Buddhism and the Five Aggregates

Buddhism suggests that by understanding all aspects of ourselves, referred to as the aggregates, we can then control and direct ourselves to practice ‘karma yoga’ – an action which causes the least possible negative consequences for ourselves and others.

These five aggregates, according to Buddhist teachings, define what a human being is, and like everything in the world, are in constant change. They are categorised as Form, Sensation, Perception, Mental Formation, and Consciousness.

Buddhist teaching describes the aggregates as the five elements that sum up the whole of an individual’s mental and physical existence.

The first aggregate, Matter/Form, relates to material and physical form and includes the 6 sense organs: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin and the mind (perceiving ideas and thoughts).

The second aggregate, Sensation, relates to the senses and are differentiated into pleasant versus unpleasant, or pleasure versus pain. This includes sight (beauty versus ugliness), sound (harmonious sound versus noise), smell (sweet versus foul), taste (appetizing versus unpalatable), touch (pleasant versus unpleasant) and mind (positive and negative thoughts).

The third aggregate, Perception, occurs when our six faculties come in contact with the world. The first three aggregates are very much linked and intertwined, and are sometimes described as passive – we constantly sense and perceive things throughout the day, in an involuntary manner. 

Our perception/feelings are constantly changing, the way we react to situations changes. One day we may hear a sound that we usually love, but today we perceive it as annoying. The sound hasn’t changed, our faculty to hear hasn’t changed, but our perception has. 

But it is also considered that we can train each of these faculties and can progressively master them. The most importance is given to the mind. 

Before describing the fourth aggregate, we will look at the fifth aggregate, Consciousness/ Awareness, underlies our sensations and perceptions and is associated with the sensory organs; the consciousness of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking. Buddhism suggests that consciousness is dependent on the other aggregates, it can’t exist without them. For example, eye-consciousness exists because we have eyes, sight and therefore things that can be seen. 

In Buddhist terms, ‘we’ or the concept of ‘I’, is neither any of the aggregates nor a combination of them, including consciousness. This means that we are not any of the aggregates and we are also not consciousness.

Returning now to the fourth aggregate is where it gets more interesting because here we make active changes to the way we interact, think, and perceive the world. The fourth aggregate, Mental Formation, or ‘Volition’, is where karma is generated. The Buddha describes it as follows: 

“It is volition that I call Karma, having willed, one acts through body, speech and mind” “Volitional actions produce karmic effects”

We label everything that we perceive and experience as good, bad, and indifferent, and we act based on the labelling that we apply, pleasure versus pain. We can also realise that these perceptions are expressed in duality: we cannot have one without the other, otherwise, there is nothing to compare to it; they are a pair. 

For example, we appreciate health when we have been sick or unwell. We know and recognise justice because we observed or experienced injustice. However, we keep expecting only the beautiful, the pleasant, but without its opposite, we cannot recognise the ideal.

Mental formation is where dukkah (suffering) arises. The judgements or labels we apply, are based on what we know, the associations that we make. Usually, they are habitual, automatic: events and experiences trigger feelings of being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The challenge lies in being able to break our judgements and change our mental formation.

To change our mental formation it is suggested that we first acknowledge that our judgements are limited and they are also changing. There are many simple examples: some people love pineapples, others don’t like them and yet others are neutral towards them; today we may enjoy walking along a beach that buzzes with people and activity, tomorrow it may be an annoyance to us. Or someone says something to us, we immediately apply a label/judgement – this is something harsh, unfair, something I don’t want to hear, we judge and discard it. But maybe they are right in their observation, only bringing something to our attention. To understand this better we can consider the parable of the seven blind men and the elephant.

Imagine seven blind men, perceiving an elephant: one man feels the trunk, one man feels the ear, one feels the belly, one feels the tail, one feels a leg and one the tusk. Each one describes their perception, one describes it as a snake, one a tree trunk, another one that it must be a wall. Each perception is reasonable, but it is not true because it does not have a complete view of reality.

We believe (and insist) that our perceptions of reality are the truth, but would it not be better to join them with others, and therefore get a little bit closer to reality?

Also, once we realise that all of our perceptions are limited, most arguments will stop. Our perception through the aggregates leads us to a sense of ‘Self’, or to the ‘I’. Like ‘I am sick’, ‘I am angry’, ‘I am tasting something sour’ – we appropriate it or we integrate to our ‘Self’. Or we identify with it: we create this illusion of a Self that is angry or busy, or cold, or has the flu, or is tasting, or smelling things. 

In Buddhism, this is called ‘conceit’, meaning this is ‘me’ or this is ‘I’. I am cold, I am old, I am calm. It is also called ‘vision of ourselves’ or the ‘Ego’. When we identify with ‘I’ or ‘me’, we create separation: us and others.

When we create this sense of Self, we create clinging and desire, which is the source of suffering. And to change this vision of life, for Buddhism, the shift happens in the mind, practising the eightfold path and starting to: 

  1. become aware of the constant changes and
  2. accept changes and detach from them (detachment simply means to not apply any judgements or labels). 

The less ‘Self’, the less clinging we have, the more content we become. And it is from that point that we can make wiser choices because we are not influenced and distracted by what our mind is producing.

Monika Edin