Discernment of The Five Aggregates and their Characteristics

Author: Linmu

Through the previous analysis, we realize that consciousness arises from our senses and objects. Regardless of the nature of our senses and objects, all we know is limited to consciousness. There is nothing beyond consciousness.

Just like how a movie program is based on light, our usual perceptions, knowledge, living environment, and thoughts are all built upon the foundation of consciousness, specifically the six senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and mind perception.

Previously, we mentioned that the arising of consciousness is the arising of knowledge. Here, we isolate the "knowledge" aspect of consciousness and collectively refer to it as "perception," meaning humans have six perceptions: visual perception, auditory perception, olfactory perception, gustatory perception, tactile perception, and mental perception.

However, perception cannot arise on its own. Whenever perception arises, it is always accompanied by related content, which encompasses all worldly phenomena. Although diverse, these contents can generally be categorized into four types:

The first type is content related to material substances, such as colors, sounds, scents, tastes, textures, temperatures, vibrations, and the senses like sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. These are all either material or created by material, and here, all cognition related to colors and material is collectively referred to as "form."

The second type is psychological phenomena related to sensations, including bodily sensations like pain, itchiness, comfort, inner feelings of joy, sorrow, and neutral feelings. All cognition related to sensations is collectively referred to as "feeling."

The third type is concepts, which are people's intuitive impressions and definitions of known content, such as more or less, big or small. All cognition related to concepts is collectively referred to as "perception."

The fourth type is activities. Mental activities encompass thoughts, memories, emotions, desires, doubts, judgments, plans, decisions, and focus, while physical activities include bodily movements and speech. All cognition with activity is collectively referred to as "formation."

Adding the previous "perception," we can categorize the known world into five types, namely form, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness. These five types of cognition all belong to the realm of consciousness, intangible, impermanent, ceaseless, silent, like darkness or shadows, hence named the "five aggregates" - form aggregate, feeling aggregate, perception aggregate, formation aggregate, and consciousness aggregate.

The five aggregates are not independent of each other. For example, when people perceive colors, corresponding sensations arise simultaneously, and defining colors and sensations involves concepts, indicating the presence of thought. Therefore, the five aggregates are interdependent, multifaceted, just like how light and heat exist simultaneously when the sun rises.

Now, let's analyze the characteristics of the five aggregates.

We know that fire, sound, light, and tree shadows are immediate new phenomena produced by various conditions. We call these phenomena with this characteristic "conditioned arising."

These phenomena lack substance, cannot stay, be preserved, moved, or taken away independently. We call this characteristic "impermanence."

Their arising is based on consuming conditions. They arise and pass away in the present moment of consumption. To sustain these phenomena, new conditions must be continuously supplied. Once new conditions are not met, these phenomena cease to arise.

For example, flames are based on consuming fuel and oxygen. To keep the flame burning, fuel and oxygen must be continuously supplied. If the combustion or oxygen supply is insufficient, the fire will extinguish. We call this characteristic "conditioned."

Because they arise and disappear immediately, new phenomena arise due to new conditions, even though they may seem unchanged. They are constantly arising and ceasing, and the phenomena from one moment to the next are not the same. We call this characteristic "change."

As they are immediate phenomena produced by various conditions, arising and disappearing immediately, they cannot be controlled or dominated by themselves or other phenomena, nor can they control or dominate other phenomena. We call this characteristic "non-self."

Therefore, fire, sound, light, tree shadows, and the five aggregates are all phenomena of conditioned arising, impermanence, conditioned, change, and non-self.

The five aggregates are also such phenomena. For example, colors are produced by light hitting objects and reflecting or by the light source itself; they have no substance, cannot stay, be preserved, moved, or taken away independently; they need continuous conditions to be maintained; colors are essentially light waves, ever-changing, and lack autonomy, unable to control or be controlled by other phenomena. Therefore, color is originated from conditions, impermanent, constructed, mutable, and ownerless.

Likewise, the other aggregates of form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness are also originated from conditions, impermanent, constructed, mutable, and ownerless.

Primitive people were ignorant of the true nature of fire, believing that fire had substance, was permanent, had agency, could perceive and know, and could dominate all things. Therefore, they regarded fire as divine or alive. However, modern people, understanding that fire is originated from conditions, impermanent, constructed, mutable, and ownerless, do not consider fire as divine or alive.

Similarly, if people are ignorant of the five aggregates, they may perceive them as having substance, being permanent, having life, agency, knowing and perceiving, acting and doing, being able to control and dominate themselves or others, and being controlled or dominated by others. This could lead them to regard the five aggregates as divine, others, or the self. Consequently, attachment and aversion arise, leading to suffering such as love, hatred, emotions, and conflicts.

If people can truly understand the five aggregates as originated from conditions, impermanent, constructed, mutable, and ownerless, regardless of past, present, future, internal, external, coarse, fine, beautiful, ugly, near, or far, they will not regard the five aggregates as divine, others, or the self. Therefore, they will not cling to the five aggregates. Not clinging to the five aggregates means not clinging to anything in the world. Without clinging, there is no dependence. Without dependence, there is self-aware liberation and nirvana.

The Rising of the Dharma Eye

When one understands and has seen through their own experience that the "knowing" element in conciousness does not rely on or need the process of "objectification", that is feelings, perception, logic, speech, thought or any mental process or congition. This the rising of the "Dharma Eye"

What is wisdom?

Wisdom is in the context of the Dharma, a special kind of wisdom. Then, the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Wisdom is cultivated when you completely understand what suffering is, when you've completely abandoned all kinds of craving and conditions for that suffering, when you've completely experienced and fully realized the total sensation of suffering, and you have perfected the cultivation of the Eightfold Path. That is true wisdom, and that happens when you start to see things in an impersonal way. You start to notice that this is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself. You start to notice that all experience that is happening and arising has nothing to do with a controller that is, quote unquote, you. It's just arising due to a series of causes and conditions.

Intuition is the application of that wisdom, and that can happen spontaneously. The birthplace of intuition is when the mind is free of any kind of craving. In essence, the mind is absolutely crystal clear and quiet, so there is no thinking involved. There is no process of trying to figure things out. When your mind is so still and something comes up like a Eureka moment, that's your intuition speaking to you. The way to exercise this intuition is, let's say you're met with a series of choices or you're having a block in meditation, and you ask your mind, "What is the cause for this block and how do I let it go? How do I deal with it?" You ask the mind that question, and you let it go and go about your day. You don't try to figure it out for yourself; you let it go and go about your day. Then, all of a sudden, it will hit you like a ton of bricks. "Oh, this is the block. Oh, this is what I have to do." It might not be the answer you're looking for, but it will be the right answer.