If Buddhism denies a permanent self, how does it perceive identity?
According to Buddhist texts the entire universe, including the individual, is made up of different phenomena, which Buddhism classifies into different categories: what we conventionally call a person” can he understood in terms of five aggregates, the sum of which must not be taken for a permanent entity, since beings are nothing but an amalgam of ever-changing phenomena. Although the aggregates are only a “convenient fiction, “the Buddha nevertheless made frequent use of the aggregate scheme when asked to explain the elements at work in the individual.
In this study Mathieu Boisvert presents a detailed analysis of the five aggregates (pancakkhadha) and establishes how the Theravda tradition views their interaction. He clarifies the fundamentals of Buddhist psychology by providing a rigorous examination of the nature and interrelation of each of the aggregates and by establishing, for the first time, how the function of each of these aggregates chains being to the cycle of birth, death and rebirth – the theory of dependent origination (paticcasamuppada). Boisvert contends that without a thorough understanding of the five aggregates, we cannot grasp the liberation process at work within the individual, who is, after all, simply an amalgam of the five aggregates.
The five aggregates represent an important and original contribution to Buddhist studies and will be of great interest to all scholars and students of Buddhism.
Mathieu Boisvert is a Professor of South-Asian Traditions at the University du Quebec a Montreal and the editor of Un Monde de religions (forthcoming).
In Buddhist philosophy, the theory of the five aggregates (pancakkhandha) of realities, or real occurrences known as “principles” (dhamma), is the analysis of what elsewhere is often called the “problem” of matter and mind. In Buddhism, to separate these would be to produce a dilemma like the familiar one of “body” and “soul” (are they the same or different?). But the resolution is different. Whereas the “soul,” according to Buddhism, is a non-entity and the problem therefore meaningless, consciousness is as real as matter. The tradition emphasizes that consciousness is inseparably linked to matter: there can be no consciousness without a body; although there could be a body without consciousness, it would not be sentient.
Matter and consciousness are two of the “aggregates”; the other three link them, or rather show them inseparably bound together in a living being. These are, to use Boisvert’s translations, “sensation” (vedana, variously translated as “experience,” “feeling,” etc.), “recognition” (sanna or “perception”) and “karmic activities” (sankhara, ‘forces,” “volition,” etc.). Sensation — being either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral — can occur only in a body which is conscious. Similarly, recognition occurs solely when consciousness is aware of sensations. The karmic activities, sometimes restricted to volition (cetana), were gradually elaborated to include about fifty principles, from “contact” (phassa, the combination of a sense organ, its object and consciousness), energy and greed to understanding, benevolence, compassion and attention.
In what are supposed by many to be the earliest Buddhist texts, the five aggregates are taken for granted, as if pre-Buddhist thought generally accepted them. Boisvert argues that they are a theory intrinsic to Buddhism and extracts from the texts the passages needed to explain them and show that these five, in this order, are required to describe and understand the process of “transmigration” (or “rebirth”). The neater part of the book (chaps. 2 to 6) clarifies the nature of the individual aggregates. “Recognition” has usually been found the most obscure, to the point of elision in translation. But Boisvert shows that this aggregate is central to the transmigration process since it links desire (tanha, “craving”) to sensation. Release (nibbana) requires that recognition be replaced by understanding (panna). The reactions of the aggregates with aggregates with the external world are clarified by their interaction with each other. The ultimate argument relates the aggregates to conditioned origination (paticcasmuppada), the essentially Buddhist description of transmigration. Through this analysis the proper sequences of the aggregates is established.
Boisvert has been able to use BUDSIR – the Bangkok Mahidol University Databank of 1989 – to search exhaustively for contexts in Pali literature. It is to be hooped that he will search further and clarify more Buddhist terminology.
The following study presents a detailed analysis of each of the five aggregates (pahcakkhandha); its primary intention is to establish how the Theravada tradition views their interaction. It therefore attempts to clarify the fundamentals of Buddhist psychology by analyzing one of the earliest classifications of the conditioned phenomena (sankhatadhamma)—the five aggregates—investigating the role that these aggregates play in the cognitive process and explaining how they chain us to the wheel of misery. Once the individual meaning of each of the five aggregates is conceptualized, we try to understand the relation that exists between each of them. This explains the reason for the nomenclature of the five aggregates in the specific order found in canonical literature. Evidence against both Mrs. Rhys Davids’ view that the primary reason for the khandha-division was practical ... and not scientific” and Th. Stcherbatsky’s opinion that the order in which the aggregates appear is merely “a gradual progress from coarseness to subtleness”2 is also presented. By demonstrating that the customary taxonomy hints at a psycho-physical process present in every individual, I have clarified the significance of the traditional order of the five aggregates, and this significance is far greater than Stcherbatsky suggested. By using computer technology, I feel that the results of this research are exhaustive in the sense that they take into consideration the entire Pall canon. These results not only explain the psycho-physical workings of the individual, but also shed light on the mental process which, according to the Pall sutta (texts known as the discourses of the Buddha), constitutes the grounds of transmigration.
The aim of this study is not to discover what the Buddha actually said about the five aggregates, nor what his intended meaning was, for it is impossible to state with conviction that any particular texts were spoken by the Buddha himself. Although many scholars have attempted to offer a chronological classification of various canonical texts, a consensus has not been reached. For example, H. Saddhatissa claims that the Sullanipata, a work mainly containing verses, “is one of the oldest collections of Buddhist discourses in the Pali canon,”4 while A.K. Warder is of the view that prose texts of the Dighanikdya “are more authentic in their preservation of the utterances and dialogues of the Buddha.”5 Moreover, it is very likely that advances in linguistics will raise questions about the originality of Pall texts. A definitive statement as to the originality of Pali canonical texts does not lie around the corner! My concern here is not so much with what the Buddha said, but rather with the position that the Theravada tradition supports. This school, which has regulated the lives and beliefs of millions of people for over two millennia, has elaborated an intricate scholastic and commentarial tradition. Undoubtedly, there is a huge chronological and geographical gap between the time the Buddha uttered his discourses (the fifth and sixth centuries B.C.E., in North India), and when they were written down for the first time (most probably the first century B.C.E., in Sri Lanka). It is highly probable that either certain elements present in the “original” canon were “forgotten,” or that passages not tine red by the Buddha himself were “remembered.” Another seven centuries separate the actual writing down of the canon and the elaboration of most commentaries. Again, this gap offers more grounds for those arguing that the exegetical literature is not necessarily consistent with “original” Buddhism. Since “original” Buddhism is a tradition that we have not yet discovered, we cannot prove whether the exegetical literature is or is not consistent with the primeval tradition.
We can postulate, however, that since the commentarial tradition was incorporated within the Theravada tradition itself, the latter must have insured that the former was consistent with every aspect of its own theory. The Pali sutta, the abhidhamma (the scholastic literature), and Buddhaghosa’s commentaries have all been accepted as integral parts of the Theravada tradition. Consequently, I have assumed that the Theravada tradition itself must have assured the integrity of a text before accepting it. This study of the five aggregates will be based on the whole of the Pali canonical literature, and will refer to the commentaries whenever certain canonical passages seem unclear. This book will therefore analyze the five aggregates within the Theravada tradition as a whole.
According to Buddhist texts, the entire universe, including the individual, is made up of different phenomena (dhamma). Although all these phenomena are reduced to transitory entities by the theories of impermanence (anicca) and selflessness (anatta), Buddhism classifies them into different categories in order to explain the conventionally accepted concept of person. The three concepts of bases (dyatana), elements (dhatu), and aggregates (khandha) constitute different schemes br classifying the various phenomena. Although the aggregates are nothing but a “convenient fiction,”6 the Buddha nevertheless made frequent use of the aggregate scheme when asked to explain the elements at work in the individual. According to this scheme, what we conventionally call a “person” can be understood in terms of five aggregates, the sum of which must not be mistaken for a permanent entity since beings are nothing but an amalgam of ever-changing phenomena. According to the Theravada sutta literature, the human personality is composed solely of the five aggregates, and to perceive any of these as the self leads to a particular kind of wrong view known as “the view that the body is existing (permanently)” (sakkayadi t thi).8 If the entire personality is confined within these five aggregates, the Buddhist theory of perception—and of “misperception” as well—should become clear through an understanding of their interrelation.
The five aggregates are variously translated as matter or form (rupa); sensation, emotion or feeling (vedana); recognition or perception (sanna); karmic activity, formation, or force (sank/tarn); and consciousness (viñña1a). Nevertheless, I believe that to rely solely on these standard translations is ultimately misleading, primarily because the concepts that some of these terms represent are heavily loaded with connotations inapplicable to the textual context in which the actual Buddhist aggregates were initially defined. For example, the term vedana can be restricted neither to physical sensations nor to mental emotions or feelings, since the Pali tradition itself informs us that vedana can arise both on the body and in the mind.9 Moreover, the Samyuttanikaya states that one should “dwell observing the impermanence of pleasant sensations on the body,”° thus implying that the term vedana refers not only to an emotional “feeling,” as Mrs. Rhys Davids has put forward, but also to a physical sensation occurring on the body. However, other passages such as “all mental objects culminate (flow) into vedana”1 stress the fact that vedana is not a mere physical element, since it is influenced by mental contents. Yet most scholars adopt a certain translation for vedana without first clarifying this nuance, thus leading the reader to think that vedana s solely either physical or mental.
This confusion may be partially due to the fact that Sanskrit and [‘au sources, in most instances, fail to provide descriptive definitions of the five aggregates, let alone any treatment of their interrelationship. It is essential, therefore, to establish the deeper meaning of each of these elements, and then to explain their complex interaction. Since the Pali literature illustrates these concepts with words of the same etymology, determining their meaning is more difficult than if they were paraphrased. For example, the Majjhimanikaya explains the meaning of vedana thus: “it is called ‘sensation’ because it ‘senses.’ This problem is solved by discerning a definition of each aggregate through a systematic contextual analysis of every reference found in the Theravada canon. By amalgamating all the passages where each of the aggregates is mentioned, I clarify their meanings and their implications to Buddhist doctrine.
Another problem arising from the study of the aggregate theory is whether the order of their nomenclature is purely random or has certain significance. The fact that the five aggregates are always presented in the same order throughout Pali literature does not necessarily imply that anything significant can be deduced from this very order. The Pali canon was not written down until three or four centuries after the death of the Buddha and certain mnemonic devices had to be elaborated to facilitate its memorization. The sequence, then, may have become standard primarily as a pedagogical means to ease memorization. As noted above, Rhys Davids and Stcherbatsky wondered why this particular order was chosen rather than another, and they each ;) forward a different explanation. Rhys Davids suggested that the order of the aggregates was purely practical and not scientific; but she did not elaborate on what she meant by “practical.” Stcherbatsky, on the other hand, hypothesized that the order reflects a gradual process from coarseness to subtlety. While it is true that the order, starting with ‘matter” and ending with “consciousness,” seems to reflect this gradual process, we will see that the “material” aggregate possesses elements which stand on the same level of subtlety as the “consciousness” aggregate.’ My intention, however, is not to refute Stcherbatsky’s argument, but to show that the reason for the particular order of the aggregates is grounded in something much more important than this “gradual process.” In fact, I show that there was an underlying reason for choosing this particular order: the nomenclature of these five aggregates had to be in total accord with the theory of dependent origination (paticcasamuppada; literally “arising on the ground of a preceding cause”). Although the theory of dependent origination is traditionally approached as the highest truth and the five aggregates as conventional truth, I present evidence that these levels of truth are not merely juxtaposable, but represent different expressions of the same process.
The paticcasamuppada could very well be considered the common denominator of all the Buddhist traditions throughout the world, whether Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana. The canonical texts of the Theravada tradition portray Bhikkhu Sariputta as saying that “whoever understands the paticcasamuppada understands the teaching of the Buddha, and whoever understands the teaching of the Buddha understands the paticcasanzuppada.”4 In the Vajrayana tradition, a similar view is expressed by the present Dalai Lama who states that the fundamental precept of Buddhism is this law of dependent origination.’5 Regardless of the tradition; we can clearly see the importance attributed to this theory. The paticcasamuppada seems to constitute a fundamental tenet of Buddhism, indispensable for realizing and understanding the implications of Buddhist philosophy.
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