What are the five aggregates?
Upon perceiving a sensation, whatever it is, as soon as we are aware of something, in reality the five aggregates are set in motion.
Whether we are thinking, talking, making a move, experiencing some pain, a itchy or neutral sensation, these are the five aggregates, which are set in motion.
When we are absorbed into meditation, the five aggregates are set in motion. When we reach some states of consciousness that we often hear about under the calling transcendental, beyond conceptual thought, union with the divine, or anything whatsoever, those are still aggregates being set in motion.
Any experience that we can do, in any field whatsoever, in any manner whatsoever, where ever or whenever we do it, these are still aggregates being set in motion.
When nibbāna is known, when nibbāna is reached, as soon as nibbāna is observed, these are still the five aggregates being set in motion.
Thus, there is absolutely no field of experience existing apart from the five aggregates.
This is the great discovery which the monk Gotama, the Awakened one, Buddha, twenty-five centuries ago, did beneath the "boddhi" tree.
He very clearly observed the apparition and the cessation of the five aggregates.
From this experience, what he learned is that; whatever it is, these are still the five aggregates at work. There is absolutely nothing which does exist beyond the compass of the five aggregates.
Suppose Buddha had only discovered this, which would still be a remarkable contribution to the knowledge of humanity.
What is even more unusual, the even more striking and revolutionary discovery he did, among all these philosophical and religious systems of thoughts invented by mankind since immemorial times, is that if nothing does exist apart from the five aggregates, nothing is found within them even.
They are perfectly empty and insubstantial.
Indeed, they do not exist, let us say that they do not exist by themselves. They do appear and immediately after having appeared, they do vanish.
Apart from this process, there is NOTHING and, there is NOTHING within either.
Any experience we might do, any stage of knowledge we may reach, thus transcendental it could be, lying beyond the world or worldly phenomena, thus being an experience of "buddhahood", that is to say self-awakening, complete awakening, these are still the five aggregates.
This is what Buddha's discovery lied in.
When he was still an ignorant being on the path, he followed the teachings of a few great masters themselves regarded as Buddha, as being who reached "buddhahood". That is to say awakening, complete liberation.
He did follow their teaching, he did perform the various practices and yoga that they taught and reached the ultimate stage, which these masters named awakening, full spiritual realisation.
We sometimes call this a "stage of non-meditation", which is a state where absolutely nothing does ever vividly appear again to consciousness.
We think that it is about a stage, which lies beyond aggregates. We believe it to be a state of transcendence.
When Buddha reached it, his spiritual preceptors told him: "As you already reached the goal, you could join us for teaching this truth." Nevertheless, he decided to go further this stage.
He remained dissatisfied of this experience, as he had an intuition, which ordinary mortals didn't have.
Even if he reached these states of transcendence, the problem precisely lies in that he reached something. Only owing to their lack of sagacity, their lack of intelligence, their lack of knowledge, these spiritual masters believed this to be awakening, liberation, the end of suffering indeed.
Even if at that time, he had not yet reached what he did reach later on beneath the "bodhi" tree, he had had the intuition that it was still something partaking with an unsatisfactory nature.
Among various religious or philosophical systems, noticeably within Brahmanical Hinduism, various Indian religions, liberation is often depicted as a state being transcendent to the world, as a mode of being, a state of being, which transcends the world and lies beyond all things. Buddha, on his behalf, is not satisfied by this explanation.
He thinks that wherever we are, we are somewhere. Whatever the experience we do, that is still an experience, WHATEVER IT IS.
And so, though transcendent we believe our spiritual realisation or experiences to be, those are still spiritual realisations and experiences.
And so, does he tell: " All the experiences done by all these spiritual masters are experiences done through a contact ".
That is to say that these are still the five aggregates at work.
What are the five aggregates about?
There are several schools of thoughts that teach the five aggregates.
There is noticeably what we call "Buddhism" in a broad sense that we should rather call: "BUDDHISM (S) ".
Likewise, there are also"HINDUISM (S) ". In short, this is what, in theravāda, we call Brahmanism (s).
That is to say religions, philosophies and systems of thoughts that conceive of an underlying unity, the ultimate and transcend truth.
Those ones sometimes expound to us the five aggregates. These five aggregates are divided between two categories.
We find, on one hand, the category of purely material phenomena and the category of purely mental phenomena on the other.
The aggregate of matter.
There is therefore the aggregate of matter, the material aggregate, the aggregate of material propensities, material activities and phenomena. It is the sole representative of the material category.
The other category is the one of mental, immaterial phenomena.
There are four aggregates that take part into this second category of mental or immaterial phenomena.
The aggregate of sensations.
The first of the four aggregates is the aggregate of sensations, which is the capacity to feel what is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
The aggregate of perception.
The aggregate of perception is the faculty to perceive, to memorise.
It is precisely at this stage that the memorisation process does begin.
The aggregate of formations
Then we find the aggregate of formations.
We number fifty-two of them altogether. Formations, or volitional formations as we also sometimes call them, are properties of consciousness.
The aggregate of consciousness.
Consciousness is the fourth immaterial aggregate, this is the faculty to know.
As soon as consciousness comes to know an object, it does know it in a certain manner, it knows it to be endowed with certain properties.
This way through which consciousness knows an object is the aggregate of consciousness.
What are they made of?
These five aggregates vanish as soon as they appear, they can't be dissociated from one another. Save very rare exceptions, they cannot appear separately, or possibly, in a very momentary fashion.
The aggregate of matter, we all have an idea of what it is about: heat, cold, hardness, softness, wet and dryness, etc. All this belongs to the category of the aggregate of material properties.
Then we can find consciousness, which is the faculty to know, to experience.
We are endowed with these faculties because there is a sensation and a memorisation, there is a perception, a type of "acknowledgement of receipt".
There is therefore an aggregate of sensations AND an aggregate of perception.
As soon as consciousness comes to know its object, it is necessarily endowed with what we call the aggregate of volition or volitional formations.
What is interesting, what Buddha has discovered, contrarily to all these spiritual masters, all these philosophers, precisely lies in that, apart from these aggregates, nothing else does exist.
We tend to imagine on one hand that these fleeting and changing aggregates do exist, appear and disappear, as soon as they do appear, in an endless succession.
From another viewpoint, we think that within or outside of these aggregates, there does exist a substance, a nature, a consciousness, a kind of knowledge, let's call it the way we like, we do imagine that there is something that lasts, beyond.
Sometimes we do imagine it to be existing apart from the aggregates, sometimes we do imagine it to be within them. "False!" does Buddha, the monk Gotama tell us.
What he discovered is that there is nothing within or without these aggregates. He rejects this idea of what we call "buddhatatatha", that is to say the nature of that which rests upon itself, immanent, unconditioned, spontaneous, self-appearing, eternal, immutable, and needless to say, timeless.
It would be, for some of us, the intrinsic nature of the aggregates, or the substance out of which the aggregates came into being and into which they are merged.
It would be at the same time what the aggregates are inclined to and originating from. According to them, the aggregates pertain to the ordinary world, "loka", the world of phenomena.
It would be essential that, by means of magic, by some type of purification, ritual or yoga, we succeeded in transcending them in order to attain this immutable nature that transcend them totally, which lies "beyond" them, within them.
The discovery that the monk Gotama did twenty five centuries ago, is disconcerting in many respects, as he has discovered that this doesn't really exist.
He asserts that only the aggregates exist and there is nothing else save the aggregates that appear and disappear.
But then, how it can be that Buddha has taught us a path towards liberation?
A path of deliverance from the aggregates precisely.
How it can be that this monk did teach us that there does exist a possibility to reach a "stage" of steadiness, peace not subject to agitation or disturbances caused by the wind of aggregates?
The cessation of suffering
The answer is very simple. It is so simple that nobody had ever thought of it. It is precisely in the CESSATION of the aggregates that, according to him, the CESSATION of suffering lies.
When the aggregates cease to appear, hence is generated the cessation of everything that their apparition does produce. It is as simple as this.
Whereas some of us tell us that there is something that can transcend the neon light; a different, more intense, brighter, more colourful kind of light, which can cross through walls and obstacles, Buddha tells us that whatever the intensity of the light might be, that is still light.
He tell us that the only alternative to light, that is quite simply its absence.
Some of them teach us that there are sounds that transcend sound, which lie beyond sound. Buddha tells us that no matter what the sound is, it is only a sound. Indeed, the only alternative to sound, that is its absence.
The same law can be applied to olfactory, tactile, mental sensations and also to sensations pertaining to taste. Mental perceptions, here is the trap! This is precisely where the trap lies.
We believe that we are taking up an adventurous step into a spiritual quest, we turn our back to the material world, we turn our back to the world of senses, to journey to the sphere of spirituality, the stage of wisdom, of knowledge, of the pure spirit.
We believe that as soon as we have turned our back to our ordinary sensual perceptions, we have already entered the world of transcendence.
In reality, does the monk Gotama tell us, if there are no more ordinary sensual perceptions, what does survive to them, that which does remain, those are mere mental sensations.
We believe having performed a journey or else that our spiritual master has already performed it and that by following his steps we will achieve the same thing.
In reality, does the monk Gotama tell us, there is nothing as such. We merely proceed to another world.
We proceed from a crude world of unrefined sensual perceptions to a refined world of subtle sensory perceptions, which, in an effective manner, do only operate in the mental sphere.
To the monk Gotama, these are still the five aggregates at work.
We talk about bliss, about "Buddhahood". We are taught about awakening, a state of awakening, of knowledge, of lucidity.
Those are only the five aggregates and nothing else than the five aggregates.
And so, when Buddha talks to us about suffering, dukkha, which doesn't only mean the suffering that everybody experiences:
Pain, toils, difficulty, all difficult tasks of life. There is not only this.
When Buddha talks about "suffering", he talks about a quality inherent to the five aggregates.
That is to say there is still some suffering that remains when we believe having reached the transcendence of suffering.
After all, is transcendence of suffering not rooted in suffering itself?
We talk about transcendence of suffering, whereas in reality it is only about a transcendental suffering.
We talk about transcending ignorance. At the most, when we have reached this stage, or when we do believe having reached it, we reached transcendental ignorance.
To the monk Gotama, there is no transcendence.
The notion of transcendence is a Utopia. We try to transcend our own mediocrity and we believe that we will reach something beyond this mediocrity. How could we reach anything else than mediocrity if we precisely use this mediocrity?
How could we reach something beyond the aggregates by using the aggregates?
The fish in the forest
Let's think about it for a short while. In this body, we do have these perceptions, sounds, images, we do feel these pleasant, unpleasant, itchy, painful sensations, we do have those thoughts, these moments of absence of thoughts, we do have all these bodily, intellectual faculties (psychical, as we sometimes say).
And by utilising all this "material", we imagine having reached the transcendence of this "material". That is extraordinary!
That's like a fish that imagines that by jumping outside of the waters all of a sudden, some lungs will appear to its sight and it will be able to live in the forest. That is a Utopia.
A fish is a fish; it has some fins, scales and branchiae.
Owing to the simple fact that it is a fish, it is doomed to live under the waters during its whole life span.
Admittedly, occasionally, a few unusual experiences will take it outside of the waters, at the time of a little jump.
But what will happen once it will have jumped outside of the waters? It will fall back into it! As its condition, its life, binds it to live inside the waters.
In the same manner, when we engage in all sorts of spiritual or mystical practices, recitations of mantras, yogic practices, meditations, we are like a fish that is giving muscle to its fins, like a fish that is learning apnoea in order to make a big jump.
Of course, we believe that once we will have performed this big jump, we will eternally remain beyond this down world, this world of phenomena, that is to say beyond the aggregates...
What we do imagine
We are likened to this fish that imagines that once it will have jumped outside of the waters, it will eternally remain in the air, in the sky, in heaven, which it does believe to be immaculate, unlimited and eternal.
Forcibly, from the spot where its is, the fish can hardly know what lies above its head. If it knew what truly lies above its head, it wouldn't take all these troubles to try to reach it.
Admittedly, we can say that there is no water, and so to move in it, fewer efforts are needed than inside of the waters.
The mass of water is pressing, it is oppressive, and likewise the five aggregates are. What is found in the air?
There is still some air, there is still something.
If he knew that in the skies there are still stars, there are still clouds and there is still some water when it rains, it would not engage in all these difficult tasks.
And so, we concocted our thoughts as to the existence of a transcendence from this world, a kind of immaculate, immutable, indestructible nature, which we can reach.
We imagine within ourselves that in order to reach it, we could utilize what we have at our disposal.
That is to say, very accurately, what we do qualify to be bad, what we do qualify to be the aggregate of attachment.
These are the impure aggregates, "defiled by the veils of karma" as we are often told. We believe that by utilizing this, we will succeed in transcending these veils.
We believe that by utilizing this body, we will be able to transcend it, that by utilizing this mind, we will be able to transcend this mind. What a tremendous Utopia!
The monk Gotama, while being sat beneath his tree, has discovered something new. He has reached these states of "transcendence", of "awakening", these states of non-meditations, these states that are neither consciousness, nor the absence of consciousness.
After having reached them, he came back, as everybody does, like all these spiritual masters, these "great awakened beings" whom we admire and whom teachings we follow. Here, he got an idea.
He told unto himself: " As I came back from them, they therefore pertain to a fleeting nature.
Since I came back from these "stages of awakening", they therefore have a limited duration. Owing to this, they are not the end of suffering".
It has had a certain duration, but it didn't last more than that.
The one who believes to have reached awakening
Let us take the example of this "spiritual master", who, on his behalf, believed to have reached the deity, "buddhahood".
He is going to write a book into which he will begin to justify himself, that is to say to disclose his stance, to define himself. In other parlance, sorry for being a bit offensive somehow, he is going to sell himself.
He will tell you that he is the disciple of such and such great master. Many human generations of these so-called "great masters" have followed one another.
Here we are with the lineage. Here we are with the aplomb. Here we are with the solidity, the back of the shop is solid.
Therefore, if the back of the shop is solid, the window will be solid as well.
Then, he will tell us about his own experiences of non-duality, of transcendence, of pure bliss.
Here is the question we could ask ourselves and that we unfortunately never ask: If he talks to us about it, it means that he remembers it.
If he remembers it, then he was conscious at the time of experiencing it, he had a conscious experience from which he came back to us.
Is there a proof that those things lie beyond aggregates, beyond conceptual thought, the intellect, mind and matter?
Fine, but while speaking to us now, he is no longer in this beyond, while speaking to us now, he is "reincarnated", as he speaks to us now, those are...
Aggregates that talk to us. All this means that for a short while he was hanging in the empty space, in emptiness and now he is here before us.
The first statement that we can do is that it didn't last for long.
He talks to us about eternity. How does he know that it is eternal as he came back to us! If it was eternal, he would have remained in it forever. His body and his mind would have been dissolved, evaporated.
And still, it wouldn't be a proof of eternity, because prior to having reached it, he didn't dwell in this stage.
If it had been something eternal, then it would mean that it was here since immemorial times and that it is gonna last forever. Then two possibilities remain, we are immersed into it since times without beginning, or else it is not eternal.
Unless we imagine that it is a substance or an essence, which is always here and that we can come close to, which we can contact.
How can we imagine that it is possible to approach this essence while being this essence at the same time.
That is to say how can we be the eternity and subject to time and change at the same time? It doesn't hold good.
Moreover, to go back to this aspect of recollection, the one who reached this divinity, this "buddhahood", this substance, he was aware of it, as if he was not aware of it, then how could he remember it?
If he remembers it, then he was conscious of it. If he was conscious, then those were still the aggregates, the ones related to consciousness.
And so he was conscious OF something.
This is in all cases what the monk Gotama has understood.
He has understood that the ones who believe to have reached the essence have, at the most, reached a transitory state of consciousness.
Admittedly, an exalted and superior state indeed, in the sense that no more sensory perceptions do occur; we have momentarily eradicated all sufferings, all anxieties, any conception, any intellection, but we are aware of it as if it was not the case, we wouldn't remember it.
If we didn't remember it, no religion would have come into existence in this world.
This is the very specific point that the monk Gotama found unsatisfactory.
What he finds to be unsatisfactory, lies is that it is not eternal, in that it does not last for long. Still a considerable power of intuition was needed to become aware of that.
The great discovery
The simplicity indeed
But then, what did Buddha really discover as being the complete end of suffering, of dissatisfaction, if it was not this, if it was not this transcendence itself? That is precisely its absence, its cessation.
That is its coming into complete stop, its interruption.
And so, he tells: "Owing to the presence of suffering in this world, there does exist a possibility for its cessation.
It is owing to the existing possibility of the cessation of suffering that suffering appears into this world."
He also tells us: "This is precisely owing to the existence of light that darkness manifests.
This is precisely owing to the existence of darkness that light appears." To Buddha, this is the alternative, there is no other.
It is as simple and silly as this! However, it is so simple that it is inaccessible.
Mostly, it does reduce to naught all our dreams of transcendence, our dreams of divinities, whereas we are allegedly fated to become God, divine, to become the eternal "buddhahood", the essence, the cosmos, the whole universe.
We got the promise to gain this omniscience rooted in this capacity to be all phenomena of the universe and to therefore know all of them and this, everlastingly. Ha! What a rejoicing prospect!
And this little monk, this little ascetic, who comes to us from beneath his tree, who comes to us from his "little meditation", teaches us that it is only a Utopia. In fact, it is not a utopia that much.
He agrees with the point that we can reach those things. He doesn't deny their existence as such, he doesn't deny these teachings and he doesn't say that those masters are mere pretenders. He simply says that this is not the end of suffering yet.
Here, admittedly, the word suffering should be understood at a slightly subtler and more abstract level. Here, "suffering" (dukkha) must be understood as being a mere characteristic inherent to everything.
Here, "suffering" lies in the simple fact to be.
Some of us will tell: "Nirvana, this is an abode.
An abode beyond this down world that we will perhaps reach after the termination of this life". Some others will tell us: "Nirvana, this is not an abode. Nirvana is already there; it is only a mode of being. It is a mode of being, a mode of knowledge.
And so, it follows that samsara and nirvana are the two sides of a coin. The only thing that changes, that is the sphere of perception."
According to the monk Gotama, complete liberation is not an abode of being, nor a mode of being. According to him, the problem precisely lies in the simple fact to be.
Whereas the final solution of the problem precisely lies in the simple fact of NO longer being, which is the cessation of being and becoming.
In Gotama's vision, the main existential question only consists in terms of being and cessation of being. Not to be like this or that, or to be in this or that specific mode.
To Buddha, the question of consciousness is not the right question. Whether we reach a kind of consciousness, a non-dual, immutable, spontaneous kind of consciousness...
No matter what it is! The problem is still there, as soon as a state of consciousness manifests. To Buddha, the problem lies in consciousness itself, that is to say within the five aggregates.
Because the five aggregates are inseparable from one other and if consciousness does manifest, there must probably be some remaining aggregates manifesting as well.
The proof for it; these "spiritual masters" who believe to have reached awakening, nirvana or even something beyond nirvana, did their body vanish during this experience? Did it disintegrate? It remained there, beneath the tree, the five aggregates weren't reduced to naught.
Nothing did happen, absolutely nothing. Let's say that it is a bit the same as when we switch on a computer again, as they indeed perform a kind of restarting.
There has occurred a momentary shutting down of the application. Nevertheless, nothing has changed.
To the monk Gotama, that is not the solution yet.
All the spiritual systems of humanity with no exception, including all the schools of "Buddhism", Hinduism, Sufi mysticism and virtually all others even, are rooted in a blunder. That blunder is rooted in the assumption of the existence of an essence, a substance.
In Sanskrit language, we call it "dharmakaya", the body of truth. The blunder lies in that some of them believe to have reached it or others think they are its incarnation or manifestation. In fact, Buddha doesn't utilize the term "dharmakaya".
He utilizes the word "atta" that literally means "in itself". There are two ways to conceive it...
The first way to conceive "atta"
Let us imagine that this "in itself", this substance, would be the creator of the world, universe, phenomena indeed. Let us imagine that all phenomena of the universe were originally contained in a latent seed form within this 'in itself", this "being", this "beingness".
That is to say, this essence endowed with the faculty to rest with itself, the essence that is self-existing, that is its own nature, whether created or non-created by itself.
That school of thought, we find it, up to our present days, among all the religions pertaining to the group Judaism, Christianity, Islam and a few Hindu schools.
It conceives of a creative god, the supreme creator, Brahma, Vishnu, God, Allah, let us call him the way we like.
The second way to conceive "atta"
In this other way to conceive it, the world is deprived of creator.
It has always been here and it is solely constituted with a chain of phenomena following one another, the five aggregates, and this since times without beginning.
Nevertheless, there would be in this world, beyond this world, or else as being the inmost nature of this world or even its final becoming, a substance, a "beingness", and a "suchness".
We find again the group of religions such as these so-called speculative "Buddhist schools", modern Buddhism, or a few Hindu schools, in particular the ones rooted in the Veda or Upanishads.
The monk Gotama himself, teaches us that there is nothing and there has never been anything like this as such. He teaches us that there are truly phenomena that follow one another since immemorial times.
Crudely speaking, nothing exists apart from this. They succeed one another, they topple one another, they beget one another, and every time they do pass away, they do reappear.
Apart from this, there is nothing. That lasts since times without beginning and it will last for a very long period.
At last, what is the end of suffering, according to Buddha? What does complete liberation from this world involve?
That is quite simply the cessation of that, its full cessation indeed.
Then, we could imagine that the teaching of this monk Gotama, which is still handed down by the theravāda school up to our present days, is a teaching about annihilation.
Once, someone came to see him and told him: "You teach about aggregates and the extinction of aggregates. Your teaching is all about annihilation".
Of course not, that is not annihilation. If it were the case, it would be nothingness, thus Buddha would have taught about the world, the universe and its sudden total disappearance, its evanescence, its extinction, its total annihilation.
It would also mean that as soon as a being would reach awakening, it would necessarily and concurrently generate the disappearance of the whole universe along with its phenomena.
Nothing... would remain. We reckon that it doesn't hold good. If all phenomena of the universe had come to naught, then we wouldn't be here today!
Visibly, phenomena are here, there is something; We can feel, know and be affected. It is quite obvious that there is no nothingness, nobody ever reached any state of nothingness.
There is no nothingness, there is something. This is a pressing and oppressive thing indeed, because it ceaselessly reappears.
This is what dukkha is, this pressing and oppressive character, it does appear and last for a certain duration. It is precisely owing to its duration that it is pressing.
It can be compared with the hose pipe under pressure of a fire hose nozzle that we throw against a door: it is impossible to open the door by pushing it from the opposite side due to the hose pipe under pressure that keeps it constantly closed.
It's a bit as if we tried to reduce those sounds to silence, but we can't.
We would like to prevent these sensations from occurring, but we can't. Then, we do imagine utilizing, transforming and transcending them.
It equates with heightening the power of the hosepipe, until it breaks the door.
see also:Five Skandhas