Meditations for Recognizing the Five Aggregates
Session Three: The Aggregate of Forms of Physical Phenomena
Morelia, Mexico, April 2006
Now we’re ready to look at what actually are these five aggregates. What we’re talking about with the five aggregates is a convenient scheme to help us to organize our experience and understand our experience. So they are categories, like boxes, in which we could include various factors that make up each moment of our experience. Now these categories don’t exist anywhere; they’re not something that are—you know, boxes somewhere up in the sky or anything like that. They are just categories. All right?
A category is something that is a convention that a group of people have agreed upon to help them to organize material. Now what is it that we want to organize? What is it that we want to classify within these five categories? It is everything that makes up each moment of our experience but which changes from moment to moment. So we’re only including here things that change; nonstatic phenomena, we call that.
Now is everything that makes up our experience things that change? Well, no; although we could quibble about the word “to experience something.” But there are static things which also exist, things that don’t change, and we use some of them for understanding things. The main example that I’m thinking of is categories: a category, like table and chair. This is a convention that we use for organizing many different objects. They’re all tables. There are many different items that can be called table and fit in that category of table, aren’t there? Or the category of flower. Well, not every plant would be included in the category “flower.” These are categories. They’re made up by some sort of convention. Some scientists came up long ago with a category “flower.” I mean, there are lots of plants around, and they differentiated within plants, different types of plants, and came up with the category “flower.” And then there are various things that belong to that category, that that category can include. And different cultures refer to that category with different words; different sounds.
So these categories don’t change from moment to moment; it’s just a category. So these are not included in the aggregates. Although we use them, in a sense, in order to make sense of what we experience, but that’s not in the aggregates. Aggregates are just things that change from moment to moment. Okay? Let me take a moment so we understand that.
Well, these categories: people, dogs, cats. There are a lot of different looking animals that are all called “dog,” aren’t there? So we have the category “dog.” And that category doesn’t change from moment to moment. An individual dog changes from moment to moment, but the category “dog” doesn’t change. Well, I did that for a moment so we know what’s included in the aggregates and what’s not included in the aggregates.
Do categories exist anywhere? No, they don’t. Where does the category “dog” exist? It doesn’t exist anywhere. So, similarly, the five aggregates are categories. They don’t exist anywhere. Categories. Just as we can use the category “dog” to include many different animals that it’s not so obvious that they’re dogs, are they? But we can include Chihuahua, a Great Dane, a cocker spaniel, and so on. Okay? They’re all thrown in there into the category “dog.” So, similarly, we have a lot of different items that make up our experience that change from moment to moment, and we can throw it into the category of one or another of these five aggregates. So it’s just an organizational scheme. These categories, like boxes—it’s not like physical boxes that you can find anywhere, these five aggregates. I think we can understand it more easily in terms of “category.” If “box” is an easier way of understanding it—okay, use “box,” but don’t think that the box is located anywhere. Okay. We’ll take one moment and digest that.
So we’re talking about individual items that change from moment to moment that we are experiencing. Now these items can either be connected to our own mental continuum (is the technical word), or they could be connected with somebody else’s mental continuum, or they could be not connected to any mental continuum. Mental continuum is just the continuity of some individual person’s mental activity. So my body is connected to my mental continuum; it’s connected to what we conventionally would call “me.” If you hit it, I feel pain. Your body is connected to your mental continuum, not my mental continuum. If I hit your body, you feel it; I don’t feel it. But I can experience your body—I can see it, I can touch it, and so on—so it’s part of my experience, but it’s not connected to my mental continuum. It’s not the same as seeing my body and touching my body. And this table is not part of anybody’s mental continuum. I can hit the table and nobody feels pain. I mean, I can feel pain in my hand, but the table doesn’t feel any pain. And I can experience the table: I can see it, I can touch it.
So what makes up our experience and what changes from moment to moment. My body changes from moment to moment. Your body changes from moment to moment. The table changes from moment to moment: it can be clean; it can be dirty; etc. These are three different types of things that we can experience and they all change from moment to moment. My anger is part of my mental continuum; your anger is part of your mental continuum. I don’t experience your anger; I can see the effects of the anger on your behavior, but it’s not part of my mental continuum. Okay? Let’s take a moment to digest that.
I think that this methodology is perhaps helpful: if at each point we take some moment to digest that. Then we have a basis for going on. Otherwise it’s easy to get lost.
So it makes up our experience; changes from moment to moment. Like sights. Could be the sight of my body, that’s connected to my mental continuum. The sight of your body is connected to your mental continuum. And the sight of a tree, that’s not connected to the tree or the wall; that’s not connected to anybody’s mental continuum.
Now let us start to look at these five aggregates, these five categories or bags or boxes.
The first one is the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. Well, within that there are subcategories. Like within the category of dog there are subcategories Chihuahua, Great Dane, and poodle. So we have six subcategories: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and objects which are forms of physical phenomena that can only be known by the mind. An example of that last one, a form of physical phenomenon that is only known by the mind, would be for instance the forms that we see in dreams, the shapes that we see in dreams, the sounds that we supposedly hear in dreams. It’s not that we’re hearing with our ears; it’s only known by the mind.
So let’s try to recognize each of these different types of forms of physical phenomena so that we know what we’re talking about. After all, the purpose of learning about these five aggregates is to be able to recognize them within our own experience, moment to moment, and to realize that they’re changing from moment to moment.
Let’s start with sights. These are sights of, basically, colored shapes. We’re not talking about shapes and colors. You don’t have a color independent of a shape, and you don’t have a shape independent of a color. You have colored shapes. Right? So a square shape of yellow. A circle that’s white. And this is what we are seeing, aren’t we? When you look at somebody’s body, what are we seeing? We’re seeing different colored shapes, aren’t we? Right? Okay.
Suppose we could think of a coloring book. That’s what we’re talking about here with colored shapes. And there’s the example that I just used before: I see the colored shapes that are associated or connected to my mental continuum, the colored shapes of my body; the colored shapes of your body, that’s connected to your mental continuum; and I see the colored shapes of the room. They’re changing all the time. Because my body, obviously, is moving, so the colored shapes of my pants and so on obviously change depending on the position of my leg. And the colored shapes of your body change moment to moment as you move, even just as you breathe. And the colored shapes that I see of the room also change from moment to moment, depending on the movement of people in it. Think about that. If you look at this white-colored shape behind my head in this brown square; now that colored shape, as I move my head, changes, doesn’t it? So the colored shape of the room changes from moment to moment, depending on the movement of the things in the room. We’re talking about what you see.
Imagine you take a photograph, a still photograph, in one moment. And then people move a little bit. And then the next moment you take another colored photograph. And if you look at the shapes, the colored shapes—in each photograph, it’s going to be different. The colored shape of my body will be different; the colored shape of your body will be different; the colored shape of the walls will be different. All of these things change from moment to moment.
So let us take a few moments to look around and to identify, recognize within our own experience, the sights, these colored forms that are changing from moment to moment. Some of them connected to my mental continuum, some to other people’s mental continuums, and some not connected to anybody’s mental continuum. And that, like the still photograph, what we are seeing in each moment is made up of that combination of these three types of items: connected to my continuum, your continuum, or not to anyone’s. That’s when we are in a room with other people. Of course if we are by ourselves, we don’t see anything connected to somebody else’s mental continuum. And please remember that when we talk about a visual form, the colored shape connected to somebody else’s mental continuum, then that doesn’t include only people; that also includes animals—insects and so on. So although if we just talk about colored shapes connected to a mental continuum, that sounds pretty weird and difficult to understand, it is not so difficult to understand if we think in terms of what we’ve been explaining—in other words, with the analogy of taking a still photograph.
So try to look around and notice that these colored shapes are of these three categories and they are changing all the time. Especially if we move our heads, then obviously they’re changing. And remember the universe doesn’t exist like still photographs; it’s not that it lasts forever, just in one snapshot, and that’s it. It’s like a moving picture; it’s changing all the time. Okay. Let’s try to observe that. To observe this, you have to look around; you can’t do this with your eyes closed, please.
Now of course there’s a very deep question—just to give you some idea of the depth that we can go in this analysis—there’s a very interesting question: When I see these colored shapes here of the flower, am I just seeing colored shapes or am I seeing the flowers? That’s a very interesting question. And within Buddhist schools, we have some that say that we actually do see flowers and others that say that we don’t see the flowers, we only see colored shapes. And other schools say we see both colored shapes and the flowers, and the other school says, “No. We only see colored shapes.”
So we can have something very simple, like we see colored shapes. Not very difficult to understand. But then we can also see that there are much more subtle points associated with that, in terms of do we actually see commonsense conventional objects or not. Or do we only see colored shapes. Okay. We can leave that aside. We won’t go into that discussion, but just to introduce you to the idea that even little simple topics can lead to something far more profound.
Now we go on to the next type of form of physical phenomena, and that would be sounds. [We can hear some sounds that are connected to our own mental continuum like for instance the sound of my voice] Or we can hear sounds that are connected to somebody else’s mental continuum, like the sound of somebody else speaking, or the sound of the birds singing. And we can also hear sounds that are not connected to anyone’s mental continuum, like the sounds of the traffic outside; the cars going by.
And just as when we were talking about the visual sense field as made up of a combination of these three types of phenomena, similarly the audio sense field is made up of these three types of items and we can hear all three of them at the same time. So let’s try to recognize that we can hear the sound of our own breathing, and the sound of the birds outside singing, and the sound of the traffic going by. And each of those three items is changing all the time. And it’s quite interesting: they’re changing at different rates. Okay. So let’s try to recognize these forms of physical phenomena which are sounds. And that’s making up each moment of our experience. Unless we are blind from birth, we have in each moment some sort of form of visual phenomenon. Even when we are asleep, for instance, there’s sort of a darkness. And similarly, unless we’re deaf, in each moment we are hearing something. Even in so-called complete silence, we can still hear our heartbeat or our breathing.
So we’re hearing something different every moment. And actually we are experiencing not only sights, experiencing not only sounds, but we experience both of them at the same time, don’t we? How much attention we pay to what we are hearing or what we’re seeing, that’s something else; attention is in one of these other categories of aggregates. But the sights are there; we’re experiencing them. The sounds are there; we’re experiencing them. So in each moment there are some sights and some sounds that are part of our experience. So let’s try to observe both of them. They are all changing moment to moment.
So our experience is filled with lots of things. But another dimension in the realm of the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena, these are smells. We can smell our own bodies connected to our own mental continuums. I can smell your body, the smell of your body, or the smell of the cat or the smell of the dog; that’s connected to someone else’s mental continuum. And we can also smell, at the same time, the pollution in the air, or the food that is cooking in the kitchen. What we’re smelling is a combination of many different smells, isn’t it? We can smell other people’s breath, we can smell cigarette smoke, we can smell a lot of things. Dogs perhaps can differentiate a little bit better than we can as humans, but still we experience all these different smells. And, unless our noses are stuffed, we are smelling all the time.
Actually, Shantideva, the great Indian master, makes a big difference (when he’s talking about attachment) between the smell of perfume and the natural smell of the body. And what is it that we are attracted to? Is it the perfume or the actual smell of the body of the other person when we have attachment to somebody? Their perfume? We say, “Your hair smells so beautifully,” but actually we are smelling the shampoo; we’re not smelling your hair at all. As Shantideva pointed out, if the person didn’t wash for a few months, the smell of their body would perhaps not be so attractive; the natural smell of the body.
So let’s try to observe the different smells that we experience. First focus just on the smells, and then add it to the sights and the sounds; because, in fact, some sights and some sounds and some smells make up each moment of our experience.
So in each moment of our experience there’s some sights which are changing all the time, and some sounds which are changing all the time, and some smells that are changing all the time. Now let’s add tastes. We can taste something that’s connected to our own mental continuum: for instance, the taste of the saliva in our mouths. Can you taste the saliva in your mouth? We’re not aware of it so often, are we? But it has a taste. It’s part of our experience. And it’s there all the time. And we can experience a taste which is connected to somebody else’s mental continuum, like the taste of your lips when I kiss you. And we can also taste something which is not connected to anyone’s mental continuum, such as the taste of the coffee or the taste of the hamburger. The meat of the hamburger is no longer connected, I hope, to the mental continuum of the cow. And all of these are changing all the time.
I suppose we could imagine a situation of facing all three categories here, of the taste of the saliva in our mouths, and the taste of your lips while I am kissing you at the same time, and the chewing gum that I’m chewing. But that rarely happens. But at the moment probably we are only tasting the saliva in our mouths, so let us focus on that. Hopefully that’s not too unpleasant. And then let’s add that to experiencing in each moment—We are experiencing sights and sounds and smells and tastes, and try to be aware of all of them because in fact we are experiencing all of them at the same time.
Okay. Now let’s add physical sensations. We can experience, and we do experience, physical sensations that are connected to our own body; for instance, the physical sensation of our tongues inside our mouths. Now that is a pretty weird physical sensation as we actually start to focus on it, that we have this thing inside our mouths that’s moving all the time, especially when we’re talking. It’s really weird. So we don’t want to freak out by starting to be aware of this thing in our mouth. But it is there and, if we pay attention to it, we can feel it all the time. There is some sense information coming in, isn’t there. And if, at the same time, I am holding your hand, I am feeling a physical sensation that’s connected to somebody else’s mental continuum. And at the same time, I am experiencing the temperature of the room; that is a physical sensation that is not connected to anybody’s mental continuum.
We’re experiencing all these things at the same time as we are experiencing sights and sounds and smells and tastes. So we’ll try to test this out, experience it—focus on our experience, I should say, of the physical sensation of our tongues in our mouths, or the seat underneath our behinds. And we’re probably not touching somebody else, but we can also experience the physical sensation of the temperature of the air, and the breeze in the room on our skin, and the feel of our clothing on our bodies. It’s interesting. Can you feel the clothing on your body?
So let’s try to be aware of the physical sensations that we’re feeling: our tongue in our mouth, and our clothing on us, and the temperature of the room. So first of all just the physical sensations. (And, by the way, also included in physical sensations is feeling motion—you know, moving.) And then try to experience all of these five types of sensory information at the same time because in fact we are experiencing them at the same time: sights, sounds, smells, tastes (like the saliva in our mouths), and physical sensations (like our tongue in our mouths). And they’re all changing at different rates. We can include as well here the physical sensation of feeling hungry. Try licking your lips; we can taste our lips and feel the physical sensation at the same time as we are hearing the traffic outside, and seeing all the people in the room, and smelling the air; and then we feel our lips wet.
So we have quite a lot of things happening here in our aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. And, at the same time, we can have forms of physical phenomena that can only be known by the mind. Try picturing an orange in your mind. We could even imagine the taste of an orange and the smell of an orange, or the taste of a wonderful good cup of coffee. So we can imagine that and experience it—it’s a form of physical phenomenon—at the same time as we are seeing the room, and we’re hearing the traffic, and we’re smelling the air in the room, and feeling our tongues in our mouths, and tasting our saliva. All of that can go on at the same time; in fact it does. There’s the sound of a voice going on in our heads; that’s always an object of the mind, isn’t it. That’s the easiest one, I think. To give here as an example: while we are experiencing all the various external senses, we can also have a sound of a voice going on in our heads, commenting or talking about something, or complaining, or whatever.
So let’s try to notice these forms of physical phenomena that are purely mental; known mentally. If it’s difficult to even just imagine an orange and what it tastes like or smells like, at least we can recognize the sound of a voice in our heads. First recognize that, and then add it to all the other five forms of physical phenomena.
So we discover that there is a tremendous amount going on just in this one aggregate every moment; these forms of physical phenomena. And because there are these six different types of items, these six different types of forms of physical phenomena, and each of them is changing every moment, and they’re not changing at the same speed, then we start to realize that our experience in each moment is not something which is concrete and static. It’s made up of lots of different parts that are all changing.
And this is one of the main aims here of understanding the five aggregates, is to deconstruct each moment of our experience. Deconstruct it from this imagined form of experience as concrete and solid and always the same, like: “I’m in a depression.” You know how heavy this type of thing can be. You can deconstruct it and see, well, it’s made up of a lot of different parts that are changing all the time.
Are there any questions about this first aggregate (the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena) and the things that we experience that fit into this category?
[Question: ….all the mental parts of my mental continuum. If I listen to the sound of the bird singing, is the sound of the bird singing of the bird - another living creature another mental continuum?]
Alex: We can think about the sound of my voice. We can think about the sound of the birds singing. We can think about the sound of the traffic. We can imagine all three. So then we would still have these categories of: associated with our own mental continuum, somebody else’s, and no mental continuum.
Question: My memory of my mother, is this related to her mental continuum even if she’s not alive anymore?
Alex: The memory of what my mother looks like after my mother has died, we’d have to say that that is—if we’re just categorizing—that’s a form that was connected with her mental continuum. Now you have to be careful here. When I am feeling the physical sensation of your body when I am holding your hand, now of course I am experiencing some physical sensation. What I feel is associated with my own mental continuum, but that object that I am feeling, the physical sensation of the warmth of your body, that is connected with your mental continuum. So both are happening at the same time. It just depends on which point of view we’re looking at it. Obviously, if it’s my experience of these other things, it’s connected with my own mental continuum.
Question: But if it is just a memory of a touch?
Alex: If it is just the memory of her touch? It’s the same, whether it’s the memory of a touch or imagining the touch. We could imagine the touch of something that we’ve never experienced, like we see some beautiful person and we imagine what it would be like to touch them.
Question: Would that be connected with my mental continuum?
Alex: That one would be connected with my own mental continuum? In a sense, yes. But it is a—Don’t think of it as being so concretely connected.
Also there are other types of forms of physical phenomena that can only be known by the mind. For instance, I can think of the atoms of my own body, I can think of the atoms of your body, or I can think of the atoms of the wall. These are not things that can be seen by the eyes. Or I can think of the astronomical distance between the Sun and the Earth. I can’t actually see that, but I can think of it. It’s a form of physical phenomenon. So there are many things in this category.
Question: During this group of exercises that we were doing, I found it quite difficult to hold in my conscious attention three things at the same time, like sights, sounds and smells. That was pretty difficult. But all those three, it was impossible. It seems like I have to lose my attention on some objects in order to be able to pay attention to the other objects. Is this normal or should I be able to be aware of all of them at the same time clearly?
Alex: It is normal for ordinary human beings like ourselves to not pay equal attention to the information that’s coming in on all the senses, although all that information is coming in. So attention, that’s in another aggregate. Somebody who is autistic—the problem in autism is that they don’t have that ability to censor out the amount of attention they pay on all of the senses, at least this is what I’ve been told, and so they get all that information equally strongly coming in, and it’s too much for them to process and so they shut down. That’s autism; whereas if we were a Buddha, we would be able to pay equal attention on all of them simultaneously without any problem.
Question: Probably one other source among many other sources of ignorance is that we strongly believe when talking with someone (or we’re in contact with someone) that we’re really in contact with their mental continuum, that we’re really in contact with their sounds and sensations and odors. How much are we really in contact with what’s happening in their mental continuum, rather than with only what we can see directly?
Alex: That’s a very interesting question. It is the same issue as when we are looking at this object over here. Are we seeing only colored forms, colored shapes, or are we seeing the flowers? So, similarly, when we hear the sound of a voice, are we hearing just sounds or are we hearing the person speaking? It’s the same question.
It is very interesting then because—This comes to the issue that we mentioned before in terms of incorrect consideration. We think that there is a “me” or a “you” that can be known independently, by itself. So I want to know “you.” Can I know “you” without knowing the sound of your voice or without seeing the sight of your body? Is there a “you” that exists independently of the sound of your voice—and the sight of your body, and the physical sensation of your touch, and so on—that I can know? That’s a very important question to explore. I say, “I know Maria.” Well, do I know Maria by herself? Or “You don’t know me. You only know my body. You don’t know ‘me.’” So it is crucial to understand the relationship between “me” and the aggregates.
Question: Then the mental continuum would be classified within one of the five aggregates?
Alex: The mental continuum itself? Yes. It would be classified within the five aggregates; the aggregate of consciousness.
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