The Five Aggregates

Transcription of a talk by Leigh Brasington
20 Apr 02, Morning session
Barre Center for Buddhist Studies

Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, second Dhamma

The next Dhamma [teaching, mind-object] in the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness is the five aggregates: "Again, one abides contemplating Dhammas as Dhammas in terms of the five aggregates affected by clinging." The five aggregates are the objects to which we start clinging. There is nothing that we cling to that is not an aggregate and we can cling to any of the aggregates.

"And how does one abide contemplating Dhammas as Dhammas in terms of the five aggregates affected by clinging? Here one understands: such is material form, such is its origin, such is its disappearance. Such is vedana [initial sense impression - pleasant, unpleasant or neutral], such is its origin, such is its disappearance. Such is perception, such is its origin, such is its disappearance. Such are the mental formations, such are their origin, such are their disappearance. Such is consciousness, such is its origin, such is its disappearance."

You take each of the five aggregates and notice how they arise and notice how they cease. Each of the five aggregates is impermanent. So one simply pays attention to the arising and ceasing of the aggregates.

Now in order to do this, one has to know the aggregates, and the aggregates tend to be something that generates some confusion, because the aggregates includes a pattern, parts of which appear in other places. In particular, the teaching on the five aggregates gets confused with the five parts of a sense contact, gets confused with the four foundations of mindfulness, and gets confused with dependent origination. All of these teachings have materiality and vedana in them - or even more of the aggregates. What people tend to do is think, "Oh, materiality, vedana, must all be the same thing," and lump all of these teachings together. This is not correct.

The five aggregates are just these five things:

The Aggregates and Sense Contacts

When there is a sense contact, there is a meeting of the sense object, of the sense organ, which is material, and of the sense consciousness. There has to be a thing to see, there has to be an eyeball, and there must be eye consciousness. For example, the light from the object strikes the eye and the sense consciousness registers it. Two of the aggregates come together at the point of sense contact. This is followed immediately by the vedana: like it, don't like it, don't care. Then comes the perception, the identifying: chandelier. Finally come the thoughts: "Boy, I bet these chandeliers were swinging pretty good this morning when we had that earthquake."

There's a strong overlap between the five aggregates and the five parts of a sense contact. The first and the fifth aggregate come together, and the remaining three follow in sequence.

The Aggregates and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness

The four foundations of mindfulness include body, which is a manifestation of the first of the aggregates. And since. like all four foundations, the first foundation is to be practiced internally and externally, the first foundation is pretty much the material world. For example, if you're doing the four element practice, you can look at anything in the material world in terms of the elements, as well as look at your own physical body in terms of the elements.

There's a great deal of overlap between the first aggregate and the first foundation of mindfulness. Some of the practices in the first foundation work better if it's your own body; it's usually difficult to experience somebody else breathing, for example. And it's very, very difficult to notice rocks breathing or something like that. So although the first foundation of mindfulness is body, it doesn't include necessarily at all times all aspects of the first aggregate. For example, you don't go around watching rocks breathe.

The second foundation is identical to the second aggregate, vedana. You're just supposed to know a pleasant feeling, an unpleasant feeling, a neutral feeling. And since you do it in their arising and ceasing modes, you notice the arising and ceasing of pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings. So in vedana, there's exact commonality.

But the third foundation, which is moods, mind states, concerns mental formations - the fourth aggregate. But the third foundation is not all mental formations; just those that we classify as emotions.

And the fourth foundation of mindfulness is also mental formations, but again, not all mental formations. The fourth foundation is five specific sets of mental formations that reflect five of the teachings of the Buddha. So the four foundations of mindfulness and the five aggregates have some overlap but they're not identical.

Question: Is it true that the third foundation of mindfulness plus the fourth foundation of mindfulness equals sankharas (mental formations)?

Not all mental formations, no. An example of a mental formation is the memory that, at home, I have a very nice computer. I bought it last summer. It's a really wonderful. This is not a teaching of the Buddha, and this is not an emotion! But it's a mental formation. So third foundation plus fourth foundation does not equal all of the fourth aggregate; it only equals a subset of the fourth aggregate.

The Aggregates and Dependent Origination

In the teaching of dependent origination you have Consciousness. The consciousness there is the consciousness that's necessary for mind and body to actually work. Which you could say is the sixth of the sense consciousness, but probably it's easier just to say "conscious" as opposed to being "unconscious." The consciousness of dependent origination is that which makes you conscious. So the fifth of the aggregates is the third of the twelve links in the "standard, forward" teaching.

Next you have Mind and Body; the body part of that is materiality, the first of the aggregates. The mind part of this link is the remaining three aggregates that are not consciousness and are not materiality.

Then come the Six Senses. The five external senses are material and the sixth one is mental. The mind sense is all four of the mental aggregates.

Sense Contacts involve the physical first aggregate and the fifth one, consciousness.

Following contact there's Vedana, plain old vedana again, identical with the second aggregate and identical with the second foundation of mindfulness.

Then comes Craving and Clinging which are mental formations. Next is Becoming, or perhaps better translated as "being and having", which is mental. But there can be physical energy involved in being and having, so it can involve all of the five aggregates if you look at it broadly.

From Becoming, there is Birth: if it's a live birth, you have to have all five aggregates; if it is birth of the ego, you have mental formations. And finally Death is the cutting off of the aggregates if it is physical death; and the ceasing of the ego mental formations if it is ego death.

So the aggregates fit into dependent origination, but they are not the same as any set of the steps, they are not the same as five of the steps or any subset of steps. But people get confused about the vedana and think, "Oh, must be the same thing."

Much of the Buddha's teaching is like viewing something from different perspectives: if you view it up close, you get dependent origination, if you view it from a distance, then you get the aggregates. Both of these very important teachings are just different ways of looking at our psycho-physical existence. All of these views are useful. No one view enables us to gain, easily, the understanding that's necessary. So we look at things in various different ways. It's just like if you pick up an object, and it's completely unfamiliar to you, you examine it, you turn it over, you look at it, if it opens up, you open it up. In the same way, it's best to examine existence in various different ways: in terms of the aggregates, in terms of dependent origination, and then pay attention to the important stuff, which are the foundations of mindfulness.

Majjhima Nikaya 109

Now the Buddha has much to say about the aggregates. In particular, in Majjhima Nikaya 109, "The Greater Discourse on the Full Moon Night," the Buddha talks about the aggregates in great detail. I recommend this sutta; I'll give you the highlights.

This discourse takes place on a full moon night, and a bhikkhu [monk] raises his hand and stands up and asks the Buddha a question, and the Buddha says, "Sit down, sit down and ask your question." So the bhikkhu wants to know, "Are these not, venerable sir, the five aggregates affected by clinging, that is, material form aggregate affected by clinging, feeling aggregate affected by clinging, perception... formations... consciousness affected by clinging?"

"Indeed these are the five aggregates."

"But venerable sir, in what are these five aggregates affected by clinging rooted?" What's the root of these? Now remember, we're supposed to be paying attention to the origination of the aggregates, so this is an excellent question.

"These are rooted in desire." In particular, the desire to be. If one seeks birth, one seeks an acquisition of the aggregates. So this becoming that mother nature exhibits so profoundly in the springtime, is a desire to be, and this desire to be results in the bursting forth of the aggregates.

Then the bhikkhu asks, "Venerable sir, is that clinging the same as these five aggregates affected by clinging, or is the clinging something apart from the five aggregates affected by clinging?"

"Bhikkhu, that clinging is neither the same as the five aggregates affected by clinging, nor is the clinging something apart from the five aggregates affected by clinging." It's not the aggregates themselves, and yet the clinging takes these aggregates and only these as it objects. "It is the desire and lust in regard to the five aggregates affected by clinging that the clinging is there." So these are the things to which we cling. Our desire and lust is in regard to these aggregates.

"But venerable sir, can there be diversity in the desire and lust regarding these five aggregates?"

"There can be, bhikkhu. Here someone thinks, 'may my material form be thus in the future, may my feelings be thus in the future, may my perceptions... may my mental formations... may my consciousness be thus in the future.' Thus there is diversity in the desire and lust regarding the five aggregates."

"But venerable sir, in what way does the term 'aggregate' apply to the aggregates?"

"Any kind of material form, whether past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, that is, the material form aggregate." And the same for the other four. So if it's a feeling and it's in the past, it's still vedana. If it's a mental formation and it's gross or subtle, it's still a mental formation.

"What is the cause and condition, venerable sir, of the manifestation of the material form aggregate?" What is the cause and condition for the manifestation of each of the other aggregates? Now remember: the foundation of mindfulness is that we are to pay attention to their origination. Understanding the cause for their origination may help us to pay attention.

"The four great elements, bhikkhu, are the cause and condition for the manifestation of the material form aggregate." Solidity, liquidity, gaseousness, and energy. These are the causes of the material form aggregate. "Contact is the cause and condition for the manifestation of the feeling aggregate. Contact is also the cause and condition for the manifestation of the perception aggregate. Contact is also the cause and condition for the manifestation of the mental formations aggregate." Our senses bring us contact, and from our sense contacts come feelings, perceptions, and mental formations. "Mentality and materiality [name and form, nama-rupa in Pali] is the cause and condition for the manifestation of the consciousness aggregate." Remember when we discussed the links of dependent origination we went backwards through the order until we got to to name and form, which was dependent upon consciousness? And consciousness which is dependent upon name and form. [See DN 15.] So here the Buddha is repeating that name and form is the cause and condition of consciousness.

"Venerable sir, how does personality come to be?"

"Here, bhikkhu, an untaught ordinary person who has no regard for the Noble Ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, who has no regard for true men and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, regards material form as self, or self as possessed of material form, or material form as in self, or self as in material form." And the same for each of the other aggregates. So either we think, "I am my body," "I have a body," "My self is in the body," "My body is in my self," and the same for the other aggregates. We take some relationship of the aggregates to the self. The self is considered to be all of the aggregates or some of the aggregates, and we build up this idea of self in relating to the aggregates.

"What, venerable sir, is the gratification, what is the danger, and what is the escape in the case of each of these aggregates?"

"The pleasure and joy, bhikkhu, that arises dependent upon an aggregate: this is the gratification in the case of that aggregate." The joy and pleasure - that's our gratification. We like things that taste good; we like thoughts that feel good to think. "The fact that an aggregate is impermanent, suffering and subject to change: this is the danger in the case of the aggregates. The removal of desire and lust, the abandonment of desire and lust for the aggregate: that is the escape in the case of the aggregate." So what's going on is that we experience an aggregate, it's pleasurable, we want it, we grab hold of it, it's impermanent, so our craving causes that aggregate to produce dukkha in us - and that's the danger. If we want to get out of dukkha, stop craving, let go, don't grab hold.

"Venerable sir: how does one know, how does one see so that in regard to this body with its consciousness in all external signs there is no I-making, mine-making, and the underlying tendency to conceive of a self?"

"Bhikkhu, with any aggregate whatever, whether past or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, near or far, one sees that aggregate as it actually is with proper wisdom: this is not mine, I am not that, this is not myself." We are not actually any of these aggregates. The self is an illusory thing; if we look carefully, we won't be confused. If we measure the moon by holding a quarter up to it when it has just risen and looks huge, and then measure it again when it's overhead, it's the same size as the quarter both times. Understanding removes the delusion and allows us to operate in harmony with the way things really are.

Then the Buddha realized that there could possibly be some confusion, and he addressed the bhikkhus. "It is possible, bhikkhus, that some misguided man here, obtuse and ignorant, with his mind dominated by craving, might think that he can outstrip the Teacher's dispensation thus: 'So it seems material form is not self, feeling is not self, perception is not self, formations are not self, consciousness is not self, what self then will actions done by the not self affect?'" OK, if all these aggregates are doing things, then who gets the results? If there's no self, then where does the karma get carried forward? This often gets asked. It was asked at the time of the Buddha. And the Buddha recognized that people had this question.

"Bhikkhus, what do you think? Is material form permanent or impermanent?" "Impermanent, sir." "Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?" "Suffering, sir." "Is what is impermanent, suffering and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: 'This is mine, this I am, this is myself.'?" "No, venerable sir." And the same for each of the other aggregates. A self needs to be happy and permanent. If it's impermanent and leads to suffering, you don't want to be that! So each of the aggregates is impermanent and grasping hold of it leads to dukkha, so pay attention to that.

"Therefore, bhikkhus, any kind of material form whatsoever, whether past, present or future, all material forms should thus be seen as it is with proper wisdom: 'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.'" And the same for each of the other aggregates.

"Seeing thus, a well-taught noble disciple becomes disenchanted with material form, disenchanted with feelings... perceptions... mental formations... and consciousness. Being disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, his mind is liberated. When it is liberated, there comes the knowledge, 'It is liberated.' And one understands, 'Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.'" That is what the Blessed One said, and the bhikkhus were satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One's words. And while this discourse was being spoken, through not clinging, the minds of sixty bhikkhus were liberated from the taints.

[Teacher looks around the room.] Hum, didn't work this time. [Laughter] I guess the Buddha had a better delivery than me reading a translation in a foreign language.

But the aggregates are very important. Ignorance of the impermanent nature of these - the fact that they originate and they pass away (which is what we're supposed to pay attention to in the fourth foundation, second teaching) - gives rise to a tendency to fixate on these aggregates (because they bring joy and pleasure), and this clinging gives rise to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. What do we do in a situation like this? For the Buddha, the answer was very simple. "A wise disciple sees this and is no longer fascinated by physical forms, feelings, perceptions, mental activities and consciousness." A wise disciple sees this. This is what the teaching on the five aggregates is about. Pay attention to their origination. Pay attention to their passing. Doing so will give you insight that will enable you to stop clinging to these, to stop craving them. And of course if you stop craving, then everything becomes quite wonderful. Any questions on the five aggregates?

Many thanks to Brian Kelley for transcribing this talk!

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