A substantialist view of the aggregates

In various conversations on this forum I’ve made the contention that some adhere to a substantialist view of the aggregates when they insist that the non-grasped mere aggregates are still fundamentally existing as dukkha incarnate. I’ve been asked to define what I mean by substantialist view or substantial existence.

After thinking it over for some time how to go about defining such a view I came across an excellent description from Venerable Sujato of what I would call the view of substantial existence:

… ontologically fundamental, irreducible to any simpler components, and existing independently of other phenomena

The problem with viewing the mere aggregates in this way is it is contrary to the Teacher who I believe described them other than this for a very good reason as completely insubstantial, void, and hollow.

The substantialist view believes that when one looks they can find the essence of the aggregates as dukkha. However, when analyzed no essence - even of dukkha - can be found in much the same way that when one looks for the self in the aggregates it can not be found.

Some - upon not finding any essence - rely upon sutta that says the mere aggregates are dukkha and take this as a literal description of the aggregates essence. They take it on faith that the Teacher described finding the essence of the aggregates and it is literal dukkha. But much in the same way that the Teacher never intended such statements as “the aggregates are impermanent” to think that one can look and find the essence of the aggregates as impermanence incarnate; in much the same way the Teacher never intended such statements as “the aggregates are not-self” to think that one can look and find the essence of the aggregates as not-self incarnate; in just that same way the Teacher never intended such statements as “the aggregates are dukkha” to think that one can look and find the essence of the aggregates as dukkha incarnate.

Another way of seeing this is to ask if the essence of the aggregates is impermanence incarnate or is it not-self incarnate or is it dukkha incarnate? If you say all three, then you are left either with the nonsensical idea that a thing can have three separate essences or you are left with the idea that impermanence, not-self, and dukkha are all fundamentally the same thing. Which means that not-self is impermanent. Which means that not-self is dukkha. Quite unsatisfying I’d say. :smiley:

The mere aggregates when analyzed appear as void just like a banana tree where no core can be found. If one peels back the layers of the aggregates one cannot find a core of dukkha because one can’t find a core of anything at all.

So why then did the Teacher say that the aggregates - and all things - are impermanent, not-self and dukkha? To provoke dispassion for all of these things as not suitable for grasping and craving after. Not suitable for wishing for them to be any different than what they are; utterly interdependent phenomena that arise due to conditions with no essence that can be found no matter how hard one looks. It is imagining them to be other than what they are - due to ignorance - that one grasps at them and craves them or one develops aversion towards them which is just another form of grasping.

Dispassion is what the Teacher taught. If you think about this in terms of practice and not in terms of theory one can see that dispassion comes not from viewing something that has a core of utter suffering, but rather viewing something that has no core or essence at all. Viewing something as having a core of utter suffering necessarily provokes aversion towards that thing. We can see this in the suttas where viewing the body as utter suffering in this way leads to starving it and beating it and destroying it. This is not dispassion. It is aversion. Fortunately, this aversion can be let go of and the best way to let go of it is to look and verify that the body is without any core at all - not dukkha incarnate, not anything - and thereby develop actual dispassion for that thing with a lack of any core.

FWIW, I have not actually developed such complete dispassion. I do not recognize in myself any attainments just a lowly sentient being trying to make sense of dhamma and practice it to find a way to unwrap myself from this pole just like a poor dog who is stuck and tied and winds himself tighter and tighter. If you find what I’ve said in any way disagreeable take heart that I’m must a lowly sentient being and not claiming any real knowledge at all and feel free to ignore me.

So that’s my attempt at defining what I mean by the view of substantial existence in regard to the mere aggregates.



What about the view that the 3 characteristics apply to the aggregates because

Is that also substantialist?

Do the aggregates remain void and hollow for an enlightened being?

Basically mind independent, or an independent mind. Matter or mind, Annihilationism or Eternalism.

It is my hypothesis that yes they are void and hollow to anyone who goes and looks, but I can’t claim to know the mind of an enlightened being and I do not view myself as such an enlightened one. :pray:

Basically assuming that there is something ontologically fundamental, irreducible to any simpler components, and existing independently of other phenomena. It seems a shared experience that when one looks with deep insight for anything that could be so described, one comes up empty. :pray:

What’s interesting is how people will happily say things like trees or stars are independent but then also say they depend on other things. It’s a contradiction to say something has to opposing natures. Since trees and stars are dependent rather than independent, we can’t dissociate them from mind and so can’t say ultimately if they are real.

Thanks for explaining. I believe the Buddha really taught and knew that the mere fact of cognition, the mere fact of sensing, feeling represents always a certain subtle burden, an impact on the mind. Also nice feelings and states. I can also feel how joyful states are a burden.

I believe the goal is really to make an end to vinnana and feelings and perceptions. i do not doubt that. I doubt this is really my life task. Maybe.

But i do not believe this represents a mere cessation because Buddha does not teach that there are only khandha’s and our lives consist of only khandha’s. That would surely by not true. We cannot reduce our livfes to mere conscious moments, a stream of vinnana’s. That would be unreal and building knowledge upon wrong grounds. The whole idea that we are a stream of vinnana’s must be abandon and seen as unreal because that is what we have believed in endless lives.

Yes, and to turn the mind towards the deathless, towards what is here and now not seen arising and ceasing.

People do not think about having a core or essence but they just grasp at an icecream because they know they like the taste and have a good moment. It is always about chasing a moment of happiness.

I also believe and know that it does not work when one just puts oneself on some mental crash diet.
It is difficult to live for one day without any prospect of something nice to see, hear, feel, do etc. It is all normal. It is not the Path to End Suffering, i know that, but one must not approach this idealistic but work with circumstances. If life becomes hell without the prospect of nice feelings, nice things to do, and one becomes only a miserable wreck, it is madness.

I feel we most also acknowledge that life of almost all people cannot be compared to the Buddha’s and monks. The lifes of normal people are very burdensome. If they would also abandon all nice things, they will become sick and die of misery.

Dhamma must be seen as a practical path, i feel. Work with the circumstances, mindstates, character, personality and do not care at all about others. One must only see what works for oneself. Becoming a copy cat is not wise. One does not have to step in the footsteps of the Buddha literally. One may also step in between, next to them, or some parrallel Path, if one just recognises the direction that is enough. That’s all.

Now i have all figured it out again.

Which is why the other characteristics would apply to them, I think. Why do you take these qualities to be on an unequal footing, some referring to essences while others not?

But I have also said:
Vuttaṁ kho panetaṁ, bhikkhu, mayā:
‘Suffering includes whatever is felt.’
‘yaṁ kiñci vedayitaṁ, taṁ dukkhasmin’ti.
When I said this I was referring to the impermanence of conditions, to the fact that conditions are
Taṁ kho panetaṁ, bhikkhu, mayā saṅkhārānaṁyeva aniccataṁ sandhāya bhāsitaṁ:
‘yaṁ kiñci vedayitaṁ taṁ dukkhasmin’ti.
liable to end,
Taṁ kho panetaṁ, bhikkhu, mayā saṅkhārānaṁyeva khayadhammataṁ …pe…
vayadhammataṁ …pe…
fade away,
virāgadhammataṁ …pe…
nirodhadhammataṁ …pe…
and perish.
vipariṇāmadhammataṁ sandhāya bhāsitaṁ:
‘yaṁ kiñci vedayitaṁ taṁ dukkhasmin’ti.

Elsewhere whatever one feels is also described as hollow, insubstantial, void etc too. See for ex. SN 22.95 .

None of them refer to essences. When you look for the core of a banana tree you don’t find it. In the same way when you look for the core of the aggregates you don’t find it.

If you are suggesting that I’m saying that there is a core of a banana tree and that core is nothing incarnate by turning that “nothing” into some thing, then that is not what I am saying and you’ve misunderstood me.

Logically, this is the difference between a non-affirming negation and an indirect proof. I am not implying an indirect proof. Just the simple fact that when you go looking for the core of a banana tree you come up empty. Same with the aggregates.


Yes. If you go looking for the core of what one feels you come up empty. Same is true of all the aggregates and the six sense fields as well. :pray:

Ah! Maybe this is what you’re referring to? Are you saying that it is the fact that when goes to look one can’t find an essence in the aggregates that makes them dukkha? That whatever lacks an essence causes dukkha or is dukkha?

I think this is wrong, but maybe this is what you’re saying?


Well, I just wanted to understand why you took statements like “all form (grasped or ungrasped) is dukkha” to be an essentialist statement but are okay with statements like “all form (grasped or ungrasped) is hollow or void” since I take them to be equivalent? Perhaps, I misunderstood your statements.

Ah, but I don’t think saying “all form is dukkha” to be necessarily an essentialist statement. It can be understood in an essentialist way which I think is wrong for the reasons I pointed out, but it does not necessarily have to be understood in that way.

OTOH, I don’t think the Teacher ever said “all ungrasped form is dukkha” nor do I think it is true. If you remove grasping from the equation dukkha does not arise. That’s the basis for the path and without it we’d be doomed with no liberation possible. If we let go of the aggregates and stop grasping them and dukkha still arises, then we’re in quite a lot of trouble with no escape don’t you think?

Perhaps there is a way to understand “all ungrasped form is dukkha” in a non-substantialist way, but I haven’t seen it presented in such a way. :pray:

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OK, thank you for the clarification.

I think maybe there is a difference in how you interpret the aggregate of form. I understand it to refer to all types of form, which can then be analysed in various ways using different categories such as coarse/fine or grasped/ungrasped etc

Seen this way, the true liberation would be the cessation of form.

Oh! Conditions are impermanent,
their nature is to rise and fall;
having arisen, they cease;
their stilling is true bliss.”

Now, I am curious whether you would consider this to be

:slight_smile: :pray:

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I agree.

But form has never and can never truly cease. Understanding that when one looks for the core of any form one comes up empty helps one to understand that form can never truly cease. Why? Because the view of true cessation necessarily superimposes on form an essence that one can’t find when one looks. It is like asking for the core of a banana tree to truly cease. Form is like a lump of foam without any core that can be seen to truly arise or cease. Depending upon craving for something to be something it is not; capable of truly arising or truly ceasing; suffering arises. What can cease is our ignorance and with it our grasping and craving for things to be otherwise.

It is the same for the self. The self has never truly existed in a substantial way and so the self cannot ever truly cease in a substantial way. What can cease is our ignorance regarding the self and our craving and grasping at a truly existing self.

No, I don’t think this is a way to understand “all ungrasped form is dukkha” in a non-substantialist way. But again, this is all conceptions of mine that are probably wrong since all I see here is a lowly sentient being and therefore feel free to ignore what I’m saying if it is seen as disagreeable or naively wrong.


:thinking: :star_struck: :exploding_head:

My compliments on an entirely fresh approach to this long standing debate!

Following this topic with interest…
:grin: :rose:

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No, it only means that during life there cannot be a total coolness, at least when there is cognition, processing of sense-info. Like a working computer. There is no coolness. There is always some friction, some resistance. Or like a tire of a driving car. One cannot expact total coolness.

Only after death of an arahant and Buddha all grows cool, which i do not see as a mere cessation.

But this is, ofcourse only Greenism, solely the idiosyncratic expressionsof a fool. Still this fool believes it is in line with the sutta’s.

This refers to how we experience the body, the body as mental construct, and not to the body that consists of atoms.

I have no doubt that I’ve heard this in some form from my many betters no doubt stated in a far more eloquent way. I rejoice that my feeble memory still keeps some crumbs of what my teachers try to hammer in. :pray:

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The way I see it, only things that lack a core and depend on other things for nutriment can truly cease. You on the other hand say that they cannot be said to either arise or cease because they depend on other things. That is a bit like saying that a new life does not arise because it depends on past craving and ignorance. I think this puts the cart before the horse, since watching over things that arise and cease with equanimity is what leads to several good qualities like dispassion etc. The way I see it, ceasing ignorance, craving etc is for the sake of the peace of the cessation of the aggregates.

I don’t know how to reconcile such a difference of views so I’ll pause from this thread for now. Thanks for a nice conversation :slight_smile: :pray:

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No contradiction if dependence is of different contexts.

Trees are independent of one’s desire. One can’t imagine them not there and they will disappear. One cannot will tree into existance.

Trees are Not independent of causes & conditions that created and maintained them.