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The Five Aggregates

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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  What constitutes a human, or any sentient being, according to Buddhism?

A human is a combination of five aggregates (khandhas), namely body or form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations or thought process, and consciousness, which is the fundamental factor of the previous three.

The first is the Aggregate of Matter. Matter contains and comprises the four great primaries, known as solidity, fluidity, heat or temperature and motion or vibration. These primaries are not simply earth, water, fire and wind; in Buddhism they are much more.

Solidity is the element of expansion. Because of this element objects occupy space. Seeing an object is seeing it extended in space and we label it. The element of expansion is in solids, as well as in liquids. When we see a body of water we are actually seeing solidity. The hardness of rock and the softness of paste, the quality of heaviness and lightness in things are qualities of solidity; they are states of it.

Fluidity is the element of cohesion. This element holds the particles of matter together. The cohesive force in liquids is so strong that they coalesce even after their separation. Once a solid is broken up or separated the particles cannot coalesce again, unless they are converted to liquid. This is accomplished by increasing their temperature, such as is done when welding metals. The object we see is a limited expansion or shape, which is made possible through the cohesion.

The element of heat or temperature is transmitted to the other three primaries. It preserves the vitality of all beings and plants. When we say that an object is cold, we only mean that the heat of that particular object is less than our body heat. It is relative.

Motion is the element of displacement and also is relative. To know whether a thing is moving or not we need a point which we regard as being fixed, so the motion can be measured. Since there isn’t a motionless object in the universe, stability is also an element of motion. Motion is dependent on heat. Atoms cannot vibrate when there is no heat

These Primaries are always co-existing and give birth to other phenomena and qualities; among them the five senses and their purposes: the eyes, which see; the ears, which hear; the nose, which smells; the tongue, which tastes; and the body or skin, which feels.

The second is the Aggregate of Feeling or Sensation. Feelings can be either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and they arise from contact. Such contact as seeing something, hearing something, etc., creates an idea or thought, and we get a feeling about that idea or thought. An arising feeling cannot be prevented.

Feelings differ from person to person. We don’t all feel the same way about the same thing. Our feelings are dependent on our experiences and the way we process information. Not every person processes information in the same way, nor do they come to the same conclusion. And our feeling can and do change during our existence.

The third is the Aggregate of Perception. This aggregate perceives or recognizes both physical and mental objects through its contact with the senses. When we become aware or conscious of an object or idea, our perception recognizes its distinctions from other objects or ideas. This distinction makes us familiar with the object or idea when we sense it in the future. Perception is what enables memory. They can also be deceptive, and they too change during our existence.

A familiar Buddhist illustration tells of a farmer, who after sowing a field, sets up a scarecrow for protection from the birds, who usually mistake it for a man and will not land. That is an example of the illusionary possibilities of perception; this aggregate can produce false impressions. A perception can become so indelible on our mind that it becomes difficult to erase.

The fourth is the Aggregate of Mental Formations or Thought Process. This aggregate includes all mental factors except feeling and perception, which are two of the possible fifty-two mental factors noted in Buddhism. These factors are volitional; no action produces change or karma, unless there is intention, volition (choice), and action. Contact through the senses brings about the necessity of choosing an action and the action we choose depends upon our thought process, which is the result of our experiences and our individual evolution, including that of gaining or loosing wisdom.

The fifth is the Aggregate of Consciousness, the most important of the aggregates, because it is where the mental factors wind up. Without consciousness there can be no mental factors; they are interrelated, interdependent and coexistent.

The mind and its faculty is not something physical. It is concerned with thoughts and ideas. Forms are seen only via the eye, not via the ear, whose faculty of hearing is not that of the eye, etc. Thoughts and ideas belong to the faculty of the mind. The senses cannot think, nor can they mull over ideas, choose possible actions and arrive at conclusions.

Consciousness is made possible through the interaction of the senses. Thoughts and ideas originate in the mind, which in Buddhism is called the sixth sense. The five aggregates are not permanent; they are ever subject to change and they do change as we experience life.

A human is composed of mind and matter, and according to Buddhism, apart from mind and matter, there is no such thing as an immortal soul, an unchanging “thing” separate from these five aggregates.

Thus the combination of the five aggregates is called a being which may assume as many names as its types, shapes, and forms. According to Buddhism’s dharma, a human is a moral being with both positive and negative potentials. We make choices concerning which of these potentials we choose to nourish thereby becoming a part of exactly who each one of us is, in terms of characteristics, personality traits, and disposition. It is the potential of each human to gain wisdom and enlightenment. Buddhism teaches that each one of us is the architect of our own fate, and we will reap what we sow.

The Five Aggregates compose the Buddhist view of self, which is made up of five aspects: rupa (form), vedana (feeling), samjna (perception), samskara (mental formation), and vijhana (consciousness). These are the five psychophysical elements of an individual.

What is form? Form is the sum total of all physical elements and interactions taking together that makes up the physical body. This is the material portion of self. {{Wiki|Psychologically]], the body certainly takes quite a lot of our attention and plays a huge part of the formation of our self-identity. Body image is one of things we are most conscious about, as I am sure all of us know, and we are all aware of the dark side of excessive obsession clinging to a certain type of physical body shape/appearance. The fact is, body is just body, just one aspect of self, subject to aging and decay, eventually death. Why not just face it, and not to be so blindly obsessed and in denial?

 Next, feelingBuddhism classifies feelings by 3 qualities—-

    aversion and


 and 6 types—-

    sensory, and

Hence, with 3 qualities and 6 types, there are 18 basic feeling states in Buddhism. {{Wiki|Psychologically]], feelings may condition the arising of response (for example—-we cling to things we feel pleasurable, and run away from things we feel aversive), therefore if we are not cautious we will be pulled by our feelings by the nose, and engage in responses that are not wise at all (I am sure that a number of us have done things we are not proud of because of our emotional states). Observing feelings calmly without being forced upon to act upon it is one big step toward maintaining equanimity. (I am not saying that not taking action is good, I mean: not being enslaved by feelings)

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Perception refers to the cognition which arises during contact with a stimulus. We contact X; We perceive X. Perception contributes to discriminatory capacity and recognition. Perception can be affected by a variety of things–emotions, previous experiences, etc.—-and it in turn impacts thinking. Perception may be a reflection of reality–but what we perceive does not equate reality. Ultimately, all experiences are {{Wiki|psychologically]] constructed, so perceptions are constructed as well—-therefore they do not equate reality. To illustrate, we perceive blue, but is there really blueness in light? Light has a specific wavelength, and such a wavelength, if it is about 450-490nm range, gives rise to perception of blue—-but blue is {{Wiki|psychologically]] constructed based on this stimulus and not an inherent characteristics of this stimulus. There is really no such a thing call “blue light”, but “light perceived as blue”. See how we must be careful with analysis with perception—-so our sense of reality would not be distorted?

Mental formations are embodied conditioning; they are mainly components of our personalities (which are full of predispositions that propel us to engage in certain ways—-such patterns of mental activity and external behaviors, habits, etc.) as well as things such as reflexes and memories, etc. We may not be completely aware of operations of mental formations—-we just behave as who we are without thinking about it, without being completely aware of why and how. Therefore, to know ourselves, it is a good idea that mental formations be observed with mindfulness awareness.

FIVE AGGREGATES (khandhas or skandas or heaps):

Physical and mental components of the personality (ego) and of sensory experience in general

1. Form/ physica phenomena, body (rupa )
2. Feeling (vedana ) - pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. Feelings arise when there is contact between the 6 internal organs and the 6 external objects: (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind & corresponding: sight, sound, odor, taste touch, mental object)
3. Perception (sañña) – recognition
4. Mental Formations (sankhara) – includes mental states, emotions, volition (fabrications)
5. Consciousness (viññana) – grasps the characteristics of the 6 external objects

Consciousness in Buddhism is classified by 6 types—-visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, sensory, and mental. There is conceptual consciousness (consciousness about any conceptual object, such as a thought) and primordial consciousness (pure awareness). Awareness is obviously the hallmark of consciousness. The states of consciousness may be altered, as we all know (awake, trance, sleep, coma, etc).

The Five Aggregates is the Buddhist way of explaining self without any notion of an everlasting soul, and the nature of self is psychological, not ontological. The Five Aggregates, are, as with all conditioned phenomena, marked with Three Marks of Existence, so we are not special—-we are just ordinary phenomena arising and dissolving. The Five Aggregates’ interactions explain the whole human experience. Let me give an example:

One sees a webpage and perceives the webpage title “Empty Lab” (FORM: webpage; PERCEPTION: webpage title “Empty Lab”; CONSCIOUSNESS: visual), and one feels neutral about this webpage (FEELING: visual neutral). The mental image of an empty lab is constructed in one’s mind (MENTAL FORMATION: mental image of an empty lab).

What is the psychological significance of such analysis of the Five Aggregates under the context of daily life? Obviously, it allows us to be more aware, to get to know ourselves more, and to see through phenomena more throughly—-so we may utilize such knowledge to cultivate more well-being both for ourselves and for others. It is said that “Know thyself” is wisdom; such analysis would definitely help us to realize this wisdom!