In traditional Buddhism, the 5 skandhas or ‘aggregates’ are a common way of analysing the limitations of our view of self, but I have been reminded again recently of the ways that I find them unhelpful and indeed counter-productive. The reminder came from reading Francisco Varela – a writer who is interesting in many other ways, and that I hope to write more about on another occasion. But even someone like Varela, who uses Buddhist approaches in a thoroughgoing way as they relate to cognitive science, without any obvious traditionalism, seems to have merely taken the five aggregates as Buddhism traditionally teaches them without asking the underlying questions that need to be asked about their usefulness.
The traditional Buddhist account (e.g. Majjhima Nikaya 109) tells us that the self is illusory, and that there are five aggregates that are the object of clinging, with which we might identify the self. These are form (i.e. the body), sensation, perception, volitional formations and consciousness. We might think that the body is the self, but the body is always changing and not completely identified with. We might identify with particular sensations or perceptions (perceptions also involving the identification with pleasant, painful or neutral things), but these are ever-changing. We might identify with our choices and their effects, but these are also impermanent. We might identidy with consciousness, but this is also impermanent. None of these are essentially ‘me’. Nor is there an essential ‘me’ beyond these five aggregates.
So far so good, you might think. We have deconstructed a metaphysical construct, showing how something that was assumed to “exist” and was thus the basis of dogma is not so. But the assumptions that shape the whole discussion have not been moved on by any such analysis. The underlying problematic assumption is that metaphysical claims are of any use to us at all. How does it help us to believe, for example, that I am not form, any more than it helps me to believe that I am essentially form? If I disbelieve in form it leads to idealist dogma, and if I believe in it, it leads to materialist dogma.
It is this kind of reflection that doubtless leads to the more thoughtful Buddhist writers and commentators adding here that the aggregates do not deny the existence of self, but rather try to help us let go of our clinging to self. Its goal is not to lead us to form a new belief in the non-existence of the self. But this is usually, at best, an afterthought which follows the usual exposition of the five aggregates, when for the five aggregates to be any use at all to anyone it needs to precede them. It doesn’t help us to reflect that we are not form, not sensation, not perception, or whatever, unless we are also simultaneously, just as strongly, reflecting that we are not denying these things either. Even then there is a danger that we will just be left with a kind of baffling metaphysics of emptiness, rather than shifting the way of thinking into a more useful non-metaphysical path. Even the balanced metaphysical perplexity of Nagarjuna doesn’t help us very much, because it is still all tackled at a metaphysical level and leads us to assume that that is what is relevant. It’s like telling a child to stop doing something rather than providing a distraction. If we are only told not to be metaphysical, when even this instruction is an afterthought, and when no clear alternatives are offered, it’s not at all surprising that the minute our attention lapses it goes straight back into metaphysical ways of operating.
There is an alternative. We need to accept incremental and provisional ways of talking about objects, and attempt to steer our ways of talking about them into channels that will integrate our understanding and our practice and address conditions better. If we apply that approach to the self, we have to admit that we do have an incremental and provisional self – an ego that wants to exist, and can imprint its identifications on our experience to varying extents. If anything, rather than denying that ego, we need to stretch and expand it, in the sense of integrating different desires and beliefs.
The aggregates are often taken to be a good place to start in thinking about the self in traditional Buddhism, but I think this is wrong. They are not a good place to start, because they are only possibly of any use when interpreted in terms of the Middle Way and combined with a positive alternative view of the self that is dynamic and incremental, like that offered by Jung. Without this they are positively regressive and misleading. This is one of many examples, along with those I discuss in my book The Trouble with Buddhism of the ways that traditional Buddhism possesses insights that it presents in an unhelpful way, because it has not given clear priority to the Middle Way over other ways of interpreting Buddhist teachings.
Picture: Sermon in the Deer Park from Wat Chedi Liem, taken by KayEss (Wikimedia Commons). Picture can be re-used under Creative Commons licence.