The Five Aggregates
What constitutes a human, or any sentient being, according to Buddhism?
A human is a combination of five aggregates (khandhas), namely body or form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations or thought process, and consciousness, which is the fundamental factor of the previous three.
The first is the Aggregate of Matter. Matter contains and comprises the four great primaries, known as solidity, fluidity, heat or temperature and motion or vibration. These primaries are not simply earth, water, fire and wind; in Buddhism they are much more.
Solidity is the element of expansion. Because of this element objects occupy space. Seeing an object is seeing it extended in space and we label it. The element of expansion is in solids, as well as in liquids. When we see a body of water we are actually seeing solidity. The hardness of rock and the softness of paste, the quality of heaviness and lightness in things are qualities of solidity; they are states of it.
Fluidity is the element of cohesion. This element holds the particles of matter together. The cohesive force in liquids is so strong that they coalesce even after their separation. Once a solid is broken up or separated the particles cannot coalesce again, unless they are converted to liquid. This is accomplished by increasing their temperature, such as is done when welding metals. The object we see is a limited expansion or shape, which is made possible through the cohesion.
The element of heat or temperature is transmitted to the other three primaries. It preserves the vitality of all beings and plants. When we say that an object is cold, we only mean that the heat of that particular object is less than our body heat. It is relative.
Motion is the element of displacement and also is relative. To know whether a thing is moving or not we need a point which we regard as being fixed, so the motion can be measured. Since there isn’t a motionless object in the universe, stability is also an element of motion. Motion is dependent on heat. Atoms cannot vibrate when there is no heat
These Primaries are always co-existing and give birth to other phenomena and qualities; among them the five senses and their purposes: the eyes, which see; the ears, which hear; the nose, which smells; the tongue, which tastes; and the body or skin, which feels.
The second is the Aggregate of Feeling or Sensation. Feelings can be either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and they arise from contact. Such contact as seeing something, hearing something, etc., creates an idea or thought, and we get a feeling about that idea or thought. An arising feeling cannot be prevented.
Feelings differ from person to person. We don’t all feel the same way about the same thing. Our feelings are dependent on our experiences and the way we process information. Not every person processes information in the same way, nor do they come to the same conclusion. And our feeling can and do change during our existence.
The third is the Aggregate of Perception. This aggregate perceives or recognizes both physical and mental objects through its contact with the senses. When we become aware or conscious of an object or idea, our perception recognizes its distinctions from other objects or ideas. This distinction makes us familiar with the object or idea when we sense it in the future. Perception is what enables memory. They can also be deceptive, and they too change during our existence.
A familiar Buddhist illustration tells of a farmer, who after sowing a field, sets up a scarecrow for protection from the birds, who usually mistake it for a man and will not land. That is an example of the illusionary possibilities of perception; this aggregate can produce false impressions. A perception can become so indelible on our mind that it becomes difficult to erase.
The fourth is the Aggregate of Mental Formations or Thought Process. This aggregate includes all mental factors except feeling and perception, which are two of the possible fifty-two mental factors noted in Buddhism. These factors are volitional; no action produces change or karma, unless there is intention, volition (choice), and action. Contact through the senses brings about the necessity of choosing an action and the action we choose depends upon our thought process, which is the result of our experiences and our individual evolution, including that of gaining or loosing wisdom.
The fifth is the Aggregate of Consciousness, the most important of the aggregates, because it is where the mental factors wind up. Without consciousness there can be no mental factors; they are interrelated, interdependent and coexistent.
The mind and its faculty is not something physical. It is concerned with thoughts and ideas. Forms are seen only via the eye, not via the ear, whose faculty of hearing is not that of the eye, etc. Thoughts and ideas belong to the faculty of the mind. The senses cannot think, nor can they mull over ideas, choose possible actions and arrive at conclusions.
Consciousness is made possible through the interaction of the senses. Thoughts and ideas originate in the mind, which in Buddhism is called the sixth sense. The five aggregates are not permanent; they are ever subject to change and they do change as we experience life.
A human is composed of mind and matter, and according to Buddhism, apart from mind and matter, there is no such thing as an immortal soul, an unchanging “thing” separate from these five aggregates.
Thus the combination of the five aggregates is called a being which may assume as many names as its types, shapes, and forms. According to Buddhism’s dharma, a human is a moral being with both positive and negative potentials. We make choices concerning which of these potentials we choose to nourish thereby becoming a part of exactly who each one of us is, in terms of characteristics, personality traits, and disposition. It is the potential of each human to gain wisdom and enlightenment. Buddhism teaches that each one of us is the architect of our own fate, and we will reap what we sow.