The Reasons for the Structure of the Five Aggregates

The aggregates are a very important point in the Dharma teachings. When we look at the basic structure of what Buddha taught, namely the four noble truths – or the four facts of life, I like to call them sometimes – we find that they play a very prominent role there. The first fact is true suffering or true problems. The example that is given for the true suffering is the five aggregates: each of our own individual five aggregates, that is the true suffering. The true causes of them are karma and disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes; or ignorance, if we go a little bit more deeply: unawareness, or confusion – whatever we want to call it. When we speak about the aggregates, these are what is sometimes translated as the “contaminated” aggregates. This is a terrible translation since it gives a rather unwholesome connotation to it. The word actually means that it is together with confusion: that the aggregate factors are caused by confusion, or unawareness, and they are together with unawareness as part of them. And they also are – the word I sometimes like to translate as “obtaining" – they obtain (they will bring about) more suffering, more aggregates, more confusion.

So we have true sufferings and true causes – the aggregates and the confusion that caused them. And the true stopping would be a true stopping of those aggregates and the causes that bring them about – the first two noble truths – and then a true path of mind that will bring that about and that will be the resultant state once we have achieved the true stoppings.

So if there is such a central thing, we need to know what in the world are these five aggregates. What is it talking about? And how does the understanding of voidness – a true path – help us to stop them, get rid of them? In order to understand the aggregates, first of all we have to translate it in a more user-friendly manner. And “aggregates” is jargon and so it doesn’t mean very much to us. It is the aggregate factors of our experience, if we fill it out more. In other words, it’s talking about what makes up each moment of our experience. It is made up of aggregate factors, which means factors that are composites of many different elements, many different components. This is what it’s talking about.

Now if we look at the general classification of things, as it were, in Buddhism, we talk about existent things and nonexistentthings. Existent things or phenomena are those phenomena that can be validly cognized – in a valid way: either with straightforward perception or inference. And nonexistent phenomena are things that cannot be validly cognized, but you can cognize them. Like, for instance, true existence, an appearance of true existence. Well, you can have a cognition of true existence, but it is not valid. In fact, in all of our moments of cognition we cognize true existence. So that gets into a very complex analysis, actually how it is that we are able to cognize something that doesn’t exist at all. But that’s another topic.

Within things that exist, we speak about what is usually called permanent and impermanent phenomena. These are also misleading terms – what is a more precise translation would be static and nonstatic phenomena. We are not talking about the duration of something, as “permanent” and “impermanent” would imply. But we are talking about whether or not something changes during the period in which it exists. Something that is static doesn’t change; whereas something that is nonstatic does change. Either of them can go on forever, or only for a short time. Actually there are many possibilities: you can have certain things that have a beginning and no end, something that has an end and no beginning, something that has both a beginning and an end, or something that has no beginning and no end – we list them in good Buddhist analytical fashion. Again this is another topic for another time.

Within these two: static and nonstatic, when we talk about the aggregate factors that make up our experience, we are speaking only about the nonstatic phenomena, the things that change from moment to moment. That is what is included here in each of our aggregates. We are talking about parts of our own experience, parts of each individual being’s experience.

Now these aggregate factors can either be connected to a mental continuum or not connected to a mental continuum. We go into classifications. As you know, Buddhism loves classifications. Tibetans actually really excelled in filling all of these things out. In terms of connected with a mental continuum, there are those that are connected with our own mental continuum, and those that are connected with other beings’ mental continuums. For instance, when we see someone, the factors that are connected with someone else’s mental continuum would be their actual form, shape and color. That is not connected to our mental continuum, but it is part of our experience because that’s what we are seeing.

What would be connected to our own mental continuum would be the mental aspect that is a semblance of the person’s form. This is sort of a hologram within our mind, or something like that – the thing on the retina, on the rods and cones. That would be a mental aspect, cognitive aspect. So that is part of our own mental continuum: the cognitive sensor, the light photosensitive cells of the eyes and then the body – these sorts of things are connected to our own mental continuum.

And then there are aggregate factors that are not connected to any mental continuum. Like, for instance, the form of the table when we see the table.

There are all these different types of things that can be part of our moment-to-moment experience. As I said, these things are born from confusion. They contain confusion with them and they are going to perpetuate confusion. That is the problem with them.

The five aggregate factors are:

  • The aggregate of forms of physical phenomena
  • The aggregate of feelings of a level of happiness
  • The aggregate of distinguishing
  • The aggregate of other affecting variables
  • The aggregate of primary consciousness.

Why are the aggregates taught? Vasubandhu explains in his Treasury of Topics of Knowledge (Skt. Abhidharmakosha), they are taught to clear up the three bewilderments:

  • The confusion of taking all the mental factors as one solid thing – to eliminate that confusion, feeling and distinguishing are listed as separate aggregates. They are not all put into one aggregate; you have the feelings and distinguishing as separate aggregates from the other affecting variables.
  • The confusion of taking forms as one solid thing – so the aggregate of forms is divided, and we speak about the sensors and the sensory objects as separate categories within the aggregate of forms.
  • The confusion of taking mind or mental activity as one solid thing – to eliminate this bewilderment we speak about the primary consciousness and the various mental factors – the other affecting variables – as separate aggregates. That is one line which is given, of why they talk about the five aggregates – to show that mind isn’t one solid thing. So it talks about primary consciousness as the aggregate of consciousness and mental factors and other aggregates (like the aggregate of other affecting variables). Mental activity is not one solid thing, then we have primary consciousness in one aggregate and the mental factors in three other aggregates.

It is to help us to deconstruct our experience, which is what it is all about, isn’t it? In terms of grasping for all of this to constitute a solid “me.” So if we see that all the parts that it’s based on are multiple and changing all the time, and changing at different rates, that helps us to break up our view of the solid “me” based on it.

According to Asanga's Anthology of Topics of Knowledge (Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya) the five aggregates are discussed as they are the basis of the misunderstanding and grasping of “me” as consciousness and “me” as the possessor of the other four. So to help us to overcome that, there is the discussion of the five aggregates – to deconstruct that erroneous view that we take consciousness as “me” and everything else is the possessions of that “me”: my body, my feelings, “me” the possessor of these feelings, “me” who has this body or mind.

And then why are feeling and distinguishing made into separate aggregates? According to Vasubandhu, they are made into separate aggregates because they are the basis for controversy for both lay and ordained people. He says that feeling induces craving for sense objects, for sensual objects. You feel happy; you feel pleasure; so you want this sense object that seems to bring that pleasure. It then causes lay people to argue about mine and yours: my wife, my land, my possessions, and so on. And so because feeling becomes the basis for arguments among lay people, it’s made into a separate aggregate. And distinguishing is made into a separate aggregate because it is the topic of arguing for the ordained people – arguing over philosophical views – that is based on correct and incorrect distinguishing of this view and that view, and that leads to distorted views. And so because that type of distinguishing causes arguments among the ordained people, that’s why it’s singled out as a separate aggregate.

A second reason, it says, why they are made separate is because they are the roots of samsara. There are many different roots of samsara in different contexts, but here Vasubandhu says that the different types of feeling of physical and mental happiness, or physical and mental suffering, or pain and indifference – they lead to craving, and craving leads to accumulating karma and acting impulsively, and that leads to uncontrollably recurring problems or samsara. Because of that, feeling is distinguished. It leads to that craving and karma and samsara. The distorted distinguishing leads to distorted views and that is the root of samsara – from the distorted views. This is why they are made into separate ones.

The usual order of the five aggregates is: the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena, then feelings, distinguishing, other affecting variables, and then consciousness. That order of course is very important in terms of the process of coming out of clear light and evolving to grosser and grosser levels, and then dissolving back into the clear light subtlest mental activity. This sequence, going from grossest to the most subtle, is very important.

On the anuttarayoga tantra level, we have first the aggregate of forms dissolves, and then feelings, and then distinguishing, and then the other affecting variables – which is mostly karmic impulses, that’s the most important aspect of that – and then the consciousness itself. We find this in the highest class of tantra, but also here in the sutra level of explanation.

According to Vasubandhu, it goes from the grossest to the subtlest in terms of what is easiest to understand. The form aggregate is the easiest to understand because that is what we see and what we hear. And then the feeling is easiest to comprehend in terms of the mental factors, because we all experience happiness or pain from what we touch, from what we see, from what we eat. And then more subtle is distinguishing. In order to be able to feel something, we need to do distinguish red from blue, and this from that, when we touch something or hear something (distinguishing words). And then more subtle than that are the other affecting variables. That would be the intention, which is significant here: the intention to experience something, the intention to touch something, or the intention to eat something. Then more subtle than that would be the consciousness.

Also Vasubandhu explains that the order of the aggregates is from the generation of disturbing emotions. Most people are very physical and so he explains that first we see things, for example, and then feeling comes from seeing a form. So that induces desire and attraction. Then that desire or attraction leads to incorrect distinguishing, inverted distinguishing, so we distinguish dirty as clean, suffering as happiness, nonstatic as static – this type of reversed distinguishing. Then we get the distorted view of ourself, which then leads to other disturbing emotions – that’s the affecting variables. And when we have all these disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes, then the primary consciousness as well becomes distorted and infected by that. So the order is deriving from the way in which the disturbing emotions are generated. That is a bit of what we find in both of the two major abhidharmas by Vasubandhu and by Asanga.