Why Are the Five Aggregates Important?

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Understanding the Five Aggregates in Order to Understand Our Experience

The first question that might come up when we begin this topic is why would we want to study and learn about the five aggregates – forms of physical phenomena, feelings of some level of happiness, distinguishing, other affecting variables and types of consciousness? After all, Buddhism is full of all sorts of lists. Do we really want to learn yet another list?

However, learning about the five aggregates is not just a matter of memorizing a list and being able to pass some examination. We learn about these five aggregates because they offer a systematic way to understand what we experience in life. Why would we seek to understand our experience? It’s because there is something unsatisfactory about our experience; otherwise, we wouldn’t be looking for a spiritual path, would we? We want to understand what is going on in our lives, as well as in the lives of others. We cannot do this, however, without some sort of system or guideline; it’s very difficult to do it on our own.

Of course, many systems have been developed over the years. We are all familiar with the fact that there are different psychological schemes to understand ourselves. They provide helpful guidelines on how to make the best of a difficult situation we might be experiencing in our lives. They certainly can help us to analyze and overcome some types of problems. I think it’s fair to say that these systems from Western psychologies can help us to cope with life in a healthy way. Nobody can deny this. However, they usually don’t offer the deepest solutions to our problems. Problems still keep on coming back, in one form or another. 

Questioning the Buddhist Teachings

Buddhism, on the other hand, goes a bit more deeply. It isn’t teaching us to make the best of a difficult situation or just to cope with life in a healthy manner. Instead, Buddhism offers a way to get rid of our problems so that they never occur again, ever. 

This is a very big claim, isn’t it? Naturally, we could have our doubts about this claim and suspect that this is just an advertising campaign to try to sell us Buddhism. We might be wondering, is this for real? We are suspicious at first. Buddha himself would be very happy if we were suspicious, because he advised, “Don’t believe me just because of your faith in me; but, test out everything I say yourself as if buying gold.” When we go out to buy gold, we want to check that it isn’t just some shiny surface but is the authentic thing. We need to use a similar process in examining what Buddha taught. In fact, it is important to use this investigative method for anything that we’re taught.

Many of us may feel shy about questioning Buddhism, especially when we first arrive at a Buddhist center. Everybody else seems to be so convinced, and we’re sitting there not really believing in rebirth, nor in a lot of things that are going on. All these rituals they perform there might seem like some form of practicing magic. Are we supposed to follow some Tibetan wizards and witches, or is there something a little bit different here? We are afraid to open our mouths and pose our questions or voice our doubts because everybody else seems to be so certain. We want to be “a good Buddhist.” But, if we just accept everything that we are told without questioning it, Buddha himself wouldn’t be pleased.

Therefore, it’s very good to question. If we have doubts, express them. We can say, “There’s a list of five aggregates; so what?” Or with rebirth, how can we really believe in that? If we actually bring those doubts to consciousness, voice and discuss them, then we can work through these issues. When we question, we’re using our minds. We are trying to figure out something. We can only understand something if we question and examine it.

Doubt is all about questioning whether something is true or not. This is actually a helpful state of mind for reaching a well-thought-out conclusion. However, if what we mean by doubt is thinking that we don’t believe something and therefore, it’s stupid, then we’re not even open to questioning. There is a clear difference between those two states of mind. Let’s try to bring the open questioning attitude to the subject matter and to the rest of the material that we will be introducing during these sessions, and hopefully throughout our spiritual paths.

Buddha said, “Here is a way that I have discovered to help us to overcome our problems so that they’re never going to occur again.” He said, “Try it out, examine it, and 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. He was being very honest, not trying to sell us something by exaggerating how wonderful it is. If we want miracle cures, we’re not going to find them in Buddhism. Perhaps miracles may occur, but even miracles have causes. And what makes us so special that we think a miracle will happen for us?

In order to eliminate our suffering, the way that Buddha explained, it’s necessary to understand what Buddha meant by suffering. We have a lot of different types of suffering. We can talk about medical suffering from sicknesses and other physical causes; we have social, environmental and psychological suffering. What was Buddha actually talking about? 

Again, many systems offer their solutions to one or another of these types of problems. There are theories and methods to improve social, economic, or political situations and so on. However, Buddha was speaking about something much deeper than these examples; he was referring to something that underlies all these different types of sufferings.

The Four Noble Truths

Buddha spoke in terms of the four noble truths. What do we mean by a “noble truth?” This is speaking about a certain group of people, aryas in Sanskrit, usually translated as “noble ones,” which is perhaps a questionable translation. Aryas have seen, non-conceptually, the real situation of life, and these are the four truths or facts that they find to be true, even though ordinary people might not. They understand what suffering really is, its causes, and that it’s possible to stop it forever so that it never recurs. Aryas also have seen and have realized to some extent the state of mind that we need to develop in order to get rid of all suffering, and what that state of mind would be like once suffering is gone. Therefore, we need to look within the context of these four noble truths in order to understand Buddha’s explanations of true suffering and how to get rid of it forever. It is within this context that Buddha taught about the five aggregates.

First Noble Truth: True Suffering

When Buddha spoke about suffering, what did he really mean? First, we have to understand that suffering is experiential. It’s an experience of a feeling that, once experienced, we want to get rid of it. We don’t want to continue experiencing it. Let’s examine this definition. It’s a wide-ranging definition, and it allows for a lot to be included.

People are different; some find certain things okay and others find them not okay. But no matter what, everyone has experienced something in their lives that they consider to be not okay. It’s important to understand that we’re talking about a way of experiencing things that we don’t like. The emphasis is not so much on what we are experiencing; rather, it is the way in which we are experiencing it that is unsatisfactory. It’s not pleasant, so we’d like to get rid of it. 

For example, if we have certain bacteria in our digestive system, is that a problem or not? The bacteria in our stomach may not be so much a problem. Some bacteria actually help us to digest. With these bacteria in our stomach, we feel pretty good; we feel healthy. However, with other circumstances, with differing bacteria or even with the same bacteria, we can feel sick. The problem is how we feel, and not so much the bacteria themselves. In other words, the problem is our experience of the bacteria.

This is what we are talking about when we’re referring to suffering. We are talking about our way of experiencing things, and how they make us feel. Suffering doesn’t make us feel good; it makes us feel rather terrible, and it is a type of feeling that we’d like to stop. This could be a way to describe our experiencing of almost anything we don’t like. This is what we mean then by suffering in general. Take a moment to think about this.

[Pause]

The Suffering of Suffering

More specifically, Buddha spoke about three different types of suffering. Firstly, we have the “suffering of suffering,” or, in other words, the problem of suffering. This is the obvious type of suffering and unhappiness that we’re all familiar with, such as when we are injured, sick or when a loved one leaves us or dies. This includes pain, depression and all these sorts of things. It’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, and not so easy to recognize or accept. It is our experience of ordinary happiness. 

When we read or hear that Buddhism says happiness is actually suffering, that becomes really very difficult to understand. Does that mean that we are supposed to be miserable all the time? Or that there is something wrong with feeling happy, and we should feel guilty if we’re feeling it? Is Buddhism saying that we shouldn’t enjoy anything anymore and all pleasures are sinful? No, Buddhism is not saying this at all. Therefore, we need to examine more closely what Buddha was actually teaching.

The definition of happiness is an experience that, when we experience it, we’d like it to continue and don’t want it to stop. There’s nothing wrong with wanting something to continue if we like it. What’s the problem? The problem is that it doesn’t continue, and in fact, it changes. Whatever pleasure we experience changes and comes to an end, usually before we would like it to. That’s the problem and it produces suffering, doesn’t it? 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. Will there be another little period of happiness? Will we ever be happy about something else or are we going to now be depressed? There’s some insecurity involved with feeling happy.

Yet another point is that 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 again and again. It is not enough to have sex just once. It is not enough to just hear the words “I love you” only once. We always want more and more. It’s never enough. We never have enough love, for instance. Is there anybody who’s had enough love? 

When that happiness that we experience ends, which unfortunately it does, we always suffer from wanting more. However, we can’t always get more, especially not on demand, or exactly when we want it. In these ways, the experience of happiness at the various pleasant things that happen to us in life is also problematic. That’s what is meant when the Buddha referred to the suffering of change.

These two types of suffering – unhappiness and ordinary happiness – are relatively easy to understand. The second is a bit more obscure; however, if we think about it, it makes some sense. Why don’t we take a minute or two to think about all of this and examine for ourselves if this makes sense. When we analyze such things, don’t just think about it on a theoretical or abstract level. Think about it from personal experience.

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All-Pervasive Suffering

With these first two types of suffering, the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change, we’ve covered our usual experience of unhappiness and of ordinary happiness – the type that doesn’t last, is never satisfying and never offers security. The third type of suffering that Buddha explained is known as the “all-pervasive suffering.” This refers to the mechanism whereby we perpetuate these first two types of problematic feelings.

Why are we always continually experiencing the ups and downs of the first two types of suffering? It’s always going up and down, and that recurs again and again. Buddha explained that there is something in our experience, in every moment, that is causing these types of problems to perpetuate. The underlying all-pervasive problem is that we are constantly, every moment, perpetuating the first two types of problems. 

It is exactly at this point that the discussion of the five aggregates is essential. Once again, this is because the five aggregates explain in a systematic way what we are experiencing in every moment. With this systematic method of analyzing and understanding each moment of our experience, we can discover the real troublemaker and what endlessly perpetuates ordinary suffering and unsatisfactory happiness. It is to be found within the five aggregates.

Second Noble Truth: True Cause of Suffering

This brings us to the second noble truth, which is that there is a true cause of our suffering. There’s a true cause for why all these sufferings are repeating over and over again. We can find it within the five aggregates. In other words, we can find it within each moment of our own personal experience. 

What is this troublemaker within each moment of our experience? It is our unawareness of reality. We just don’t know. This is usually translated as “ignorance”; but, at least in English, the word “ignorance” has a condescending 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. Rather, it’s that how things exist and what is reality is not terribly obvious, so 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. That’s just the way things are. There’s this state of affairs. It’s difficult to even recognize that we are unaware of the reality of what’s going on and that we just don’t know. This unawareness and confusion are parts of every single moment of our experience and so found within the scheme of the five aggregates. 

Again, it becomes very interesting, doesn’t it? That means that the cause of our problems isn’t something external, but within our way of experiencing things. Let’s think about this for a moment.

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Third Noble Truth: True Stopping of Suffering

The third noble truth is that it is possible to achieve a true stopping of these problems, which is done by achieving a true stopping of their causes. “To stop something,” here, means to get rid of something so that it never comes back. If we could remove suffering forever, if it were gone forever, that would be a true stopping of it.

When we have a problem in our family, for example, and we sleep, unless we dream about it, the problem seems to stop briefly. While asleep, maybe we aren’t thinking about it but, when we wake up, it’s still there. Like that, the problem of confusion about reality doesn’t go away forever when we go to sleep. We need to actively root it out for it to never recur.  

When we speak about getting rid of something forever, what is it that we are removing it from? We are eliminating it from the five aggregates of our experience. It is important to try to figure out and understand if it’s possible that we could have five aggregates of experience devoid of confusion. Remember, the five aggregates are just an organizational scheme to be able to understand our experience; so, in other words, could we have the experience of things without confusion? Actually, that’s not so easy to really imagine. It requires quite a bit of thought and understanding to become convinced that it is actually possible. 

We can put this question aside until a bit later. The important point here is to recognize that true suffering, its causes and the true stopping of it all occur within the context of the five aggregates. Remember how we started this discussion: we first need to question the value of learning about the five aggregates. 

Fourth Noble Truth: True Pathway of Mind

The fourth noble truth is usually called the “true path,” one that will bring about this true stopping. But we need to be a little bit careful here about our terminology. What does “path” mean? In our ordinary language, a path is something that we walk on to get someplace. It sounds like something external as in a course of study, meditation steps, and so on that we need to follow. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Instead, we’re referring to a state of mind, a “pathway mind” that will act as a path for bringing us to our spiritual goal. The important point is that it is a state of mind. It’s an understanding, and if we develop this understanding, it will bring about a true stopping of confusion and not knowing.

What is this state of mind? It is one that is a clear, correct understanding of reality. The more we become familiar with it, the more we rid ourselves of confusion so that it never occurs again. How does it do this? It does this by countering and thus destroying our incorrect understanding. The correct understanding then comes to be present in every moment of our experience, rather than the confusion. Instead of not knowing what’s going on in life in every moment, we actually know what is going on. 

This is what we are aiming for. Either we know or we don’t know. We can’t have both at the same time. The more we understand reality correctly, the less often we’ll have the confusion. We’re replacing the confusion with its mutually exclusive opposite, knowing correctly; and that’s a state of mind that functions as a pathway. It’s going to eventually lead to replacing that confusion completely so that it never occurs again. 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 of what we’ll have in the end.

This is what we’re talking about in regard to the so-called true path, the true pathway mind. Where does this true pathway of mind occur? It will occur in our five aggregates. Instead of each moment of our experience being made up of confusion and lots of other things, we want it to be made up of things full of understanding instead. Okay? 

Let’s digest this for a moment.

[Pause]

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

When we totally replace our 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 it is explained is that we will no longer have our so-called “ordinary” five aggregates; rather, we will experience things in terms of the five types of deep awareness, the so-called “five Buddha-wisdoms.” In other words, rather than each moment of our experience being made up of this first set, the five aggregates, each moment of our experience will be made up of these five types of deep awareness. 

In a sense, each of these five types of deep awareness is a type of transformation of a corresponding aggregate. These five types of deep awareness 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 a level 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.

We won’t go in any detail now about this topic; however, it’s just to point out that the topic of the five types of deep awareness connects very closely to the topic of the five aggregates. The five aggregates are a way of understanding our so-called “unpurified” experience of things, which refers to our experience of things not yet purified of confusion. The five types of deep awareness are a way of explaining each moment of our experience when it has been purified.

Summary

All our problems and suffering in life can be understood in terms of the five aggregates that make up our experience. Those five aggregates are an analytical organization scheme for understanding what we experience. The true cause of our problems is found within the five aggregates. The more precisely we understand what makes up our experience, the more precisely we’ll be able to identify this troublemaker. Without this understanding, our experience just becomes an undifferentiated blur.

We can’t just stop experiencing things; however, we do want to stop the troublemaker component that’s part of how we experience things. The state of being rid of this troublemaker occurs within the context of the five aggregates. The state of mind that will get rid of the troublemaker is also within the five aggregates. That state of understanding will be there as part of the five aggregates all the time. However, instead of the five aggregates making up our experience, the five types of deep awareness will be there as the more accurate way of understanding and dealing with our lives, free of all suffering.

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