The Washing Machine of Buddhism: The Five Aggregates

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What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’, or ‘I’, according to Buddhist philosophy, is only a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or energies, which may be divided into five groups or aggregates.
~ Walpola Rahula (From the book “What the Buddha Taught“)

Who, and what, the heck are you?!  That is a question that has consumed humans for some time.  Each religion also has a different take on this, and Buddhism is no exception with the “Five Aggregates”.

This article is part of a series on the basics of Buddhism.  Click here to view more.  

What is different with Buddhism, however, is that it provides a more ‘scientific’ answer that, while not leaving you feel all warm and fuzzy, does give you the answer to being free of suffering (dukkha).

The answer to what “you” are in Buddhism is called the Five Aggregates.  It is also linked deeply with the First Noble Truth, and linked with attachment and suffering (dukkha).

In a nutshell, The Five Aggregates are what makes up a human being.  It is what makes you…”you”.  However, the Five Aggregates teaches us that “you” are a temporary grouping (aggregate) of different constantly changing things (form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness) that make up your physical and mental existence.

This is “attachment” in its most basic form.

These Five Aggregates are also the reason for your suffering (dukkha), but not the cause of it.  That is an important distinction…the Five Aggregates are “attachment” but don’t cause suffering on their own, only you can do that due to ignorance of them!  A perfect example of this is the Buddha.  He was, like all of us, made up of the Five Aggregates (and continued to be so until his death), but he was able to realize Nirvana in his life through understanding the Five Aggregates.

The Five What?

OK, to be clear, I am not referring to the “Jackson Five” with Michael Jackson taking center stage in this article, but the Five Aggregates!  😉 Although each member of this group had a special place in it to make it all work together.  And as we know in music history, it was a temporary, every changing, thing.  The Jackson Five (and Michael Jackson) no longer exist.  They were impermanent as we are impermanent.

I refer to the Five Aggregates as the “Washing Machine of Buddhism” in my article title, and I’ll explain more about that later so you can gain an easy understanding of this topic.  For now let’s go over what each one of these five aggregates are.

The Five Aggregates, also referred to as the Five Skandhas, refers to the temporary, every changing, conditions that make up “you”.  The first of the Five Aggregates, matter, is also known as “Rupa” or “Body”.  The other four are “Nama” or “Mind”.  Together, they are known as “Nama rupa”, which is a formation of our “store consciousness” (Alayavijnana), but also our ourselves and our environment.

While Store Consciousness or “Alayavijnana” (for my Theravada friends it is not just a Mahayana invention and here is an excellent article by Walpola Rahula about it) is what “carries on” after death (read more here), but also what we ‘consume’ around us that makes up the consciousness part of the Five Aggregates.  This is why practice is important in Buddhism so we can have things such as right understanding and right view, to help us along the path towards Nirvana.

  1. Form/Matter (rupa):  Essentially, this means our body and all our sense organs and central nervous system (although it also includes material objects).  I like to think of it as the “container” for the rest (“Nama”) to work.  That is why “nama rupa” are said together, because they all work together to make “you” as “you” know “you” (that was a lot of “you”!).  With this “form”, we of course have “organs”, and here are what makes up “rupa”:
    • Five Physical Organs:  Eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body.
    • Five (Corresponding) Sense Organs:  Sight, sound, smell, taste, and tangible objects.
  2. Feelings/Sensations (vedana):  This is an “emotional” aggregate.  Just like the waves in the ocean, feelings and sensations come and go.  Yet we certainly don’t feel that way!  When we recognize it is a manifestation of different things (such as perceptions) in our body, and then can thus not be “moved” by it, we gain a key to freedom where the “waves” don’t need to come.  As I explained in my article about Nirvana, it is like a calm lake.  Nirvana is our natural state, like a calm lake, not the waves that are caused by causes and conditions like the moon, wind, gravitational forces, etc.
    1. There are three sensations:  Pleasant, unpleasant, and Indifferent.  Depending on your experience with an object, you experience one of these three.
  3. Perceptions (samjna):  This is a “conceptual” aggregate.  You see a lot through your eyes, and “perceive” different things.  These perceptions were caused by different things as well.  Maybe through experience where you had a negative, or positive, feeling, your perception is completely different from someone else.  Yet the issue is, as Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh explains, it, “when we perceive, we often distort, which brings about many painful feelings.  Our perceptions are often erroneous, and we suffer.”.  We need to be able to understand that perceptions and deception are often interconnected.  Through perception, we create something “definite” from our experience, which can be erroneous.  In contrast, true knowledge/vision, known as “prajna” in Buddhism, is the way to overcome this.  The Diamond Sutra is a perfect way to gain Prajna.
  4. Mental Formations/Volition (samskara):  This is a “moral” aggregate.  Formations can, of course, be anything we see in our material/physical world.  Yet there are also mental formations.  We rarely recognize them as such, but mental formations happen all the time.  There are 51 different mental formations.  The upper level of our consciousness (“mind consciousness”) is what we experience when we touch or engage something that is buried in our “store consciousness” that brings it to the forefront. Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh likes to refer to these as “seeds”.  Whenever you water these seeds in your store consciousness, you allow them to grow and become known in your mind consciousness.  Thus, it is important to ‘water’ the seeds of wholesome mental formations, rather than unwholesome ones.
  5. Consciousness (vijnana):  Without consciousness, the rest of the aggregates do not amount to much (and you would not even be reading this article!).  Only when one of the five body organs, and the mind, are interconnected with consciousness, can we have an “experience”.  Consciousness is the basis of all our mental formations.  Alayavijnana, or “Store Consciousness”, is an integral part of the Five Aggregates for Mahayana Buddhists.  The six consciousness are:
    1. Eye consciousness
    2. Ear consciousness
    3. Nose consciousness
    4. Tongue consciousness
    5. Body consciousness
    6. Mind consciousness

All of these Five Aggregates interact with each other.  Imagine it as some sophisticated machine, car, ship, plane, etc.  The engine on a plane needs to be there, or it can’t fly.  And a car can’t work without the engine, wheels, etc.  Yet one gives out, the grouping fails and the existence ends (and for humans, that essentially means what we call ‘death’).  We normally experience the Five Aggregates in many ways, such as how we feel about someone (perhaps it was caused by perception, or by feeling, etc.), or if we have a physical ailment, it could be caused by stress, or something else.  All are interconnected.

What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’, or ‘I’, is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of these five groups.  They are all impermanent, all constantly changing.  ‘Whatever is impermanent is dukkha’ (Yad aniccam tam dukkham).  This is the true meaning of the Buddha’s words: ‘In brief the five Aggregates of Attachment are dukkha.’  They are not the same for two consecutive moments.  Here A is not equal to A.  They are in flux of momentary arising and disappearing.
~ Walpola Rahula (From the book “What the Buddha Taught“)

Why Is This So Important in Buddhism?

So why is it important to understand the Five Aggregates?  Because it helps you overcome ignorance (which thus causes suffering), which helps you in the path towards Nirvana, which is the goal of Buddhism.

Ignorance in Buddhism is largely associated with not wanting to recognize that we are temporary, impermanent, constantly changing beings.  That we are only in ‘existence’ due to causes and conditions, of which can change at any split second (for example, with lack of oxygen your existence and/or ‘aggregates’ would end fairly quick).  We (really, really, really want to) believe we are everlasting, unchanging, beings.  Even if science has proven that we are changing even at the biological scale all the time, we still ‘feel’ the same, generally ‘look’ the same, and believe we even ‘think’ the same.  To believe we (and other people and things) are truly impermanent, is scary, so we form attachments.  This ignorance is a “safety blanket”, which does nothing to keep us safe but instead cover our eyes to the truth (go ahead and try it…you can always throw it in the washing machine in the next section of this article!).

In the Five Aggregates, there is nothing that we can call a self.  Ignorance is the inability to see this truth.  Consciousness, mind/body, the six senses and their objects, contact, and feeling are the effect of ignorance and volitional actions.  Because of craving, grasing, and combing to be, there will be birth and death, which means the continuation of this wheel, or chain, again and again.  ~ Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh (from his Book “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching“)

Buddhists use understanding the Five Aggregates to help them with understanding impermanence, which helps with achieving the understanding of nonself.  This is all important because when we cling (attached) to our view of “us”, we create dukkha (suffering).  And as the First Noble Truth told us, that is the start of our self-made prison, and why we practice Buddhism in the first place so we can have these prison walls crumble.

If you want to escape the self-made prison of our saha world (cycle of birth and death), you first have to remove that safety blanket covering your head and see what is really going on.  If you can’t see the truth, you will be forever under the false safety blanket of “ignorance”.

Now don’t get too worried that this safety blanket is covering your eyes…you are far from alone.  Buddhism helps us to remove it from our head, but everyone ‘removes’ the blanket at different speeds (and some even revert to putting it back on their heads).  This is why in Mahayana Buddhism, it is recognized that it takes an extremely long time for someone to become a Buddha.  While we may gain more and more clarity through lifetimes of removing this ‘safety blanket’, this confidence and courage needs to be built up through knowledge, experience, practice, and faith.  I know my safety blanket is over my head right now, and I have a very long way to go, but that doesn’t diminish my desire to practice.  Every step forward is a step towards the end of the path.

The Buddhist Washing Machine

The Buddhist washing machine aggregates a human! 😉 Photo by Ryan McGuire on Pixabay (cc0)

So what does this all have to do with a washing machine?  For those who have read my articles for years, you know I love creating fun examples to explain Buddhism in our modern world.  A washing machine is perfect for the Five Aggregates, and I love the picture shown above (OK, OK…know that a washing machine won’t ‘make’ a person like this!).

First, you will need to do a bit of visualization.  Think of what you look like when you are dressed.  Often you’ll have some sort of top shirt, pants or skirt, socks, shoes, hat, glasses, … you get the idea.  We consider ourselves “ready” to go out in the world when we are “dressed”.  We are “naked” without our clothing and other items.  Clothes also are an expression of who we are and often what we do.

And that is an example of aggregates…we are placing various different parts on our body to make us “us” when we go out in the world.  We often need to have a complete “outfit” when we go out.

Now, let’s go back to the washing machine analogy.  All those separate items are thrown together into the washing machine.  Socks have nothing to do with a shirt, nor does gloves have anything to do with pants.  But when we start combing things, it all starts to make sense.  Each one has it’s purpose.

The washing machine is our world…the cycle of birth and death.  You become a “you” when these five aggregates come together….in the washing machine.  The ‘tub’ of the washing machine has all these items…they don’t know they are any different when they are in the tub of the washing machine sloshing around.  Yet it is temporary.

After they get taken out and dried, folded and stored away, the grouping (aggregate) is no more.  Yet they are not any different are they?  Now they may used in a different combination (outfit).  This also ties in with the interconnectedness (what Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to as “interbeing”) of everyone and everything.  We come from, and are part of, this same washing machine.  The different parts of the clothes get shuffled around, but it’s all the same.  Thus, stop thinking we are all really “different”, which is yet another type of “attachment”.

Now I am not trying to simplify down to this extreme the Five Aggregates, but it’s a fun way to think about it.  When we realize we are given this rare opportunity to “aggregate” together and do something in this world, we should not waste that opportunity.  Understanding and practicing Buddhism is one way, but at a minimum, help others or at least do no harm as the Dali Lama likes to stay.

The Missing Sock

There is a Buddha in your sock. Photo by congerdesign on pixabay

I couldn’t let you leave without explaining the “missing sock” (or even the resulting Sherlock Holmes case of the mismatched socks!).  For all of us who wash our clothes, we somehow find a sock is “missing” after everything comes out of the dryer.  Why?

Well, that I have no answer for except for another fun analogy which I will tie in to Buddhism.

Perhaps that missing sock was actually a Bodhisattva when it was last on your feet…keeping you warm, cushioning your steps, etc.  Now it has become a Buddha and no longer is confined into the cycle of birth and death (our washing machine) and thus no longer aggregates into anything (Nirvana / Parinirvana).

Now excuse me while as I head over to my washer and dryer to meditate on the five aggregates…

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