Monday, November 9, 2009

The Five Aggregates of BEING

Seven Dharmachari translation of SN XXII.79 (

What are the Five Aggregates that constitute the psycho-physical being, which act as the ultimate objects of clinging, that are mistakenly taken to be an enduring self, soul, ego, or identity?

"What do you call 'form' (rupa)? It is because it is afflicted (ruppati) that it is called 'form.' Afflicted with what? With cold, heat, hunger, thirst, with the touch of gadflies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and snakes. Because it is afflicted, it is called form.

"What do you call 'feeling' [sensation, vedana]? It is because it feels that it is called 'feeling.' What does it feel? It feels pleasure, pain, and neither-pleasure-nor-pain [neutral]. And because it feels, it is called feeling.

"What do you call 'perception' [sañña]? It is because it perceives that it is called 'perception.' What does it perceive? It perceives blue, yellow, red, white. And because it perceives, it is called perception.

"What do you call 'mental-formations' [sankhara]? It is because they compound compounded things [form formations, compose composites, fabricate fabrications] that they are called 'formations.' What do they compound into a compounded thing?

"From form-ness, they compound form [body, derived and underived materiality, the four great elements] into a compounded thing. From sensing, they compound feeling into a compounded thing. From perceiving... From compounding... From consciousness, they compound consciousness into a compounded [composite, fabricated] thing. And it is because they compound compounded things that they are called formations.

"What do you call 'consciousness' [viññāṇa]? It is because it cognizes that it is called 'consciousness.' What does it cognize? It cognizes what is sour, bitter, pungent, sweet, astringent, non-astringent, salty, and bland. And because it cognizes, it is called consciousness."

These, then, in brief are the Five Aggregates. And when it is said -- most famously in the Heart Sutra (the Discourse on the Heart of Perfect Wisdom, Prajnaparamita) -- that "form is emptiness" and the very emptiness form, and that the same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousness, what is meant is that they do not constitute a "being." There is no identity in the process, nothing to identify with. There is merely a process, and every part of it is accounted for, including the unseen or psychological components and the seen or physical elements.

An individual is therefore composed of eight heaps or groups of things, four physical and four nonphysical. The first four groups are together simply called "form." They are the Four Elements (mahabhuta) or characteristics of matter: hardness (earth), liquidity (water), heat (fire), and motion (wind). These are fundamental. They should not be confused with the tangible items seen in the world, which are simply examples of them. All material objects contain these four qualities or characteristics of matter in varying degrees. Moreover, there are 24 derived or secondary phenomena also called form or corporeality; they account for body-sensitivity and the life process.

The second four groups are called "name" (nama) or mentality: sensation (five kinds, i.e., agreeable, disagreeable, bodily, mental, and indifferent), perception (six classes, i.e., the five senses and mental impression), mental-formations (50 phenomena), and consciousness (six classes, i.e., the five senses plus mind).

Through successful meditation rooted in absorption (jhana) and escalating up through progressive insight (vipassana) exercises, it is possible in this very life to literally see and understand these phenomena or things. They are not as they appear -- mere philosophical and psychological designations handed down by the Buddha. Not only can they be seen, knowing and seeing them gives way to liberating insight into the nature of all phenomena. One discerns their impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and impersonal or "empty" nature. One is thereby freed from clinging to them and the objects of sensory experience found in the world.

It is only through this understanding that one may be said to undergo the process of "going beyond."

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi swaha!

"Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, [to] awakening, so it is!"