2022-03-31 Satipaṭṭhāna (51) The Fourth Aggregate-Mental Constructs
3:15PM Mar 31, 2022
We are talking about this important topic. In the teachings of the Buddha it appears often. Sometimes it is presented in ways that are hard for modern people to identify with or appreciate. I think that these teachings on the five aggregates – the five groupings, or the five divisions of our human experience – might be easier to appreciate through presenting them as a story. That is a little bit paradoxical, since part of the purpose of this teaching is to help us come to the end of stories, or appreciate a different way of being.
It begins, these five aggregates, five groupings, with the direct experiences of things, the sensory experience. The Pali word can mean "appearances." Just like in English the word "appearance" means "what comes into view." It can be extended to be any sensation that comes into experience, anything we sense. It is the raw sense data from which we build our world, understanding of the world.
In Buddhist psychology, the understanding is once a sensation has come, sense data has come, the first detail that becomes then apparent, is the pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant or unpleasant of it. There is some idea that this amoeba-like being for or against, or pleasant/unpleasant, is very basic. It occurs almost immediately after just taking in a sensation, before we necessarily even recognize what it is.
We often react to the pleasant/unpleasant. It might be that the recognition knows that, "This is terrible." "This is uncomfortable." Or, "This is wonderful." That is the simple act of recognition, the third step. It could be recognizing what the object is. I was talking earlier about the meditation bell we have here. I see it. It is a pleasant sight. And I recognize it as a bell. We have to appreciate that the recognition does not live in the object. The recognition is often a construct, a very simple application or projection onto the thing. In this case, by its function. It is operating as a bell, so we call it a bell.
Many years ago in San Francisco, I saw someone who was a homeless person who was asking for money. He had a beautiful Japanese bell. I was surprised how beautiful it was, kind of like this one here that I have. He is going around asking for donations. I said, "Oh, now the bell is a begging bowl."
Those are the first three of the aggregates: the appearance of sensations, experiencing it as either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, and building on that is the recognition. The recognition is usually just one word, a simple label, idea of what it is, concept.
Once we have a simple concept, there is an elaboration that goes on. That elaboration can be a story, or some construct that is more than just the object itself that we are recognizing. I see the bell here, and I recognize it as being IMC's bell. I remember the person who gave it to us many years ago. Where the person gave it to us. What inspired the person to give it to us. I remember the person's name and my appreciation for that person. Wondering what has happened to that person. Feeling this warmth for this person, as I think about this bell. There is all this construction, this elaboration, that arises in the wake of having recognized this as a bell.
That is innocent enough. It adds to the richness of life to have stories and histories like that. But it also is a place where life can get unnecessarily complicated. A lot of human suffering gets born in these elaborations that happen, the constructions that happen after the basic recognition. Once there is all these things together – the appearance, the pleasant/unpleasant, the recognition, and constructions of stories and ideas around it – then there is the fifth aggregate, which we will talk about tomorrow. Usually in English it is called "consciousness." In the way, the story, I am talking about, consciousness is not prior to all the rest of it. It actually arises in the wake of all of this. We will talk about that tomorrow.
For today, it is the fourth aggregate, the fourth grouping, which is usually translated into English as "mental formations." The Pali word "saṅkhāra" – the "saṅ" means like "with" and "khāra" is related to karma "to make" or "to do," "to form something." That is why people say "formations." I like the word "constructions." It does not say "mental" in it, but that is by implication. It has to do with the mind – the mental constructions, the mental elaborations that go on in the mind, the stories, and how we build the world we live in. Some of it is built collectively, and some of it is built by our own projections onto people, things, and ideas.
This world of constructions has something to do with our inclinations, bias, preferences, motivations, sense of purpose, fears. It is a huge world that is part of the mental landscape we live in. Often we do not recognize it as such. Not only do we think that the object we recognize, the third aggregate, is really what it is. We are attached to the idea we have of it.
I get attached to this being a bell, here at IMC. If someone wanted to use it as a trashcan, I would feel a little bit like, "What? I'm not so sure about that." I would like to keep it as a bell, keep it clean and things like that. There are these stories around it, constructs around it – IMC bell, keeping it clean, what it means for a meditation center to have a clean bell. Some of that is normal, but some of it can be the world not only of constructs, but also the world of clinging.
What is fascinating, around these teachings of the Buddha, is that this constructing aspect of the mind is what constructs the other groupings. The appearance of things is partly born, not innocently because something comes, partly because we have an apparatus that selects that out of the environment. Of all the things we could pay attention to, there is a selection process that this is important and we are selecting this. Or we are selecting the feelings, feeling tones. We are selecting the ideas, the recognition. More often we are selecting the constructions themselves. For the Buddha, each of the five aggregates is a construct made by the constructing activity of the mind.
Many times in the West, teachers will say that the Buddha said there is no self. What there is, are these five aggregates, these five heaps. The Buddha did not actually say that. He actually saw the five heaps more as the problem. He called all five of them a burden.
How I understand that is that the constructing activity of the mind selects out of this suchness of experience, the simplicity of the experience, certain things to prioritize. In some ways it is necessary to do it. But there is an extraness that comes with it, that creates a lot of clinging, suffering, and burden, in this world. That is very different if we rest in the suchness of things, we allow things to be as they are. Almost as if we do not need to get involved in the appearance, feelings, ideas or stories around it. We are there in a very simple way.
There is a story going, you can say like I did, appearance, feeling tones, simple recognition, elaboration and stories. What is interesting for mindfulness practitioners, it is possible to go backwards – to recognize that we are involved in storytelling, elaborations of the mind, and then be curious. "Can I just recognize that that's happening with a simple possible recognition, 'thinking, story making'?" And then step back further – "Is that pleasant or unpleasant to be thinking and telling stories?" Then we take one step back, "What are the actual sensations that come along with it?" Maybe there is pressure, tightness, maybe some pleasantness and warmth in thinking about it.
What we are doing is going back to what is primary or foundational, to get grounded there. Taking a stand on the simplicity of experience, we are less likely to be swept away in the currents of this elaborate thinking. Sometimes we can watch from appearances as things get more complicated into stories. Sometimes we can trace it backwards to the basic, simple sensations that are there.
That is fascinating to be able to play the scales, minfulness scales back and forth. Find in doing that, that you start appreciating that each of these five, (four so far), are experiences that have a genesis, they arise – they appear and disappear, they come and go, they appear and cease. It is possible to begin being in the flow, the current of these things, that is much closer to the suchness of them, than to select and hold on to any one, out of the general flow of the river.
I hope that made sense. Tomorrow's topic, the last aggregate, I think is very interesting for many people, when we call it "consciousness." We will take a look at what this is for the Buddha. Thank you, and I look forward to tomorrow.