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The Five Aggregates of Consciousness
The Buddha explains that five aggregates stemming from consciousness – the type of consciousness that comes into being and ceases to be, and is thus illusory – are like successive knots in a piece of cloth. The initial knot is the aggregate of consciousness itself, and each successive knot tied is an additional entanglement that must be undone before one can work with the knot of consciousness.
When we wish to untie a knot, we do not pull on either end of the ribbon or string, as that would only tighten the knot. We must instead work with the cloth that is inside the knot, loosening it gently in order for it to unravel. In the same way, those who seek to undo these aggregates by working externally in the senses or in the world are like those who seek to undo knots by pulling at the ends of cloth – it will never happen, no matter how long one tries, and in the end, the knot only ends up tightening.
The following are the Buddha’s words from the Śūraṅgama Sūtra on the five aggregates, from the most apparent to the most subtle:
“Form and emptiness are the defining attributes of the aggregate of form.
Contact and separation are the defining attributes of the aggregate of sense-perception.
What is recorded and what is not recorded are the defining attributes of the aggregate of cognition.
Coming into being and perishing are the defining attributes of the aggregate of mental formations.
Entering into the state of deep clarity and being stored in that deep clarity are the defining attributes of the aggregate of consciousness.
These five aggregates arise in successive layers, beginning with the coming into being of consciousness. Their perishing begins with the ceasing to be of the aggregate of form. You may suddenly reach an understanding of the principle of the aggregates, and on that basis you may presume the aggregates will all vanish together. But, in fact, they do not vanish at once; they must be ended in sequence.”
In order to arrive at the knots themselves, we must be able to perceive them. But how can you perceive what is itself perceiving? After all, these aggregates are creating conscious experience; how can we ‘see’ or experience them directly? Instead of allowing the light of our awareness to continue outwardly, the practice of meditation, particularly, of pratyahara, is the turning inward of the senses in order to go backward to the root of perception. A deeper stage of this could be called ‘turning the light around’, when this awareness is crystallized into an absolute clarity that penetrates the aggregates of consciousness to reveal our true awareness.
But where do we begin? Considering that one has established some basic asana (posturing), cultivated niyamas (healthy habits) and avoided the yamas (unhealthy habits), we work with pratyahara, turning the senses inward.
Let us examine the efficacy of each of the sense-faculties in order to find what might work best for us in this practice.
Choosing One Sense Faculty in Order to Liberate All Six
The degrees of efficacy with respect to the sense faculties is not equivalent, although we should understand that the senses – or, we should say, that which senses – is the same throughout all the senses. What this means is that, when turning the light around through a sense faculty to examine the root, one can ultimately arrive at the ‘goal’ through any of the senses, but due to the nature of how they function, some will be more effective or useful than others.
In order to measure the effectiveness of the faculties of perception, we consider the directions of space: above, below, north, south, east, and west. However, people do not consider ‘above’ and ‘below’ to be cardinal directions, and so if we apply the four directions throughout space, we get four directions of space. Multiply this by the three directions of time (past, present, and future), and you arrive at 12. So let us use 12 as the fullness of the efficacy of perception, in that if a sense faculty is completely efficacious, it will pervade the four directions of space, and the three directions of time.
For example, with the eye-faculty, you can see in front of you but not behind you. In addition, you only have partial vision of your left and your right. Your capacity to see is therefore effective by two-thirds, because while vision can function in any direction when you look there, at any given time you will only perceive the quarter of what you see in front of you clearly, and a portion of the left and the right partially, for a total of two-thirds. Therefore, you can say that the eye-faculty is effective by 8 out of 12, or two-thirds.
The ear-faculty, by comparison, hears in all ten directions without exception. Even in silence, our hearing is unbounded. Therefore, the efficacy of the ear-faculty is 12 out of 12, or complete.
The nose-faculty, comparatively, follows the rhythm of breath in order to sense. When we inhalate, we smell, and when, we exhalate, we can preserve the sense of the smell, but between the inhalation and exhalation, the breath must pause. We can say that the nose-faculty is lacking in one of its three aspects, making its effectiveness two-thirds.
The tongue-faculty is also intermittent in that it only experiences flavors when it senses them on the tongue. However, the tongue-faculty is also responsible for the utterance of speech, and languages differ, but meanings know no boundary. Therefore, the efficacy of the tongue-faculty can be known as 12 out of 12, or complete.
The ability for the body-faculty to be aware of contact is also intermittent, and the quality of its expression is only understood by the meanings governed by the tongue-faculty (as a function of nonverbal communication or ‘speech’). Since contact is twofold, and when there is separation, there is no perception in the sense of touch, we can say that the body-faculty is lacking in one of its aspects, making its effectiveness two-thirds.
The cognitive faculty includes within its scope, without sound or movement, all worldly and world-transcending phenomena in all ten directions and all three periods of time. It excludes nothing and knows no boundary. We can therefore say that the efficacy of the cognitive faculty may be expressed as 12 out of 12, or complete.
(Paraphrased from the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, pp. 177-78)
Therefore, when choosing a single faculty in order to liberate all six, it should be apparent that either the hearing-faculty or cognitive faculty should be preferred, due to the fullness of their scope of effectiveness. However, individual preferences will differ with respect to how they function. But let us see things a little deeper: if the sense-faculties are all one, can a new sense be created by merging them together, one that lacks the distortions of the cognitive faculty, includes the purity in silence of the hearing faculty, and the palpable sense of touch, smell, or taste?
Creating a New Sense-Faculty for a Supported Internal Platform
When we speak of the energy centers or chakras, we are talking about the energetic aspect of our being, which transcends the physical. However, in the body exist 7 primary endocrine glands that align physically with the energy centers. Most of us are not aware of much going on within our body, whether it’s blood pumping, nerves tingling, or even our breath. However, in a few stages, we can learn to reawaken an inner sense that is very beneficial and helpful in the practice of meditation, and ultimately a stepping stone to untying the knots of the five aggregates.
First, in pratyahara, we turn the senses inward. Where do we go? We can begin with the breath, and merge our pratyahara practice with a beginning stage of pranayama (breath & energy work). Using breath practices, we can then begin to ‘breathe into’ and ‘out of’ a center. Not sensing this center at first, we must ‘reawaken’ and enliven the center so that a new sensation can awaken. What is this sensation?
Upon examination, we find that it’s not exactly the cognitive faculty, although we developed it through the cognitive faculty by imaging and locating our awareness within our body space, utilizing techniques such as visualizing breath, etc. It is not exactly the nose-faculty, since smell is not involved or apparent, but through the breath that moves through the nose-faculty, we begin to experience the prana coming into the body. It’s not exactly the body-faculty, because we’re not making contact with an object (at least, not externally), but yet, a sense as palpable as touch emerges. It’s not exactly the eye-faculty, but as our awareness of the center deepens, colors and patterns in the eyes begin to emerge as well. It’s not exactly the tongue-faculty, but in this space, an understanding emerges, almost as if you are communicating and interacting with the center. And it’s not exactly the hearing faculty, but in the centers of the body, sounds may be perceived, as well as the boundless silence that unfolds as peace when this platform is established.
This is an overview of an intermediate practice of establishing an inner platform, and more fundamental practices of establishing an external platform must be worked on in order to transition into the internal work. It is not meant as a thorough explanation of how to work on the internal platform, but hopefully to encourage an understanding about how to move inward more deeply towards the process of realization.
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