9. Epistemology (vii): The Five Aggregates – Resolution of the Mind-Body Problem

Our journey into epistemology began with the perplexing Mind-Body Problem. As we’ve explored, this problem revolves around the intricate relationship between the mind and the body. Why a Mind-Body Problem boils down to the fact that “it is not obvious how the concept of the mind and the concept of the body relate.” The central question that has never been answered over the centuries is: “Are the mind and body two distinct entities or a single entity?” Furthermore, the debate between philosophers John Locke (1632-1704) and George Berkeley (1685-1753) was used as an example.

Locke thought that “our notion about what actually exists – and therefore our understanding of the reality of the world – must always derive ultimately from what has been experienced through the senses.” To which Berkeley wondered, “What possible warrant can we have for asserting that the existence of these mental contents is caused by things of an entirely and fundamentally different character from them to which we can never have direct access, namely objects.” 

In his presentation “How Do We Know What We Know?” Dr. Fisch essentially agreed with Locke that “our understanding of the reality of the world – must always derive ultimately from what has been experienced through the senses.” However, as no one has since Berkley, he did not answer Berkeley’s question on how material objects can become mental content.

Indeed, as someone who relies exclusively on inferentially connected vocabulary to understand the world, even world-renowned scholars like Dr. Fisch are not in a position to answer the question, Are the mind and body two distinct entities or a single entity?”

In discussing “How Do We Know What We Know?” Dr. Fisch enumerates the following “sensing steps.”

  • “the world impacts on us in a causal manner through all our sensors,”
  • the content imparted on those stimuli is the reading-in of the mind,”
  • the content gets fashioned and conceptualized by our minds in ways that we do not govern,”
  • Sitting in the command room of our minds with the inner-eyes and looking out,”
  • seeing on the screen the world that we experience.”

In our current discussion, we leverage Dr. Fisch’s insight into the five sensing steps to help us shed light on Buddha’s teaching on the Five Aggregates.

Skandha (Chinese=蘊), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, lit. “heap,” viz. “aggregates,” or “aggregates of being.”

As Dr. Fisch, Buddha also enumerates the Five Aggregates of Being listed below.

  • Rupaskandha (Chinese=色蘊), the Aggregage of Rupa;
  • Vedanaskandha (Chinese=受蘊), the Aggregate of Sensing or Receiving;
  • Samjnaskandha. (Chinese=想蘊), the Aggregate of Active Mentality;
  • Samskaraskandha (Chinese=行蘊), the Aggregate of Action; and
  • Vijnanaskandha Chinese=識蘊), or the Aggregate of Consciousness

These Five Aggregates are:

1) Rupaskandha (Chinese=色蘊), or the Aggregate of Rupa.  

Rupa (Chinese=色), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit and Pali, “body,” “form,” or “materiality,” viz., that which has shape and is composed of matter. More generally, rupa refers to the materiality, which serves as the object of the five sensory consciousness (vijnana): visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile.” In other words, rupa represents what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, i.e., everything in the phenomenal world.

So, the Aggregate of Rupa corresponds to the last step of Dr. Fisch’s process, which he describes as “the world that we experience.

2) Vedanaskandha (Chinese=受蘊), or the Aggregate of Sensing or Receiving.  

Vedana (Chinese=受), according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit and Pali, “sensation,” or “sensory feeling.” The Chinese translation of Vedana is “to receive or accept.”

The Aggregate of Sensing or Receiving corresponds to Dr. Frisch’s description that “the world impacts on us in a causal manner through all our sensors.” The sensors, of course, are the visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile sensors defined earlier in step one.

However, Dr. Fisch did not elaborate further on how material phenomena could impact our senses without crashing into them. Neither did Dr. Fisch address the nature of the “content” that would become “reading-in” of the mind and be conceptualized in the following steps. To answer these questions, we turn to Buddha.

As discussed previously, rupas in Buddhism are not solid. Instead, they are mental epiphenomena, derivatives of a fluctuating mental field. As images from Dr. David Tong and Dr. Tony Tyson, all phenomena, from the quantum realm to the sky, are ripples, epiphenomena in the fluctuating field.  

Dr. David Tong’s image showing the smallest epiphenoma as ripples in the quantum field.

Dr. Tony Tyson’s image showing all universal phenomena, including giant galaxies, are epiphenomena.

In Buddha’s universe, where everything is “Nothing but Mentality,” these fluctuating ripples are conscious. Indeed, there is nothing solid to crash into our senses. Instead, it is the waves of consciousness carrying with them the experiential contents embedded in the mental construct of all phenomena in the world.   

In other words, while our senses sense waves of consciousness, the experiential contents of consciousness become “readings-in” of the mind and are conceptualized in the following two steps.

3) Samjnaskandha. (Chinese=想蘊), the Aggregate of Active Mentality.

Samjna, according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, “perception,” “discrimination,” or “(conceptual) identification.” The Chinese translation of samjnaskandha is the Aggregate of Thinking, indicating an active mentality. Indeed, whether it is perception, discrimination, or (conceptual) identification, they all require an active mind.  

An active mind is important because it allows the experiential contents to become “reading-in” of the mind. When the mind is quiescent with “no thought,” there can be no “reading-in” of the mind.   

4) Samskaraskandha (Chinese=行蘊), the Aggregate of Action.

According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, samskara is” in Sanskrit, a polysemous term that is variously translated as “formation,” “volition,” “volitional action,” “conditioned,” and “conditioning factors.” The Chinese translation of samskaraskandha is “action.”

With help from Dr. Fisch, we understand that, after becoming the “reading-in” of the mind, the action in the mind conceptualizes the experiential content mentioned above. Conceptualization turns the invisible experiential contents into images of the phenomenal world “in ways we do not govern.”

5) Vijnanaskandha Chinese=識蘊), or the Aggregate of Consciousness

Vijna, according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “consciousness.”

To discuss the meaning of the Aggregate of Consciousness, we turn to the Consciousness-Only School of Buddhism.

Consciousness-Only School of Buddhism (Romanized Sanskrit=vijñanavada; Chinese=唯識宗), “also known as the Yogachara school, is one of the two major Mahayana schools in India. Maitreya, who is thought to have lived around 270-350 (350-430 according to another account), is often regarded as the founder of the Consciousness-Only school. This school upholds the concept that all phenomena arise from the vijnana or consciousness and that the basis of all functions of consciousness is the Alaya-consciousness.

According to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, “the cardinal doctrine of the Consciousness-Only School is that “the objects of experience are mere projections of consciousness. Thus, all objects are mere representations, and all categories are mere designations. No object is the natural basis of its name; rather, the mind itself instead designates the object.”

In other words, the role of consciousness is to project the conceptualized images of the phenomenal world and have them be seen as “the world that we experience.” Therefore, the projection of consciousness corresponds to what Dr. Fisch describes as “with the inner eyes and looking out.” Both lead us back to Rupaskandha, i.e., “the world that we experience.” In the Buddhist universe, however, there is nothing material about “the world that we experience” because all are “mere projections of consciousness.” The world, as Buddha teaches, is imaginary.1352

Therefore, understanding the Five Aggregates can answer the question: “Are the mind and body two distinct entities or a single entity?”

There is no Mind-Body Problem because the mind and the body are the same. Everything is the mind in nature, and nothing is a “body.” Therefore, Buddha teaches that separating the mind from the body and considering the body real is a delusional misunderstanding of reality, the cause of humanity’s existential suffering, both of which are rooted deeply in non-luminosity.

In the following post, we will discuss how a well-known Bodhisattva liberates himself from his existential suffering by recognizing the equality of the mind and body through understanding the Five Aggregates.

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