The Five Aggregates
One way of dividing up the conditioned realm is into five aggregates (khandhas) —
- body (rupa),
- feeling (vedana),
- perception (sanna),
- mental formations (sankhara) and
- consciousness (vinnana).
When I first started meditating many years ago, I could understand the definitions of the five aggregates, but I did not know their reality; I had never really contemplated these things in an intuitive way through observing my own body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, or consciousness. Initially, I really only contemplated the physical body, the four elements (earth, fire water and air), the parts of the body (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, etc) and the body itself. I contemplated material things, anything formed.
For convenience, we can meditate on our own physical body, and we can meditate on feeling (pleasure, pain or neutral sensations) through the senses. We can become aware of sight as being either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, the same with sound, odour, and taste. Mental states, too, can be contemplated as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
Feeling (vedana) is the sense realm in which we live; this is a feeling realm. When things come into consciousness, we experience it as either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We can investigate pleasant sensation, the pull towards what is beautiful, pleasant or happy; we can contemplate looking at something ugly where one is repelled, draws back, doesn’t want to go near; and we can contemplate neutral feelings, sensations, and experiences that we don’t really notice. Most of our experiences are fairly neutral, but we don’t notice them until they go to the more extremes of pleasure and pain. The sensation of our clothing, for example, is generally neutral; we can feel the sensation of our clothes, but we have to make an effort to notice it; we have to look. If you think of your right arm, say, you may suddenly become aware of the sleeve of your shirt on the skin. It isn’t a pleasurable sensation and it isn’t a painful one; I would say it is neutral. So we can notice the sense realm, the experience of sensitivity—pleasure, pain and neutral.
Perception (sanna) is the ability to perceive things as something; it is language and memory. You perceive this, for example, as a bell. You can hold this up and think, ‘This is a bell.’ But if you don’t know what it is, you may perceive it as a dish. That is a perception. Then someone says, ‘No, Ajahn Sumedho, it’s not a dish, it’s a bell.’
‘Well, it certainly looks like a dish to me. You could put cornflakes in it. You could use it as a dish.’
‘No, that’s a bell; that is a Tibetan bell.’
We perceive it as some thing, as a form—a clock, a picture, a man, a woman—and these perceptions are a function of the mind. People live through what they perceive. In the London Tate Gallery you can see people getting frustrated when they look at modern art, ‘What is this? Is it a buffalo on a mountain, or a . . . !?’ We want to perceive it, give it a perception that we feel comfortable with. It is very frustrating just looking at it and not knowing what it is . . . ? ‘It makes no sense to me! A child of two could do just as well!’ These are the sorts of comments you sometimes hear. And then somebody might try to explain it to you. It might have a title: ‘Cleopatra on a barge in the Nile.’ Then at least you have a way of perceiving it, ‘Cleopatra is . . . where?’
Somebody gave me a postcard once of a Mark Rothko painting. It had two big squares and then a little line above another kind of rectangle. The squares were perfectly perpendicular. The top one wasn’t pure colour—it was a kind of mixture of colours—the second one was a different mix, and the third one was a kind of mauve. I looked at it and thought, ‘. . wonder what that is?’ When I looked on the back of the card it said ‘Untitled’. So, then one perceives it as a Mark Rothko painting.
Notice how we are conditioned to hear certain sounds. If we learn a foreign language, we may not actually hear some of the sounds in that language. When I was learning Thai I came across sounds that I could not perceive as vowels. I had never before been taught that those sounds were vowels, so I couldn’t hear them. Then, through training the ear, I began to hear them. Now they are very clear to me because I trained myself into hearing these different things. If you never study another language, you probably only hear the sounds that you are used to, that you are conditioned to hearing and perceiving.
It is interesting to consider how much one experiences through perceiving things in certain ways. With mindfulness one can actually transcend this perceptual conditioning to where one is in the flow of experience. One then no longer experiences life through the narrow limits of conditioned perception. Here in England, for instance, the word ‘foreigner’ among people who are rather Right Wing may trigger off feelings of, ‘Well, you don’t know what they’re going to do . . . !’ Whereas within one’s own ethnic group, class, or village, one is conditioned into feeling a sense of security—it is predictable and everyone is conditioned in the same way. Then somebody comes from another country, and . . . ‘You don’t know what they’re going to do, do you?’ That leads to a state of anxiety. When you don’t know what they are going to do, you feel nervous and anxious. There is a sense of security when you are with your own kind, your own group, your own friends, your club, your religion, your class. When you get out of that, you can feel very frightened. I’ve seen people freak out just because they are outside of the social milieu they are used to; it is a culture shock. They are frightened by things that they cannot predict, understand, or perceive in the way that they consider normal.
Mental formations (sankhara) are like emotional habits. We have agreed to perceive this as a bell and if anybody says it’s a dish, we are going to frown on them; we’re going to look disgusted with them, and this will make everybody agree this is a bell. Anyone who says it is a dish will get a dirty look, and that will fix it. So, when somebody then says, ‘That’s a dish!’, we can say, ‘No it’s not! It’s a bell, stupid. Everybody knows that that is a bell.’ But that is mental formations—‘I like this. This is a Tibetan bell.’ We proliferate around it and this is done through consciousness (vinnana). Consciousness is a function that we acquire through being born into a human body. When a baby is born, it has rupa and vinnana—it has a physical body and is a conscious being—and it also has feeling (vedana), so it feels pleasure, pain and neutral sensations. On the other hand, perception (sanna) and mental formations (sankhara) are instilled through cultural conditioning. You are not born with perception and mental formations; they come about through the conditioning process. You acquire language and memory; you begin to perceive yourself as being a boy or a girl, as belonging to a certain group, a certain class. These are acquired, as are the emotional habits that we have around these things. It is easy to think that this is a bell and that it is permanently a bell, when actually you could perceive it as a dish; that’s fair enough. Alternatively, you don’t have to perceive it as anything, you don’t have to project anything onto it; it just is what it is—it is this. Through consciousness alone you can put it into your line of sight, and then—it is what it is. There is consciousness but you haven’t yet perceived it as anything, as a bell or a dish. In this way, you begin to understand how conditioned you are.
So much of our suffering is around attachment to perceptions, views, opinions and emotional habits. In the enlightened mind one is breaking out of conditioning. Because there is an infinite variety of conditioned phenomena, the Buddha talked in terms of just five groups (five khandhas) in which to get a perspective on it, and this is to be understood in a very direct way, not in a theoretical way. Each one of us experiences through the body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness, and consciousness is functional. You are culturally conditioned through perception and mental formations, and they come into consciousness. So, consciousness is more like a mirror or a doorway into which things rise up; you become conscious of—this—of a knowing of something, but it is not emotional. Consciousness is never emotional. Emotions arise in consciousness, and consciousness can be conditioned through ignorance, so we actually educate conscious experience through wisdom.
In dharma teachings, the Buddha is actually informing conscious experience with wisdom rather than with ignorance. ‘I am’ is the convention. ‘I am Ajahn Sumedho!’—that is conventional. If I don’t question that, I am attached to that identity. Somebody I knew in the Peace Corps years ago knew me as Bob, so when we met again, he called me Bob. After getting used to Ajahn Sumedho, Bob sounded very strange to me. Both are conventions, however. If you contemplate in terms of dharma, you are aware of that. They are perceptions (sanna) and mental formations (sankhara). ‘Ajahn Sumedho’ is a convention only; there is no Ajahn Sumedho as a permanent thing. In terms of experience, am I Ajahn Sumedho all the time? You probably think I am. You come to the monastery and say, ‘Where’s Ajahn Sumedho?’ ‘He’s resting in his caravan.’ That is the conventional way of talking. You think I am Ajahn Sumedho when I am resting, Ajahn Sumedho when I am showering, Ajahn Sumedho when I am walking. Whatever I am doing you think I am Ajahn Sumedho. And then somebody comes along and says, ‘Where’s Bob?’ ‘He’s resting in his caravan.’ In terms of direct experience, conscious experience, Ajahn Sumedho is a condition that arises and ceases. In my own experience as a conscious entity, that perception ‘Ajahn Sumedho’ only effects me under certain conditions. I am talking about direct experience now, not conventional reality. Only at certain times and under certain conditions do I perceive myself as Ajahn Sumedho; I don’t perceive myself as Bob all the time, either.
This is the way of contemplating experience. As you begin to recognise the silence of the mind, the sound of silence, the emptiness of the mind, there is no self there, is there? In order to become your personality, you have to start thinking and remembering things, ‘I am Ajahn Sumedho, and I don’t like to be called Bob!’ Then I become that person; that person arises and ceases. You begin to really see how personality-view (sakkaya-ditthi) is always dependent on other conditions. You are not really a permanent person; your personality changes. You are a different person at different times. When you are with your mother, when you are with your best friend, or when you are with the boss at work, your personality changes to fit the different perceptions that exist between mother, boss and best friend. There is no kind of permanent personality there. It is a condition that is dependent on other conditions. This is a way of breaking down the assumption that you are a permanent person, a permanent man or woman.
One identifies with the body and the perception of being male or female. But, actually, in the empty mind there is no gender. The body is male or female, but in pure awareness you are not the body. When you think of yourself as male or female, you have to start identifying with that, ‘I have a male body. Women are like this. Men are like that.’ You create a perception around these two conditions of male and female and your identity with it, which is conditioned into the mind. But when you go back into the silence, you are not anything; you are not male or female; you are not English, French, Sri Lankan, or anything else; you are transcending any ethnic, racial, class, or cultural identity, because the stillness of the mind is not ‘mine’, not ‘my personality’. When you begin to take refuge in that stillness of the mind, then you are not caught into the momentum of habits, emotions, conditions and perceptions; you have a way out of that realm.
Someone may have done you harm in the past. Now, if you hate him or her and then someone mentions that person, ‘Percival came to see me the other day!’ Suddenly, on hearing the name Percival—Oh, hmmm. . . ! ‘Do you remember Percival, Ajahn Sumedho?’ ‘Yes, I certainly do remember Percival.’ It’s just a word, isn’t it, ‘Percival’, but I’m connecting it with a memory. I believe that I have really been wronged by Percival, and I can wind myself up into a terrible state about Percival even when he isn’t in the same country. Forty years pass, and then someone says, ‘Do you remember Percival?’ ‘How could I ever forget Percival? He did this and he did that, and he said this and that to me, and I’ll never forgive him.’ The same programme goes off after forty years even though I have not seen him since. If you want to push my buttons, if you want to watch me react, you say ‘Bob!’ or ‘Percival!’ Percival might even be dead.
How do we liberate the mind from that kind of conditioning? It has to be in the stillness and silence of the mind; it is there that we can see the whole reactive tendency. Somebody says ‘Percival’ and in the silence of mind I can feel the anger arising. When I’m aware of that anger arising over that perception ‘Percival’, and when I don’t resist or indulge in it but just let it be, then it resolves itself. We can liberate ourselves from that habit. It really works. When I was in the navy forty years ago, it wasn’t Percival, but Lieutenant Harris. I remember that name. He really did me wrong, Lieutenant Harris. Just thinking about Lieutenant Harris years afterwards would get me into a rage, and when I became a monk, the mere thought of Lieutenant Harris would still get me into a rage, even though rationally I could say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter! It was a long time ago.’ I could rationalise, but if I looked at the emotion, the anger and resentment were still there. By deliberately putting that perception into the stillness of the mind, however, where the emotion was not being fed or reinforced, the conditioning was broken down. Now anyone can say ‘Lieutenant Harris’ and I don’t feel anger—nothing. I can even feel gratitude to Lieutenant Harris because I learnt a lot through contemplating that perception; a lot of wisdom came from just the memory of that one person.
The above is from a talk given during a retreat at Amaravati in May 1999.
First published in the February 2005 Buddhism Now