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.
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.