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Exploring the aggregates or "heaps" that create the illusion of a solid self

"What we call a 'being', or an 'individual', or 'I', according the Buddhist philosophy, is only a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or energies, which may be divided into five groups or aggregates. The Buddha says "in short these five aggregates of attachment are dukkha."

The description quoted above, from "What the Buddha Taught" by Walpola Rahula, caught my attention and since then I have been exploring the five aggregates to gain a better understanding of what they are. Sally Clough Armstrong, in a wonderful one hour talk, describes them more as "processes" than "things". Below is a short description of each aggregate and links to further readings and audio on this subject for those who enjoy hearing or reading on this subject in advance.

The reason they are called aggregates is because they are not a single entity in and of themselves but rather the result of many more "pieces" (which are also all aggregates of other pieces) coming together in a way we can recognize. For example, a chair is an aggregate of wood, nails, glue, and fabric but each of those components are also aggregates such as wood being an aggregate of water, cellulose, etc.

1. Matter/Form - this is what we normally thing of as "things" but also includes "things" in our thoughts. However, as noted above in the chair example, form as we perceive it is a combination of stuff coming together and apart (nails growing, skin flaking away for example).

2. Sensation/Reaction - this is always one of three: pleasant (or towards), unpleasant (or away), and neutral.

3. Perception/Naming - this is when we recognize things (a chair!) or recognize that we don't recognize them (a wooden thing that looks like a chair but isn't). The interesting thing about the first three aggregates is how easy it is to see them in action. When I first read them I immediately thought of a baby's development. You can meditate a few times and start to recognize them in action. For example, I stare at the wall then I notice a discoloration on the wall and experience a reaction and naming (usually pretty close to simultaneously) "towards 'that looks like a cat!' or away "ugh, the wall is dirty" or neutral "spot on wall". None of these reactions is 'good' or 'bad'--the point is just to become aware of how the mind works. 

4. Volition or mental formations - this is where the aggregates get complicated in my opinion. As I understand it, the first three are simply reflex reactions, almost like kicking your leg when the doctor taps your knee. However, with volition or mental formations, we start to take action, either mentally (making plans) or physically (scratching that itch). If you're not aware of the first three it is really hard to be aware of this one and you can be repainting your wall either in your mind (during meditation) or physically or calling your friends to talk about the miraculous cat-like spot on your wall without being sure how you got there. According to the Buddha, this is where karma is created - this is where, when we combine it with consciousness, we have a choice about what we do next and how we act.

5. Consciousness - this is just awareness - and it can even be awareness of your awareness.

Further reading and listening online:


Chogyam Trungpa

Dharma Seed

Audio Dharma

I will present information on what I have learned in my study but am far from an expert so hope others will bring thoughts and insight as well to aid the discussion. I don't think we'll need a full two hours for this so we will convene at 6:30 for introductions and social time and will try to start the presentation and discussion promptly at 7 pm.

Further reading from books:

"What the Buddha Taught" by Rapola Rahula

"The Four Noble Truths" by Geshe Tahsi Tsering

"Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" by Chogyam Trungpa

"Gateway to Knowledge" Vol 1 by Mipham Rinpoche

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  • A former member
    A former member

    Thanks everyone for attending and sharing your thoughts on this complicated but fascinating subject. It was great to be able to discuss it with you.

    June 10, 2011

  • roy

    I thought that the discussion was a great start on the concepts of aggregates.

    June 9, 2011

  • A former member
    A former member

    What an amazing lot of information! Well done, Miriam (and Steven, Kerri and Roy, too)! Thank you, it was fun :o)

    June 8, 2011

  • A former member
    A former member

    Thanks Miriam for your work on this and thanks to everyone else who came and participated in this discussion.

    June 8, 2011

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  • roy
  • Jan D. +1
  • A former member
  • A former member
  • A former member
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