Saturday, August 24, 2013


Yes, you are an amalgam---a heap. Perhaps that doesn’t sound very flattering, but as the American comedian Jimmy Durante [pictured left] used to say, ‘Them is the conditions that prevails.’

The historical Buddha saw the human being as simply an amalgam of ever-changing phenomena of existence. It is written that Buddha had this to say about the matter:

The instructed disciple of the Noble Ones does not regard material shape as self, or self as having material shape, or material shape as being in the self, or the self as being in material shape. Nor does he regard feeling, perception, the impulses, or consciousness in any of these ways. He comprehends each of these aggregates as it really is, that it is impermanent, suffering, not-self, compounded, woeful. He does not approach them, grasp after them or determine 'Self for me' ['my self']--and this for a long time conduces to his welfare and happiness.

The instructed disciple of the Noble Ones beholds of material shape, feeling, perception, the impulses, or consciousness: 'This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self.' So that when the material shape, feeling, perception, the impulses, or consciousness change and become otherwise there arise not from him grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation, and despair. (Adapted from the Samyutta Nikaya.)

The Buddha thus makes it clear that the so-called ‘self’ is only an ‘aggregate’ or ‘heap’ of perceptions and sensations. It is, in the words of Manly Palmer Hall [pictured right], ‘a summary of what is known and what is not known’. We are not a ‘self’; we are persons among persons. However, when it came to attempting to explain the conventionally accepted concept of ‘person’, the Buddha referred to various psycho-physical ‘elements’ at work in a person---the ‘five aggregates’ (skandhas [Sanskrit], khandhas [Pāli], ‘aggregates’ in English)---which are said to serve as the basis (or rather ‘bases’) of what we ordinarily designate as a ‘person.’

These ‘five aggregates’---‘aggregates’ being ‘facts’---are said to be nothing more than ‘constantly changing conglomerates of moments of materiality, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness’ (R C Lester, Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia, 1973: 26). The ‘five aggregates,’ which are also known as the ‘five hindrances,’ are as follows. 

First, there are the aggregates of corporeality or materiality, that is, matter or bodily form, and more specifically the physicality of the sentient being or person, being the gross physical body, gross form, together with the six sense organs (organs of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell---and the mind)---all objects regarded as being compounded entities.

Secondly, there are the aggregates of sensations and emotions (or feelings), and more specifically the physiological processes resulting from the contact of matter with matter, sense organs with objects of sense, including the five ordinary bodily senses as well as mental feeling with ‘feeling overtones.'

Thirdly, there are the aggregates of perceptions, more specifically, those of recognition and perception---being mental discriminations born of sensations, the recognition of objects and, more specifically, the capacity and power to perceive as well as recognise and distinguish between physical objects of all kinds, including the ability to comprehend the specific marks of phenomenal objects.

Fourthly, there are the aggregates of predispositions, more specifically, those of ‘dispensational’ or mental formations or factors (eg fixations and conclusions of the mind such as attitudes, beliefs and opinions), and more specifically volitions which are said to be primarily responsible for bringing forth future states of existence.

Fifthly, there are the aggregates of consciousness, that is, consciousness in the fullest sense of the word. The aggregates of consciousness are composed of moments of awareness as well as awareness of awareness (or mindfulness). Although not an ‘entity’ as such, the aggregates of consciousness binds the varied sense and feeling elements of the individual---physical awareness, bodily feeling-tone, and mental constructs---into a personalized unity, that is, the person among persons that each of us is. Moreover, these aggregates remain more-or-less continuous throughout unceasing change, until death comes with the disintegration of all the aggregates.

The Buddha, ever the empiricist and realist, acknowledged the important distinction between our perceptions or sensations of things and the things themselves, stating that ‘the senses meet the object and from their contact sensation is born’ (Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha, 2002[1894]: 54). Also worth noting are these words attributed to the Buddha and quoted above---‘when the material shape, feeling, perception, the impulses, or consciousness change and become otherwise.’ In other words, the same event or situation can bring about different effects, and it is also the case that different events or situations can bring about the same effect. It all depends on the ‘field’ of context (the so-called ‘causal field).

The spiritual philosopher J Krishnamurti [pictured left], although not a Buddhist, articulated a number of distinctive ideas that have much in common with Buddhist thought and teaching. For example, Krishnamurti wrote:

In uncovering what one actually is, one asks: Is the observer oneself, different from that which one observes---psychologically that is. I am angry, I am greedy, I am violent: is that I different from the thing observed, which is anger, greed, violence? Is one different? Obviously not. When I am angry there is no I that is angry, there is only anger. So anger is me; the observer is the observed. The division is eliminated altogether. The observer is the observed and therefore conflict ends. (J Krishnamurti, The Wholeness of Life, 1987[1978]: 142.)

Now, you may well ask, ‘What does all of this matter, assuming for the moment that it is true?’ Well, as I see it, it is very important. True, lasting, in-depth psychological transformation can only take place when there is, firstly, a realization that self cannot change self because self is ‘illusion,’ and secondly, there is a reliance upon a power-not-oneself. That power-not-oneself can take various forms, one of which is the personalized unity that is the person among persons that each of us is. The ‘self’ cannot change the ‘self,’ but the person can change---even if that person be little more than a heap, that is, an amalgam of ever-changing phenomena of existence.


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