Translated By Andrew Yang
The aggregate of perception without the self
To perceive here means more broadly to think, imagine, recall a past event or envisage a future situation, all in response to an outward circumstance. In this moment, our consciousness engages the external environment to generate a conception. As an example, facing a flower, while we see its colour with our eyes, smell its fragrance with our nose and touch it with our hands, the aggregate of perception helps form a concept of flowers in our mind. When this aggregate creates an ideation, it could join forces with another aggregate, that of impulse, to generate a discretionary thought that drives the body to action.
The perception aggregate has a capacity to differentiate and discriminate. Concepts such as love and hate, beauty and ugliness, wealth and poverty and nobility and inferiority, are what our thinking characteristically clings to and what our consciousness typically produces through this aggregate. So says Jushe Lun (Abhidharmakośabhāsya, or The Sheath of Abhidharma), “The perception skandha makes an entity out of an image and hangs on to a differentiation between men and women, grievances and affection, pain and pleasure and so on”.
Further, the aggregate of perception engenders infatuation and amorous cravings, the two root causes of samsara. In Volume Four, Surangama Sutra points out, “One wants to be tied with their loved one and stay unable to separate. Thus, parents and children, and the children of their children continue to reproduce nonstop through generations”. All things in the world start from human perception and ideation. One conception of good or evil that one clings to makes all the difference between heaven and hell in karmic reward and retribution.
Once your aggregate of perception no longer generates love or hate in response to a favorable or adverse situation, and it is able to remain clear and sharp to a neutral circumstance not yielding any partiality or discrimination, by then you would naturally be entering a pure state of “no-self”, as the verses of Xinxin Ming (An Inscription on Faith in the Mind) put it, “The ultimate Way is not hard, except where one makes a differentiation. As long as they do not love nor hate, they achieve lucid insight”.
The aggregate of impulse without the self
To have an impulse here means to contrive action. It starts by forming a thoughtful decision following a conception and thereafter acts out that intention. In the course of time, all things are in an evanescent state of germination, change or termination, so that humans experience birth, sickness, ageing and death, inanimate things exist in a cycle of creation, existence, decay and extinction, and our world undergoes formation, subsistence, decline and emptiness. The past is gone by, the present is in a process of change and the future has yet to come. Thus, in a temporal sense, everything is transient and impermanent, a phenomenon which Buddhist scriptures typically refer to as the impermanence of all impulses. Mortals who do not grasp this concept tend to try and cling to things in the midst of impermanence as eternal.
As sentient beings do not have an independent, autonomous, everlasting entity or nature, all they possess are the five aggregates in body and mind that are both under constant change. When one life ceases due to karma, it is transferred into a new one. This mutation exemplifies the dictum that all dharmas have no self. The uninitiated who do not comprehend this tenet strive to impose an ego-based view on everything. They attempt to cling to the “I” and all that the “I” is endowed with, creating confusion and karma, and get enmeshed in mental affliction and the cycle of life and death as well as endless suffering. If we understand the notion of no-self and keep up our practice according to Buddhist precepts and rules of samadhi (or meditative concentration) to attain wisdom, we may be able to increasingly subdue our own mental suffering.
The aggregate of consciousness without the self
Consciousness here signifies cognition and discrimination. Everyone has a consciousness that helps understand and distinguish triggerings in the external environment and which may belong in one of the following three categories.
- Six types of consciousness receives and differentiates triggerings in the external environment, including eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, and mental consciousness. Our eyes see the form of things and generate eye-consciousness, and our ears hear sound and generate ear-consciousness. Our nose smells scent and causes nose-consciousness, our tongue tastes flavour and generates tongue-consciousness, and the rest of our body is able to feel things through touch and creates body-consciousness. And lastly, our mind processes things through thinking and produces mental consciousness per se.
- Manas consciousness has corresponded with the afflictions from ego-based delusion, vision, affection and arrogance ever since before the beginning of time. Constantly weighing the views in Alaya consciousness as the “I” and my endowment and holding tight onto them, Manas consciousness is the very root of ego-based clinging.
- Alaya consciousness stores all seeds of good and evil and all the karmic reward and retribution of our good and evil conduct in samsara are fashioned by the seed-holding capacity of this consciousness. Therefore, among all the eight types, this is the fundamental consciousness. Internally, it helps form each individual’s body and mind, while externally, it helps shape all things in the world.
When sentient beings are blinded by their own consciousness aggregate, their consciousness itself starts to differentiate. And as their manas consciousness clings to the “I” and what the “I” has, it launches into action their innate ego- and dharma-based attachment. All afflictions are thus spawned, and all evil karma, caused through greed, anger and delusion, as well as acts of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, swearing, deceitful speech and duplicity, is thus committed.
Hence, the statement “all the five aggregates are empty” quoted above means that as a result of contemplating with prajna the first six types of consciousness, all of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, otherwise the body and the mind prove to be empty, because all the colour the eyes see, the sound the ears hear, the fragrance the nose smells, the flavour the tongue tastes, the objects the rest of the body comes in contact with, and all the discrimination the mind makes, are dharmas induced by causes and conditions. As such, they are all of them transient and impermanent, without their own inherent nature, and present themselves when these causes and conditions gather, and retire when they disperse. For that reason, we should not seek to cling to anything out of our own greed, which may further give rise to afflictions and karmic retribution, and consequently transmigration within the six pathways of existence among the Three Worlds, namely, the Sensuous, the Fine-material and the Immaterial.
With the aggregate of consciousness, if we remember to constantly observe the emptiness of the first six types of consciousness, we may be able to progressively eliminate a distinction between the “I” and the other. From there we could proceed to contemplating the emptiness of Manas consciousness, which would, furthermore, enable us to exterminate our very own innate ego-based attachment and thereby become a sage in a Theravada sense. In this way, if we steadily improve our practice, we could even remove this ego-based clinging just mentioned, to empty out our aggregate of consciousness and ultimately attain Buddhahood.
Note 1 Dependent Origination in Buddhism is a cosmic law of causality concerning all things in the universe. All of the things owe to the gathering and dissolving of causes and conditions for their existence and expiration, so they are empty of an inherent nature. Put simply, being empty means having no substance, no independent existence and no eternity.