The Five Aggregates
So, now the Mahayana practice of the four close placements of mindfulness. The way that I’ll present this is the way that His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains it, based on various Tibetan commentaries to the Indian Prajnaparamita literature, which is where you find it.
Close placement of mindfulness is initially practiced to correct the four distorted ways of paying attention to the five aggregates – the four incorrect considerations. The five aggregates are a scheme for classifying what makes up each moment of our experience.
- In each moment of our experience there is some form of physical phenomenon: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, or just the body itself. That’s there all the time.
- I’m not doing this in the traditional order, but then there is a type of consciousness, primary consciousness which is just aware of the essential nature of something. For example, that it is a sight, or a sound, or a smell, or a taste, or a physical sensation or a mental object. That’s all that consciousness does; it’s like what channel you’re on. Am I on the seeing channel, on the hearing channel, or on the thinking channel.
- Then, there is distinguishing, which is usually called “recognition,” but it’s not really recognition. Recognition is too much, since it implies having experienced something before and then remembering it. Distinguishing is just that you are able to distinguish some characteristic feature that allows you, within a sense field, to distinguish one object from another object. Otherwise the whole sense field is just colored shapes or pixels. But, according to the Gelug explanation, we’re not just seeing pixels of colors; we’re not just seeing colored shapes. We are also seeing conventional objects. So, how do you distinguish the pixels and colored shapes of this person from the wall and the rug and the cushions? That’s what distinguishing does. You don’t have to know what something is. That is recognizing. This is just to distinguish a specific object within a sense field; it’s very basic.
- Then there is feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness. Having feelings marks the difference between a mind and a computer. A computer doesn’t experience things. Experience means experiencing something with happiness or unhappiness. A computer isn’t unhappy when it makes a mistake. It’s not happy when it makes a correct calculation. The mind is. So, there is a level of happiness there.
- Then, there are all the other affecting variables, including the rest of the mental factors: concentration, attention, and so on, interest plus all the emotions positive and negative. Also included here are nonstatic things that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something – most importantly, the conventional “me.” Every moment is made up of at least some things from each of these five groups. These groups don’t exist somewhere in a box. It’s just a classification system of categories.
There’s a correct way of paying attention to something. The term “paying attention” (yid-la byed-pa) is also the word for “awareness.” How do you pay attention to something?
- There is one variable for paying attention that you have when you learn to concentrate. You can pay attention to something in terms of always bringing your attention back when it wanders or gets dull; you can pay attention where the attention just stays on something with a lot of effort; or attention that you can do effortlessly.
- There’s another type of attention of how you consider something. You can consider it correctly or incorrectly. The Tibetan word literally means “take to mind,” how you take something to mind. So, you can take something that is non-static, changing from moment to moment, and you can take it correctly as non-static, or you can take it incorrectly as static, as if it never changes.
We have these words “permanent” and “impermanent” in Buddhism that you have to understand correctly in context, because that can be very confusing. When we talk about permanent and impermanent in the Gelug sense, they’re not referring to the variable of lasting for a short time or lasting forever. That’s not what they are talking about. They are talking about, regardless of how long something lasts, does it change from moment to moment or does it not change? That’s what the terms are talking about. That’s why I use the words “static” and “nonstatic,” meaning changing or not changing. Things are changing from moment to moment. A mental continuum goes on forever, but it changes from moment to moment so it is impermanent in that sense.
So, you can pay attention to your emotions, let’s say your unhappiness or depression as changing from moment to moment and eventually it’s going to come to an end. That’s a correct way of taking it to mind, the correct way of paying attention to it or considering it. The incorrect way of paying attention or considering it is that your unhappiness is going to last forever and never change. We feel, “Everything is horrible, it’ll never get better; I can’t deal with it.” That’s an incorrect way of considering what we feel.
So, when we talk about the general, initial way of practicing the four close placements of mindfulness, we pay attention to our aggregates with four correct considerations and not with the four incorrect considerations. That means considering:
- The body as unclean rather than clean
- The feelings as suffering rather than happiness
- Consciousness as nonstatic rather than static
- The aggregates as a whole as lacking an impossible self, rather than as having an impossible self.
The advanced practice of the four close placements of mindfulness focus on:
- The body in terms of the four aspects of true suffering
- The feelings in terms of the four aspects of true origins of suffering
- Consciousness in terms of the four aspects of true stoppings
- Discriminating awareness, as representing distinguishing and the other affecting variables, in terms of the four aspects of true pathway minds.
Mindfulness on the Body as Unclean
The general, initial way of practicing the close placement of mindfulness on the body, then, is to focus on the body with correct consideration of it as being impure, unclean, ugly and so on, rather than as clean and beautiful – the body beautiful type of thing. This you have in all the Buddhist classic meditations in order to overcome attachment to your own body initially and then the body of somebody else that you find sexually attractive. There are all sorts of incredible meditations that you can do with that, such as imagining the body as a rotting corpse, imagining the body as being eaten by maggots, imagining the body with leprosy and parts falling off, imagining your skin peeling off or in pieces like a horror movie. There are all sorts of delightful meditations you can do that are very strong and powerful to convince you that this body is not this body-beautiful thing, so clean and wonderful.
So, you focus on the body as being in that nature of being unclean, which is a very interesting thing to do actually. For instance, when you do it with your hand or your foot or something like that, you can actually look at and try to take it to mind as being just a mass of skin and blood and muscles. What is it going to look like when I’m dead and feels like a dead fish, cold, clammy and it’s starting to decompose and smell and so on? What actually is it that I am looking at?
This is obviously conceptual. You take your hand or foot to mind, and distinguish a certain feature about it, like what it’s made of and view it through the concept or category of “unclean.” It’s not pure. It’s not something that is beautiful. I may consider it beautiful, but if I really look at what it is, it’s not very nice. It’s just a hand. It’s just a foot. It’s useful, it functions, but there are a lot of things that are a problem with it. You bang it and it hurts. That’s a real drag, isn’t it? When you bang a stick, it doesn’t hurt, but a hand or a foot does. There are a lot of things that are not very satisfactory about this thing. This meditation is very helpful for overcoming disturbing emotions about your body, especially if you are very attached to your figure, your physique or your face and your make-up, and what you look like and all of that. Anyway, that’s the body as unclean. If you practice this with respect to your own or someone else’s sexual organs and features, it can be very helpful, despite any resistance you might have because of sexual desire.
Mindfulness on the Feelings as Suffering
Regarding the feelings, you distinguish a certain feature of them and take them to mind as being in the nature of suffering. This means they’re unsatisfying. When you’re unhappy, it is unsatisfying; you don’t want it. When you have happiness, it’s not satisfying. You’re never satisfied with it. You always want more and it doesn’t last. These feelings are problematic. It’s not nice when you are unhappy; and even when you’re happy, it’s not nice because it doesn’t last. You never have enough and they’re changing all the time. You can’t count on them, so it’s a problem. It’s suffering and you distinguish and consider them as that. You focus on your feelings of happy and unhappy with that understanding.
Mindfulness on the Mind as Nonstatic
Mind is referring to the six types of primary consciousness. That’s seeing, hearing smelling, tasting, feelings of physical sensations and mental consciousness like thinking, dreaming or imagining. There are lots of different types of mental functioning. All of them are non-static, meaning that they change from moment to moment; they are cognizing different objects all the time.
You can understand this also with regard to the disturbing emotions that accompany consciousness; you understand that that they too come and go; they change from moment to moment. Even when you have anger or attachment or jealousy or naivety or arrogance or any of these, all the egotistical attitudes and so on are changing from moment to moment. They are not states of mind that stand still, static and always the same. You focus on your mind and consciousness as being like that.
Mindfulness of All Phenomena as Lacking an Impossible Self
The fourth general close placement of mindfulness is on phenomena, referring to the various types of mental factors and the five aggregates in general. They lack an impossible soul or “self” of a person, rather than having an impossible soul. An impossible soul means “me” as something separate, solid over here looking at these things. This is a danger in the Mahasi style of vipassana, the observing style – observing your breath, observing your physical sensations and so on. The danger is that you get dissociated; you feel that there is a separate “me” that is watching these things. It becomes dualistic. There is a big danger that the meditation can become like that.
Some of you might have experienced something similar to that if you’ve ever been stoned on marijuana or hashish. It feels as if there is a “me” sitting in the back of your head just watching what is going on and there’s the attitude of “don’t disturb me; don’t bum me out. I’m just sitting here; laying back and watching.” This duality doesn’t correspond to reality.
If you have the feeling of observing – this dissociation syndrome – that’s actually a very difficult psychological disorder. There are some people that get very messed up psychologically because of that experience with drugs. Of course, you could get that from meditation, but it’s stronger with drugs. The advice for that is to realize that there is no such a thing as a “me” that exists separately from what you’re experiencing and then to go through the various refutations that it is impossible that I exist like that. Even though it feels like that, this doesn’t correspond to reality. There’s no “me” sitting in my head watching everything. Where is it? From the point of view of brain science, there is no place in the brain where there is a little “me” sitting and watching everything. So, through understanding, you stop believing in it even though it might feel like that. If you stop believing in it, it takes the strength out of it and eventually it will stop appearing and stop seeming like that.
Advice on Meditation Regarding No Solid, Impossible “Me”
In some styles of meditation focusing on the breath, you are told to make comments. You could be commenting like a radio broadcaster at a sports event: “Now I’m breathing in and now I’m breathing out”; or as a commentator saying, “Now I’m doing well; now I’m doing terribly.” So, then you analyze. Is there a “me” that’s sitting in the back of my head with a microphone recording or commenting on what is going on, or is it simply a thought, a mental cognition, to use a technical word, that has as its object the sound of a word. That’s all that it is, verbal thinking, and there’s no “me” that is actually talking as the author of that voice in our head. That need to sink in. There is nobody talking inside. It’s just a thought that has as its object a mental representation of a sound of a word. That’s all that it is.
Think about that for a moment. Does there have to be somebody that is actually talking in there? It’s not that it’s somebody else that is talking. It’s not as if there’s some demon or Satan inside of me talking. It’s happening within my experience, I am experiencing this, but there’s no little “me” sitting there like a cartoon figure in my head talking.
The problem is not necessarily the mental comments. You can look at the mental comments as simply thoughts, without a separate “me” making them. But also you need to look at them without a sense of a separate “me” that’s looking at them, because then it becomes even more dualistic. So, what needs to accompany the verbal thought is the understanding that this is simply the arising of a mental sound, but there’s no separate “me” that has that understanding. Of course, I have the understanding. It’s not somebody else. But, there’s no separate “me” dissociated from the whole process, watching it in a laboratory with this stuff happening over there. Understanding needs to be part of what is happening with verbal thought.
This is the whole thing with the four noble truths that you need to understand. Who is it that is experiencing suffering? Who is it that is experiencing the cause of suffering, the so-called ignorance or unawareness? Who is that would experience the true stopping and who is it that has the understanding that will bring it about? Is it this “me” that is totally separate from the whole thing and can become liberated and exist in some transcendent realm like some of these Indian systems would say? Is it a “me” that can be known all by itself? Is it a “me” that is somewhere inside, some special thing inside “me”? What is it?
Conventionally it’s me. It’s not somebody else that’s experiencing this. But, it’s not this false, impossible “me” who is experiencing it. So, as part of this understanding, almost as an additional factor to the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, there is the understanding of who it is experiencing them. That’s where the understanding of voidness comes in and that’s a very crucial part of the understanding. It’s not so much that you are focusing on the voidness of the true problems, true causes, and so on. Sure, you need to understand that in the Mahayana presentation, but because these practices are shared in common with Hinayana, the crucial thing is the voidness of “me.” Don’t put the blame for all your problems on somebody else or on external things. For example, thinking, “I got so angry because of what you did.” One way of dealing with it is analyzing who are you and how do you exist. But, the main thing is “me,” I’m the one who got angry. But, who is it that got angry? Who is it that was experiencing anger? I’m the one who doesn’t like it and I want it to be gone.
This whole problem of dissociation is a very good example of what it is that we need to refute, what it is that we need to work on. You might not have gotten false views from learning an Indian non-Buddhist system. You may never have heard of any of these systems, but you can start to appreciate some of the factors that are involved in their assertions from our experiences. This is one of them, this dissociation: the belief that the “me” is not an imputation on the aggregates, but something totally separate from them watching them. This “me” is inside my body as the inhabitant, like some alien creature, inside the brain at the control panel moving the arms and legs and taking in information on the screen that comes in from the eyes and on the loud speakers that come in from the ears and then has a microphone and talks and is the boss. It tries to be in control, but it’s out of control.
That is a fantasy. It might feel like that, but that doesn’t correspond to reality. That’s nonsense. That’s what you have to understand; the total absence of such a thing in reality is what voidness is talking about. That “me” sitting in my head that complains and worries all the time doesn’t correspond to anything real. It’s absent; it was never there. Voidness is an absence and that’s what is absent. There is no such thing and there never was. There is no cartoon figure sitting in my head that is “me” talking. And if you have a separate “me” that you think is going to shut up this other “me” that is talking, then it gets even more messed up as if there’s the “me” that’s the policeman and the “me” that’s the criminal and, like that, you are guilty and you feel bad. I’m the bad one because I’m going “blah blah blah” in my head with all sorts of naughty thoughts and whatever.
Another thing that often happens is when you’re doing meditation, you’re trying to focus on the breath and your attention goes off. You have some thought that’s coming up about lunch or whatever. Then another voice comes in your head, arises in your head, which says, “Stop doing that and get back to meditation.” What is difficult to realize is that both voices – the one talking about lunch and the one saying to stop that – are the same type of phenomenon. They’re both just the arising of the mental sound of words. It’s not that there are two “me’s” that are there.
When you have these two commentaries, one thinking about lunch and the other one saying, “You idiot, stop thinking about lunch and go back to focusing on the breath,” on the one hand you can understand that they are both just mental verbal sounds – a mental representation of a sound – that’s going on, and there’s no sort of separate “me” and certainly no two separate “me’s” saying that, but if you get rid of that, you might wonder what do you have left? What you have left is the conventional “me.” So, what is the conventional “me?”
The Conventional “Me”
The conventional “me” is an imputation, to use the technical jargon, that has as its basis the continuum of an individual network of aggregates. We’re not talking about something imputed by a mental process here. It’s not actively imputed. You can actively impute a category, such as “dog,” with mental labeling on an individual animal or a name or the word “dog” with designation on the category and animal. But the animal still exists and functions without having a name or category actively imputed on it by a conceptual mind. We’re talking about a different type of phenomenon here. We’re talking about something that is a naturally occurring imputation on something else: for example, a whole is an imputation on parts. It’s not that there is no whole if somebody doesn’t actively impute a whole on the parts. But what is a whole?
A whole is a naturally occurring imputed phenomenon on the basis of parts. You can’t have a whole without parts. Right? And you can’t have parts without their being the parts of a whole, even if the whole thing is not present, like just having part of a solution to a problem. You can’t have a word without meaning, otherwise it’s just a sound; but if there is a meaning assigned to a sound, then you have a word. A word is a naturally occurring imputation on the basis of a meaning. Similarly, you have all these changing factors that make up this moment.
These are like parts. You have the body, the physical sensation of breath going on and out the nose, tactile consciousness, a distinguishing of this physical sensation from other physical sensations, like that of the cushion beneath your behind. There is also a level of happiness or unhappiness while experiencing this sensation. There are also other mental factors present, like the mental hold might be very weak and your interest might be zero and so on. There are all these mental factors. “Me” is a naturally occurring imputed phenomenon on the basis of this entire network, in a similar fashion as a whole is a naturally occurring imputed phenomenon on the basis of parts. This conventional “me” is just naturally there. That “me” that is an imputation on these aggregates is not something separate that could exist on its own un-imputed on anything.
The relation between the “me” and the basis of imputation is not very easy to understand. As a start, I think what is helpful is to understand that there are two types of imputation. There are artificial, man-made imputations and naturally occurring imputations.
Motion is a naturally occurring imputed phenomenon on the basis of a physical object being in several positions in a sequence. It’s not that motion exists separately from that object being in different positions. It’s not an artificial, conceptual imputation on it; it’s just how you put it all together, referring to it altogether. So, the same thing with the self, with the conventional “me.” That’s something that takes quite a lot of thinking about to understand that this so-called “conventional self” is what experiences things, what experiences doing things and what experiences the results of doing them.
So, what does it mean to experience? Well, it’s the difference between a computer and the mind. There’s a level of happiness and unhappiness. Where do these feelings come from? What is their cause? Feelings come from karma – they are defined as the ways in which we experience the ripening of our karma – and to understand that, we have the whole discussion of the twelve links of dependent arising, describing samsara and nirvana.
This presentation of a whole being a naturally occurring imputation on parts and the self being a naturally occurring imputation on the aggregates is the Gelug way of explaining it. Kagyu and Nyingma would say that these too are imputed by the mind and imputation is always an active process of the mind. There is a difference here between Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya on this issue. Gelug explains that this is just the way things are: a whole is made up of its parts. That’s conventional truth and it’s accurate, conventionally accurate.
That’s why it’s very important to stick with the explanations of only one school and one system in order to understand that whole system. If you have one system and then all of a sudden you add something from another system, then it’s like you have a jigsaw puzzle with all the little pieces. It doesn’t work if you add a piece from another puzzle into your puzzle and try to fit it in. It doesn’t fit. So, you have to be careful in terms of which puzzle do the pieces that you are trying to put together come from and make sure they all come from the same puzzle. Otherwise you are going to get very confused.
That’s the big danger nowadays of so much information available from all the different traditions, from the Internet and all the different centers and different teachers that go around. You can get very confused. So, try to understand, but without putting things in a box. You can classify so in a sense a box is useful, but realize that it’s a box and that’s just a device to make sense of things. Okay?
What I explained in terms of the Mahayana four close placements of mindfulness was just the most general, first level meditation on these four: the body, feelings, mind, meaning consciousness, and phenomena. We haven’t gotten yet to the meditation that applies the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths to them.
Also, you need to understand that when we practice Mahayana, there are levels of practicing it: the first stage, second stage and so on. You don’t just jump into it with the full thing. That’s very helpful to follow in our practice. It’s like in the lam-rim, you don’t jump into the advanced scope of practicing for the benefit of all beings when you don’t even have refuge or some understanding of renunciation or anything like that. If you don’t feel that you yourself need to get out of suffering why should you feel that anyone else needs to get out of suffering, for example? If you don’t want yourself to be happy, why should you want anyone else to be happy? That’s very important, especially for Western people who often have low self-esteem, self-hatred and so on.
So we need to practice things in stages and build up one upon the next. It’s the same thing with these four close placements of mindfulness. We need to practice them in stages: first in the general way in terms of the four incorrect considerations and then in the more advanced way with the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths.