Identity and the Five Aggregates

Over the past weeks, we’ve been discussing the theme of identity from various perspectives.  Tonight I’ll be drawing from a talk that Pascal Auclair gave about the five aggregates during the March retreat at Spirit Rock.

The Buddha identified five functions, aspects, or aggregates that constitute a human being and pointed out that none of them is really “me” or “mine.” The five aggregates (called skandhas in Sanscrit or khandas in Pali) are form, feeling tone, perception, mental formations, and consciousness.   Each one is like a river of being that is continuously moving and changing.

The Buddha considered awareness of the aggregates so important that he mentioned them in 300 of his discourses.  According to our Theravada Buddhist tradition, suffering arises when we identify with an aggregate and ceases when we let go of that attachment. The Mahayana tradition holds that liberation comes from realizing that all the aggregates are essentially empty of independent existence.

The Buddha compared the first aggregate, form, to foam, which may appear to be solid, but which is unstable.  Form includes the external material world, the physical body, and the sense organs. The forest monk Ajahn Amaro says, “Calling the physical form ‘me’ causes what burdens it.”

We all tend to resist inevitable changes in the body due to sickness, aging or dying.  Even when we are mindful of diet, exercise and rest, the bodily form eventually shows signs of wear.

I remember how differently my two grandmothers dealt with this first aggregate: Although she claimed to be only 89 years old when she was nearing death at 90, my maternal grandmother Deedee let her hair turn white naturally. The network of wrinkles on her face was like a map of her long life journey.  Because she seemed comfortable in her aging body, I felt at ease being with her.

My paternal grandmother, however, struggled to hold on to her youthful appearance as long as possible.  Gram’s hair was dyed a pale shade of blond, and she never left home without a heavy layer of make-up.  In her 80s, her face looked tight and pinched from facelifts.  Gram wore so much jewelry that she clinked when she moved, and she wasn’t inviting to hug.

Jack Kornfield jokes that we rent an impermanent body for an unknown time period.  During meditation, we notice that the body isn’t solid, but a stream of changing vibrations and sensations, such as heat, coolness, heaviness, lightness, pressure, contraction, and expansion.  With mindful attention to painful sensations, we observe shifts in intensity and moments of release.

In Buddhist tradition, the body consists of four elements that make up our planet: earth, water, fire, and air.  These elements are reflected in the hardness of bones, the fluid circulation of blood, the heat of internal organs, and the airy quality of breath.  When we let go of tightly identifying ourselves with a separate physical form, we can feel more at one with natural elements–the nurturing support of the earth, the purifying wetness of rainfall, the warmth of sunshine, and the refreshing coolness of wind.

The Buddha likened the second aggregate—feeling tone or Vedana—to  bubbles that burst and dissipate.   Any contact between one of our sense doors and an object has a “pleasant,” “unpleasant,” or “neutral” feeling tone.

Our inner and outer conditions are constantly changing, resulting in a stream of shifting feeling tones.

It’s important to remember that the feeling tone is not in the object itself, but in our relationship to it.  For example, while I’m walking in a park, I experience the sight of a Blue Jay perched on a sunlit branch as “pleasant,” until the bird squawks harshly.  When the sound that I find “unpleasant” ceases, the silence feels “pleasant.”  I hardly notice the “neutral” color of the path beneath my feet.

Often we become bored with what feels neutral, and we seek more exciting stimulation.  My sister Amy is an artist, and her most recent paintings depict different arrangements of crimped paper cupcake liners. Until I saw her renditions of carefully balanced piles of delicately fluted translucent paper, I saw cupcake liners as neutral.  If we can practice bringing an artist’s eye of appreciation to so-called neutral stimuli, our lives will be richer.  Sometimes something neutral can provide relief after periods of intensity.  If I’m eating hot, spicy, Thai food, the taste of bland yogurt feels soothing. When I’m meditating, I welcome returning to the neutral anchor of the breath after reliving a dramatic story from my past.

Our equanimity is upset if we try to prolong what’s pleasant when it’s naturally fading away, or if we reject with aversion what feels unpleasant.

On retreat, I can become attached to pleasant states of concentration.

Unless I let go of clinging to what I consider “my” concentration, I react with aversion to all interruptions, which have an unpleasant feeling tone.

Mindfulness practice helps us to develop a wise relationship to feeling tones, so that we gracefully let go of pleasant moments, pay attention to neutral ones, and accept unpleasant moments as a natural part of life.

The Buddha likened the third aggregate—perception—to a mirage, which, without close inspection, seems to be real. Perception registers when an object is recognized.  For instance, we may perceive the sound of a bell or the shape of a bush.  Perception refers to our spontaneous way of recognizing, organizing and naming objects that we encounter. Without mindfulness, we often misperceive what is unfolding in the present moment, because of prior expectations.  If I scan my surroundings quickly, I might react fearfully to an exposed tree root that I’ve mistaken for a snake.

On retreat, we have an opportunity to clarify our vision and to refine our perceptions.  We realize that there is no sure future—but simply mental production of images.  Our memories are separate images that we link together to form a sense of a historic “me.”  When the in-breath occurs, there is no out-breath—it’s just an idea that has passed or is yet to come.  All that really exists is what is happening right now. When we understand that, we can embrace the present, just as it is.

The fourth aggregate—mental formations—refers to all types of mental habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions, prejudices, compulsions, and decisions triggered by an object.  The Buddha compared mental dispositions to peeling a banana tree and finding nothing of substance in the center of the trunk.  Our intentions or volitional formations are conditioned by past experiences and influence what we choose to do.  Meditation practice teaches us that it’s worthwhile to pay attention to the state of mind that causes wholesome or unwholesome behaviors, because healthy qualities of mind lead to skillful actions.

For example, if I wake up worrying about a list of chores I want to accomplish, I feel tense and tend to relate impatiently to my husband and our dog.  But if I start the day with Metta practice, I’m inclined to treat people around me with kindness throughout the day.  Mark has promised not to reveal how much his life is affected by my mental formations!

The fifth aggregate is consciousness or that which knows or discerns.

In Buddhist philosophy, consciousness includes the five sensory faculties plus mental consciousness or thinking.  The Buddha likened consciousness to a magic show, because there’s an illusion that it’s personal.  We tend to think, ”I am the observer of my inner and outer experiences.  I’m hearing the meditation bell.”  But can you discern the ringing before or after the bell sounds?  No, consciousness arises and passes with the sound and is impermanent, arising again when it discerns another object.

The fifth century Indian Theravadin Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa wrote,

“For there is suffering, but none who suffers; doing exists although there is no doer; extinction is, but no extinguished person; although there is a path, there is no goer.”  The more we can be mindful of the five aggregates without attaching ourselves to them, the freer we are–freer from the clinging that is the cause of our anxiety and our suffering.