometimes appear in our cognitions, especially in our conceptual cognitions. The most common static phenomena are categories. 

Let us go back to our example of food shopping. All the items that appear on the shelves of in the dairy department are included in the category “dairy products.” We can put individual dairy products in our basket, but we can’t put the category “dairy products” in our basket, can we? The category is static – there is always a dairy department in a food store with items that fit in the category “dairy products.” That doesn’t change. But the collection of dairy products that fit in this category does change. The nonstatic collection, then, is not the same as the static category and does not include the category. Similarly, the nonstatic aggregate or collection of forms of physical phenomena, for example, is not the same as the static category “forms of physical phenomena” and does not include this category.

Nonstatic Phenomena in Relation to Mental Continuums

So far, we have been describing individual items that we are experiencing that change from moment to moment. These items can be connected to our own mental continuum, somebody else’s mental continuum, or not connected to any mental continuum. The technical term “mental continuum” is used to describe the continuity of some individual person’s mental activity. In this way, our body is connected to our mental continuum; and through the mental continuum, it’s connected to what we conventionally would call “me.” For example, if you hit this body, I feel pain. 

Furthermore, your body is connected to your mental continuum, not mine. If I hit your body, you feel it. I don’t feel anything at all. Nonetheless, I can experience another person’s body. I can see it, touch it, and so on. It is part of my experience; however, it’s not connected to my mental continuum. It’s not the same as seeing my body and touching my own body. Similarly, a table is not part of anybody’s mental continuum. We can hit the table and feel pain in our hand, but the table doesn’t feel any pain. Yet, we can still experience the table: see it and touch it.

Our body, another person’s body and even the table changes from moment to moment – from clean to dirty, for example. These are three different types of things that we can experience, and they all change from moment to moment. Another part of our mental continuum is our anger. However, another person’s anger is part of their mental continuum. We don’t experience another person’s anger; although, we can see the effects of the anger on their behavior. Still, it’s not part of our mental continuum. 

Let’s take a moment to digest everything. This methodology is perhaps helpful to ensure that we understand each point. With it, we have a basis for going on. Otherwise, it’s easy to get lost. 

To recount, we’re examining what makes up our experience and that changes from moment to moment. Consider, for example, sights – the visual information made up of colored shapes. The sight of our own body is connected to our own mental continuum. The sight of your body is connected to your mental continuum. And the sight of a tree is not connected to the tree; it’s not connected to anybody’s mental continuum.

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The Aggregate of Forms of Physical Phenomena

Let’s begin to look specifically at each of these five aggregates. The first one is the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. Included in this aggregate are sight, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations and forms of physical phenomena that can only be known by the mind, such as the sights, sounds, etc. that appear in our dreams and memories.

Take a moment to recognize each of these different forms of physical phenomena. After all, the purpose of learning about these five aggregates is to be able to recognize them within our own experience, moment to moment, and to realize that they’re changing from moment to moment.

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Sights

Let’s start with visual information, sights. Basically, these are patches of colored shapes. When we look around the room, for instance, what are we seeing? We’re seeing patches of different colored shapes, aren’t we? You can’t have a patch of color without that patch having a shape, and you can’t have a patch with a shape without it also having a color. So, there are yellow square shapes and white round shapes, just not as well-defined as in a coloring book.  

Within the framework of the three types of nonstatic phenomena explained, we see colored shapes that are connected to our own mental continuum, namely those of our body. We see the colored shapes connected to other people’s or animal’s mental continuums – those of their bodies; and we see the colored shapes of the objects in the room. These are all changing all the time. When we are doing something, the colored shapes of our hands are continually changing. The same with the colored shapes of someone else’s body as they do something. The colored shapes of objects we see also change, like what we see while we are preparing a meal or typing a message on our computer or phone. Basically, we’re talking about the visual information of everything we see.

Imagine we take a photograph of a supermarket filled with people shopping. Then after a few seconds we take another photograph. If we examine the colored shapes in each photograph, they will be different. The colored shapes of each body will be different as well as the colored shapes of the items they are handling. All of these things change from moment to moment.

Take a few moments to look around and to recognize within your own experience, the sights, these colored shapes that are changing from moment to moment. Some of them are connected to our own mental continuum, some to other people’s mental continuums, and some not connected to anybody’s mental continuum. Like the photograph, what we see in each moment is made up of a combination of these three types of items. Although perhaps it’s unfamiliar to discuss sights in this manner, it is not so difficult to understand if we think in terms of the analogy of taking a series of photographs.

Try to look around and notice that these colored shapes are of these three types and that they are changing all the time. If we move our heads, then it’s quite obvious that they’re changing. Remember the universe doesn’t exist like a still photograph; it’s not that there’s just one snapshot, and that’s it. It’s like a motion picture; it’s changing all the time.  

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Seeing Only Colored Shapes or Also Seeing Commonsense Objects

We could go into a deep analysis about sights. A very stimulating question could be asked: When we see these colored shapes of a red flower, are we just seeing colored shapes or are we seeing the flower? After all, a flower doesn’t only have the visual information of its sight, it also has the olfactory information of its fragrance. Within the Buddhist tenet systems, we have some that say that we are seeing both colored shapes and the actual flowers and others that say that we only see colored shapes and that flowers can only be known conceptually – conceptually synthesized from their sight and their fragrance.

It is very simple to accept that we see colored shapes. It’s not very difficult to understand. However, we can also see that there are much more subtle points associated with this example. Do we actually see commonsense conventional objects or not? We won’t go into a deep discussion, but this is just to introduce the idea that even simple topics can lead to something far more profound.

Sounds

The next form of physical phenomena is sounds. We can hear sounds that are connected to our own mental continuums, like our own voice. Or, we can hear sounds that are connected to somebody else’s mental continuum, like the sound of somebody else speaking or birds singing. We can also hear sounds that are not connected to anyone’s mental continuum, like the sounds of the traffic outside.

Just as the visual sense field is made up of a combination of these three types of phenomena, the audio sense field is as well. Also, we can hear all three at the same time. Try to recognize that we can hear the sound of our own breathing, and the sound of the birds outside singing, and the sound of the traffic going by. Each is changing all the time, and at different rates.

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Unless we are blind from birth, we experience in each moment when we’re awake some sort of form of visual phenomenon. Even in complete darkness, we can see the darkness. Similarly, unless we’re deaf, in each moment when we’re awake we are hearing something. Even in so-called complete silence, we can still hear our heartbeat or our breathing. We’re hearing and seeing something different every moment and we are hearing and seeing at the same time. How much attention we pay to what we are hearing or seeing, that’s something else. Actually, attention is in one of the other aggregates. 

In any case, the sights and sounds are part of what we experience. Try to observe both of them simultaneously to recognize that they are changing moment to moment.

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Smells

Another dimension of form is smells. We can smell a lot of things. We can smell our own bodies connected to our own mental continuums. We can smell another person’s body or the cat or dog, connected to their mental continuums. We can also smell, at the same time, the pollution in the air, or the food that is cooking in the kitchen. What we smell is a combination of many different odors, isn’t it? We can smell other people’s breath, or cigarette smoke. Dogs can differentiate smells much better than humans can, but still we all experience this multitude of smells. 

Shantideva, the great Indian master, in the discussion of attachment makes a big distinction between the smell of perfume and the natural smell of the body. What is it that we are attracted to? Is it the smell of the perfume or the actual smell of the body of the other person when we have attachment to somebody? We say, “Your hair smells so beautifully,” but actually we are smelling the shampoo and not the hair at all. As Shantideva pointed out, if the person didn’t wash for a few months, the natural smell of their body would perhaps not be so attractive.

Try to observe the different smells that we experience. First focus just on the smells, and then add the sights and sounds; because, in fact, sights, sounds and smells make up each moment of our experience, and in each moment, they are changing. 

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Tastes

The next type of form of physical phenomenon is taste. We can taste something that’s connected to our own mental continuum, such as the saliva in our mouths. Can you taste the saliva in your mouth? We’re not aware of it so often, are we? However, it has a taste. It’s part of our experience and is changing all the time. We can also experience a taste that is connected to somebody else’s mental continuum, like the taste of another person’s lips when we kiss. We can also taste what is not connected to anyone’s mental continuum, such as the taste of coffee or a hamburger. The meat of the hamburger is no longer connected to the mental continuum of the cow, although it was. All of these are changing all the time.

Furthermore, we could imagine a situation of experiencing all three types of tastes at the same time: the taste of the saliva in our mouths, the taste of another’s lips while kissing, and the taste of the chewing gum that we’re chewing. This, however, rarely happens. At this moment here in this session, probably we only taste the saliva in our mouths, so let us focus on that. Hopefully, that’s not too unpleasant. Then add to what we are experiencing in each moment sights, sounds and smells, and try to be aware of all of them at once, because in fact we are experiencing all of them at the same time.

Physical Sensations

Now let’s add physical sensations. We experience physical sensations that are connected to our own body, for instance, the physical sensation of our tongues inside our mouths. This can be a strange physical sensation as we first start to focus on it. We have this thing inside our mouths that’s moving all the time, especially when we’re talking. It’s really weird to be aware of this thing in our mouths; nonetheless, it is there and, if we pay attention to it, we can feel it all the time. If, at the same time, we hold another person’s hand, we’re feeling a physical sensation that’s connected to somebody else’s mental continuum. Also, at the same time, we experience the temperature of the room. That is a physical sensation that is not connected to anybody’s mental continuum.

We experience all these things at the same time as we are experiencing sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Try to test this out and experience it. Focus on the physical sensation of our tongues in our mouths, or the seat underneath our behinds on the chair. We can also experience the physical sensation of the temperature of the air and the breeze in the room on our skin, as well as the feel of our clothing on our bodies. It’s interesting. Can you feel the clothing on your body? Also included in physical sensations is the feeling of motion, or the physical sensation of hunger.

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Then, try to experience all five types of sensory information at the same time, because in fact we are experiencing them at the same time: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations. They’re all changing at different rates. Try licking your lips; we can taste our lips and feel the physical sensation at the same time as we are hearing the traffic outside, and seeing all the people in the room, and smelling the air.

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Forms of Physical Phenomena That Can Only Be Known by the Mind

As we can see, we have quite a lot of things happening in our aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. At the same time, we can have forms of physical phenomena that can only be known by the mind. Try picturing an orange in your mind. We could even imagine the taste and smell of an orange, or the taste of a wonderful cup of coffee. We can imagine and experience it – as it’s a form of physical phenomenon – at the same time as we can see the room, hear the traffic, smell the air in the room, feel our tongues in our mouths, and taste our saliva. All of this can go on at the same time; and, in fact, it does. There’s the sound of a voice going on in our heads; that’s also an object of the mind, isn’t it? That’s the most common example of an exclusively mental form. While we are experiencing all the various external senses, we can also have a sound of a voice going on in our heads, commenting, talking or complaining about something, or whatever.

Try to notice these forms of physical phenomena that are known mentally. If it’s difficult to imagine the taste or smell of an orange, at least we can recognize the sound of a voice in our heads. First notice this, and then add it to all the other five forms of physical phenomena.

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We discover that in every moment there is a tremendous amount going on just in this one aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. Because there are these six different types of forms of physical phenomena, and each of them is changing every moment at different rates, we start to realize that our experience is not something concrete and static. It’s made up of lots of different parts that are all constantly changing.

One of the main aims here of understanding the five aggregates is to deconstruct each moment of our experience and move away from this imagined form of experience as concrete and solid, one that is always the same. For example, if we are suffering from a depression, we know how heavy this type of feeling can be. We could, for example, deconstruct it and see how it’s made up of a lot of different parts that are changing all the time.

Questions

Is my memory of my mother related to her mental continuum, even if she’s not alive anymore?

The memory of what our mother looks like after our mother has died, if we are categorizing, is a form that was connected with her mental continuum. We have to be careful here. When we feel the physical sensation of holding another person’s hand, of course we are experiencing some physical sensation. What each of us feels, however, is associated with our own mental continuum; nonetheless, that object that we feel, the physical sensation of the warmth of someone’s hand, is connected with that person’s mental continuum. Both are happening at the same time. It just depends on which point of view we’re looking at it from. Obviously, any cognition we have, no matter what the source, is connected with our own mental continuum.

What if it is just a memory of a touch?

It’s the same, whether it’s the memory of a touch or imagining the touch. We could imagine the touch of something that we’ve never experienced; for example, we see some beautiful person and we imagine what it would be like to touch them.

Would that be connected with my mental continuum?

In a sense, yes, that experience would be connected with our own mental continuum, but the touch of someone else is connected with theirs, but don’t think of it as being concretely connected.

Also, there are several types of forms of physical phenomena that can only be known by the mind. For instance, we can think of the atoms of our own body, the atoms of another person’s body, or the atoms of the wall. These are not things that can be seen by the eyes. Further, we can think of the astronomical distance between the Sun and the Earth. Although we can’t actually see that, we can think of it. It’s a form of physical phenomenon. There are many things in this group.

During the exercises, I found it quite difficult to focus attention on three things at the same time, like sights, sounds and smells. To focus on all of them was impossible. It seems like I have to lose my attention on some objects in order to be able to pay attention to the other objects. Is this normal or should I be able to be aware of all of them at the same time clearly?

It is normal for ordinary human beings like us to not pay equal attention to the information that’s coming in from all the senses. Actually, attention is in another aggregate, the aggregate of other affecting variables. As it has been explained to me, the problem in autism, for example, is the severe inability to censor the amount of attention paid to all of the senses so that all information is equally and strongly coming in. It’s too much to process and so an autistic person shuts down. That’s the extreme of autism; whereas, if we were a Buddha, we would be able to pay equal attention to everything simultaneously without any problem.

Probably it is a source of ignorance that we strongly believe when talking with someone that we’re really in contact with their mental continuum, and that we’re really in contact with their sounds, sensations and odors. How much are we really in contact with what’s happening in their mental continuum, rather than with only what we can see directly?

That’s a very interesting question. It is the same issue as when we are looking at a vase of flowers. Are we seeing only colored forms and shapes, or are we seeing the flowers? Similarly, when we hear the sound of a voice, are we hearing just sounds or are we hearing the person speaking? 

This comes to the issue that we mentioned in terms of incorrect consideration. We think that there is a “me” or a “you” that can be known independently, by itself, as in “I want to know you.” Can “I” know “you” without knowing the sound of your voice or without seeing the sight of your body? Is there a “you” that exists independently of the sound of your voice, the sight of your body, the physical sensation of your touch, and so on that can be known? This is a very important question to explore. It is crucial to understand the relationship between “me” and the aggregates.

Would the mental continuum be classified within one of the five aggregates?

Yes, the mental continuum itself is classified within the five aggregates, in the aggregate of types of consciousness.

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