The Functions of the Five Aggregates
(Yilan, Taiwan. Photographer: Chunchu Chang)
The conscious mind is pivotal in Buddhist cultivation; it serves as a tool but not the final target. Because it is a worldly dependent arising dharma, as the Buddha stated, “All states of the consciousness arise depending on the conditions of the Manas (the seventh vijnana) and the mental object.” (Long Agama Sutra, volume 9). In Buddhism, we seek the eternity, not a dependent arising and ceasing dharma.
Though the conscious mind exists only one lifetime, most of us, somehow, would consider it to be the everlasting eternity even after we passing away. This is inevitable caused by not knowing the truth of life. In terms of Buddhism, this concept is called the misconception about the self (self-view 我見).
For the ones who are truly interested in Buddhist cultivation, this is the very basic knowledge for transcending the cyclic births and deaths by eliminating the misconception about the self.
By definition, when one mistakes one of the five aggregates for the everlasting and indestructible self, such an understanding or view is called misconception about the self.
The five aggregates are dependent arising dharmas, thus they are impermanent and illusory but each of them has various functions. It is natural that sentient beings would mistake them for the true self because of their daily functions. So let’s take a look at the functions of the five aggregates.
The first aggregate is form-aggregate, which refers primarily to the five sense-roots. The five sense-roots are used to touch (or contact) the five sense-objects; thus the function of form-aggregate is to touch.
Next, sensation-aggregate allows you to feel and experience the feelings of suffering, pleasure, or neither suffering nor pleasure. These feelings and perceptions are regarded as sensation-aggregate.
What about the perception-aggregate? Perception means knowing, regardless of whether words and language have arisen. Next is formation-aggregate. Formation means decision. For example, when you have decided that something should be done in a particular way, you’ve made a decision, this is formation. Or when you have decided what to do next, such a mental act is formation as well.
The last one is vijnana-aggregate, whose function is to discriminate. The function of vijnana is discrimination and differentiation, so vijnana-aggregate is able to discriminate the six sense-objects. Or we can say the function of vijnana-aggregate is to discriminate the six sense-objects.