Meditations for Recognizing the Five Aggregates
Morelia, Mexico, April 2006
Session Seven: The Aggregate of Other Affecting Variables (continued) and the Aggregate of Types of Consciousness
We have started our discussion of the fourth aggregate, the aggregate of other affecting variables (or the catchword “the aggregate of everything else”). And we saw that it includes all the other mental factors. These are ways of being aware of something that qualify or help us to prop ourselves up. So we have these mental factors and then we also have these factors that are neither ways of being aware of something nor a form of physical phenomenon, like habits.
When we talk about an urge… Let’s get a little bit more precise here. When we study Dharma we always have to get a rough understanding then turn the dial and get a little bit more precise, a little bit more precise, a little bit more precise… When we talk about an urge, it is a way of being aware of an object. That’s important to remember. We’re talking about ways of being aware of objects. When we’re focusing, for instance I’m focusing on the sight of my hand, the urge is what is bringing my mind, my mental activity, in the direction of my hand. This is what I was saying, that actually the urge itself is difficult to break. It’s bringing us in the direction of something, whether it’s focusing on an object, or moving our body to do an action, or saying something, it’s what is bringing us in the direction of doing that. And it’s an awareness of that object. When we talk about what’s bringing us to the next moment, that starts to get a little bit more complicated because the next moment has not yet happened; the object that we would focus on in the next moment starts to get a little bit subtle here. But anyway the important point here is that it’s a way of being aware of an object. It’s drawing us in the direction of that object.
Then the next one here within this list of the five ever-functioning mental factors – in addition to feeling a level of happiness, distinguishing something, and an urge – we have contacting awareness. It is a way of being aware of an object that differentiates that that object is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and serves as a foundation for experiencing it with the feeling of happiness, unhappiness, or neutral feeling.
I’m looking at you, for example, looking at the colored shapes of your body, and I’m distinguishing this (as the form of a body) from the wall. Now I am aware of this form – what I’m experiencing – I am aware of it as pleasant to see this form, a pleasant contact with this form. On that basis, in addition I feel happy, which means that I experience this with a feeling of: “I’d like not to be separated from looking at this person.” And the urge is bringing me in the direction of looking at this person and to continue to look at the person; each moment, there’s the urge to continue.
Okay. So let’s spend a moment trying to recognize and identify that as we look at various objects in the room. And I hope you’re appreciating how all these mental factors are networking together. If we didn’t find that object and seeing that object pleasant, we wouldn’t feel happy about it. If we found it unpleasant, we’d feel unhappy about it, which means that we would like to be parted from it: so we look at something else. And, as with feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness, finding it pleasant or unpleasant (this contacting awareness) doesn’t have to be dramatic; not at all. Pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
And if we want to be precise: When I’m looking at something which is unpleasant and I’m unhappy looking at it – not very dramatically, just we’re unhappy looking at it – then the urge that is there is to disconnect from looking at that object. That’s the urge that’s accompanying looking at that object: to disconnect, to move on. Then when I look at something that I find pleasant and I feel happy about it – which means that I don’t want to be parted from it – the urge is keeping me, moving my mind toward that object and continuing to move my mind toward that object. But obviously I’m distinguishing the object from the wall.
And then the fifth ever-functioning mental factor here is paying attention or literally “taking to mind.” This is the factor that is actually engaging the mental activity with the object. The urge is drawing it in that direction, moving it in that direction, and then the attention – that attention could be strong attention or very weak attention. There’s a whole spectrum of how much attention we pay to the object. Right? I look at something: I look at the wall and the attention I pay to it is very, very little. There’s an urge drawing me to look at the wall – there’s hardly any attention – then move on. Now it starts to get complicated of course, because we don’t pay equal attention to everything in our field of vision. This involves something else (what we pay attention to); for instance, interest.
Just to give an amusing example: I stayed at the house of a friend for about four months in Wales. And at the end of that stay I couldn’t remember – I had no idea what color the bedroom was that I was sleeping in for those four months because I’d not paid attention to it; I was not interested whatsoever in the color of the wall. I had no memory of it. And that came up – We had gone to a store. I went to buy a new shower curtain for the bathroom. And then we were trying to decide what would look best in the bathroom. And I said, “Well, what would go with the wall?” And I had no idea what color the wall of the bathroom was. And then he asked me, “What color is your bedroom wall?” And I had no idea. Then we laughed and laughed.
Some of us who might be very interested in clothing and fashion will pay attention to what people are wearing here today and remember it, but other people who aren’t the slightest bit interested will pay no attention and not remember at all. So attention is how strongly the mind engages with the object. Is it weak, is it strong, is it tight, is it loose? We’re not talking just simply about sense perception; we’re also talking about thinking. And also another dimension here is how we pay attention to something. Do we consider it – How do we regard it? Am I paying attention to something impermanent as permanent? Am I paying attention to something impure as pure? That also is here in this factor. Do we pay attention to it correctly? Do we consider it correctly or incorrectly. Attention.
So these are the five mental factors, and they’re there in every moment.
So again let’s take a moment – I’m not giving too much time because we don’t have so much time left – but just a moment to try to notice this mental factor of attention. How much attention are we paying to what we’re seeing, what we’re hearing? Remember we’re seeing, and hearing, and smelling, and tasting, and feeling physical sensations, and thinking probably, all at the same time. So the amount of attention that’s accompanying each of these is obviously different, isn’t it?
In the West when we speak about being conscious or unconscious of certain things that are going on in our minds, it’s this factor of attention. In other words, there can be anger which is accompanying my speaking to you which I am not conscious of. It’s unconscious anger, unconscious hostility – it means that there’s no attention to that anger. And even if we pay attention to it – if there’s attention to it – do we consider it as clean or unclean; on other words, pure or impure. Is it something which is – well, it’s perfectly appropriate, it’s clean, it’s okay. Or are we paying attention to it as something which is impure that really I’d like to get rid of?
And it’s very interesting as one starts to analyze more and more. Let’s say there is hostility accompanying this moment of my experience. Well, I’m just talking to you, or I’m looking at the wall, or I’m just sitting here – and there is hostility accompanying that moment of experience. Now that hostility is not basically because I’m angry with you or hostile toward you; it could be for some other reason – something happened at work, or something like that. But now there is this hostility accompanying this moment of experience which is totally irrelevant to it. So if we can analyze and deconstruct, then we see: Why am I having hostility? Why am I dumping it on you? It’s inappropriate. But we have to have attention to it; we have to be aware of it.
So then we change the way in which I am being aware of you while I’m talking to you. So how do I pay attention to you now? I will pay attention to you as – Well, before, I was paying attention to you as just some sort of object. Now I’ll pay attention to you – well, you’re a human being; you have feelings, just as I do. And we add another mental factor, which is called a caring attitude: I care about the effect of how I’m behaving toward you and how I’m speaking to you. In other words, I take it seriously. Then if I speak to you with hostility, which has nothing to do with you, then – “You have feelings. It’s going to make you feel badly. And so I’ll stop doing it.” And we just do it. We just change the way in which we are relating, based on paying attention and noticing what’s going on. This is how we apply the five aggregates here. All these mental factors are making up this moment of experience of how I am relating to you.
Do you get the general idea here? We don’t have that much time to be able to go into great detail with everything like we’ve been doing before, but I’d like to go through with you some of the other items which are included here in this fourth aggregate.
We have, in addition to these five ever-functioning mental factors that are there every moment, we have five – they’re called ascertaining mental factors. They enable the mind to take an object with certainty. Some texts say that we also have all of these in every moment; it depends how we define them.
The first is intention. That would be the wish to have a desired object, or to do something with it or to it, or to achieve a desired goal. Right? I’m looking at you, and what is my intention? Do I wish to continue looking at you? Do I wish to kiss you? Do I wish to punch you in the face? I mean, what is the intention? There’s always some sort of intention there. Could be the intention to do nothing.
And this factor also involves, in a certain way, interest. We don’t specify interest as a separate mental factor, although obviously it is. So the intention to continue looking at you or to do something with you obviously is based on finding you interesting. Or not interesting. That’s a very important factor, actually, that we can adjust – to take more interest. Somebody comes and asks us a question and: “Duh, I can’t be bothered” – this type of thing. Well, you increase the interest, you know? There’s a human being and they have a question. And so we have more interest and then you pay more attention.
Then there is – if we want to define it in one way – regard. This is referring to regarding an object as having certain good qualities: from none at all, to the most marvelous thing in the world; to regard an object to have certain good qualities, from the most unimportant thing to the most important thing. Again, interest is involved in here as well, isn’t it? And this could be accurate or inaccurate. That obviously we have in each moment, don’t we? How we value something – what we’re hearing, what we are looking at. We hear the sound of the traffic and we regard it as really having no good qualities at all; it’s just annoying. We regard it as something not nice. And then we could have anger about it.
Then the next one is mindfulness. Now this is an important term. We often hear about mindfulness meditation and so on, but one has to be very, very accurate here in the definition. This word “mindfulness” is the same word as to recollect, to remember. And maybe I’ll define it and then you’ll know what I’m talking about: It is like a mental glue. It is what prevents the mental hold on an object from being lost. The same word as to recollect; to remember. When you recollect something or remember something, that is what is preventing your hold on the object from being lost. We’re remembering it.
I think the easiest way to understand this is it’s the mental glue. Hold on and don’t let go of that object. That’s what we’re trying to do in mindfulness meditation. It’s not paying attention; paying attention is something else. Hold on. I’m listening to you speak. Is there mindfulness there or not? Is there mental glue which is holding on, which is holding the attention on to what your words are so that I can remember them? Or is there no mindfulness at all; there’s no mental hold on it – the mental hold is completely loose, and I can’t possibly remember what you just said. It’s the glue that’s keeping my attention glued on what you’re saying. The attention could be strong or weak, but that’s if there’s the glue – is that strong or weak; is it keeping it there or not? These become very important when we are practicing meditation, trying to gain concentration to be able to differentiate these different factors so that we know what to correct and where there’s a fault.
The next one is mental fixating, mentally fixating. That’s the mental factor of actually staying on the object. It’s also translated as concentration. How much are we staying on the object? Not at all? Or is there strong abiding; we’re staying on the object? It’s different from the glue. They’re very, very similar. The glue is keeping you from leaving, but this [mental fixating] is just how much you’re staying there. And remember we were talking about the attention – how much the attention stays there.
They’re not so easy to differentiate from each other and unfortunately, as I said, we don’t have too much time. But let’s give an example: I’m looking at you, the colored shapes of your body. In that moment, the urge is moving my attention, basically, to this form. The attention is engaging with this object. The fixating is the thing that’s making the attention stay. And the glue – the mindfulness – is preventing it from leaving, which of course is going to interact and network with the interest that I have in this object, and the intention of what I’d like to do with this object, and so on. And of course I have to distinguish this form from the wall and from other people. And the contacting awareness is finding this object pleasant. And the feeling is happiness; I don’t want to be separated from this happiness. And regarding this person as having nice qualities; it’s a nice person. See how it all networks together?
Then the fifth one of this group, the ascertainment that helps us to take hold of that object with certainty, is called discriminating awareness. This is sometime translated as wisdom, but that is too vague because it could be correct or incorrect. This is differentiating the strong points of an object from the weak points. It’s differentiating the good qualities from the false, differentiating whether something’s correct or incorrect, whether it’s constructive or destructive. Do you follow that? This is discriminating awareness. It adds certainty to our – Looking at you, for example: I discriminate that you’re my friend not my enemy. I discriminate who you are – your name, from another name – with a certain amount of conviction; a certain amount of a certainty.
So we’ve gone through the ten factors that help us to actually connect with an object. This is the basic mechanism, I guess, of cognition.
Then also within this fourth aggregate we have several more groups of items. And the next ones are going to be what we would call in the West “emotions.” However, there are many items here that we probably wouldn’t call an emotion, so it’s very difficult to find a general word. Anyway, there’s a group of constructive ones. I’ll just mention a few of the noteworthy ones.
Believing a fact to be true – often you’ll see that translated as “faith.” That’s a terrible translation. We’re talking about facts. And do we believe it to be true or not true. The fact that you are Gabi – do I believe that to be true or not? Now we get into… I mean, that starts to become a little bit difficult, doesn’t it, because we could discriminate incorrectly that you are Maria not Gabi. That I’m convinced that you are Maria and I believe that to be true, but it’s not.
That mental factor which we were translating as “regard,” according to another definition it is conviction: how convinced are we of something.
[Another] constructive mental factor is a sense of moral self-dignity: self-dignity that I’m not going to act like a jerk, like an idiot. Too much regard for myself that I’m not going to act terribly. A sense of self-worth. If we don’t have that then you go around like a hoodlum and scratch cars and do all sorts of mischievous things.
Care for how our actions reflect on others. I’m not going to act terribly because – what are people going to think of my family? We’re thinking of how does it reflect on our family. How does it reflect on Mexicans? How does it reflect on Buddhists if I act like this? I mean, you’re supposed to be a Buddhist. So people will think badly about Buddhists if I go out and get drunk because they know I’m a Buddhist.
These two mental factors – moral self-dignity, and care for how our actions reflect on others – are the basis for ethics in Buddhism. In the West we often think of consideration as a basis for ethics: how my action is going to affect you. But from a Buddhist point of view, we say we have no idea how it’s going to affect you. I can play my music really, really loudly – like in India, people get a loudspeaker… they have loudspeakers and blast this music to the entire village – and I have no idea how that’s going to affect you. You expect that everybody is going to like it. Whereas, as a Westerner, I don’t like it at all. So there’s no certainty how it’s going to affect others. So that is a consideration in ethics; that’s not the basis for ethics. Because there’s no certainty to the effect of our behavior on others. Right? There’s intention to play nice music for others to make them happy. But consideration of how it will actually affect you is something else. So we have to differentiate these mental factors there.
And we also have constructive things like detachment: not clinging to somebody. And imperturbability: we can’t get angry; nothing is going to make us angry. And then lack of naivety: not being naive. And then joyful perseverance. Perseverance: we continue putting effort into something positive, and we enjoy it.
And the standard list – there are many constructive emotions that are not included but, of course, Buddhism discusses them. So just because it’s not on the list, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Very basic things, like love and compassion and patience, aren’t on this list.
Now we have another group, called the root disturbing emotions and attitudes. They’re a root in the sense that secondary ones grow from them. Like anger is a root for the secondary destructive or disturbing emotions of hatred and resentment. Okay?
These six root disturbing emotions and attitudes – the first one is longing desire, which is based on exaggerating the good qualities of something. There’s two aspects here. One is if we don’t have it, I have to have it; there’s a longing desire for it. And if we do have it, attachment – I don’t want to let go. This is a disturbing emotion. Disturbing means that when we experience it, we lose peace of mind and we lose self-control. That happens, doesn’t it? We say and do things that are really very silly. We’ve lost self-control because we have longing desire. We feel like yet another cookie. Exaggerating the good qualities of it – that this is going to make me happy. And we have no peace of mind; we’re not content. Then the next one is anger. We exaggerate the negative qualities of something and then we’ve got to get rid of it. In both of these we exaggerate the good qualities or we exaggerate the negative qualities. Or we could even add good qualities or add negative, bad qualities that aren’t even there.
Then we have unawareness. This is the real troublemaker, this confusion that’s there all the time. This unawareness. Specifically it is unawareness, not knowing – it’s defined as a murky-mindedness – of not knowing either cause and effect or the nature of reality. Murky-mindedness means a heaviness of body and mind; it’s murky with cloud; heavy. That feeling. We call it a feeling in the West. Being murky and heavy and: “Whoa, I don’t know” – I just don’t know what’s going on, in terms of the effect of my behavior on myself and others, and how things exist. We’re not talking about not knowing somebody’s name or their telephone number. We have this all the time: We are really quite confused. And when you’re confused, there is a certain heaviness, isn’t there? The mind isn’t light and clear. There’s heaviness, I think, here. So I don’t really know what’s going to be the effect if I say this to you or not. I don’t really know how I exist and how you exist – how everything exists. I don’t know what’s going on in life.
Oh, by the way, I should mention that naivety is a subcategory of this unawareness. Naivety is the unawareness that accompanies destructive behavior. We’re really naive: that saying this isn’t going to hurt you.
Then we have arrogance. Arrogance. We’re puffed-up about “me” or about some quality: my money, my wealth, my good looks, my youth, and so on.
And then we have indecisive wavering. Should I wear a blue shirt or a yellow shirt? What shall I eat? And then you’re indecisive; wavering. It can be very disturbing. Indecisive about what should I do next. How do I handle this problem with you? Should I say this or should I say that? And what does it do – It cripples us, doesn’t it?
So all of these are disturbing. We lose peace of mind and we lose self-control. We can’t make a decision. We’re confused so we lose self-control; we don’t know what to do. And these factors, of course – these constructive ones and these destructives ones – would accompany our seeing you, and paying attention, and all these other things.
We also have deluded attitudes. Deluded means that it’s basically incorrect. Under a delusion, for instance, regarding all these things in my aggregates that are changing all the time – identifying with one of them, and saying, “That’s me.” My youth; we always think of ourselves, even if we are sixty years old, still as an attractive young person that other young people are going to find sexy and attractive. It’s just absolutely absurd, isn’t it? But we have this deluded attitude of how we’re regarding ourselves. These are deluded attitudes. Right? “My youth will last forever.” “That’s me. I furnished my house just so, because that furniture is me.” That’s really weird, isn’t it?
And then we have a whole long list of auxiliary disturbing emotions, things that come from these root ones: hatred, resentment, jealousy, miserliness, pretension (pretending we have qualities we don’t have), concealment of shortcomings (hiding the faults that we do have), laziness, mental wandering…
There’s a very long, rather discouraging list. But the more of these things that we know about, the more we can identify in this moment of my experience: What are the components when we deconstruct it? “I don’t feel like speaking to you now; I don’t feel like seeing you now,” for example. So that wish not to see you, basically: there’s no interest. So what’s accompanying it? Is it laziness? Is it hostility? What is it? You see what are the mental factors that are accompanying this moment. And, of course, underlying it all is confusion about how do you exist and the effect of my behavior on you if I don’t see you, if I don’t talk to you. Actually – let me correct that – it is confusion about the effect of my behavior on me. This is the only thing that’s certain. What’s certain is that it will reinforce a habit of not dealing with things that are difficult. Maybe the other person will be very happy that we don’t speak to them. So we don’t know the effect of our behavior on them. This is the confusion that we have – how the way we act affects my future experiences.
There’s a mosquito in the room and we kill it. How is it going to affect my future behavior? It means that I reinforce the habit of anything that I don’t like, anything that I find annoying – I kill it. I’m violent with it. Right? Not finding a peaceful solution. So our action reinforces – how we behave reinforces all sorts of habits in us. That’s why we want to build up new habits; better habits.
Then the last little group here is the group of changeable factors that can be constructive or destructive, depending on the situation. Like regret. If I regret doing something negative, that’s a constructive attitude. Or if I regret doing something positive – if I regret giving money to the beggar; regret making a donation to this or that – that would be destructive; we’re regretting something that’s positive.
It is here in this fourth aggregate, the aggregate of everything else, that we want to remove the real troublemaker, which is this unawareness. And what we want to improve and strengthen is the discriminating awareness, to discriminate between what’s correct and what’s incorrect. And to discriminate voidness: Things don’t exist the way that they appear in my confused mind.
I thought of a nice example for murky-mindedness, which is this quality of being unaware; confused. We’re so confused, it’s like walking around with a paper bag over our head: “I’m just confused and I really don’t know what’s going on.” That’s how we are, isn’t it. We really don’t see clearly. And then you take drugs. What we’re trying to do is take the paper bag off of our head so that we can actually see what’s going on. Because the nature of the mind is not that it has a paper bag over it. I think that’s a nice image. Often when we go into an encounter with someone, it is like we have a paper bag over our heads, isn’t it? We’re confused: “I really don’t know what to do. I don’t really know what’s going on with you.” Like a paper bag over our heads. And the other person has a paper bag over their head as well. So it’s really hopeless, isn’t it? It would make a good cartoon.
Now for the fifth aggregate, which is the most difficult to actually recognize; the most subtle. The order of the aggregates is in terms of the level of subtlety: what we can recognize more easily, and then more difficultly. So this fifth aggregate is the aggregate of consciousness, meaning primary consciousness. There are – depending on the system; not everybody agrees – there are six types of primary consciousness: eye consciousness, ear, nose, tongue, body consciousness, and mental consciousness. In the West we only speak about one type of consciousness that pervades all of them. But in Buddhism we differentiate these six different types. Though it’s not exact, the word “consciousness.”
Now these are primary consciousnesses. And what they are is: when they’re aware of the object, what they’re aware of is the essential nature of the object. That’s all that they’re aware of. The essential nature of an object is basically what type of thing is it, in the most general, general way: is it a sight, is it a sound, is it a smell, is it a taste, is it a physical sensation, is it an object of the mind? That’s all that it is aware of, is that: is this a sight?
We’re not talking about identifying “this is a sight,” “this is a sound.” I’m looking at you. Right? I’m looking at these colored shapes: visual consciousness. What is it aware of? What is it aware of? It’s aware of sight. This is like – it’s like the tuner of the radio or the television. It’s tuning it in to the visual channel, or it can tune it in to the sound channel, or tune it in to the smelling channel. It’s kind of moving it. It’s – “Okay, this is a sight.” It is aware of it…
Let’s get a little bit more precise here: With consciousness, we are aware of a sight as being a sight; we are aware of it as a sight. This information, I am aware of it as being visual information. That’s all that the primary consciousness does. Then all the mental factors of good qualities, not good qualities; interest; discriminating what it is, what it isn’t – all these other things – feeling happy, feeling unhappy – and that’s accompanying this awareness of it as a sight.
If you think about it, that’s really quite interesting. There’s this information – if you want to look at it from a Western point of view – information. And how are we dealing with it? Are we dealing with it as visual information? Are we dealing with it as audio information? As smell information? It’s the primary consciousness that is aware of it as visual information or aware of it as audio information. That’s what we’re talking about. It’s very, very subtle; it’s the most subtle of the aggregates.
The image of a computer comes to mind. We digitize sound and we digitize images, don’t we? Well, we would need to be able to differentiate some of those digitized zeros and ones as visual information and others as audio information, wouldn’t we? How a computer does that, I’ve no idea. But our mind does that. All the information that’s coming in, from a Western point of view it’s all electric impulses. How in the world we can differentiate something called a sight and a sound. That’s the most basic type of awareness of this information. It’s a way of being aware of something. How are we aware of it? We are aware of it as visual information. We’re aware of it as audio information. That’s primary consciousness. And the mental factors accompany that. We’re aware of this as visual information, and the mental factor that’s accompanying it is interest, and feeling happy, and all these other things.
So this has been the basic introduction to the five aggregates; aggregate factors: a classification scheme of all the components which are changing moment to moment that make up our everyday moment-to-moment experience. And if we want to eliminate the problems and sufferings in our experience, we need to be able to deconstruct each moment, particularly moments that we’re having difficulties with, and figure out what’s going on – what’s making up this thing – so that we can, in a sense, repair it.
So the more that we study and learn about all the components, the more precisely we can deconstruct what we are experiencing. So it is a very helpful scheme. And particularly what we want to get rid of is our confusion. And confusion is primarily about “me.” How I exist. Now there is a “me,” what’s called the conventional “me” – it’s in this fourth aggregate, the aggregate of other affecting variables; it’s one of these factors that is neither a form of physical phenomenon or a way of being aware of something – and we are confused about how it exists. And because of that confusion, our mind makes that “me” appear as if it were some solid thing separate from our body and mind, that is sort of pushing the buttons and so on. And that is not correct. It doesn’t correspond to reality.
In our next days we will explore a little bit more this whole topic of voidness, particularly in relation to “me”; how I exist. And we will look a little bit more closely at how this conventional “me” actually is present and existing in among our five aggregates.
This brings us to the end of this evening’s seminar. Let’s end with a dedication. We think whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit if all.
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