The Buddhist skandhas or aggregates describe the basics of existence, the components of all that exists. However simple and primordial, the aggregates essentially comprise that which Western science has used to describe observable phenomena. Only the method of hypothesis and experimentation is missing. But these latter are not essential to a philosophical construct based firmly on observation, which is available to all of us.
The aggregates are:
- form or matter
- sensation or feeling
- perception or cognition
- mental formations, volition, will, karma
The skandhas or aggregates are usually considered important to Buddhist philosophy in presenting insights about the “self” and about impermanence. But an ethical angle ultimately emerges, and this becomes the whole point of understanding the aggregates, unlike science that does not draw out practical lessons
The placement of aggregates in a hierarchy of consciousness expresses this ethical component.
The aggregates do form a hierarchy: from matter to sentience, from sentience to cognition, from cognition to a certain level of mental interaction, and finally to consciousness. Science is interested in this hierarchy as an evolutionary phenomena, while natural philosophy posits these elements in a great chain of being. Yet historically, both science and metaphysics have missed the practical ethical implications of the aggregates and their hierarchy.
How can we formulate ethics about treatment of people, animals, and natural phenomena if we describe them as science has done historically since Descartes, and even with Darwin? Animals are machines and humans are no very far away, according to reason and science. The earth is a flexible wad of minerals to be infinitely exploited, inexhaustible, too big to fail. Only in these fading decades emerges — however judged to be sentimental and anti-technological — the Gaia theory and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Both are imaginative extrapolations of limited societal and institutional instruments, namely science and law. Science and law are limited instruments because they are subordinate to the expressions of powerful elites, not to a scientific method or to definitions of justice. This must be our first realization. But, further, these counter-theories are ethical expressions, not scientific or judicial. They attempt to recover some of the insight of a holistic philosophy of life based on the premises of the skandhas.
If matter is the common distribution of suchness, then the first principle is that all beings are interrelated. If the first stage of evolution is sensation or feeling, we can identify the structures of sensation, we can identify when a sentient being experiences pain. Thus animals are distinct from plants in that they evolved a nervous system capable of detecting pain. But plants re related to us. That is why we recognize them, find certain aesthetic value in them, even as we dismissively call them mere plants, flowers, trees. Our ancestors perceived beings within the trees, as within water and less animate matter. This was a primitive accounting for a range of sentience.
At the next level is perception and cognition. While almost all plants respond to sunlight, water, temperature, and physical forces like wind, plants did not evolve structures to be cognizant of these forces, while animals did. Indeed, animals evolved structures to become cognizant of forces that not only cause pain but cause responses to their forces.
At this point, the fourth skandha of mental perception brings a finer line between animals and humans, one blurred not so much by volition as human ability to design, intend, and carry through. Thus animal instinct for survival proposes only fight or flight as options to danger. Violence in the animal world is completely related to survival. Human beings use volition to survive also, but extend the instinct of fight or flight by willfully designing more complex and intentional forms of violence. While animals can be violent, based on their evolutionary instinct for survival, human beings cultivate primordial instincts into elaborate and willful forms of violence, including aggression, war, and torture.
The fifth skandha — consciousness — is reserved to human beings, a premature gift, or a wound, of evolution. Human consciousness is comprised of the ability to reflect, and the ability to reflect on reflection. We can watch our thoughts or listen to our conversation. We can watch ourselves expressing what we think, believe, deny, wonder about, lie about, express with heartfelt sentiment or shallow condemnation. The most odious commands and the most loving expressions come from the same consciousness, and the self can watch them, monitor them, be aware of them. This makes human sentience different from that of any other creature we know. The witness that watches the self, that is aware of what the self does or thinks, is uniquely overbearing.
Such is the hierarchy of being and sentience that also compels an ethics. That overbearingness of the witness is what we commonly call cconscience, that which impedes humanity by its silent acquiescent, beaten down by society and culture and that psychological product of society we call our self. It is identity but not self, at least not a mature self, a self identical with, merged with, in union wityh the so-called witness.
But self is inevitably overlooked in the mass of humanity. That all things are connected, that human consciousness obliges humans to hold this interconnectedness as the touchstone of all behavior, all action — this is the compelling conclusion that science increasingly shows, but which was known millennia ago. That peoples have conveniently overlooked the logic of observation with regard to ethics only debases the whole enterprise we call society and culture.
But to ancient Buddhists, the skandhas pointed much further. Not only to the preciousness, the rarity of being a human being, but to the ironic ephemerality of that pinnacle of the conscious animal. The skandhas point to the fact that no self inhabits this mortal frame, this delicate consciousness. For when the aggregates collapse in old age and death, where is the self? Where is that consciousness? Buddhism was reluctant to venture into metaphysics. It did not matter where that self, that consciousness, went. Even the reflection on such questions distracted from the core of living, from ethics, from the question of what we are to do now, today, tomorrow.
For religious Buddhism, the bardo and rebirth was a solution to a riddle. Their equivalent in all the religions of the world have similarly been proposed solutions to a great riddle. But the status of beyond was not relevant to the observer here and now. To the observer, the aggregates had dissolved, the self was gone, consciousness had dissipated. How the survivor felt, this gut feeling about death, was the beginning of philosophy, the not-turning-back from the existential reality of the dissolution of the aggregates. For if this dissolution occurs at every level of form and matter, every level of sentience, can it be argued that we should be exempt, that we should not share the fate of all other sentient beings, all of us brought together mysteriously, fortuitously, but destined to be dispersed who knows where?
In moments of solitude, we can rest in the flow of sentience, in the pattern of the observed. We can touch upon that which was before our birth and which remains after our death. And touching on this we can realize it in our consciousness. Our consciousness can rest in the process even as we experience sentience, even as we chase after this or that impermanence only to finally realize where everything is headed. A new ethics can emerge from this reflection on the aggregates of existence. Our shoddy tolerance of all that is contrived destructiveness in the human being can be seen to be nothing but frustrated evolution, broken and incomplete, no more than pointless failure to think deeply on the sensations we feel and entertain. If we can grasp the experience of solitude, we are that close to an ethics that can bring contentment.