The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (pp.135-146)
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp. 171-202)
“Again monks, in regard to dhammas he abides contemplating dhammas in terms of the five aggregates of clinging. And how does he in regard to dhammas abide contemplating dhammas in terms of the five aggregates of clinging? “Here he knows, ‘Such is material form, such its arising, such its passing away; such is feeling, such its arising, such its passing away; such is cognition, such its arising, such its passing away; such are volitions, such their arising, such their passing away; such is consciousness, such its arising, such its passing away.”
The Five Aggregates of Clinging
What does reality mean to you? How do you experience reality?
Each of us experiences a different reality due to many factors. We may pay attention differently, our senses differ, our beliefs may condition what we think we experienced. The Buddha defined everyday reality as what we sense when our sense bases (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, mind) come into contact with sense objects (images, sounds, smells, taste, bodily sensations, thoughts). However, we process these sensations. This is called conditioning. The Buddha explained this process with the Five Aggregates of Clinging.
The Buddha noted five aggregates (elements) that define the whole of our experiences in our ordinary state. The whole of our experiences includes all that we sense externally and internally. They are called aggregates because each element is composed of many pieces. For example, the aggregate of form has many objects. Analayo states, “aggregate is an umbrella term for all possible instances of each category, whether past, present, or future, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, near or far.”
It is important to understand how we process reality because we can then start to distinguish what we really sense and what we add as conditioning. It is the conditioning that causes suffering and gives us a false sense of “self”.
The Five Aggregates of Clinging are Form, Feeling, Perception, Mental Formations and Consciousness.
Form refers to all sense objects that come into contact with the sense bases. These include images seen, sounds heard, odors smelled, that which is tasted, that which is felt, and thoughts appearing in the mind.
Consciousness is the awareness that arises when a sense object comes in contact with a sense base. We cannot be aware of consciousness by itself. We can only be aware that consciousness is present when consciousness is in contact with form. In other words, consciousness must always have an object to exist in our awareness.
When we are aware through consciousness of a form in contact with one of our sense bases, a feeling of pleasant, not pleasant or neither pleasant nor unpleasant arises. This feeling can occur as a bodily sensation and/or a thought. Feelings are subjective, the “how” of the experience (“How do I feel about what is sensed?”). This is the first line of conditioning as these feelings are influenced by memories of past experiences. Feelings as used here are not emotions. Emotions come later as mental formations.
After the initial feeling, perception or cognition occurs as the sense object is identified. Perception is the “what” of experience (“What is it that I am sensing?”). The Buddha defined pure perception as what the senses sense without embellishment. If embellishment occurs because of past memories or other factors, the perception is distorted (conditioned). It is important to be aware that most perceptions are conditioned.
Depending on our perception (identification), certain mental formations arise and further condition our experience. For example, depending on how we perceive an object, a mental formation of beautiful or ugly may arise. Mental formations arising from distorted perceptions can cause unskillful behavior such as angry reactions and unskillful speech.
How the Five Aggregates Function
In summary, the process works as follows. One of the sense bases makes contact with its corresponding form sense object. Our awareness of the sense object arises through consciousness having made contact with the sense object through the sense base. Then feeling about the sense object arises (pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant). Then perception arises prompting the mental formations (ideas, fantasies, memories, fears, emotional responses) to arise.
As an example, you are walking down a street and the eye sense base makes contact with a person coming toward you, the form sense object. You become aware of this person through consciousness. Then a feeling arises about this person (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral). Perception then arises (identification of the person) followed by the arising of mental formations (e.g. joy, anger). The process is noted in the diagram below.
The Importance of the Five Aggregates of Clinging
Why is it important to understand this process? Because we can come to understand how what we sense is conditioned through feeling, perception and mental formations. Note that this conditioning is dependent on the concept of a self. “What I am feeling?” “What I have identified as what it is?” “What emotions and thoughts am I having because if what I have sensed?”
We also can see the constantly changing nature of our experiences and how they come to arise and then fall away as another arises. We can directly experience the impermanence of the aggregates and know that they are not who we are. And we can see that the concept of self that arises is also impermanent. It is merely our mind.
The clinging in the title refers to the attachment to the aggregates that can cause suffering. For example, if we gaze in the mirror and have a feeling of pleasant, a perception of face, and a mental formation of beautiful, we begin to believe that we are a self that is beautiful whereas in reality, we are just clinging to the aggregates that created this concept.
- Reread this talk and reflect on it.
- Experience what you sense through the five aggregates. See if you can recognize the type of feeling that arises, the type of perception that arises and the mental formations that arise. Can you see that all the aggregates are impermanent and of selfless nature?
- Meditate using the mindfulness of the breath technique and focus your insight meditation on states of mind.