The 5 Aggregates, looking for the core

Last month we discussed Anatta as it applies to existence, follow the link to read more(3 Characteristics of Existence, Anatta). Let’s get a little deeper into the philosophy of Anatta. As we discussed before, the Buddha never said people don’t exist he simply suggested that, what we take to be ourselves is a compounded thing like any other. Stated most simply, we can break it down to smaller pieces. This illusion of simplicity and wholeness of self is tricky and even once it’s outlined it’s a hard pill to swallow.

So if self is not real, what are the components we can break it down to? Enter the 5 Aggregates, you may see the word ‘skandhas’ it means heaps. For me calling them heaps brings to mind images of sorting one big pile of crap into other smaller piles of crap, for parents you know, cleaning your kids room… So what are our piles that this self thing can be broken down to. Form, Feeling, Perception, Mental Formations, and, Consciousness. By those piles combined we are living breathing thinking feeling emotional train wrecks, ha myself included. Let’s outline these 5 in turn.

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Form, is the physical portion of your being. Your physical body which houses the mind, the sense faculties, and, the tissues upon which they rely. Everything corporeal about us lives here. The eyes with rods and cones that react to light, the optic nerve, the brain itself to process. All of that is what helps us see. Without any single link in that chain seeing is difficult if it’s even possible. The same can be said of all the senses. Our body houses all the sense organs and the bits make them work. Even this component is made of components. (That is an underlying lesson in this teaching, even the pieces have pieces). With that one fifth fraction of the 5 we are done talking about the physical portion of being.

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That in itself is another hard pill to swallow, some find it hard to believe that the body is only 20% of the being. According to the Buddha’s teaching that’s it. Now for Feelings, most people immediately thing of: happiness, sadness, anger etc. To be clear those are emotions not feelings. I know you’re thinking “What the hell are feelings then?” In Buddhism Feelings are an initial “taste” of objects or phenomenon. The feelings are of 3 kinds Pleasant\good, neutral\indifferent, and, unpleasant\painful. Each time something comes into contact with our sensitive meats one of these 3 classifications is evoked. We usually don’t even acknowledge that we do, this but we do, every single sensation is met labeled and tucked in the memory banks for later use. Obviously, this is a big piece of the puzzle to make the whole Samsara rat race. Now to breakdown Perception, we gon’ learn today!

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Perception is another building block in the Lego tower of what makes us… well us. Perception is where we begin to experience things and label them. It’s a way to kind of put a handle on things so we can make further use of them. Perception says: This is a chair, He’s tall, She has brown hair and so on. In Perception we begin to quantify the world around us. We then apply our findings to the game of gathering pleasant things and distancing ourselves from the unpleasant things. Perception arises when we contact things either physically, through our sense gates (sight, sound, touch, and, so on), or we contact things in a non-physical manner ie. thoughts, visions, or, symbols. Now we move on to Mental Formations

Until this point we (meaning the self) are reactionary in nature. Mental Formations is where we start doing things about it. This is where our karma comes from, this is where our intentions come from, this place is a big leap we begin to manipulate things to our advantage here. For the most part our manipulations are benign, even to an extent benevolent. But like all powers this is where it can go sideways too. For example we decided in our Perception that a big ass house was a ‘good’ thing. As we now big houses generally require big money, and we have to go about getting it, so far this is pretty ambivalent just making connections, then we decide how we are going to go about making that money. We will apply our principles to our money making, but largely it’s up to us. There is no real ‘right or wrong’ just consequences, an honest job or selling drugs, either can get you to the desired outcome but the choice was made. Dualistic thinking was not something the Buddha was into as it is a subjective game, however, we can judge a choice by it’s fruit. Just like in farming, we plant cantaloupe seeds with a solid concept of the result. In similar fashion robbing people or selling drugs has undesirable side effects, and none of us can find shelter from our choices, one day they catch up to us. If you believe in rebirth then you know karma can catch that ass down the road too. Now that I’ve successfully killed the joy in the room, let’s talk Consciousness.

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Consciousness is the most interesting of the Five in my opinion. It plays a few key roles here. Most basically, it is the generalized ‘light’ of awareness. It also plays a huge role in digesting the sense inputs. Obviously hearing something relies on more than just sound hitting ear drums, there has to be something to handle the input and make sense of it. This is true of all the senses, the consciousness has to process them all. Consciousness also has the unique ability to process it’s own class of stuffs. Thoughts, ideas, notions, symbols, visions all these things are in the territory of consciousness. This is one of the more slippery concepts. Understanding this part is more a matter of experience than a standardized explanation. I know, I know, buck well passed, sadly the path is up to each individual to walk and it isn’t always easy to convey in words. So what lessons can we draw from this things?

To wrap this up and draw some conclusions. Hopefully we are now all on the same page in our knowledge of the pieces that compose this ‘self’ idea that we suffer under. So what else can we draw from the 5 Aggregates? We now have a wealth of ground To meditate upon. Now that we have an intellectual basis upon which we can build now comes the work of realizing these things. If we practice enough we can start to find the seems among not only ourselves but our experiences as well. That is some powerful biz. From this perch you can really begin to see the lay of the land in actuality!

By J.Martin

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3 Characteristics of Existence, Dukhata

We’ve moved into the Third Characteristic of Existence, Dukhata. In case you missed the first 2 parts 3 Characteristics of Existence, Anatta and 3 Characteristics of Existence, Anicca . These 3 pieces comes together to explain the larger picture that the Buddha’s teaching was meant to address. So let’s dive in to some Dukhata.

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Dukhata or Dukha is the inherent principle of suck that life possesses. When asked what exactly Dukha was he said “To be separated from the pleasant, or united with the unpleasant, that is Dukha.” We talked a bit about Dukha in the The First Noble Truth, I see you talkin’ Dukha and as well as the rest of that series, we discovered Dukha exists at all levels. Even those movie stars and pop stars that are idolized know their fair share of Dukha. We think things like “If I were rich, I would run the world”, When in fact as Biggie said it best “Mo’ money, mo’ problems!!”. I know, I know, the rich have problems and they seem to be good problems to have. Look at all the people who sky-rocket to fame and fortune, only lose it all over night. There is a reason they call it the “Lottery Curse”. Once wealth, power, or, stature is gained, the likelihood of losing everything is more possible than increasing or maintaining it. So to many, victory, or gaining many possessions leaves a great many things to worry about. Protecting these gains can become a real problem, one that many of us don’t know anything about. Let’s expand on our view of Dukha.

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Let’s examine further the span that seems to have. In average everyday life we seem to find ourselves suffering some sense of lack, constantly in fact. Some of us desire things so badly that getting the object of desire isn’t close to the satisfaction of the release of the feeling of want we have been enduring. Yes you read that… we want to stop wanting. That’s it! We want to stop the ride and get off. The release from desire is that positive feeling we get when we get that hot new phone, that sweet zafu, or, really anything would could ever desire. To draw another parallel to a fire, when we add a big ol’ log to a campfire, what happens? The fire seems to go down a little at first. Then, that mofo goes wide open!! We are similarly inclined. We want something so bad it hurts, we get the thing or circumstance, then, the desire subsides a little. We get those warm and fuzzy feelings you might even say to your self “I am happy now”. But in due time the thirst for something else comes along and POW! All the sudden that iPhone isn’t as cool as the new plus… or that older laptop only has a 1 TB drive not 1.4, and, so on, you get the idea. Well what the Hell do we do about it?

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So in breaking down how we can remedy this let’s ponder the why. Why do we do this? Some of it has to do with ad campaigns, social media, the generic one-up game we are all caught in. Still more ways to pass the buck on this are blaming upbringing, family members, society, blah blah blah. Let’s get to the core of things, it’s us. Me, you, us, this desirous nature, we all have it. Time to burst the bubble. The change, that we’re after at least, happens when we can look objectively at ourselves.

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Meditation is a gold standard on fixing this problem. It’s one we have spent a lifetime, and depending on your particular beliefs, lifetimes building. When we meditate we can begin to create an objective mindset and grow into the perfect remedy for this rat race in which we have found ourselves. As trite as it may sound, it really is about freeing our minds, changing our feelings (in the Buddhist sense good, bad or, neutral), altering our perceptions (the mental labels we’ve added to arbitrary things), and finally, changing our mental formations (where we formulate our plans and actions and start creating karmas).

For more resources on meditation check these

Vipassana

Samatha

Mantra

Metta

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3 Characteristics of Existence, Anatta

Earlier this week we discussed Anicca/Impermanence (Anicca Link) and it’s bearing on our life experience as a whole. Now we’ll to the next thing that can make life suck, Anatta. Anatta is usually translated as selflessness, or no-self. Yes you read that correctly, no-self, Anatta… insert Oprah quote “You dont have a self, and you don’t have a self, and you don’t have a self.”. That is not to say you don’t exist but that core of this topic is there is no core to what we take to be ourselves. We as humans, just like all other things or phenomenon, being impermanent, are also devoid of a core.

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If we simply examine ourselves this becomes more and more apparent. We take ourselves to be a self or to have a self when in reality we aren’t and don’t. If you were to think of self you’d have 2 real, solid, choices, identity or difference with the body. Meaning you’d either have to identify this ‘self’ with the body or without the body. Identifying the self without the body would raise weird questions of… where does it hang out, how does it get there and how does my ‘self’ manage to come back here from moment to moment. Identifying self with the body makes slightly more sense until we really ponder that one. If ‘self’ is in this rig where does it live? In one place or dispersed throughout. If self were dispersed throughout then tying your pinky finger would equate to tying the whole person. If it lived in one localized spot, that would make more sense but when we consider how the body continues endures. We eat different foods, breathe in different particles of oxygen, expel various wastes, this whole process is a flux. How can something based on an ever changing pile of causes and conditions create a singular unchanging ‘self’? The answer it can’t. We are the result of a succession of moments adding on to the moments before it, like a chain going back into beginning-less time, with no real first point. What we call ourselves is really a process
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We are a process more like a flame (this is my favorite analogy to explain the individuation process). Imagine a candle you light the candle and walk away (don’t actually do that… it’s a terrible fire hazard) you come back and look at the candle. Is it the same? Not really, it is a process requiring air, wick, wax etc. all the ingredients are different from moment to moment. How can their product be the same continuous result? The answer it can’t, a math problem with changing variables cannot continuously result in the same answer. Now let’s take this analogy a little further. Let’s say at the end of this particular candle’s life, with the last wisps of flame, you catch the flame to another candle. The process of this flame now has a completely new basis air, wick, wax, all different. The only thing that is constant is the process which only appears as constant, and is actually ever changing. This is my favorite analogy for the process of selfhood because it also explains rebirth. No core, no nucleus, soul, atman, whatever you wish to phrase it, as is not essential to the process of individuation. The Buddha spoke a lot about this topic one of the most comprehensive theories of ‘self’ is that of the 5
Aggregates
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The 5 Aggregates could be their own in depth dissertation worthy of a masters in philosophy. To quickly name the list Form, Feeling, Perception, Mental Formations, and, Consciousness. Form being the physical organism, the meat sack we get to pilot. Feeling meaning Good, Bad, or, Neutral. It is the sensation we are met with as we come into contact with outside objects and ideas (not to be confused with emotions). Perceptions are the result of things coming into contact with their corresponding sense organ. For example sights contacting the eyes, sounds contacting the ears, tangibles contacting the tactile areas of the body etc. Mental Formations is a pretty heavy category that houses the emotions but more importantly the factors of will (karma – chosen actions). Consciousness built outta the sweet thinking meat. It processes all the others as well as it’s class of things; ideas, symbols, abstract stuffs, and, so on. The Buddha said that everything you could conceive your ‘self’ to be is in one or more of these categories. All of these things exist… you guessed it… with no ‘self’ or core behind them.
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This is a topic that is dear to me, as I spend a lot of time meditating on it. So if you want to discuss it or if you have any questions on the topic feel free to catch up with us in any of the places we social media!

3 Characteristics of Existence, Anicca

So if we’re going to talk big over arcing concepts of Buddhism one of the biggest would be the 3 Characteristics of Existence. They are so prevalent the Buddha said they are literally woven into the fabric of being. What are they? Anicca (pronounced A-knee-cha), Anatta (pronounced A-nah-tah), and Dukhata (pronounced Du-kah-tah). Those are the Pali words (Pali is the language of early Buddhist Canon, most likely spoken by the Buddha himself.), in English the best translation would be Impermanence, Selflessness, and, Unsatisfactoriness. As I said these factors are considered to be all up in the mix, meaning they cannot be separated from existence. Whether you’re rich or poor, smart or dull, weak or strong all of us come to know these 3 Characteristics of Existence without even realizing it. We’ll lay out each Characteristic in turn. First, comes Anicca or Impermanence.

Impermanence is so basic we all know it, we’ve all seen it. Some of us know it through loss of loved ones, friends that moved away, pets that passed away and so on. This Impermanence is caused by the simple fact that all phenomena, every existing thing or circumstance, is compounded. Simply stated nothing exists as an island. We are born with the fact that we will some day die, we make friends even though we will someday lose them, we pick a job or career despite the fact one day we’ll find another or retire. All of these circumstances and things are built on the foundation of other things, they have no core or nucleus

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It is said of this world of Samsara that it oppresses by means of rise and fall.  In a sense that is true, we go about our lives with a very narrow scope of reality, while hinging our happiness on things and circumstances that simply cannot last.  Nothing in endures, things may seem to last, and in a relative sense they do.  As anyone who has watched the Discovery Channel can tell you stars die, planets invert poles randomly, black holes eat solar systems, and, all the other crazy phenomenon that take place over trillions of years.  To us, in our small picture mindset, these things seem unending or unchanging because of the scale upon which they operate.  As the Buddha said all conditioned phenomenon will end.  Simply stated if the thing in question has a birthday, it will also have an end.  This would be the idea of causality, the idea that for anything to exist it’s causes must be in place and operative.

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So when most read this there is a tendency to get down about it.  I mean if it doesn’t last what is the point, right?  The answer lies in your point of view.  I like to see the positive notion that lies implicit.  All things even the bad ones end.  If your circumstances suck one way or another it will end.  When we use our intention we can influence whether things end badly or not.  When we know that all our relationships will someday come to an end isn’t that all the more reason to savor them?  Enjoy that hug, meal, day off, party night, quiet night in, and, so on because it like everything else will one day fade away.  Instead of living in mourning of what was, celebrate that it even got to happen at all.

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To really realize Anicca/Impermanence can be a bit of a bummer, but like most things your perception is your reality, finding the good in all things is a big part of becoming a self actualized being.  Not to mention it makes you a dope yogi!  This characteristic of existence can’t be swerved or changed but it can be accepted.  Accepting this factor of life will begin to open the door to gratitude, which is by far the greatest super power we existent beings possess.  So get out there and look Anicca in the eye and smile, no matter what you believe in nothing, we as finite beings can comprehend, lasts forever.  So go ahead and celebrate your Impermanence!

The Third Noble Truth, Drop That Dukha!

So for those of you keeping track at home this is number 3. The Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of Dukha. So far Dr. Gautama M.D. has identified the problem, pointed out the origin of the illness, now we’re going to learn how to stop this chronic Dukha issue.

Pretty simple stuff really. Craving or thirst for things and circumstances that we do not have is the problem. So changing things is a matter of changing our mind. Sounds simple, right? Just being merely being more content with what you have. Striving is still important

Just so we don’t cross lines, no one including the Buddha, would not tell you to become an ambitionless slob, sitting in the lotus position to eliminate problems, that just won’t work. Obviously the Buddha needed the drive to become Enlightened. Otherwise why would he reapply himself to the goal again and again. The lesson here is simpler still.

In order to find true happiness, or to lay down this unsatisfactoriness forever, merely be grateful for what you have. Yes I get it, it sounds so trite, nonetheless it is true. So appreciate that less than perfect house, the less than ideal car, and, that not so dream job. Why? Because no matter where you are in life there is a possibility of worse. As for the inverse say you get what you want… all of it. Then what? You have to protect, preserve, and maintain it. And as for getting all that you want, does one more log slake the thirst of the campfire? Hell no, that biotch gonna want another log in like 20 minutes. This is the way things work when their nature is only consumption

In the simplest of terms; be happy for what you have, no need lusting for more, mere contentment goes a long way to your individual happiness. It’s okay to work and desire bigger and better but don’t let it be a “this will complete me” proposition. We are finite yes but each and everyone of us is bigger than that. So get out there and abandon some unhealthy desires

For further reference here are links to the 1st two Noble Truths. Check em out!

1st Noble Truth

The 2nd Noble Truth

The First Noble Truth, I see you talkin’ Dukha

The First Noble Truth: The Universality of Dukha

Now the word dukha has no literal translation. Some translate it as suffering, stress, or unsatisfactoriness. None really capture the true essence of the word but add them all up and you have a good idea. The Buddha said all beings experience dukha in fact that all things in life are concealed forms of dukha. “To be united with the unpleasant, and separated from the pleasant” is the best quote I can find to capture the meaning. All beings know it no matter their station in life, as good as you feel things aren’t ever really perfect. And they can’t be, even if you get what you want you’re still faced with protecting or maintaining it. This is just a fact of life. No matter how fortunate you are there is always a sense of lacking, of wishing for just that little bit more. And even if you don’t feel a sense of lack at some point you will die only to give up all you have acquired.

Because of this many people say “The Buddha was such a pessimist”. Not so in my opinion he was a teacher with a mission. For those of us with kids if they are playing and run near the road you usually yell because the fear of danger is very real to you as you know the dangers involved. So too for the Buddha, he was so tired of seeing people wondering around through life from pain to pain, leaving suffering for suffering, only to end in certain death. He wanted us to know that this subtle sense of lack was mixed up in everything it means to “be”. None of this means joy can’t be had or found in life. He just wanted to illustrate that even at it’s absolute best it was only temporary. This principle can help with building compassion you know what it’s like to hurt and lack, so you have already walked a mile in those shoes. Compassion which in my opinion was the hidden point between the lines can help curb your own suffering. Next we will cover the 2nd Noble Truth.

Meditation: A crude overview

Let’s talk meditation. Some folks are rocking some serious misconceptions about it. There are many types and styles with endless variations in between whether you count breaths while passing beads through your fingers, imagine yourself in a serene place, or focus on each moment of experience to it’s very edges; just know there is no right or wrong, the goal is a healthy introspective view. Rather than break down all the individual styles that there are in the world, which would most likely occupy the rest of this current lifetime, we will discuss the 2 main styles that are in use in Buddhism, Samadhi and Vippassana.

Samadhi, this is the stereotypical image of a bald man sitting cross-legged and possibly hovering with laser beams coming from his head or something similar. Many think the Buddha himself “invented” this kind of meditation. While he did use it frequently he by no means invented it. Samadhi (sitting quietly with your bare awareness) has been practiced going as far back to the Indus River Valley people, well before the time of the Buddha. He did teach it, use it, master it, and advocate it’s usage. The practice of Samadhi is awesome in it’s deceptive simplicity, and it can be used by those in really any religion or school secularly or theistically. Samadhi is conducted generally in a seated position, it can be in a straight back chair or on the floor. You can have your eyes closed or half opened. The goal here is not to just close your eyes and space out, quite the contrary in fact, we want to focus on the breath. The breathing here is done through the nose, and the focus is on the physical sensation of the breath, either on the rise and fall of the chest, or on the feeling of the breath touching the upper lip just under the nose. Sounds simple enough if you haven’t attempted it. For those of you who have in it is quite the endeavor. Now when the mind begins to wander, and it always does, we must bring our mind back to the object of meditation, in this case the breath. A really good analogy is that of striking a bell. We initially apply our mind to the object of meditation, like striking a bell, then we hang out there as long as possible, the reverberations of the bell. Our goal is to stay in the reverberations as long as possible, without of course losing our jobs.

In the opposing corner wearing the dark brown robes… we have Vippassana.

Vippassana meditation, sometimes known as Insight meditation, is a bit tougher for some. This involves conducting ones normal activities while intensely focusing on the thoughts and sensations that arise along the way. Here we are fully engrossing ourselves in the present moment, how it feels, how it smells, tastes etc. When thoughts arise we trace the line of thoughts this one leading to that, which led to that and so on. None of the sensations or thoughts are to be clung to of course. Here we merely label them mentally and move on. So if you have a paper to write how does the pen feel in your hand? How does the paper smell? What does the environment sound like? Using all your senses experience all of the moment one moment at a time, then let it go like a boss! This style of meditation has been credited as an invention of the Buddha’s and in some schools of thought is the only path leading to Enlightenment. I’m not sure I agree with that, but that’s a blog post for another day.

This is a rough guide and may have told you some things you already knew. Just a rough overview to spark some interest.

My goal here is to mostly whet your appetite for the meditative arts. Take this a a small starting point and read up, and most importantly practice. You’ll be surprised at what you find. It’s your practice, own it!

-TUB