Aggregates and Qualities

In Buddhism, a key term is skandha, which is translated as “aggregate.” This refers to the five components of one’s being: material form (i.e., one’s body), sensations, perceptions, mental activity, and consciousness.

A similar concept exists in Hinduism, originating from the Sankhya philosophical school, which posits the principle of guna, which translates as “quality.” The world is composed of three gunas: sattva (equilibrium), rajas (activity), and tamas (stasis). These qualities apply both macrocosmically and microcosmically; that is, to the universe at large, and, paralleling the Buddhist skandas, to one’s psycho-physical form.

Aggregates and qualities are considered universal constants. Their common feature is change. They are ephemeral, ever-mutable elements, existing in time and space. They are external to the underlying ultimate reality and our unchanging spiritual self.

And therein lies a massive misunderstanding. One of the Buddha’s foundational tenets postulates that there is “no self” (anatta), which is traditionally used to argue against the Hindu doctrine of a permanent self, which Buddhists refer to as atman. However, we agree with the late Professor Jay Lakhani’s insightful analysis: there has been a misinterpretation of Buddha’s teaching. Buddha did not deny the unchanging spiritual essence of a person (technically, paramatman), but rather one’s transitory, impermanent self, or ego (technically, jivatman). Along the centuries, this distinction has become blurred, and the word jivatman was shortened simply, and mistakenly, to atman. Scholars such as Ananda Coomaraswamy and Kamaleswar Bhattacharya also support this view.

Buddhists refer to this unchanging spiritual essence as emptiness, or the state of nirvana or rigpa. The Hindus call it brahman, or if individualized, atman. Jewish spirituality calls it Hashem; Christians, God; Islamic practitioners, Allah; Taoists, the Tao. It’s just a name denoting the infinite spiritual, and not the temporal facet of reality. For humans, there must always be a name for that which is Nameless.

The physical world is merely aggregates interacting with aggregates, to paraphrase the Dalai Lama. Similarly, Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita states, per my liberal rendition, “In reality, all activity occurs because of the continual interactions of changing material processes (gunas). It is only when a person mistakenly affixes the sensation of ‘I’ (ahankara) onto these changing material processes that they become deluded into thinking that it is they who perform actions” (3:27).

Beyond the aggregates and qualities lies the ultimate reality, which we find within ourselves as our spiritual self: infinite, ever-blissful, peaceful beyond words. This is our inherent nature. Our primary duty on earth is to stop identifying with the aggregates, transcend all qualities, and realize our true immutable spiritual nature.

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