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THE FIVE AGGREGATES AND

THE SELF
RELI 322: Paper 1

Flora Liu
Feb 18, 2016
What is the nature of human existence? What constitutes the human

experience? What is the self? Countless thinkers from different academic

disciplines have attempted such questions to this day. And among them,

dating back to the fourth century BCE, is the Buddha, who upon

awakening gained an insight of reality through the five aggregates. In this

essay I will briefly explore the Buddhist’s view of self, what this view

implies about personal identity, what are some methods the Buddha has

taught to dissolve the wrong views of the self, and finally how these

methods stand against criticisms of Buddhism as a pessimistic and grim

religion.

The five aggregates amount to an exhaustive list of psychological aspects

that constitutes a sentient being, such as a human being. The five

aggregates consist of one physical factor: form and four mental factors:

feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness; together, they

define the mind-body complex, that of which undergoes the process of

life. Form includes both internal and external physical matter; internal

matter refers to contents inside the body, such as organs, and external

matter refers to physical substance outside of the body [CITATION Bhi13 \l

1033 ]. Feeling discerns an object either as pleasant, unpleasant or

neutral. Perception detects and labels an object when it’s present. Mental

formations entail a broad range of mental processes such as one’s habits,

thoughts, prejudices, and attention. Consciousness acts as the base to all

experiences and cognizes the other four aggregates.


The aggregates arise in a linear fashion, the cessation of one aggregate is

immediately followed by the formation of another, and through this

continuum one gains a false sense of permanence, from which a belief of

the self is reinforced. In order to see why there is no self, a clear set of

properties for what is the self needs to be spelled out. In Buddhism, the

self is defined as an entity that 1) is permeant 2) persists unchangingly

overtime 3) has controlling powers [ CITATION Jav13 \l 1033 ]. The law of

impermanence prohibits the possibility of an unchanging aggregate, so

too then does it prohibit the notion of a consistent self. The self is made

dynamic by the sustained formation and cessation of aggregates, none of

which can represent the self alone; it is not controllable, because no

individual is able to retain an aggregate at any given moment.

Many problems can arise from this lack of self. For one, how can personal

identity be explained without a self? For practical means the self can be

viewed as an abstraction that serves the function of distinguishing one

individual from another. Indeed, it can be argued that the continuum of

aggregates is precisely the definition of this self, that the self need not to

be pinned down on one single instance, but is rather treated as a unique

cohesion of the ever-changing aggregates. However, does this not imply

that the concept of cohesion can exist as a quality beyond the five

aggregates? Even then the concept of cohesion fails the test of

permanence. According to modern psychology [CITATION Cro \l 1033 ], the

self is developed through the assembly of one’s experiences, in order to

form a cogent and comprehensive narrative – the memory. However, a


person’s memory is prone to an array of distortions and erasures, most of

which occur unheeded and unnoticed due to biases and preferences.

Memory, as a blueprint of one’s past aggregates, does not escape the

mark of impermanence, and certainly does not qualify as an enduring and

unfluctuating source of identity, from which a self is to be ascertained.

What follows an understanding of the lack of self is a set of instructions

that heightens one’s sensitivity to this illusion. This ultimately empowers

one with the skills to end one’s clinging of aggregates and puncture

through the illusion of self, leading to enlightenment. The illusion of self is

burdensome and painful, because of attachment to the five aggregates:

there’s a constant struggle between the desire to possess the aggregates

and the reality that they are impermanent. The Satipatthana Sutta is one

of such texts that aims to relief one of the clinging. It is a discourse found

in the Pali Canon and is considered to contain the fullest set of meditative

instructions.

According to the Satipatthana Sutta, mindfulness is cultivated by heeding

to the “four arousings of mindfulness”: body, feeling, consciousness, and

mental object. The first step in the arousing of mindfulness is the

contemplation of the body, which focuses on the form aggregate. It begins

with a concentrated observation of breathing, and then expands into a

wider awareness of the entire body and the activities it carries out. Up to

this step all instructions appropriate the general agenda of my

mindfulness as a non-reactive awareness of the “body in and of itself” (SN


48.10)[ CITATION Tra13 \l 1033 ]; however, following these steps comes a

deliberate transition of attitude that engenders a sense of repulsion

toward the body. The meditator is told to examine that “this body

hemmed by the skin and full of manifold impurity from the soles up, and

from the top of the hair down” [ CITATION Som13 \l 1033 ]. This seems

contradictory and counter-productive to the cultivation of mindfulness, as

it demands the meditator to construct unpleasant feelings toward the

body, when the goal of mindfulness is to develop a equanimous and

neutral outlook on reality. Indeed, this is certainly contradictory if

mindfulness is treated as an ends in Buddhism, but this is not the case.

The right mindfulness as a part of concentration in the threefold training is

simply a means to attain enlightenment. By examining the body as

repulsive, in which the repulsion is heightened through meditative

attentiveness, the meditator is engaging in another means to aid the

process of awakening. As noted above, the five aggregates itself does not

cause suffering in itself, but the clinging of the aggregates to create an

illusion of selfhood does cause suffering. And one way the meditator

tackles this clinging is to view the body as repulsive, thereby mitigating

the passion associated with the pleasantries of the five aggregates. It

should be stressed that viewing the body as intrinsically repulsive is a

practice that reduces attachment and not a fundamental Buddhist

principle that results in self aversion.

Another critique of Buddhism is that it endorses a pessimistic and dismal

outlook of life. But similar to the objection of viewing the body as


repulsive, this critique stems from mistaking a method for a principle. In

Chapter XXI of Visuddhimagga, a Buddhist doctrine written by

Buddhagosa in 430 BCE, there are numerous descriptions along the lines

of: “He sees only the death of formations when he brings them to mind as

impermanent and so the sign appears to him as a terror” [ CITATION

Bud10 \l 1033 ]. These descriptions outline a crucial state of mind on the

path to awakening, in which all past, present, and future objects (both

mental and physical) is addressed through their inevitable cessation. It’s

easy to dismiss this perspective as unhealthy, after all it overshadows

one’s enjoyment of what is present, replacing enjoyment with the

despairing inevitability of destruction, on top of that it also erases all

sense of anticipation for the future, leaving one behind with nothing but a

bitter sense of purposelessness. However, with another set of

interpretations it becomes evident that having this state of mind can be

equally liberating. By treating all occurring and future aggregates through

the lens of cessation, one abandons the expectation of pleasantries

deriving from each occurring aggregate, seeing that though the

expectation of pleasantries can be fulfilled, it ultimately will not last.

Furthermore, any feeling of disappointment will not arise, as expectation

is not present for the scenarios where it is not met, and for the same

reasons there will also not be any fear or aversion for unfavorable

aggregates. Essentially, the view of cessation is a practice that leads to

neutrality and dispassion, in which an objective reality, uncolored by one’s

clinging, surfaces to reveal the path to enlightenment.


The Buddhists definition of the self requires three properties: 1)

consistency over time, 2) permanence, 3) controllability. Though the five

aggregates couple together to form a mind-body complex, each of the

aggregate fail to meet all three properties of the self, and hence making

the self just an abstraction that’s not found in reality. Through this

Buddhist show that even the conventional and resolutely held belief of

personal identity is just a strong desire to forcefully translate an

abstraction to reality. Once the lack of self is recognized, there are many

methods of practice to mitigate the clinging of aggregates, in which the

self is preserved. The frequent use of hyperbolic language in suttas

describing these methods, often leads to a skewed perception that

Buddhism is pessimistic and induces a sense of self-aversion. This

perception can be rectified with an understanding that these practices are

treated as means to enlightenment and not as an end in Buddhism.

Works Cited
Buddhaghosa, B. (2010). Purification by Knowledge and Vision of the Way.

In T. f. Ñanamoli, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Access to

Insight.

Javanaud, K. (2013, August). Is The Buddhist ‘No-Self’ Doctrine Compatible

With Pursuing Nirvana? Philosophy Now, 10-13.


Ron, C. (2010). Psycological Self vs. No-Self. Retrieved from Buddhist

Geeks: http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2011/05/psychological-self-

vs-no-self/

Thanissaro Bhikkhu . (2013). The Five Aggregates: A Study Guide. Access

to Insight.

Thera, S. (2013). The Way of Mindfulness: the Satipatthana Sutta and Its

Commentary . Access to Insight.

Translated from the Pali Canon by Thanissaro Bhikkhu . (2013). Indriya-

vibhanaga Sutta: Analysis of the Mental Faculties . Access to Insight.