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ROTW #6: The Five Aggregates of a Person

In my Religions of the World class, we briefly touched on a traditional Buddhism doctrine regarding the five aggregates, or “skandhas”, of a person:  Form, Sensation, Perception, Reaction, and Consciousness.  In my notes, I recorded it as “five elements of constant change”.  Our textbook states that each aggregate is “empty of absolute self-nature; they exists only relative to other aggregates”.


When I hear this, I hear “parts is parts’ (something ingrained in me from my former career).  I also consider the old adage, “The Whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.  I thought it might be interesting to consider, in my own limited way of knowing, the aggregates that constitute the person that is me.  By no means do I think my reasonings here remotely resemble anything that is in line with the true Buddhist doctrine.  What follows here now is just what these aspects of me and my personality bring forth from my own being.


First, there is Form or matter (rupa).  Of course it suggests my bodily shape, the mass that represents my mortal coil in this earthly realm.  It includes what this body does: hearing things in my ear even before seeing them, seeing things with my own eyes when they come into sight, touching something with my hands, feet or any part of my whole body, smelling things through my nose that are bland, pleasant, or repugnant, and finally tasting with my tongue those things that are bitter, salty, sour or sweet.  But I understand that Form encompasses no only matter which is internal to me, but also that which is external ‘from’ me.  It is me and the physical world around me in which I live, work and play.  Our home, the bed, that chair in the corner, the clothes on my back, and the convertible I enjoy driving when the weather is nice – these, and much, much more make up the Form of my existence.   


Then there is Sensation or feeling (vedanā).  As an observing subject, I might perceive any object before me as pleasant and pleasing, or ugly and repulsive, or I may be indifferent to it altogether.  Certainly as I age, the more fluid feeling and easy movement of my being seems to be more few and far between than when I was younger.  I guess its part of that “getting older” thing.  And due to the onset of neuropathy, the easy sensitive sense of touch in my feet is contrasted against a slight tingling sensation.  I would like to think I am more sensitive now.  I’ve always been a bit of a “sap”, crying at movies or in theatre, even over Hallmark card commercials on TV.  I pride myself of being a “sensitive new age guy”, a man who is in touch with his emotions and feelings, generally happy to experience them, and not ashamed because of them.


Next is Perception or sense perceptions (saññā).  In my Philosophy class, we refer to this aggregate as conception, apperception or cognition.  From the training of my life thus far, I have developed faculties and abilities which permit me to differentiate sights and sounds: my own dog barking from another elsewhere in the neighborhood, the ring tone of my cell phone which is different from most others (not to mention that carrying it, it vibrates too!)  I can pretty much sense my wife’s attitude from her body language, facial expression and tone of voice.  There are certainly a multitude of noises I hear but cannot figure, or even images and shapes that regularly mislead me.  I believe the ability to recognize one thing from the next thing, and to know if it as good for me or harmful to me is one of those base things which helps us live and survive. 


Reaction is the fourth aggregate, perhaps also as the mental activity we consider our Intellect (sankhāra).  As a “thinking thing”, I have any number of thoughts which may pass through my mind, individually or collectively, which allows me formulate ideas, determine possible scenarios, and consider the benefits while weighing consequences (“pros and cons”) before taking any action.  Experience, knowledge and confidence (or the lack of one or all of those) may propel me into action or cause to remain calm and stay still.  Testing my mettle as a student here and now is an element of change for me. 


Finally, there is Consciousness or awareness (vijñāna).  This may be more value-centered than based in thought itself.  I am conscious of the many blessings and joy my Creator has showered upon me already.  I value that intimate relationship with a God who loved me while I was still in my mothers’ womb, and who loves me still, even with the many flaws and short-comings I might represent.  I am actively thankful for the gift of life my wife represents in this existence that I have and we share.  If I am aware of nothing more than my God and my wife, I am still blessed beyond measure.  These things I truly value and cherish.


So I am form, feeling, perception, intellect and awareness, all in one.  No one aggregate greater than any other, and no single element which could be much of anything without the other four to complement them.  Sometimes my body will not permit me to do what sensations urge me to do.  At other times, my mental wellness (or lack thereof) may inhibit or counterman any perceptions.  Certainly being distracted so as to not be aware of things happening around me can rob me of opportunities.  I begin to see the entire mechanism that is me, and how these five elements of constant change influence who I am, how I am perceived, and what I may do. Only with harmony of heart, mind, body and soul will I ever be the holy creature my Creator envisioned.

Almighty Father, your Seeking Servant prays for guidance.