Clinging to the 5 aggregates

Author: Linmu

Question: In life, there are eight sufferings - birth, aging, sickness, death, not getting what we desire, encountering what we dislike, separation from loved ones, and clinging to the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness). How can one truly understand the last suffering, clinging to the five aggregates? The previous seven sufferings can be felt, but it is challenging to recognize the final suffering of clinging to the five aggregates, yet it is said to be the root of all sufferings. What does it refer to?

Answer: The last suffering is often translated as the "clinging of the five aggregates." So, what are these five aggregates? In simple terms, they are the body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. These five phenomena constitute the five aggregates. But what are the five aggregates of clinging?

For an individual, the five aggregates of clinging are what one identifies as "me" or "mine." These include everything that people identify as themselves or belonging to themselves. This encompasses the previous seven sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, death, not getting what we desire, encountering what we dislike, and separation from loved ones.

You might wonder why these five aggregates - the body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness - are considered suffering. After all, there are moments of happiness and even times when we don't experience suffering at all. For example, when you're with someone you love, all aspects of the body, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness are pleasant. Enjoying good food, beautiful scenery, fragrances, massages, music, movies, and more can bring happiness. Furthermore, many times, people find themselves in states of neither happiness nor suffering, right?

That's true. The five aggregates of clinging can bring happiness or suffering, and there are times when they neither bring happiness nor suffering. However, if you think about it more deeply, you'll realize that all worldly happiness is impermanent. There are three aspects to this impermanence:

First, all phenomena or things are not lasting. Nothing can exist forever. Regardless of how much you love something, it will eventually depart from you, or you'll depart from it. There is no eternal togetherness; there is no forever. The stronger the attachment when something exists, the greater the suffering when it's lost.

Second, the five aggregates of clinging themselves are impermanent. They can't last forever. The body requires constant nourishment to stay in existence, and even with that, it will eventually disintegrate in a few decades. This is what people fear as death. Feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are even more fleeting; they disappear in an instant. We need continuous contact with objects to maintain feelings and consciousness. It takes abundant energy to keep our imaginations and thoughts active. All of this effort is stress and suffering, and it ultimately amounts to nothing.

Third, and most importantly, even when phenomena or things continue to exist, the five aggregates of clinging still exist, and no one can remain in any form of happiness forever. Not for a lifetime, a year, a day, an hour, or even a minute. This is because, regardless of how happy you are, over time, you'll become accustomed to it and start to crave new sensory stimuli. This cycle of boredom and craving results in suffering.

Why is that? It's because all worldly happiness lacks the nature of true happiness. If a phenomenon or thing had the essence of happiness, it would make you happy at any time, anywhere, under any circumstances. The moment that phenomenon arises or you come into contact with it, you would be happy. However, in reality, the happiness derived from the five aggregates of clinging is not truly happiness. It only exists based on satisfying conditional desires. When those desires change, all you experience from these phenomena or things is suffering.

However, for a realized one who has achieved the cessation of the five aggregates of clinging, it's a different story. Because the happiness that arises after the cessation of the five aggregates of clinging is absolute, eternal, unchanging, and doesn't depend on any conditions. This is the nature it possesses.

It's like a person who has frostbite in winter. When the frostbite is unbearably itchy, soaking it in hot water or warming it by the fire can bring immense pleasure. However, the person doesn't wish to keep the frostbite around to experience this pleasure continually because they know that the pleasure is actually the result of the suffering from the frostbite itself. Being free from the ailment, being unafflicted, is the true happiness.

Similarly, the five aggregates of clinging also bring some happiness. But for someone who has realized the cessation of the five aggregates of clinging, these aggregates are like the ailment, like frostbite, and the root of suffering. Their nature is suffering. So, to truly understand this eighth suffering, one needs to realize the cessation of this eighth suffering, which is what the enlightened ones refer to as Nirvana.