Peter Della Santina
this chapter we will look at the teaching of the five aggregates--form,
feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. In other words,
we will look at the Buddhist analysis of personal experience,
or the personality.
the preceding chapters, I have several times had occasion to
note that Buddhist teachings have been found relevant to modern
life and thought in the fields of science, psychology, and so
forth. This is also the case for the analysis of personal experience
in terms of the five aggregates. Modern psychiatrists and psychologists
have been particularly interested in this analysis. It has even
been suggested that, in the analysis of personal experience
in terms of the five aggregates, we have a psychological equivalent
to the table of elements worked out in modern science--that
is to say, a very careful inventory and evaluation of the elements
of our experience.
we are going to do now is basically an extension and refinement
of our analysis at the end of Chapter 11. There, we spent some
time on the teaching of not-self, exploring briefly the way
the analysis of personal experience can be carried out along
two lines: with regard to the body, and with regard to the mind.
You will recall that we examined the body and mind to see whether
we could locate the self, and saw that the self is not to be
found in either of them. We concluded that the term "self"
is just a convenient term for a collection of physical and mental
factors, in the same way that "forest" is just a convenient
term for a collection of trees. In this chapter we will take
our analysis still further. Rather than looking at personal
experience simply in terms of body and mind, we will analyze
it in terms of the five aggregates.
us first look at the aggregate of matter, or form. The aggregate
of form corresponds to what we would call material, or physical,
factors of experience. It includes not only our own bodies but
also the material objects that surround us--the earth, the trees,
the buildings, and the objects of everyday life. Specifically,
the aggregate of form includes the five physical sense organs
and the corresponding material objects of those sense organs:
the eyes and visible objects, the ears and audible objects,
the nose and olfactory objects, the tongue and objects of taste,
and the skin and tangible objects.
physical elements by themselves are not enough to produce experience.
The simple contact between eyes and visible objects, or ears
and audible objects, cannot result in experience. The eyes can
be in conjunction with a visible object indefinitely without
producing experience; the ears can be exposed to a sound indefinitely
with the same result. Only when the eyes, a visible object,
and consciousness come together is the experience of a visible
object produced. Consciousness is therefore an indispensable
element in the production of experience.
we go on to our consideration of the mental factors of personal
experience, I would like to mention briefly the existence of
one more set of an organ and its object, and here I speak of
the sixth sense--the mind. This is in addition to the five physical
sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin). Just as the
five physical sense organs have their corresponding material
objects, the mind has for its object ideas, or properties (dharmas).
And as in the case of the five physical sense organs, consciousness
must be present to unite the mind and its object so as to produce
us now look at the mental factors of experience and see whether
we can understand how consciousness turns the physical factors
of existence into personal, conscious experience. First of all,
we must remember that consciousness is mere awareness of, or
mere sensitivity to, an object. When the physical factors of
experience--for example, the eyes and a visible object--come
into contact, and when consciousness, too, becomes associated
with the material factors of experience, visual consciousness
arises. This is mere awareness of a visible object, not anything
like what we would normally call personal experience. Our everyday
personal experience is produced through the functioning of the
other three major mental factors of experience: the aggregate
of feeling, the aggregate of perception, and the aggregate of
volition, or mental formation.
three aggregates function to turn this mere awareness of the
object into personal experience.The aggregate of feeling, or
sensation, is of three kinds--pleasant, unpleasant, and indifferent.
When an object is experienced, that experience takes on one
of these emotive tones, either the tone of pleasure, the tone
of displeasure, or the tone of indifference. Let us look next
at the aggregate of perception. This is an aggregate that many
people find difficult to understand. When we speak of perception,
we have in mind the activity of recognition, or identification.
In a sense, we are talking about attaching a name to an object
of experience. The function of perception is to turn an indefinite
experience into an identifiable, recognizable one. Here we are
speaking of the formulation of a conception, or an idea, about
a particular object. As with feeling, where we have an emotive
element in the form of pleasure, displeasure, or indifference,
with perception we have a conceptual element in the form of
the introduction of a definite, determinate idea about the object
there is the aggregate of volition, or mental formation, which
can be described as a conditioned response to the object of
experience. In this sense it partakes of the meaning of habit
as well. We spent some time discussing volition in Chapter 10,
when we considered the twelve components of interdependent origination.
You will remember that we described volition as the impressions
created by previous actions, the habit energy stored up over
the course of countless former lifetimes. Here, as one of the
five aggregates, volition plays a similar role. But volition
has not only a static value but also a dynamic value because,
just as our present actions are conditioned by past actions,
so our responses here and now are motivated and directed in
a particular way by volition. Volition therefore has a moral
dimension, just as perception has a conceptual dimension and
feeling has an emotive dimension. You will notice that I have
used the terms "volition" and "mental formation"
together. This is because each of these terms represents one
half of the meaning of the original term: mental formation represents
the half that comes from the past, and volition represents the
half that functions here and now. Mental formation and volition
work together to determine our responses to the objects of experience,
and these responses have moral consequences in the form of wholesome,
unwholesome, and neutral effects.
can now see how the physical and mental factors of experience
work together to produce personal experience. To make this a
little clearer, let us say that you decide to take a walk in
the garden. As you walk, your eyes come into contact with a
visible object. As your attention focuses on that object, your
consciousness becomes aware of a visible object which is as
yet indeterminate. Your aggregate of perception then identifies
that visible object as, let us say, a snake. Once that happens,
you respond to the object with the aggregate of feeling-the
feeling of displeasure. Finally, you react to that visible object
with the aggregate of volition, with the intentional action
of perhaps running away or picking up a stone.
all our daily activities, we can see how the five aggregates
work together to produce personal experience. At this very moment,
for instance, there is contact between two elements of the aggregate
of form--the letters on the page and your eyes. Your consciousness
becomes aware of the letters on the page. Your aggregate of
perception identifies the words that are written there. Your
aggregate of feeling produces an emotional response--pleasure,
displeasure, or indifference. Your aggregate of volition responds
with a conditioned reaction--sitting at attention, daydreaming,
or perhaps yawning. We can analyze all our personal experience
in terms of the five aggregates. There is one point, however,
that must be remembered about the nature of the five aggregates,
and that is that each of them is in constant change. The elements
that constitute the aggregate of form are impermanent and are
in a state of constant change. We discussed this in Chapter
11, when we noted that the body grows old, weak, and sick, and
that the things around us are also impermanent and constantly
changing. Our feelings, too, are constantly changing. Today
we may respond to a particular situation with a feeling of pleasure;
tomorrow, with displeasure. Today we may perceive an object
in a particular way; later, under different circumstances, our
perceptions will change. In semidarkness, we perceive a rope
to be a snake; the moment the light of a torch falls on that
object, we perceive it to be a rope.
perceptions, like our feelings and like the material objects
of our experience, are ever-changing and impermanent; so, too,
are our volitional responses. We can alter our habits. We can
learn to be kind and compassionate. We can acquire the attitudes
of renunciation, equanimity, and so forth. Consciousness, too,
is impermanent and constantly changing. Consciousness arises
dependent on an object and a sense organ. It cannot exist independently.
As we have seen, all the physical and mental factors of our
experience--like our bodies, the physical objects around us,
our minds, and our ideas--are impermanent and constantly changing.
All these aggregates are constantly changing and impermanent.
They are processes, not things. They are dynamic, not static.
is the use of this analysis of personal experience in terms
of the five aggregates? What is the use of this reduction of
the apparent unity of personal experience into the elements
of form, feeling, perception, volition or mental formation,
and consciousness? The purpose is to create the wisdom of not-self.
What we wish to achieve is a way of experiencing the world that
is not constructed on and around the idea of a self. We want
to see personal experience in terms of processes--in terms of
impersonal functions rather than in terms of a self and what
affects a self--because this will create an attitude of equanimity,
which will help us overcome the emotional disturbances of hope
and fear about the things of the world.
hope for happiness, we fear pain. We hope for praise, we fear
blame. We hope for gain, we fear loss. We hope for fame, we
fear infamy. We live in a state of alternate hope and fear.
We experience these hopes and fears because we understand happiness,
pain, and so forth in terms of the self: we understand them
as personal happiness and pain, personal praise and blame, and
so on. But once we understand them in terms of impersonal processes,
and once--through this understanding--we get rid of the idea
of a self, we can overcome hope and fear. We can regard happiness
and pain, praise and blame, and all the rest with equanimity,
with even-mindedness. Only then will we no longer be subject
to the imbalance of alternating between hope and fear.
from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan:
The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997),