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Studies
in Buddhadharma


On the Aggregates


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"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

From 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 (sensate) 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-Self versus Process-Self.

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 Hinduism (the "âtman"), in Ancient Egypt (the "Ba" and the "Akh"), in Hermetism (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 thought.

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 definitive 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).

 Selflessness 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 suffering.

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, while the 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 wisdom realizing emptiness, the ultimate nature of all phenomena, namely their unsubstantial, process-like nature, is realized.

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 cosmic process.

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 Buddhadharma.

 The Five Aggregates.

The psychology of the Buddha is a direct application of the wisdom realizing 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 called :

  1. "rûpa" : embodied phenomena, having form, corporeal ;

  2. "vedanâ" : feelings ;

  3. "samjñâ" : recognition, assimilation of perceptions ;

  4. "samskâra" : putting together, forming, synergy, process, volitional dispositions ;

  5. "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 to 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 "rûpa".

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".

mind "vijñâna"
consciousness
clarity & awareness
luminosity & movement
mental objects
"samjñâ"
cognition
thoughts, judgements, propositions
"vedanâ"
feeling
affects, feelings, emotions
"samskâra"
volitional factors
will, intent, motivation
body "rûpa"
body
sense-perception
sensations
sensate objects

 The Aggregates of Attachment.

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.

 The Destruction 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 person).

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.

 From Delusion to Wisdom.

The Aggregates in Tibetan Vajrayâna
"vijñâna"
consciousness
Absolute
Wisdom
Vairochana
Space
"samskâra"
will
All-accomplishing
Wisdom
Amoghasiddhi
Air - Visvajra
"samjñâ"
cognition
Wisdom of
 Discrimination
Amitabha
Fire - Padma
"rûpa"
body, sensation
Mirrorlike
Wisdom
Akśobhya
Water - Vajra
"vedanâ"
feeling
Wisdom of
Equanimity
Ratnasambhava
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
mind "vijñâna"
consciousness
Absolute
Wisdom
Vairochana
Space
"samjñâ"
cognition
Mirrorlike
Wisdom
Akśobhya
Air - Vajra
"samskâra"
will
All-accomplishing
Wisdom
Amoghasiddhi
Fire - Karma
"vedanâ"
feeling

Wisdom
of Discrimination

Amitabha
Water - Padma
body "rûpa"
body, sensation
Wisdom of
Equanimity
Ratnasambhava
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.


 
 

© Wim van den Dungen, Antwerp - 2014
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.

 

initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 23 I 2012 - version n°3s