In my last post I mentioned the five aggregates, so here is a brief description of each aggregate. The aggregates are form, feeling, conception, mental formation and consciousness.
Form, or matter, corresponds to physical factors and not only includes our own bodies, but also the material objects that surround us. Form also includes the five physical sense organs and their corresponding physical objects. The five physical sense organs are eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. Their corresponding objects are visible form, sound, smell, taste and touch.
Feeling is the second aggregate and it can be divided into three different types of experience, namely pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
There are six kinds of experience, five physical and one mental. The experiences happen when your eye contacts with a visible form, your ear with sound, your nose with smell, your tongue with taste and your body with any other tangible object. These are the five physical experiences. The mental experience is when your mind is in contact with mental objects, such as ideas and thoughts.
Our feelings are extremely important as, in the end, they determine what we experience. We all want good feelings and try to avoid bad feelings. However, because we cling desperately to happy times, we become sad and disillusioned when they end.
The third aggregate is conception, and this is where we attach a name to an experience. Here, we formulate a conception of an idea about the object we perceive. The purpose of this aggregate is to analyse and investigate. When we come into contact with an object, our conception aggregate categorises it by shape, colour, motion, location, sex and other such categories. These arise as concepts which we are either born with or have added. Concepts can come from parents, school, society, friends and other social groups. Everything we have learnt or are learning, including in this blog, form our concepts.
The fourth aggregate is mental formation. It is the impression created by previous actions. This aggregate starts in the mind and is then reflected in our body and speech. That means whatever action we do in this life is part of this aggregate.
Maybe a better way to call this aggregate is mental formation and volition. Volition is the capability of conscious choice, decision and intention. So, the mental formation stems from our past, and volition, from the present moment. Both function together to determine our response to an object of experience. These responses have moral consequences in the sense of skilful, unskilful and neutral acts.
The final aggregate is consciousness, which is very powerful. From this stem the third and fourth aggregates. It is mere awareness of an object. When the eyes and a visible object come into contact, the eye consciousness will become associated with that object and visual consciousness will arise. It is the same with all the six consciousnesses.
It should be noted that consciousness is not personal experience, but merely awareness of an object. Personal experiences are produced through the functioning of the feeling aggregate, the conception aggregate and the mental formation aggregate. These three turn mere awareness into a personal experience.
So, let’s put this all together. Your eyes see the form. Your consciousness becomes aware of it. Your conception identifies it. A pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling arises. Your mental formation makes you respond to it with a conditioned reaction, stemming from your past.
In the Khandha Sutra Buddha called them the five clinging aggregates, and this is where the problem comes for us. We cling to these aggregates as though they are the self – a solid and permanent you. However, Buddha taught non-self. When these five aggregates come together we experience the world, but when they disperse we stop experiencing the world. He also taught us that there is absolutely no experience other than these five aggregates. These aggregates are ever-changing and so there really isn’t anything solid for us to cling to. When we try to cling to them as a permanent self we suffer, and this is what Buddha was pointing out in the first noble truth.
Dear Ven. Karma Yeshe Rabgye, I have read a lot of teachings on the aggregates and yours is very clear. Easy for a beginner like myself to comprehend. Why do so many teachers make this concept so difficult to understand? Thanks so much for your time and effort. When I read the part about there being no experience other than the 5 aggregates, I felt a kind of scary feeling in “my gut”. Sad, but at the same time liberating.
Elaine, thank you so much for your very kind comments. I am trying to write in a way that is both understandable and practical. I find a lot of Buddhist writing to be very exclusive, and so I am trying to make it inclusive. When I was studying Buddhist philosophy I found it hard going sometimes, but when I meditated on it I found I could put it into simpler terms. This helped me a lot, and so now I want to try and help others. That is why I wrote my book and started my blog and Facebook page.
The reason we find the aggregates a bit scary is because we have invested our whole lives into believing that we are separate from the world. You are correct when you say it is also liberating. It means we are one step closer to seeing the world as it really is.
Thanks once again for your comments.
Dear Ven.Yeshe Rabgye,
Finally, I have the time to read your articles in your blog.
Your teaching is very clear and helpful. The 5 aggregates can be a bit confusing, and your analysis is simple yet profound. I like how you show the agregates not to be independent of each other, but give some examples of how they interact.
Your paragraph beginning “Let’s put it all together…” gives a helpful sumary of how it all works in our daily life. I have been looking into the feelings being either pleasant, unpleasant or neither pleasant nor unpleasant, and I agree that in general the mental formation is what then brings our conditioned reaction into play.
Interestingly, there seems to then be some significant amount of “backwash” into feeling, vedana, itself. Given the same sensory experience, I may feel it to be unpleasant one time, and then pleasant at another time.
An example is from life here in Sri Lanka, where people eat with their hands, rice, dahl, curry. For Sri Lankans, the feeling of food on the fingertips is usually most pleasant. For newly arrived Westerners, it is usually distinctly unpleasant, and most westerners ask for eating utensils when sitting down to a meal at a Sri Lankan home or restaurant. However, those who can let go of their conditioned reactions around handling food, can learn to enjoy eating with the hands. So the bare sensation of food on the fingertips then becomes pleasant rather than unpleasant.
This is a simple illustration, but I find it to be true in a wide variety of life conditions. As I (speaking for myself) begin to let go of rigid patterning, life, in general, becomes a lot more pleasant since the number of pleasant sensations greatly increases, and the number of unpleasant sensations correspondingly decreases.
Still, if one grasps and clings to the pleasant sensations, one is digging a hole for oneself, and actually, that will lead to an increase in unpleasant sensations and a corresponding decrease in the pleasant ones over time. So grasping and clinging is hugely counterproductive.
Of course, producing pleasant feelings is not the goal of the Buddhist path, which rather advises to let feelings be as they are, pleasant, unpleasant, or neither. Equanimity is the guiding word. However, the practical result of the non-grasping and non-clinging does result in a more pleasant overall feeling tone. And what I notice is that a significant result of this is being happy with very simple things in life. It leads to a real contentment and happiness with such previously overlooked things as the feeling of the breath or body, the pleasant enjoyment of daily chores such as sweeping the floor or washing the dishes, deeply noticing the color of the wall in your room.
Of course, all of the above can change to unpleasant as we experience the uncertainties of life, so best not to be attached.
But in the meanwhile, it can be a most pleasant abiding.
Any thoughts on the matter I just raised?
many thanks for your help to myself and many sentient beings,
Thanks for your comments and kind words. I am trying to simplify Buddha’s teachings and make them more accessible to people. There are many books out there that make Buddhism so complicated. There are probably many reasons for this, but two main ones, I feel, are that the author wants to show off his knowledge and, secondly, by making them complicated the teacher keeps control of his students. These are just my experiences and may not be true for everyone.
I loved your example about eating with our hands. I still cannot break free from my Western conditioning.
It is true our feelings are ever changing, as are all the aggregates, and so what brings on a pleasant feeling one time can later bring an unpleasant one. This is why we should not cling to our feelings, thoughts and emotions. They really are unreliable.
I also agree with what you said about letting go of our rigid patterning. We are so conditioned by our parents, family, friends, teachers, society and advertising, that it is extremely difficult to free ourselves of such patterning. But it is not impossible, and that is the good news. Once we start to loosen our grip on our conditioning, we start to really live in the present moment. All of our conditioning keeps us rooted in the past. If we start a chore thinking that it is going to be unpleasant, it will be. However, if we start it with an open mind, it will be more pleasant and pass much quicker.
It isn’t the Buddhist path to chase after pleasant feelings, but it isn’t the path to suffer unpleasant ones either. We have to move beyond these concepts and just let things be as they are. We mustn’t get attached to feelings or push them away – just be!
Thanks once again Mark for your comments. I hope you find time to comment on the other postings in this blog.
Thanks Yeshe, this is very helpful. Before I found the five aggregates very confusing. Form was the only one that I found relatively easy to understand. I’ll re-read your piece several times. Thanks again.