Aggregates of Impermanence
We are all made up of a collection of our personal experiences. This assortment of experiences makes up the five aggregates of Buddhism. As per Buddha’s teaching in the Samyutta Nikaya, “When you understand that form, sensation, perception, formations, and consciousness are impermanent then you understand right view.” The aggregates— form, sensation, perception, formations, and consciousness—serve as the impermanent elements that work together to produce the mind- body entity of a person. One is not more important than another and, like the various pieces needed to construct a LEGO creation, all play a part in the various ways we experience life.
The aggregate of form serves as the initial way we observe the world. This encompasses the ways our five senses enable us to experience material objects. Form is how we see the studs on a LEGO brick, how we hear two pieces snap together, how we smell a bowl of LEGO figures melting in the microwave (this was a childhood experiment that I would not recommend), how pieces taste when dipped in pudding (another inadvisable experiment), and the way a stud feels when you run your finger across it. Each experience is a momentary observation with no judgment or interpretation. That comes with the next few aggregates.
With any personal experience, the aggregate of sensation dictates that it can take on one of three emotional tones—pleasure, pain, or indifference. Ever try to interlock four dozen LEGO pieces into your hair to create a multi-colored mohawk? No, just me? The cool sensation of the plastic on my scalp was pleasant; taking it out, however, was unpleasant. I write this not to brag about my LEGO hairstyling skills, but to demonstrate that the same object can lend itself to different sensations, which further exhibits its impermanence.
Just as sensation produces an emotional reaction, the aggregate of perception is based around recognition. Perception helps us formulate an idea about an object of experience and attach a name to it. It is like seeing your son’s latest LEGO composition and not being able to figure out what it is—it could be a car, or a plane. Then, once he tells you that it is an elephant, your perception is formed and you are able to turn your indefinite perceptual experience into an established idea.
After an established idea has been formed, the aggregate of mental formation determines our response. This involves opinions, prejudices, and compulsions as learned from previous experiences. Unlike the emotional or identifying responses, mental formations take on a moral dimension—wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral. If you have a positive experience building the intricately detailed LEGO Eiffel Tower (set #10181), you will consider this experience wholesome and respond by intentionally challenging yourself to build another complex LEGO set. Conversely, if the experience was frustrating, you will consider this experience unwholesome and your mental formation may direct you to attempt a simpler LEGO project or leave you screaming at the site of the catastrophe.
The last of the five aggregates is indispensable in its influence on experience. Consciousness is our awareness of an object. It occurs by utilizing perception and mental formation to establish a holistic, meaningful impression of the entity. Consciousness enables you to envision a potential LEGO configuration without having to rely on the cover of the box. It allows you to compare your imagination-based blueprints with the available LEGO pieces, adjust your schematics, and work at a speed that takes into account how quickly your “friend” is using the pieces you need.
The five aggregates of impermanence help us discern the rapidly changing interconnected acts of cognition. Together, they produce personal experiences and reinforce the ephemeral nature of existence. For instance, let’s say you walk into your daughter’s room. As you enter, your eyes come into contact with a visible object. As your vision focuses, your consciousness becomes aware of the as-yet indeterminate object. Perception will identify that object as your limited edition Taj Mahal LEGO set (#10189) that, until today, was in new, unwrapped mint condition. You then respond with the sensation of displeasure. Finally, mental formation leads you to react by crying or, if you can regain your composure, perhaps helping your daughter with the finishing details.
The physical and mental factors of our personal experience, the objects all around us, our minds and ideas are continually changing. They are processes, not enduring things. You were trying to keep the vintage LEGO set in a permanent state, but it was aging regardless of whether your daughter tore open the box. Even your perception of the Taj Mahal set was changing—what you once considered a “cool toy” transformed into “an investment that will one day pay for my daughter’s college tuition” until you saw your daughter’s enjoyment and perceived it as a “bonding activity.” To gain a deeper understanding, let’s move beyond a ten-year-old limited edition LEGO set and explore a much older art form.