The Five Aggregates
Clinging to the 5 aggregates
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.
The Five Aggregates and Their Characteristics
Through previous analysis, we have come to understand that the senses and the sensed objects give rise to consciousness. Regardless of what the senses and objects are like, everything we know is limited to consciousness. Just as a film program is based on light, the world we perceive, know, reside in, and think about is founded on these six types of consciousness: visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and mental consciousness.
Previously, we mentioned that the arising of consciousness is the arising of knowledge. Here, we separate the characteristic of "knowledge" from consciousness and collectively refer to it as "experiencing" or "discernment." That is, humans have six ways to experience the world: through The eyes, ears nose , tongue , body and mind.
However, experiences do not arise independently. Whenever an experience arises, it is always related to some content. These contents encompass all worldly things. Although extensive, they can be broadly categorized into four types:
The first type relates to material content, including color, sound, fragrance, taste, texture, moisture, temperature, vibration, and the senses such as the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. All of these are material or created by material, and we collectively refer to these perceptions, beginning with color and related to material, as "form."
The second type consists of psychological phenomena related to sensations, including bodily pains, itches, comfort, inner suffering, joy, as well as the sensation of neither suffering nor joy. We collectively refer to these perceptions related to sensations as "feeling."
The third type comprises concepts, which are people's intuitive impressions and definitions of what is known, such as more or less, big or small, and so on. We collectively refer to these psychological perceptions related to concepts as "perception."
The fourth type involves activities. Mental activities include thoughts, memories, emotions, desires, doubts, judgments, plans, decisions, and focus. Physical activities encompass bodily actions and speech. We collectively refer to these active perceptions as "volition" or "formation" (Mental formations).
The Five Aggragates
Adding these to the previous "experiencing" we classify the world we know into five categories. These are form, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness.
These five types of categories all belong to the realm of consciousness. They are formless, without characteristics, without cessation, silent, just like darkness or shadows. Therefore, we name these five as the "Five Aggregates", namely the form aggregate, feeling aggregate, perception aggregate, (mental) formation aggregate, and consciousness aggregate.
The Five Aggregates are not independent of each other. For instance, when people perceive color, the corresponding sensations arise simultaneously. With the experiencing of sensations and perceptions, thinking has already started at this point. Hence, the Five Aggregates arise together, and they are like different facets of a unified whole, just like when the sun rises, light and heat exist simultaneously.
Now, let's analyze the characteristics of the Five Aggregates. We know that fire, sound, light, shadows, and so on are all immediate new phenomena produced by various conditions. We call these types of phenomena "conditioned" or "arising from conditions." These phenomena have no substantial essence, cannot remain, cannot be preserved independently, moved, or taken away. We refer to this characteristic as "impermanence."
Their arising depends on the presence of certain conditions. They arise and disappear in the present moment due to the presence of conditions. To keep these phenomena ongoing, new conditions must be continuously supplied. If no new conditions are provided, these phenomena cease to arise. For example, a flame is based on the consumption of fuel and oxygen. To keep the flame going, fuel and oxygen must be continuously supplied. If combustion or the supply of oxygen is insufficient, the flame extinguishes. We call this characteristic "dependent origination."
Because these phenomena arise and disappear as they are, and new phenomena arise due to new conditions, even though they may appear unchanged, they are continually in a process of old cessation and new arising. Just like fireworks in the night sky, it may seem like the same point of light is moving from the ground to the sky, but in reality, this movement is just countless points of light constantly arising and disappearing. We call this characteristic "change."
Since they are instant phenomena arising from various conditions without a substantial essence, they cannot be controlled or dominated by themselves or other things, nor can they control or dominate other things. We refer to this characteristic as "not-self."
Therefore, phenomena like fire, sound, light, shadows, and so on are conditioned, impermanent, dependent, changing, and not-self. The Five Aggregates are also phenomena of this nature. For example, color is produced when light reflects off an object or emanates from a light source. It has no substance, cannot remain, cannot be preserved independently, moved, or taken away. It requires constant conditions to be maintained. Color is essentially a wave of light, ever-changing, and it does not have self-control or control over other things.
In the same way, form, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness all possess these characteristics of being conditioned, impermanent, dependent, changing, and not-self. Primitive people were ignorant of the true nature of fire and believed it had a substantial, constant, self-aware, and self-dominating essence. They viewed fire as divine or a living entity. Modern humans, on the other hand, through truthful understanding, recognize fire as conditioned, impermanent, dependent, changing, and not-self. Similarly, if people are ignorant of the Five Aggregates, they may perceive them as having a substantial, constant, self-aware, self-dominating essence and may regard them as divine beings, other entities, or the self.
This perception can lead to attachment, dependence, separation, love, hate, emotional entanglements, and suffering. However, if people truly understand the nature of the Five Aggregates and realize that they are conditioned, impermanent, dependent, changing, and not-self, they will not view the Five Aggregates as divine beings, other entities, or the self.
This lack of attachment to the Five Aggregates leads to a lack of dependence. When there is no dependence, self-knowledge, liberation, and Nirvana can be realized..