The Reasons for the Structure of the Five Aggregates

The Role of the Five Aggregates in the Four Noble Truths

The five aggregates are a very important topic 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 true suffering is the five aggregates: Each of our own individual five aggregates is true suffering. The true causes of them are karma and disturbing emotions, and more deeply, ignorance – meaning, unawareness and confusion. 

The aggregates are usually referred to as what is sometimes translated as “contaminated” aggregates. This is a terrible translation since it gives a rather unwholesome connotation to it. The term here, zag-pa, actually connotes that the aggregate factors are caused by confusion or unawareness, and that they continue together with unawareness as a part of them. I prefer to translate this term as “tainted.” They are also characterized by the word nyer-len, which I translate as “obtainer.” They obtain or bring about more suffering, more aggregates, more confusion.

We all have true sufferings and true causes, which are the aggregates and the confusion that causes them. A true stopping would be a true stopping of those aggregates and of the causes that bring them about – the first two noble truths. Then a true path of mind would be one that will both bring that true stopping about and also be the resultant state of mind once we have achieved the true stoppings. 

Aggregate Factors of Our Experience

If there is such a central topic as the five aggregates in the presentation of the four noble truths, we need to know what these five are. What are they referring total? How does the understanding of voidness (emptiness) – the true path – help us to stop them, get rid of them forever? In order to understand the aggregates, first of all, we have to translate them in a more user-friendly manner. The word “aggregates” is jargon, so it doesn’t mean very much to us. They are the aggregate factors of our experience, if we fill it out more. In other words, they’re what make up each moment of our experience. Each moment of our experience is made up of aggregate factors, which means factors that are composites of many different elements, many different components. This is what aggregates are talking about. 

The Buddhist classification of things includes existent things and nonexistent things. Existent things are those phenomena that can be validly cognized, either with bare cognition or inference. Nonexistent phenomena are things that cannot be validly cognized, although we can cognize them in a nonvalid way. Like, for instance, true existence. True existence does not exist at all. But except for non-conceptual cognition of voidness, whatever else we cognize, even validly, appears to be truly existent. That aspect of our cognition that cognizes this false appearance is distorted. It is not valid. That gets into a very complex analysis of 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 are usually called “permanent” and “impermanent” phenomena. These are also misleading terms. A more precise translation is “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: We 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. Here we list them in good Buddhist analytical fashion. Again, this is another topic for another time.

Within these two, static and nonstatic phenomena, 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. They are what are included here in our aggregates. Remember, these are parts of the moment-to-moment experience of each of us. 

These aggregate factors can either be connected to a mental continuum or not connected to a mental continuum. Then, we go into classifications. As we know, Buddhism loves classifications. Tibetans really excelled in filling all of these things out. In terms of nonstatic phenomena that are connected with a mental continuum, there are those that are connected with our own mental continuums 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, the shape and color of their body. That visible form 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 continuums would be the cognitive aspect that arises as a semblance of the person’s form when we see them. This cognitive aspect is sort of like a mental hologram that arises, we would say in the West, “in our minds” when photons from their body strike our retinas and trigger neuroelectric impulses that travel to our brains when we see them. That mental hologram is part of our own mental continuum, as are also the cognitive sensors – namely, the photosensitive cells of the eyes – with which we saw that form and our own body. These sorts of things are connected to our own mental continuums. 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. The problem with them is that our experience of these things arises from confusion about how they exist, contains confusion and perpetuates confusion. 

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 types of consciousness.

The Purpose of Teaching the Five Aggregates

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

  • The confusion of taking all the mental factors as one solid thing. To dispel that confusion, feeling and distinguishing are listed as separate aggregates from the other mental factors, which are all included in the aggregate of other affecting variables. The mental factors are not all put into one aggregate. 
  • The confusion of taking forms of physical phenomena as one solid thing. To dispel that confusion, the aggregate of forms is divided into the sensory cognitive sensors, the sensory objects, the great elements and the subtle, nonrevealing forms of vows.
  • The confusion of taking the mind, or mental activity, as one solid thing. To dispel that confusion, the types of consciousness and the various mental factors are distributed among three separate aggregates. 

Dividing the aggregates in this way is to help us to deconstruct our experience, which is what it is all about, isn’t it? We want to rid ourselves of grasping for all of them to constitute together a solid, static, monolithic “me.” If we understand that all the parts that the “me” is based on are multiple and changing all the time, and changing at different rates, that helps us to dissolve our view of a solid “me” based on them. 

According to Asanga’s Anthology of Topics of Knowledge (Skt. Abhidharmasamuccaya), the five aggregates are discussed because they are the basis of the misunderstanding with which we grasp for a “me” that is a consciousness and the possessor of the other four. To help us to overcome that misunderstanding, there is the discussion of the five aggregates to deconstruct that erroneous view that takes a consciousness to be “me” and everything else to be the possessions of that “me:” my body, my feelings, “me” the possessor of these feelings, “me” who has this body or mind. 

Feeling vs. Distinguishing

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 among lay and ordained people respectively. Feelings of happiness directed at sense objects induces craving for them. We want to possess and not let go of some sense object that seems to make us happy. This causes laypeople to argue about what is mine and what is yours: my wife, my land, my possessions, and so on. Because feeling becomes the basis for such arguments among laypeople, it’s made into a separate aggregate. 

Distinguishing is made into a separate aggregate because it is the topic of argumentation among ordained people debating over philosophical views. Such arguments are based on correct and incorrect distinguishing of what the deepest view is, and that can lead to holding a distorted view. Because distinguishing causes arguments among ordained people, that’s why it is singled out as a separate aggregate. 

A second reason Vasubandhu gives for why feelings and distinguishing are made into their own separate aggregates is because they are the roots of samsara. There are many different roots of samsara in different contexts, but here Vasubandhu specifies that feelings of physical and mental happiness, suffering, and equanimity lead to craving, and craving activates the karmic potentials so that throwing karmic impulses bring about uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara. Because of that, feeling is specified as its own aggregate. Distorted distinguishing leads to distorted views, and those too are a root of samsara. This is why feelings and distinguishing are made into separate aggregates. 

The Order of the Five Aggregates

The usual order of the five aggregates is: the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena, feelings, distinguishing, other affecting variables and types of consciousness. That order is very important in terms of the dissolution process into clear light subtlest mental activity at the time of death. That sequence is explained in anuttarayoga tantra and goes from the grossest to the most subtle aggregate. 

First the aggregate of forms dissolves, and then feelings, then distinguishing, then the other affecting variables – mostly importantly, karmic impulses – and then consciousness itself. We find this in the highest class of tantra. Asanga presents something similar in terms of the dissolution sequence of the elements in association with the dissolution sequence of the aggregates.

According to Vasubandhu, the order 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. Then, the feeling is easiest to understand among the mental factors because we all experience happiness or unhappiness from what we touch, from what we see, from what we eat. Then more subtle is distinguishing. In order to be able to feel some level of happiness or unhappiness, we need distinguish the sight of this person’s face from that one, the physical sensation of hard from soft, the sound of this word from that, and so on. More subtle than that are the other affecting variables. Most important among them is intention – the intention to experience something, to touch something, to eat something. Then, more subtle than that would be the consciousness. 

Vasubandhu also explains that the order of the aggregates is made in accordance with the generation of disturbing emotions. Most people are very physical, so he explains that first we see things, for example, and then feelings arise from seeing something, and that induces desire and attraction. Desire and attraction lead to inverted distinguishing – we distinguish dirty as clean, suffering as happiness, nonstatic as static, and no solid self as a solid self. So, we get a distorted view of ourselves, and that leads to other disturbing emotions and attitudes, and those are the affecting variables. When we have all these disturbing emotions and attitudes, then the consciousness becomes infected by them, and its way of cognizing become distorted. In this way, the order derives from how disturbing emotions are generated. 

That is a bit of what we find in the two major abhidharmas, the ones by Vasubandhu and by Asanga.

Original Audio from the Seminar