Why Are the Five Aggregates Important?

Understanding the Five Aggregates So As to Understand Our Experience

The first question that comes up when we study about the five aggregates is: why would we want to study and learn about the five aggregates? Because after all it’s a list; and isn’t Buddhism filled with all sorts of lists? And so do you want to learn yet another list?

But learning about the five aggregates is not a matter of learning a list and then being able to pass an examination of giving back what’s on the list; but we learn about these five aggregates because what they are doing is they’re giving us a systematic way to understand what we experience in life. And why do we want to learn about and understand our experience? Because there is something unsatisfactory about that experience; otherwise we wouldn’t be looking for some spiritual path, would we? So this, after all, is one of our main tasks, isn’t it, is to understand what is going on in our lives; to understand what is going on with others as well. And we could sit down and just try to understand what’s going on; but without some sort of system, some sort of guidelines, it’s very difficult to do.

Now of course there are many systems that have been developed. We all are familiar with the fact that there are a lot of different psychological systems to understand our experience. And they are helpful in trying to help us to understand what is going on and, in most cases, to make the best of it if we have a difficult situation. And they can help us to overcome certain types of problems that we have, that’s for sure. Nobody can deny that. But often they do that with medication. And often we find that, even when it’s general advice that they help us with, they don’t always giving the deepest solution. Problems still keep on coming back, in one form or another. Basically these systems that we learn from Western psychologies help us to cope with life – I think that’s a fair way of expressing it – cope with it in a healthy way.

Questioning the Buddhist Teachings

But Buddhism goes a little bit more deeply than that. Buddhism isn’t teaching us just to make the best of a difficult situation or just to cope with life in a healthy way. But Buddhism instead is offering us a way to get rid of our problems such that they never occur again, ever. So a very big claim, isn’t it. And of course we could have our doubts about that and suspect, “Well, is this just an advertising campaign to try to sell us Buddhism, or is it for real?” And so we’re suspicious at first. Buddha himself would be very happy if we were suspicious because he says, “Don’t believe me just because I said what I say or because of your faith in me, but test it out yourself as if buying gold.” When we go out to buy gold, you want to check is this fake gold that just has some shiny surface or is it the authentic real thing. So we need to use that same method, that same process, in examining what Buddha taught. In fact, it is important to use that method for anything that we’re taught.

Now many of us may feel shy about questioning Buddhism, especially when we start coming to a Buddhist center. Everybody else seems to be so convinced of Buddhism, and I’m sitting here and I can’t really believe in rebirth, and I can’t really believe in a lot of things that are going on. All these rituals – seems like magic, doesn’t it? And so have we come just to follow some Tibetan brucho wizards and witches, or is there something a little bit different here? But we are afraid to open our mouths and say our questions and voice our doubts because everybody else seems to be convinced, so I don’t want to: “I’m not a good Buddhist.” But if we just accept everything that we are told without questioning it, then that would not be very pleasing to Buddha himself.

So it’s very good to question. And if we have doubts and we say, “Well, there’s just a list of five aggregates. So what?” Or rebirth – we’ll talk about that later – how can I really believe in that? If we actually bring those doubts to consciousness, and bring them out, and voice them and discuss them, then we can work through it. Why? Because we are questioning; and when we question, we’re using our minds. We are trying to figure something out. We’re trying to understand something. You can only understand something if you question it and examine it.

Now doubt is indecisive wavering. We’re wavering back and forth: is this true, is this not true? That’s a helpful state of mind. If what we mean by doubt is: “I don’t believe that. That’s stupid!” then we’re not even open to questioning. So we have to make a difference here between those two states of mind. So let’s try to bring that questioning attitude here to the subject matter that we’re studying this weekend, and to the rest of the material that we will be doing this week, and hopefully throughout our spiritual paths.

Buddha said, “Here is a way that I have discovered that will help us to overcome our problems in such a way that they’re never going to recur again.” And he said, “Try it out, examine it, see for yourself whether or not it works.” But he also warned not to expect miracles and that it requires quite a bit of hard work; it’s not so easy. So he was being very honest, not trying to sell us something by exaggerating how wonderful it is. If we want miracle cures, you’re not going to find that in Buddhism, unfortunately. Miracles may occur perhaps, but even miracles have causes. But what makes us so special that we think a miracle’s going to happen to us?

In order to eliminate our suffering, to get rid of it the way that Buddha has explained it, of course it’s necessary to understand what was Buddha talking about when he was talking about suffering. Because we have a lot of different types of suffering, don’t we? We can talk about medical suffering; we can talk about social suffering; we can talk about psychological suffering. There’s a lot of different types of suffering. Suffering from a sickness. What was he talking about? And many systems offer their solutions to one or another of these types of problems: how to improve the social situation, or economic, or political, and so on. But Buddha was speaking about something much deeper than that, something which underlies all these different types of sufferings.

The Four Noble Truths

Buddha spoke in terms of the four noble truths. Well, what do we mean by a noble truth? This is speaking about a certain group of people – it’s usually translated as “nobles,” which is perhaps a questionable translation; but, anyway, they call them “aryas” in Sanskrit – and these are people who have seen non-conceptually the real situation of life. And these are four facts that these aryas have seen are true, even though ordinary people might not see them as true. So they see what really is suffering, and what its causes are, and that it’s possible to stop it forever so that it never recurs. And they saw the state of mind that we need to develop in order to get rid of those sufferings, and what that state of mind would be like once those sufferings are gone. So we need to look within the context of these four noble truths in order to see what was Buddha talking about when he spoke about suffering and getting rid of it forever, because this is the context within which Buddha taught about the five aggregates.

True Sufferings

So when Buddha was speaking about suffering, what did he mean? First of all, we have to understand that when Buddha speaks about suffering he is talking about an experience. So it’s an experience of something that when we experience it we want to get rid of it. We don’t want to continue experiencing it. So we examine that definition. Pretty wide-ranging definition, isn’t it? It allows for almost anything to be included in here, doesn’t it? Because some people find certain things okay; some people find other things not okay – they’re different – and everybody finds something not okay. So we’re talking about a way of experiencing things that we don’t like. I think that this is quite important to understand here. The emphasis is not on so much what we are experiencing; but rather we’re talking about the way in which we are experiencing it is unsatisfactory; it’s not pleasant, so we’d like to get rid of it. Think about that.

If we have certain bacteria in our system, in our stomach – now is that a problem or not? Well, the bacteria in the stomach itself is not so much a problem. The problem is how do we feel. Some bacteria in our stomach actually help us to digest; if we didn’t have them, we couldn’t digest. And so with these bacteria in our stomach, we feel pretty good; we feel healthy. If there are other bacteria in our stomach – in other circumstances, even with the same bacteria – we feel sick. So the problem is not so much the bacteria themselves. The problem is how they make us feel – in other words, our experience of the bacteria.

This is what we are talking about when we’re talking about suffering. We are talking about our way of experiencing things. How it makes us feel. And suffering is when we experience something, it is unpleasant; it doesn’t make us feel good, it makes us feel rather terrible; and it is a type of feeling that we’d like it to stop. So it could be a way of experiencing almost anything, isn’t it? So let’s take a moment to really think about that.


This is what we mean then by suffering in general. But then Buddha spoke about three different types of suffering.

The Suffering of Suffering

First we have the suffering of suffering, or the problem of suffering, if we want to use “problem” as the general word here. And this is the obvious type of suffering, the unhappiness that we’re all familiar with. The pain and unhappiness that we might feel when being sick or when a loved one leaves us or dies – this type of thing: pain, depression: all these sorts of things. And that’s quite obvious that this is something that we would not like to continue when we experience it.

The Suffering of Change

Then the second type of problem or suffering is called the “suffering of change.” This is much more subtle, not so easy to understand or accept – because what is it? It is our experience of happiness. Now that becomes really very difficult to understand or accept when we read or hear that Buddhism says happiness is actually suffering. Does that mean that we are supposed to be miserable all the time? Does that mean that there is something wrong with feeling happy, and so I should feel guilty about it if I am happy? Is Buddhism saying that it’s no good to enjoy anything? I shouldn’t enjoy anything anymore? And all pleasures are sinful? No. Buddhism is not saying that. So we have to look a little bit more closely at what actually was Buddha saying here.

Well, the definition of happiness is: an experience which, when we experience it, we’d like it to continue; we don’t want it to go away. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that – wanting something to continue if we like it. What’s the problem? The problem is that it doesn’t continue; it changes. Whatever pleasure we experience, it changes and comes to an end. And usually it comes to an end before we would like it to come to an end. And so that is a problem. That produces suffering, doesn’t it? And another point is that when it ends, we have no idea of what’s going to come next. There’s no certainty about what will follow: a little period of happiness? We’re going to be happy about something else? Or are we going to be depressed? So there’s some insecurity here with feeling happy.

Also, whatever happiness we ordinarily experience, it’s never enough; we’re never satisfied. It is not enough to have a good meal once in our life. We would like to have it more than once. It is not enough to just have sex once. It is not enough to just hear from somebody that “I love you” once. We always want more and more and more. It’s never enough. We’ve never had enough love. Is there anybody who’s had enough love? So when that happiness that we have ends, which unfortunately it does, then we always have the suffering of wanting more. And we can’t always get more, especially not on demand – when we want it.

So the experience of happiness that we have of the various things that happen to us in life is also problematic. That’s what it means when we speak about – what Buddha spoke about with the suffering of change.

These two types of suffering are fairly easy to understand. The second one was a little bit more obscure; but if we think about it, it makes some sense. But don’t just believe what I say. Why don’t we take a minute or two to think about it and see if it does make sense. And when we think about such things, we don’t just think about it on a theoretical, abstract level; we think about it from our own personal experience.


All-Pervasive Suffering

So we have these first two types of suffering: the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change. That’s our usual experience of unhappiness and our usual experience of happiness (which doesn’t last, and which is never satisfying, and which never give us any security). Now what’s the third type of suffering that Buddha explained? This is known as the all-pervasive problem; the all-pervasive suffering. And this is referring to the mechanism whereby the first two types of problems recur.

Why are we always continually experiencing the ups and downs of the first two types of suffering of unhappiness and happiness? It’s always going up and down, up and down, and it recurs on and on. And Buddha explained that there is something in our experience, in every moment, that is causing these types of problems to perpetuate. That’s the underlying problem, the all-pervasive problem, is that we are constantly, every moment, perpetuating the first two types of problems. And it is exactly here that the discussion of the five aggregates comes in because the five aggregates explain in a systematic way what we are experiencing in every moment. Because if we have a systematic way of analyzing and understanding each moment of our experience, then we can find in it what is the real troublemaker and what is making this ordinary suffering and this ordinary unsatisfactory happiness perpetuate – recur over and over again.

True Causes of Suffering

That brings us to the second noble truth, which is that there is a true cause of our suffering. So there’s a true cause for why all these sufferings are repeating over and over again. And we can find it within the five aggregates; in other words, we can find it within each moment of our own personal experience. And – not to go into great detail now, but I will a little bit later – what is this troublemaker within each moment of our experience? It is our unawareness of reality. We’re just not aware. We just don’t know. That’s usually translated as “ignorance”; but, at least in English, the word “ignorance” has a connotation of looking down at somebody and saying, “You’re stupid.” It is not that we’re stupid; we just don’t know. It’s not that something is wrong with us, in the sense that it’s our fault and therefore we are guilty, but rather how things exist – what reality is – is not terribly obvious, and we just don’t know.

Life is pretty confusing, isn’t it? It’s not so easy to understand what’s going on in our own personal lives, let alone what’s going on in the world. So that’s just the way things are. There’s this state of things. Difficult to understand if we are unaware: we just don’t know. So that unawareness, that confusion, that’s part of every single moment of our experience. That’s within the five aggregates. Again it becomes very interesting, doesn’t it? Because that means that the cause of our problems isn’t something external, but it is within our way of experiencing things. So let’s think about that for a moment.


So the true cause of our suffering and our unsatisfactory happiness, and the recurring of all our problems – with these two recurring all the time – are things that are occurring within our own ways of experiencing things. They are occurring within these five aggregates. And specifically that true cause is the confusion or unawareness that accompanies each moment.

True Stoppings

The third noble truth is that it is possible to achieve a true stopping of these problems, and that is done by achieving a true stopping of its causes. So what does “stopping” mean here? What it means is getting rid of something such that it never comes back again. If we could get rid of that, remove it forever so that it doesn’t come back – not just we go to sleep and maybe it stops for a little while, and then it comes back again in the morning – but it’s gone forever, that would be a true stopping.

When we have a problem in our family and we go to sleep – well, maybe while we are sleeping we’re not thinking about that problem (unless, perhaps, we dream about it); but when we wake up, it’s still there, isn’t it? But when we talk about the problem of confusion about reality – that doesn’t go away, even when we go to sleep. Because if that confusion about reality were gone, then we would understand reality. And we certainly don’t understand reality clearly while we are asleep, do we? A true stopping would be if we could get rid of that confusion forever.

And if we’re talking about removing something, getting rid of something forever, what is it that we are removing it from? We are removing it from our five aggregates, from the five aggregates of our experience. So it is important to try to figure out and understand: could we have five aggregates of experience – in other words, could we have experience of things (the five aggregates after all are just a method to be able to understand it) – that would be without this confusion. And that’s not so easy to really imagine. It requires quite a bit of thought, quite a bit of understanding, in order to become convinced that it actually is possible. But we can put that question till a little bit later (is it possible or not to get rid of this confusion, to have a true stopping of it). The important point here is to recognize that the true stopping is within the context of the five aggregates. After all, our topic is: why do we want to learn about the five aggregates? True suffering is in terms of our five aggregates, the true cause for it is within the five aggregates, and the true stopping of it will occur within the five aggregates.

True Pathway Minds

Now the fourth noble truth is usually called the true path that will bring this about. But we have to be a little bit careful here about our terminology. What does “path” mean? In our ordinary language, a path is something that you walk on to get someplace. So it sounds like something external: a course of study, for example; a program of meditation steps, or something like that, that we need to follow. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a state of mind which will act as a path for bringing us to the spiritual goal. I call it a “pathway mind.” That’s not so easy to say in another language. But the important point is that it is a state of mind. It’s an understanding. And that understanding, if we develop it, will bring about a true stopping of confusion.

What is that state of mind? That state of mind would be a clear, correct understanding of reality. And, if we have that, that will act as a path, the more and more we become familiar with it, to getting rid of that confusion so that it never comes again. How will it do it? It will do it by being in every moment of our experience, rather than the confusion. Instead of in every moment not knowing what’s going on in life, every moment we know what is going on in life. Either we know or we don’t know. We can’t have both at the same time. This is what we are aiming for, is: if we understand reality correctly, the more that we have it, the less often we’ll have the confusion. Right? We’re replacing the confusion with knowing. So that’s a state of mind that is a path: it’s going to lead to eventually replacing that confusion completely so that it is never there again. Then that understanding, that state of mind, is not only the cause to get rid of all the confusion, but it will also be the result which we’ll have in the end as well.

That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about the so-called true path; the true pathway mind. And what is it that this true pathway of mind will occur in? It will occur in our five aggregates. Instead of each moment of our experience being made up of lots and lots of things including confusion, we want it to be made up of lots and lots of things without the confusion and with understanding instead. Okay? So let’s think about that for a moment.

The five aggregates are a system in which we have our suffering. The cause for the problems, for the suffering, is within those five aggregates. The five aggregates are just describing our experience. So it’s within our experience. The stopping of that confusion is going to be within our experience – within the five aggregates. The understanding of how to get rid of that confusion will be within our experience – within our five aggregates. And then that state in which we are free from all this confusion and we just have this understanding, that’s still within our experience – the five aggregates. So let’s digest that for a moment.


The Relation between the Five Aggregates and the Five Types of Deep Awareness

What is very interesting is that when we have totally replaced the confusion with correct understanding and that correct understanding is there in every single moment of our experience, then the nature of the way we experience things is going to be very different. The way that is explained is that no longer will we have our so-called “ordinary” five aggregates, but rather we will experience things in terms of the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes lnga), the so-called five Buddha-wisdoms. In other words, rather than explaining and understanding each moment of our experience in terms of this first set of five groupings, the five aggregates – instead of each moment being made of these five, each moment of our experience will be made up of these five types of deep awareness. And each of these five types of deep awareness are, in a sense, a type of transformation of the corresponding five aggregates. These five are:

  • Mirror-like deep awareness, to take in all information, like an aggregate of forms
  • Equalizing deep awareness, to be aware of the common features of things, like an aggregate of feeling levels of happiness toward everything
  • Individualizing deep awareness, to be aware of the specific distinctions among things, like an aggregate of distinguishing
  • Accomplishing deep awareness, to know what needs to be done, like an aggregate of other affecting variables
  • Sphere of reality or dharmadhatu deep awareness, to know what things are, both conventionally and on the deepest level, like an aggregate of types of consciousness.

I don’t want to go in any detail now about that topic. But I just want to point out that the topic of the five types of deep awareness connects extremely closely to the topic of the five aggregates. The five aggregates are a way of understanding our so-called “unpurified” experience of things; in other words, experience of things which is not yet purified of confusion. And the five types of deep awareness are a way of explaining each moment of our experience when it has been purified.


All our problems and suffering in life can be understood in terms of five aggregates that make up our experience, because those five aggregates are just a way of organizing so that we can understand what we experience. And the causes of our problems are found within those five aggregates. So the more precisely we understand what makes up our experience, the more we’ll be able to identify the troublemaker; otherwise our experience just becomes an undifferentiated blur.

We can’t just stop experiencing things; we want to stop the troublemaker component that’s part of how we experience things. So that state of stopping or being rid of that troublemaker, that’s within the context of the five aggregates. The state of mind which will get rid of that troublemaker, that’s going to also be within the five aggregates. But then that state of understanding will be there as part of the five aggregates all the time. So instead of the five aggregates as a way of understanding our experience, the five types of deep awareness will be a more accurate way of understanding it.