robb82 wrote:I'm having trouble understanding the concept of the five aggregates completely. I mean i think i have the general idea, and i've been focusing on it during seated meditation, but i'm not fully understanding it. i'm also not quite sure where feelings, or emotions, would fit in. would they be perception, mental formation?
The way I like to look at it, the teachings on dependent co-arising, the aggregates and not-self are quite insightful in that they're the parts of Buddhism that correspond to parts of modern psychology. For one thing, they basically detail the process by which we construct our sense of self, i.e., our ego or identity, and, ultimately, how to utilize that process in more skillful ways.
The aggregates themselves, for example, aren't simply descriptions of what constitutes a human being as some people mistakenly think—they're one of the many ways of looking at and dividing up experience that we find throughout the Pali Canon (e.g., aggregates, elements, six sense-media, etc.). But more importantly, they represent the most discernible aspects of our experience on top of which we construct our sense of self in a process of, as the Buddha called it, "I-making" and "my-making" (e.g., MN 109
The first noble truth states that, in short, the five clinging-aggregate (panca-upadana-khandha
) are dukkha
), i.e., it's the clinging in reference to the aggregates that's dukkha, not the aggregates themselves. But what does this really mean?
According to the commentaries, dukkha is defined as 'that which is hard to bear.' In MN 9
, clinging is defined as:
"And what is clinging, what is the origin of clinging, what is the cessation of clinging, what is the way leading to the cessation of clinging? There are these four kinds of clinging: clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rituals and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self. With the arising of craving, there is the arising of clinging. With the cessation of craving, there is the cessation of clinging. The way leading to the cessation of clinging is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view... right concentration."
In addition, the Buddha says that the five clinging-aggregates are not-self. He calls them a burden, the taking up of which is "the craving that makes for further becoming" and the casting off of which is "the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving" (SN 22.22
). The way I understand it, becoming (bhava
) is a mental process, which arises due to the presence of clinging (upadana
) in the mind with regard to the five-clinging aggregates, and acts as a condition for the birth (jati
) of the conceit 'I am,' the self-identification that designates a being (satta
Looking at it from another angle, there's rarely a moment when the mind isn't clinging to this or that in one or more of the four ways (MN 11
). Our identity jumps from one thing to another, wherever the clinging is strongest. Our sense of self is something that's always in flux, ever-changing from moment to moment in response to various internal and external stimuli, and yet at the same time, we tend to see it as a static thing. It's as if our sense of self desires permanence, but its very nature causes it to change every second. As the Buddha warns in SN 12.61
"It would be better for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person to hold to the body composed of the four great elements, rather than the mind, as the self. Why is that? Because this body composed of the four great elements is seen standing for a year, two years, three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred years or more. But what's called 'mind,' 'intellect,' or 'consciousness' by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another. Just as a monkey, swinging through a forest wilderness, grabs a branch. Letting go of it, it grabs another branch. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. In the same way, what's called 'mind,' 'intellect,' or 'consciousness' by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another.
Change is, of course, a fact of nature. All things are in a perpetual state of change, but the problem is that our sense of self ignores this reality on a certain level. From birth to death, we have the tendency to think that this 'I' remains the same. Now, we might know that some things have changed (e.g., our likes and dislikes, our age, the amount of wrinkles we have, etc.), but we still feel as if we're still 'us.' We have the illusion (for lack of a better word) that our identity is who we are, a static entity named [fill in the blank], and we tend to perceive this as being the same throughout our lives.
That said, the conventional use of personality is a function of survival, as well as convenience. However, clinging to our personalities as 'me' or 'mine' is seen as giving continued fuel for becoming, i.e., a mental process of taking on a particular kind of identity that arises out of clinging. Our sense of self, the ephemeral 'I,' is merely a mental imputation — the product of what the Buddha called a process of 'I-making' and 'my-making' — and when we cling to our sense of self as being 'me' or 'mine' in some way, we're clinging to an impermanent representation of something that we've deluded ourselves into thinking is fixed and stable. It becomes a sort of false refuge that's none of these things.
These attachments, particularly our attachment to views and doctrines of self, keep us rooted in "perceptions and categories of objectification" that continually assail us and our mental well-being (MN 18
). Thus, with the presence of clinging, the aggregates have the potential to become suffering (i.e., 'difficult to bear') when our sense of self encounters inconstancy. That's why the Buddha taught that whatever is inconstant is stressful, and whatever is stressful is not-self:
"What do you think, monks — Is form [same with feeling, perception, fabrications and consciousnes] constant or inconstant?"
"And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?"
"And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: 'This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am'?"
Thus, monks, any form [same with feeling, perception, fabrications and consciousnes] whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: 'This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.'
In order to break down the conceptual idea of a self (i.e., that which is satisfactory, permanent and completely subject to our control) in relation to the various aspects of our experience that we falsely cling to as 'me' or 'mine,' we must essentially take this [analytical] knowledge, along with a specific set of practices such as meditation, as a stepping stone to what I can only describe as a profound psychological event that radically changes the way the mind relates to experience.
This may be a bit of nonsense, but in one of the ways I like to look at it, the conventional viewpoint (sammuti sacca
) explains things through subject, verb and object whereas the ultimate viewpoint (paramattha sacca
) explains things through verb alone. In essence, things are being viewed from the perspective of activities and processes. This, I think, is incredibly difficult to see, but perhaps what happens here is that once self-identity view (sakkaya-ditthi
) is removed, the duality of subject and object is also removed, thereby revealing the level of mere conditional phenomena, i.e., dependent co-arising in action.
This mental process is 'seen,' ignorance is replaced by knowledge and vision of things as they are (yatha-bhuta-nana-dassana
), and nibbana, then, would be the 'letting go' of what isn't self through the dispassion (viraga
) invoked in seeing the inconstant (anicca
) and stressful (dukkha
) nature of clinging to false refuges that are neither fixed nor stable (anatta
). And without the presence of clinging in regard to the aggregates, they cease to be 'difficult to bear.'