Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Five Aggregates of Personality

The Five Grasping Aggregates are sometimes called The Five Bundles of Personality.

Buddhism teaches that our personality or selfhood is a psycho-physical phenomenon made of a mosaic of many pieces of awareness. The "pieces" of our personality are cataloged into five broad categories which in Sanskrit (Skt.) are called "skandas" and may be translated as "aggregates," "collections," or "bundles." Like sorting the many tiles of a mosaic of many hues, shades, tints, and patterns into five boxes based on their primary colors, the five aggregates group the many and varied elements of personality into the five basic bundles that result in our consciousness of who we are.

The categories of the five aggregates are (1) Forms (Skt. rupa), (2) Feelings (Skt. vedana), (3) Perceptions (Skt. sanjna), (4) Complexes (Skt. samskara ), and (5) Consciousnesses (Skt. vijnana). These categories are not literally distinct, rather they are intimately connected in the composition of our personality so should be thought of as distinct in the manner that our body's physiological systems (e.g., circulatory, nervous, muscular, skeletal, etc.) are identifiably distinct but interdependently and inextricably connected.

Modern science is mapping the brain's bio-electrical functioning and is confirming this classical Buddhist analysis derived from direct experiential studies in the practice of Buddhist meditation. The language of Buddhist devotion is religious and faith-based, but the language of Buddhist analysis is essentially and primarily psychological or phenomenological. It is an analysis of human experience and awareness itself, not an analysis of the physical world. As such the mapping of the mind by ancient Buddhism is the experiential equivalent of the mapping of the brain by modern neuroscience.

The five aggregates can be studied in sequence as they develop into or result in consciousness, but such a linear developmental sequence should be considered only for conventional purposes in relating to the physicality or physiology of brain functioning. Consciousness is a multidimensional feedback process so in actual functioning one's unconscious awareness (like the firings of the synapses) is moving between all the five aggregates and their specific elements at all levels and in very complex and complicated patterns.

The first aggregate of FORMS refers to the six sense organs or receptors along with the six sense objects or stimuli as well as the four physical elements. These are the five sense organs of the eye, ear, nose, lounge, and body plus the sixth sense organ the mind. The six sense objects are five physical sensations of our mind that are projected into the world and taken as literal objects, i.e., sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touchings, plus the mental sensations of intuitions. These twelve taken together are called the entrances (Skt. ayapana) as they are the entrances to consciousness. In brain physiology Forms relates to the sensory receptors of the nervous system as well as to the sensory areas of the brain such as the visual cortex and the auditory system.

The second aggregate of FEELINGS refers to the feelings that are evoked by the Forms. The feelings are either positive, negative, or neutral. For example, when the form of fire is experienced when it is a certain distance it is neutral, when it provides comforting warmth it is pleasant, but when it comes into contact with the skin and burns it is painful. Feelings are thus attractive, aversive, or indifferent. The complexity of Feelings can exist in degrees such as a simple attraction of curiosity to complex desires such as love. Similarly the negative Feelings can range from simple rejection, to distaste to disgust and hate.

The third aggregate of PERCEPTIONS are the mental images that arise when the Forms and Feelings become combined in the mind by association. Forms plus Feelings equal Perceptions. Cognition-cognates, identification-identity, conception-concepts, etc. are all within the aggregate of Perceptions. Pattern development and recognition (represented in the temporal lobes) is central to the Perceptions as is spacial representation of the world (represented in the parietal lobes). When we sense the features of a face and experience the feelings associated with the face we can then image or perceive the identity of the face. For example, the features of a certain woman's face (color and shapes of the eyes, mouth, nose, hair, etc.) plus the feelings of dependence, love, gratitude, etc. for her combine and result in our recognition of her as mom. In the brain disorder called the Capgras Delusion certain Forms are physiologically disconnected to their associated Feelings and as a result the person loses the normal Perception function. Instead of recognizing the image of "mother," the person sees mom's features but does not experience the feelings of love associated with those features, and so arrives at the "perception" that the woman looks like mom but is in fact an imposter.

The fourth aggregate is the COMPLEXES and refers to the actions or functionality of the mind. The Sanskrit term samskara can be literally translated as "with-do," "co-act," or "com-motion." This bundle is not easily labeled because it includes a very broad range of mental functioning which are virtually all psychic actions. It is sometimes labeled impulses or reactions but this loses the other sense of functioning which is the will or volition. Also there are the habits or habitual formations and the automatic reflexes. All motivations and emotions which have arisen through combination of the Forms, Feelings, and Perceptions are also part of this aggravate. The psychological complexes are the structural correlates of the this aggregate. The commotions of the mind can be experienced as chaotic insurrections of impulses or as sublime emotions. As reactions to Perceptions enfolding Forms and Feelings, the Complexes can be habitual and fixed in beneficial or detrimental complexes, patterned but flexible, or spontaneous.

The fifth aggregate of CONSCIOUSNESSES is the fruit of awareness in which all the aggregates become knowable. The Consciousnesses are the comprehension and understanding resulting from the interplay and reflection of the aggregates. Discernment and discrimination are hallmarks of the Consciousnesses. The eight Consciousnesses are the five arising from the five senses, the sixth arising from thought, the seventh arising from fundamental discrimination, and the eighth which is the non-arising Consciousness which Western psychology calls the Unconscious.

The five aggregates are also called the five grasping aggregates because with the fifth aggregate of Consciousnesses the grasping of attachment to various elements of all of the aggregates arises and creates a total conglomeration which in Buddhism is called the suffering of selfhood. The five aggregates together create the whole comprehension of oneself including a body image, an identity, hopes, dreams, fears, aspirations, etc.

The phantom limb phenomenon of is an example of how the Forms and Feelings equal a Perception of a limb leading to the Complexes of developed habits, motivations, and emotions associated with the limb and a resulting Consciousness of the limb. When the limb is removed, the Consciousness of the limb is not necessarily removed due to the mental attachments (i.e., synaptic mapping in memory) of the limb which then create Perceptions of physical sensations where none exist. The phantom limb phenomenon is actually only one example of the complete modeling overlay of the aggregates that is going on continuously within our body-mind but "underneath" our conscious awareness because of the physical body acting as the formal screen upon which the modeling is projected.

When Buddhism says there is no objective world, it is saying that there is nothing that is external to this modeling/mapping functionality of consciousness of which we can be aware as data. It is saying that the "objective" world is identical with the "subjective" world and the polarity of the two is actually wholly unified whether we know it or not. When Buddhism says there is no self, it is saying are complete unity whether we know it or not, that there is no inherent individual identity or entity separate from the mapping/modeling functionality of consciousness which attempts to compartmentalize awareness but can't, except in a karmic dream.

But that nothing is not nothing. The non-objective world is also a way of saying that Buddha Essence is universally all living beings and therefore no map is capable of charting the total reality: that complete existence beyond concepts of origination or annihilation of existence which can't be grasped by such concepts as subject, object, self, other, etc. The essence of nothing means the presence of living beings. If living beings had some constant, material, or uniform basis for their being then they could not be. Without nothingness there would only be dead beings playing with maps and getting lost on the dark roads.

Meditation is the way the mind handles and releases its attachments to the aggregates and to the dualities which are the cement binding the aggregated attachments. Mental liberation from suffering, i.e., the freedom from passion (in the sense of the original Latin), is realized by releasing the mind from the attachments related to the five aggregates and living with the aggregates as selfless expressions of impermanence. This release is called the realization of Emptiness or the Void.

As the Heart Sutra says:

"Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form.
Form is not different from Emptiness; Emptiness is not different from Form.
Form is identically Emptiness; Emptiness is identically Form.
Feelings, Perceptions, Complexes, and Conscousinesses are also like this."

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