On the Aggregates
"Form, Ânanda, is impermanent, conditioned,
dependently arisen, subject to destruction, to vanishing, to fading
away, to cessation. Through its cessation, cessation is spoken of.
Feeling is impermanent ... Perception is impermanent ... Volitional
formations are impermanent ... Consciousness is impermanent,
conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, to
vanishing, to fading away, to cessation. Through its cessation,
cessation is spoken of. It is through the cessation of these things,
Ânanda, that cessation is spoken of."
Samyuktâgama (Samyutta-nikâya), 22:21.
Substance-Self versus Process-Self
Selflessness does not negate the Process-Self
The Aggregates of Attachment
The Destruction of the Substance-Self
Delusion to Wisdom
"Skandha", meaning "group, aggregate, heap", is a
fundamental term in the psychology taught in the
Buddhadharma. Persons are not
considered to be substances, but processes consisting of biological
and mental phenomena. Although there are unchanging laws ruling
change, these laws are not substantial, but a mere regularity in the
constant dynamical processes of change.
These heaps are called : form, feeling, perception,
volition & consciousness.
These five heaps, singly nor collectively, do not constitute a
self-dependent ego-identity or personality (cf. "âtman"), nor is
there such an entity identical with or apart from them. Buddha has a process
conception of the self instead of a substantialist one.
Every aspect of what we regard as a person is encompassed by one or
more of the five aggregates. They change constantly, and so what is
called "self", "ego", "I", "person", "individual", "personality"
etc. cannot be a being or entity persisting through time unaltered.
Instead, the self is evanescent and of the nature of arising,
abiding & ceasing. The ultimate, permanent nature of the self is its
lacking substance and thus being a process. Stability equals change.
Substance-selves are ontologically different from
other substances (distinctness), have unchanging essential
properties (identity), including the capacities to experience,
remember, imagine, feel, think, desire, etc. These are the
attributes of undergoing and doing. A substance-self controls these
things (self-control) and is aware of itself as a substance-self
(self-awareness). Such a substance-self seems to exist as an
independent unity existing from its own side. Although its
accidents & properties may change, this substance is identical with
itself (A = A) and distinct from other substances (A ≠ -A) in a
substantial, unchanging way, i.e. to this logical instantiation, a
substantial instantiation is added. This notion of substance implies
independence, i.e. substances do not directly depend on something
else, are independent and not other-powered, possessing own-form. It
also implies isolation, for to acquire their characteristics,
substances do not relate to other substances.
This ontological view is part of the substantialist tradition
prevalent in most metaphysical systems. We find it in
Ancient Egypt (the "Ba" and the "Akh"), in
(the "anima"), in Abrahamic monotheism (the immortal soul created by
God), as well as in most pre-Kantian systems of Western philosophy.
Anti-substantialist models have been accepted by a minority of
philosophers from Heraclitus in the 6th century BCE, to Whitehead in the
twentieth century. In the West, Kant was the first to systematically refute this
position (cf. his critique of the ontological self of Descartes).
This feat allows us to distinguish between pre- and post-Kantian
Buddha's rejection of the substance-self is the proper
interpretation of the not-self doctrine ("anâtman"). While rejecting
substantialism, he did not discard the function of process-selves.
Buddha was not a nihilist (there is no self whatsoever), nor an
eternalist (there is an "âtman"). He is a strict nominalist avant
la lettre !
For Buddha, conventional reality is a huge interdependent,
impermanent, dynamical totality of processes. A process is a
phenomenon sustained by operational functions, usually marked by
gradual changes or transformation through a series of states.
Process-selves are not substantial and are not ontologically
distinct from other processes. Such a self is an integrated set of
processes, a structured nexus of continuous, interacting processes
which are, in every respect, in constant change and continuously
dependent on other processes. As Tsongkhapa explained, the
view on Buddhist psychology underlines the mind is empty of inherent
existence and so the mind possesses no Buddha-qualities inherently.
Buddha-nature is the precondition to enlightenment, not the presence
of an already completely enlightenend "nature" of mind a priori
(as Shentong claims).
does not negate the Process-Self.
Substantialism is close to the "common sense"
view of reality. According to the Buddha, this is due to the crucial
fact the awareness of a self is in all cases illusionary or
false, for one mistakenly assumes one is aware of oneself as a
substance-self. This assumption is innate, and is even at work in
animals. This false self-awareness conceals the truth no
substance-self can be found by reason applying ultimate analysis or experienced (in
meditation). Due to this major delusion, or innate self-grasping,
our self appears as if it exists from its own side, by its own
power, independent from others. Hence, we experience ourselves as
clearly identifiable substantial "ego's", although both reason and direct
experience (in meditation) prove it otherwise. Insofar education
confirms this state of affairs ("I truly exist like this or
that."), innate self-grasping is assisted by
intellectual or acquired self-grasping. Self-grasping is the root of
self-cherishing, considering ourselves more important than others.
Ignorant of the true state of the self, we suffer and cause
The assumption a substance-self exists is the main target of
Buddha's criticism of ordinary psychology. To eliminate this view thoroughly leads to "nirvâna".
Selflessness is precisely the opposite of this truth-concealing
inherent existence of the self, and points to the fact only
process-selves are in existence. The Buddha is also a
process-self. Selflessness does not negate this
interdependent process-self. When the Buddha presupposes selves in
his doctrine of "karma", he merely refers to the dependent reality
of process-selves. To uncover the fact process-selves have a false
self-awareness or false ideation and to eliminate this false sense of selfhood
(the substantial instantiation of psychological states) is the
main task of
meditation in the
Lesser Vehicle. To eliminate
self-cherishing is the first step in the
Great Perfection Vehicle training,
Bodhisattva aims to eliminate both
intellectual and innate self-grasping. This is done by generating
Bodhicitta, the mind of
enlightenment for the sake of all
sentient beings, and thus entering the
emptiness, the ultimate nature of
all phenomena, namely their unsubstantial, process-like nature, is
Regarding identity, the Buddha affirms there is neither full
identity nor complete discontinuity between me "now" and me earlier
or later. Although there is no common element or "soul" outside the
heaps and their functions, there are enough overlappings in the
ever-changing aggregates to make identity statements intelligible.
Although these overlappings bring about the illusion of an enduring,
ontological self existing from its own side (an appearance having
functional properties and so not non-existing), in reality no
enduring self can be found. Like the individual moving frames of a
film, a sandstorm, a tornado, a mirage or
an atom, processes only seem substantial, but in truth only ever-changing
patterns of interconnected stuff determined by other subprocesses,
etc. are instantiated. Splitting an atom in electrons & a core does not reveal the
fundamental building-blocks of matter, for the core can be
subdivided in protons & neutrons. The latter can also be broken down,
and so forth, until only the energy of the universal quantum-field is left, i.e. the gigantic
The capacity to have sensations (or any other state correlated with
one or more than one aggregate), is the mere result of the nexus of
processes constituting the process-self. This is not an enduring
property presupposing a substance-self. Likewise,
rebirth is not the
continuity of some "soul", but a causal connection between a
process-self in one life and one in another life that is its
rebirth. In fact, the same happens between two moments or between
any larger interval of time within this incarnation. Constantly we
die and are reborn ...
So, as long as there is sufficient causal continuity &
consequent similarity between my process-self at moment t and my
process-self at t+1, the idea of "karma" is coherent. It is
consciousness which has the role of conveying this continuity and so
consciousness is the main aggregate causing the confusion
attributing independent existence to the unity of the manifold of
experience. To eradicate the mistake, consciousness needs to be
transformed. This radical change of mind is the fundamental
intention expressed by the
The psychology of the Buddha is a direct application of
emptiness. The notion of a person is imputed upon five
aggregates. Personality, the empirical ego, the "I" etc. are
names given to a
function designated by five heaps of co-relative phenomena, traditionally
"rûpa" : embodied phenomena, having form, corporeal ;
"vedanâ" : feelings ;
"samjñâ" : recognition, assimilation of perceptions ;
"samskâra" : putting together, forming, synergy, process, volitional
"vijñâna" : distinguishing, discerning, understanding, comprehending,
skill, proficiency, consciousness, thought-faculty, sentience.
Because the aggregate of form is a four-dimensional
subcontinuum, it refers to the sensate objects and forces moving about in the
architectures of the world. In a stricter sense, this heap involves the
physical, living body, its conditions and determinations. The sensoric
system belongs to these events, as well as sensate objects, the sensoric projections of
perceived stimuli in the higher brain regions (cf.
Sensations, 2007). So material form
consists of our physical nature, and in particular those aspects making the
five senses possible. So
"rûpa" is the body, its sense-perceptions and sensoric projections,
the sensate objects of mind.
Between the moment these sensoric projections, these actual physical
changes recorded by the sensitive surfaces of the five senses, encoded and
relayed to the brain, are actually projected into the neo-cortex
(thalamus) and the time they completely appear as sensate objects to our
mind, they get interpreted (categorized) and named (designated). Even
before this event, the limbic or "emotional brain" already calculated the
immediate possible emotional dangers involved (cf. the flee-or-fight
reflex of the hypothalamus). This conceptualization is not
neo-cortical, i.e. formal & symbolical, but only signal-based
(brainstem) and/or iconical (limbic).
To constitute an object of conceptual reason, the "human brain" has
name it. Hence, sensation = perception x interpretation. Sensate objects
are not a one-to-one replica of the information gathered by the senses,
but the product of two vectors : sense-perceptions and conceptualization.
Because sensate objects cannot exist without sense-perceptions, while
mental objects can, the aggregate of form is more fundamental to them.
Taking this into account, we may say "samjñâ" is the process of cognition fed by the sense-perceptions given by
Sensations, emotions & feelings, thoughts, acts of will & consciousness
constitute the psychology of the Buddha. In general, "rûpa" or "form" equals
"body", while the other heaps are identified as "mind".
thoughts, judgements, propositions
affects, feelings, emotions
will, intent, motivation
Because a human being trapped in "samsâra"
is conditioned by these five factors of individuality,
they are also called the "aggregates of attachment" ("upâdâna-skandha").
"Duhkha", translated as "suffering" or "unsatisfactoriness", literally
means "contracted space", suggestive of a limitation imposed upon our
fundamental nature, deemed spacious, open, fluid & free. So "duhkha" may
be contrasted with "sukhâ", the open spaciousness of bliss.
The bliss of "nirvâna"
is without these aggregates (the psychological pole) and without the five elements of Earth, Water,
Fire, Air & Space (the cosmological pole). It is also without
nothingness and without neither-perception-nor-non-perception. In
short, beyond all possible affirmations and negations, it stands in
sharp contrast to the reality of ordinary experience with its
reifying strategies, identifying the process-self as a
substance-self, and outer process-like phenomena as substances.
The cause of the unsatisfactory nature of human life is precisely
the friction between, on the one hand, the impermanence and
interdependence of processes and the process-self and, on the other
hand, faced with the inevitable destabilization brought about by
impermanence, the constant adjustments the substance-self seeks to
protect & promote its so-called "essential features".
As there is really not substance-self, we suffer because of the
delusions we create for ourself.
The existential dimension of these teachings are evident. Humans
grasp at a substantial self, person or ego. This grasping implies
some features, properties or characteristics of the person are
deemed fixed, isolated and independent from others. When does this
fixed sense of "ego" emerge ? According to Lacan and his "stade du
miroir", the ego is the result of dissention between one's perceived
visual appearance (in a mirror) and one's perceived emotional
reality. This identification is what Lacan called alienation. At six
months, the baby lacks coordination, but is able to recognize
himself in the mirror before controlling his bodily movements. Seeing
this image as a whole, the synthesis of this image produces a sense
of contrast with the uncoordination of the body, perceived as a
fragmented body. This contrast is first felt by the infant as a
rivalry with his own image, because the wholeness of the image
is threatened with fragmentation, and thus the mirror stage gives rise
to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image. To
resolve this aggressive tension, the subject identifies with the
image : this primary identification with the counterpart is what
forms the ego. If Lacan is right, the ego results from identifying
with an image. It does not exists from its own side, and cannot
emerge without the other.
of the Substance-self.
Buddha's critique of the substance-self does not
aim to develop a new philosophy. He only wants to eradicate
suffering. His profound insight cuts
ignorance, the ultimate cause of suffering, at its root : nothing exists
inherently, nothing exists from its own side ("svabhâva"), there is no substance,
all is empty. Although it may be easier to realize & rectify this
when dealing with outer objects (the emptiness or substantial
identitylessness of phenomena), it is
hard when considering oneself (the emptiness or
substantial identitylessness of the
There is no inherently existent, monadic, substantial & independent
soul ("âtman"), as Hinduism and the substantial tradition at large have
claimed ; such a substance-self can, under ultimate analysis, not be found. A process-self is
identifiable, but its self-awareness is false or truth-concealing.
Ignorance makes the process-self appear as a substance-self.
Grasping at this appearance causes self-cherishing and this leads to
afflictive emotional states. Trying to make oneself happy brings
unhappiness, while making others happy causes oneself to be happy.
Self-cherishing seems the "logical" thing to do, but in fact it is
the most inappropriate way to exist, for it leads to deep personal
dissatifaction and to the "war of all against all". If
substance-selves could be found, self-cherishing would indeed make
sense (for then we need to keep our separate selves protected). The
fact such a self cannot be found, proves the fake self-awareness of
substance-selves lies at the heart of our innate & intellectual
self-grasping. Take away this false self-awareness and only a
sapient process-self remains.
Just as an optical illusion does not suddenly disappear once it has
been understood to be false, so our illusionary self-awareness does
not vanish simply by understanding there is no substance-self. Of
course, conceptual realization of
the emptiness of the self is
necessary, but only a direct non-conceptual cognitive experience of this can truly cut
ignorance at its root. Such immediate realization is the fruit of
meditation, not merely of understanding,
acting as a sensible preparation.
Selflessness is central to the
Lesser Vehicle, while the
Great Vehicle adds the emptiness of
(outer) phenomena. In fact, Critical Mâdhyamaka identifies "self"
with inherent existence. In the
Great Perfection Vehicle, this
absence of inherent existence is approached in
Five Paths, called
Accumulation, Preparation, Seeing, Meditation and No More Learning.
The Aggregates in
Air - Visvajra
Fire - Padma
Water - Vajra
Earth - Ratna
The wisdom of imperfection is changing the aggregates
of attachment into aspects of the wisdom-mind of a Buddha. As
enlightenment transforms the ordinary, contaminated body, speech & mind
into the enlightened body, speech & mind of a Buddha, the aggregates are
also the roots of the various aspects of the enlightened wisdom-mind. Insofar the
aggregates are not experienced as substances, i.e. as empty, they are
aspects of this wisdom-mind.
The correspondences given in the table below are based on a Western
approach of the aggregates, one in tune with the Western Mystery Tradition
and its interpretation of the Five Elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air &
Space). Note the remarkable
differences with Tibetan Buddhism.
The Aggregates in Western Navayâna
Air - Vajra
Fire - Karma
Water - Padma
Earth - Ratna
The sensations processed by our body inform us about the variation,
diversity and wealth of the physical plane. To grasp at these distinctions
as if they manifest distinct substances is the ignorance of sensation. In
fact, all sensate objects, although functionally different, are of the
same ultimate nature, namely
emptiness or absence of inherent
existence. To approach them in such a way allows us to develop the wisdom
of equanimity, teaching the fundamental sameness of all sensate objects.
The will of our mind grasps at the power & strength of our intentions,
experiencing these acts of will as existing on their own, independent from
the will of others. In truth, every act of will depends on that of others,
and realizing this allows us to develop the all-accomplishing wisdom,
allowing us to combine our will-power, join forces and execute tasks
together. This wisdom teaches the importance of cooperation.
Our feelings, whether they be positive, neutral or negative, seem to exist
on their own and bundle together to form massive afflictive currents in
our mind. We strongly desire, utterly reject or remain totally
indifferent, and these states "happen" to us, as if we lack any control.
In fact, all feelings depend on causes and conditions. Change these, and
the feelings change. To understand the differences between emotional
states and their causes is the wisdom of discrimination, allowing us to
witness the connections between "our" feelings and the circumstances in
which they arise. This wisdom allows us to generate positive emotional
states like joy, love, compassion & equanimity, while the negative ones cannot arise
because of the absence of self-cherishing.
Conceptual cognition designates objects. This naming fixates the object in
our mind, giving it a timeless aspect. In reality, objects are impermanent
and so transient. Grasping at this timeless aspect and not at the
ever-changing, interdependent nature, causes substantialist thinking and
this leads to a wrong conception of reality. The mirror-like wisdom
teaches us to observe the mind and not the images appearing in it. Whether
a Buddha or a pig appears to the mind, the nature of the mind remains the
same. This allows the mind to be impartial, crisp & alert.
Being aware of ourselves as substance-selves is the condition of ordinary
consciousness. This awareness is based on ignorance. Absolute wisdom
removes the latter by teaching the awareness of the infinite expanse of
unproduced space and the absolute, ultimate nature of all phenomena,
namely their emptiness.