The Five Aggregates of Experience

In Buddhism, the five aggregates of experience are physical and mental factors that work together to produce each of our personal experiences in this world. The breakdown of our personal experience into five aggregates will aid in our development of wisdom.

Specifically, it will strengthen our wisdom of not-self – a key element of the law of impermanence. We will come to realize that the five aggregates of experience, are impermanent and constantly changing. Once we get rid of the idea of a “self”, then we can overcome hope and fear and discover lasting inner peace. 

What are the five aggregates of experience?

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Instead of looking at personal experience in terms of only the body and mind, Buddha analyzed it in terms of the five aggregates. The teaching of the five aggregates is simply a detailed analysis of how each of us experience the world.

The five aggregates are comprised of one physical factor (matter) and four mental factors (consciousness, perception, feeling and volition. In every person, these components are all present: the physical body is the matter aggregate and the mental aspect is divided into the four mental aggregates. We’ll discuss each aggregate one by one and then walk through an example.

Aggregate One: Matter

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Matter is what we would call material or physical factors of experience. Matter includes our own bodies and all material objects around us such as trees, buildings, the earth and all other objects of everyday life.

Matter includes the the five physical sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin) and their corresponding material objects of those sense organs (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch).

Aggregate Two: Consciousness

Consciousness is mere awareness of an object but its goal is to understand how consciousness turns the physical factors of existence into a personal, conscious experience. The physical element of matter is not enough alone to produce experience.

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Experience also requires consciousness. For example, the simple contact between your eyes and an object cannot result in experience. Only when the eyes and consciousness come together do we have an experience with the object we are looking at – this is called visual consciousness.

However, this visual consciousness is mere awareness of any visible object. Our every day personal experience requires all five aggregates, which requires the other three aggregates – perception, feeling and volition. These three aggregates turn the mere awareness of the object into a personal experience.

Aggregate Three: Perception

Perception is the process of becoming aware, similar to waking up as opposed to being sound asleep or unconscious. In other words, perception means recognition or identification. In a way, this means attaching a name to an object of experience through memory. The function of perception is to turn an indefinite experience into an identifiable, recognizable one.

Aggregate Four: Feeling

The aggregate of feeling is also known as sensation. It can come in three kinds –  pleasant, unpleasant and indifferent. When we experience an object, that experience takes on of of these three emotional tones  –  a tone of pleasure, a tone of unpleasant and displeasure or a tone of indifference.

Aggregate Five: Volition

In basic terms, this means habit, which is a conditioned response to the object of experience. Volition is comprised of two equal parts. One is the mental formations that come from the past, and the other is volition which comes from the here and now. Mental formations and volition work together to determine our responses to the objects of experience. These responses have moral consequences in the form of wholesome, unwholesome and neutral effects.

Putting All the Elements Together

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Lets illustrate how the physical and mental factors of experience work together to produce personal experience. Say you decide to take take a walk in the park. As you walk, your eyes come into contact with a visible object. Here there is contact between two elements of the aggregate of matter – the object and your eyes.

As your attention focuses on the visible object, your consciousness becomes aware of the visible object, which is yet indeterminate.

Next your aggregate of perception  identifies that visible object as a cute puppy dog.

Then you respond to the object with the aggregate of feeling – the feeling of pleasure or if the object had been a snake, then with displeasure.

Finally, you react to that visible object with the aggregate of volition, a condition reaction such as petting the dog or running away if it was a snake. In a similar way, we can analyze all of our personal experiences in terms of the five aggregates.

How should the trained mind handle feelings and pleasurable senses?

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Of all the five aggregates, Buddha teaches us that feeling should be given particularly close examination. The objective is to break free from suffering by restricting feeling to simply an object of study.

Feeling is more likely than any of the other aggregates to encourage clinging and craving because feeling is the primary objective of all our striving and activity. For example, most of us work hard at our jobs in order to get money. Then we go and buy things such as food, movies, amusements, cars, etc. We buy these things with a single objective: for a pleasurable feeling. In other words, for delightful stimulation of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body.

We invest all of our resources, money, and physical and mental energy simply for the expectation or hope of pleasurable feeling. If we can have knowledge and understanding of feeling, then it puts us in a position to keep it under control. It enable us to remain above feelings, which allows us to carry out all of our other activities far better than we otherwise could.

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Buddha taught that we experience sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch and feelings, we should release them. To succeed in this is to have mastery over ourselves – meaning we have mastery over all the mental formations.

For example, when we hear sounds, let them go. When the nose smells an odor, let it go and leave it at the nose. When a feel arises, let go of the like or dislike that follows. All of these things, just let them go. We must practice meditation with body and mind in order to see and know the sense impressions of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch and feelings.

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