The Five Aggregates – Part 2 – A.I.

The Five Aggregates in Artificial Intelligence

To help drive home the meaning of the Five Aggregates as I wrote about in Part 1, let’s try an exercise devising a high-level architecture for an Artificial Intelligence mapping to the Five Aggregates. In some ways it could be easier for us to relate to an Artificial Intelligence than our own intelligence since the parts (computers) were created by us. Using our brain to figure out how our brain works is way tougher than using our brain to understand how something that we created works.

An Artificial Intelligence modeled after the Five Aggregates.

The theme of this blog site is Zen/Buddhism from the point of view of a software developer; who finds much insight into ourselves by building software, which are models of things we do. It’s my Zen Art. That is, I research and build “A.I.” systems in the hope of gaining a better understanding into how our consciousness works – as opposed to the businessman’s purpose for A.I. being a dream of incredibly cheap, non-complaining, replicatable,  re-programmable workers.

If you’re not a “computer person”, I still think someone with just a casual knowledge of software development could appreciate this high-level exercise of mapping of the Five Aggregates to a hypothetical A.I. architecture.

Before diving into this exercise I’d like to mention that because the frontier of A.I. is rapidly changing at the time of this writing, January 2019. Much of what I write here could be either obsolete, wrong, or very obvious a month from now. So I won’t burden you further by qualifying every other sentence with ” … at the time of this writing …”.

Machine Learning

The term “A.I.” is often interchangeably and incorrectly used with “Machine Learning”. What makes it confusing is that whatever we call A.I. depends upon how you define “intelligence”. And there really isn’t a solid definition. For the sake of this blog, it may be easier to first consider an un-intelligent thing. An un-intelligent thing needs to be told every single detail about what to do. That includes practically all machines such as cars and computers.

It may sound strange to those who don’t know much about how computers work to call it un-intelligent? In workshops I’ve presented on “data mining” topics, there are a couple of things I often say that are obvious when you’re mindful about it, but overlooked as you go about in the normal life frame of mind:

  • What is the best thing about computers? They do exactly what you tell them to do. What is the worst thing about computers? They do exactly what you tell them to do.
  • What’s obvious to you may not be obvious to a computer. For example, consider the obvious observation that pregnant humans are female. It’s ridiculously obvious to us, but imagine if a computer figured that out all by itself.

It’s not necessarily that a computer itself is stupid. Rather, it’s the way we manually program them into these “intellectually brittle” dead ends. Instead, an intelligence must be self-adaptive in a very ambiguous world.

Currently, there are three major categories of machine learning: Supervised learning, unsupervised learning, and reinforcement learning. They are often presented as three kinds of tools, as if you were deciding between the purchase of a sedan, a pick-up truck, or a van. Rather, the three types of machine learning are three modes of learning, all required by an intelligence.

Before getting into a little analogy about the three modes of machine learning, I’d like to mention a fourth way a computer “learns” – programming. We may refer to propaganda and advertisements “programming” us, but that’s not correct. Rather, we are “trained” through those means. Programming a human would entail opening up our brain and manually wire up our neurons and manually adjust neurotransmitters.

Supervised Learning

Supervised Learning should really be called “Training”. Imagine you’re three years old sitting in your marine biologist  mom’s office. You’re looking through a picture book of marine animals. You ask her about each picture, but since she’s busy, she only can glance over and answer with the general class of the animal; fish, mammal, crustacean, etc.

Eventually, you will figure out, find the patterns of what differentiates the mammals from the fishes. You’ll notice the whales and dolphins have tails pointing sideways and sharks have tails pointing up and down. The mammals also have fewer “fins”. If the picture has enough resolution you may notice fish have scales, mammals don’t. In the future, when you encounter such a creature you’ve never seen before, you’ll at least know whether it’s a mammal or fish.

Remember, this is training, not programming. To be programmed, your mom needs to get into your head and wire the neurons up and tune all sorts of other things in there.

Unsupervised Learning

Now, let’s say your mom is incredibly busy and just leaves the three year old you with the book. You’re on your own classifying the animals in the pictures. Without being given any labels for the animals, you may classify orcas and great whites together or blue whales and whale sharks together. Is that wrong? Orcas and great whites are predators of other big critters, blue wales and whale sharks are huge creatures that filter feed little critters.

The trade-off between supervised and unsupervised learning is that the former saves you lots of time learning what humanity already knows, whereas the latter allows you to be creative. Even if some knowledgeable adult were 100% available to teach you via supervised learning, you’re still being trained, not programmed.

Reinforcement Learning

Remember in the movie, City Slickers, where Norman the calf is walking just minutes after being born? No one taught the calf to walk. The calf awkwardly gets on his feet, stands very shaky, starts taking clumsy steps, going through cycles of trying, receiving feedback, adjusting neuron connections in his brain and muscles, trying again. After many fast cycles of this incremental training, the calf can run.  That’s reinforcement learning.

The A.I’s Job

Even we mighty humans aren’t “intelligent” about everything. We each have our unique sets of skills, both seemingly natural and learned. So let’s give our A.I. a job. Let’s give this Artificial Intelligence the skill of a CEO of a corporation, an A.I. CEO. Let’s refer to this as an aCEO.

Taking advantage of what computers can do better than brains, the aCEO could be more effective than a human CEO if it could have a superior:

  • “Feelers” into all aspects across the corporation.
  • Feelers to life outside the walls of the corporation throughout its ecosystem.
  • A map of how all the parts relate, inside the enterprise as well as outside in the ecosystem.

Keep in mind too that it doesn’t need to look or act like a human CEO. It just needs to come up with superior plans and decisions and communicate and manage the executions effectively.

If we think of an enterprise as an organism, the CEO, real or artificial, is the brain organ of an enterprise. The entire enterprise is the “body”. The departments are like the other organs. Cash flow is like blood. What the company produces is their job, their livelihood. I guess that makes the human employees like our “gut bacteria”.

As with the human version of the Five Aggregates, the aCEO version is not a “series of five steps to consciousness”. It’s more the “five parts of sentience” where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts . So I present them in numerical order, but do jump back and forth to other parts. The illustration below provides a high-level view of how the five parts relate.

A very high-level view of how the Five Aggregates of A.I. interact. Remember that Alerts, Functions, Metrics, and Relationships all exist as an integrated graph of relationships.

The 1st Aggregate – Integrated Data Model (Body/Form)

The body of the aCEO would of course imply the hardware, the computers. But body/form is much more than that. It’s information about things going on around us. In the Buddhism context, these are “conditioned” forms, the phenomenon that everything is resulting from everything else. The fact that things are moving and interacting means things are impermanent.

So the aCEO needs a way to obtain current data about things related to the business it runs. This current data could be current snapshots or just what has changed since the last time.

At this point, the data coming into the system from its surroundings is raw. To use an analogy based on the old “data mining” term, it’s like mud in a gold pan. But it’s mud from a place we think contains gold, not just randomly looking around. The 1st aggregate also filters out and cleanses most of the mud/crap before it gets to the Perception functions, the 2nd Aggregate. At the end of the 1st Aggregate, five pounds of mud is reduced to a couple ounces of “black sand”.

The 1st Aggregate further does some rough “data prep” on that cleansed data. This data prep organizes the cleansed data to a set of statistics about the data, the composition of values, and even looks for interesting “events” such as spikes in values, trending up or down. Still, this is just data.

This is pretty much where Data Warehouses are at. It encompasses all the processing and massaging of data from many different data sources. But it’s just data at this point – not much different from corn sitting in silos, grown and harvested with a combine. In general, this is where “Business Intelligence” system passes that integrated data to humans to make sense of with their superior Human Intelligence. Human analysts, data scientists, managers. “BI Developers” will author reports using tools such as SQL Server Reporting Services, analysts will visualize data with tools such as Tableau, PowerBI, or even good ol’ Excel. Data scientists could develop predictive models.

The 2nd Aggregate – Alerts (Sensation/Feeling)

Every machine or creature must operate within parameters conducive to its nature, whether it was designed by some intelligence or evolved over time. For example, without special suits (ex. SCUBA gear), humans thrive within strict parameters of atmospheric pressure, temperature, etc.

When it gets too cold, we put on more clothes. When we’re thirsty, we seek water. These are feelings, they are metrics. Your car dashboard is full of them. Going too fast, ease up on the gas pedal.

I make a living as a Business Intelligence consultant, which is all about maximizing performance of a business’ resources. A big part of that is deploying analytics tools conveying metrics to workers of all types – human employees in many roles as well as machines such as computer servers and manufacturing equipment. A tired cliche in my field is “what gets measured gets done”. We call these metrics “Performance Indicators”.

Metrics are determined by executives and “MBA types” and monitored throughout the execution of enterprises processes. Metrics aren’t just a business thing. Practically everything we do involves metrics, from our health (blood pressure, weight, temperature, cholesterol), to driving a car (speed, temperature, distance from other cars), to economic health (unemployment rate, GDP, stock market value).

An example of a business metric, in fact a key metric (called Key Performance Indicators – KPI) is Revenue Growth. What’s interesting about revenue growth is that no growth is usually bad, but too much growth can be bad too. Sometimes we need to limit growth to give the infrastructure time to catch up. Growth that’s too fast can overwhelm the infrastructure leading to mistakes, which lowers quality, which pisses off customers, which sends them away, which lowers revenue.

So a metric is more than a measurement, just one number. It’s more than simply stating Revenue growth is 10% over this time last year. Because too little or too much can be bad, a metric includes a component called a target, in this case, something like 5% growth, no less and no more.

Another component of a metric is a trend. Is the metric trending upwards, downwards, or steady? This is important to know because nothing stays still. Imagine your revenue is trending up and today it’s at goal, but it’s still trending up, which means tomorrow it won’t be where you want it.

The most interesting component of a metric is the status. Remember, too little or too much is bad. But we can live with a margin of error, say 2% on either side. So anything within 3% to 7% is good, from between 0% and less than 3% or greater than 7% and less than 10% is not good. But less than 0% or greater than 10% is bad. In general, the good, not good (warning), and bad are represented by green, yellow, or red icons.

The status of metrics are analogous to our feelings in the human 2nd Aggregate – pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The 2nd aggregate is interested in the status value of the metrics mostly so we know what needs attention – correction. In other words what metrics are in a bad (painful) status? In contrast, the target is the domain of the 5th Aggregate, the goals/objectives of the enterprise.

As with our human feelings, there are very many metrics (sometimes thousands) monitored in an enterprise. Some are very high level, such as Revenue Growth and Profit. But most are lower level, for example, the uptime of the reporting system, minimizing office break room expenses, and maximizing employee retention.

Before heading into the 3rd Aggregate, let’s review the process for a human. When pains are felt in the 2nd Aggregate, the 3rd Aggregate tries to recognize what’s going on, the web of goals/desires/beliefs of the 5th Aggregate engage the thoughts of the 4th Aggregate to make everything in the 5th Aggregate happy.

The 3rd Aggregate – Functions (Perceptions)

The 3rd Aggregate is mostly what we’re familiar with in regard to software systems of today. Software systems of today are machines automating some well-defined and tedious job at a really large scale.

If the job that software is automating was not well-defined, not highly predictable, we humans wouldn’t be able to encode the rules as software. But the real world outside of today’s somewhat totalitarian corporate culture is not highly predictable. That world outside is made up of countless independent things, at least seven billion of them with minds of their own. This is where Artificial Intelligence differs from conventional software. Intelligence deals with ambiguity and complexity.

Software today is made up of a designed (meaning “human-crafted”) web of designed functions. Functions take inputs, do some processing within the confines of a “black box”, and output an answer. Examples of computer functions range from something as simple as addition – takes in two numbers, adds them, and output the sum – to something as complicated as an image processor that takes in a picture, does a lot of processing, and outputs where it calculates what are faces, bananas, and cars.

It’s OK for now to let humans write logically tough functions. It beats the hell out of evolution which does things on its own time – like millions of years. But we still need the ability for a large percentage of the functions to self-organize, organize without human intervention. An A.I. consists of so many functions and require constant updating. It would be an insane nightmare for programmers to maintain that much, yet, that’s pretty much how software is currently maintained.

A general purpose programming language (for example, Java, C++, C#) is intended to encode a model of the world that is runnable by a computer. Because the world is so complex, programming languages must be very versatile. So programming by humans is tough. However, Nature found a way for the human brain to model the world. Our neurons wire according to what we’re exposed to at the time and place of our life.

So programming is hard. We try to mitigate that difficulty by creating specialized programming languages on top of specialized software. For example, SQL is a programming language limited to creating, reading, updating, and deleting rows from a table. Of course, there are libraries of packaged functions preventing “reinventing” of code that works across a wide array of applications.

Functions are machines, whether little or big, simple or complicated, natural or man-made, material or encoded. They all take in some inputs and output something. For example, a coffee machine that takes in water, ground coffee, and electricity, and outputs hot coffee. A single neuron is a function. It accumulates charge from many synapses on its dendrites, and at some very complicated point it “fires” a charge out on its axon.

Functions share a couple of very important characteristics. They shield we civilians from the intricacies (nice way of saying “yucky guts”) of how they really work. Imagine if we were required to know all there is to know about building and repairing a car and all its parts in order to drive one. The car’s guts are encapsulated in a tidy package for we civilians such that we just need to know five things; turn on/off, shift gears, gas, brake, steer.

Another important characteristic of functions is for a specific input always return the exact same output. Machines would be impractical to use or even useless to us if they weren’t predictable. Imagine what it would be like if the amount we stepped on the gas pedal fed gas into the engine in a linear manner as usual, but sometimes exponentially, sometimes according to the angle of the sun at the time of day.

That would be a dangerous car to take on the road! I’d be forced to drive very slowly because I never know when the function of the gas pedal will change. Therefore, I can’t go on the freeway because I’m forced to drive slowly. Do you see how any unpredictability drastically makes like tougher?

If a function does the exact same thing for the exact same input, complexity and risk are mitigated … even though complexity and risk can never in practice be eliminated, but at least on paper. Our example of the gas pedal only offered three different outputs and already I wouldn’t drive such a car.

All of our machines, including software 1, are composed of functions. Machines are a composition of parts, where each part does it’s thing and only its thing. Functions made of functions made of functions … However, the functions composing most of our software today do not have the quality of firing out the same output for the same input.

Note that a very interesting class of functions are those so-called “Machine Learning” (ML) models discussed towards the beginning of this blog. These are the product of “data scientists”, functions for guessing things such as how many people in a given population are at risk for becoming diabetic. Input whether you’re obese, over 45, high blood pressure, etc, and it guesses if you’re at risk for becoming diabetic.

They are often incorrectly referred to as Artificial Intelligence. Those functions are just machines. As is typical for machines, they beat the hell out of human effort as long as the rules don’t change.

So imagine again what it would be like if the gas pedal on a car didn’t react the same way for an amount the pedal is pushed down. Perhaps there is a rhyme or reason for its erratic behavior. What else is going on around us when the gas pedal responds to our foot pressure as usual versus when otherwise? This is the purpose for thought, the 4th Aggregate.

The 4th Aggregate – Relationships (Thoughts)

When our collection of functions in the 3rd Aggregate encounters something it isn’t designed for, it throws an exception an error message. Or if it’s a tangible machine, it may “crash and burn”. Usually, human programmers are alerted to these exceptions. They find the cause, use their human intelligence to formulate a solution, and implement it (modify and re-compose the functions).

As discussed towards the end of the 3rd Aggregate, to find a solution for a problem, humans search through webs of relationships – associations we’ve learned over our life. In the field of A.I. and neurology, there is the saying, what fires together, wires together. These relationships include:

  • Correlation – These are events that occur together to some degree. The simultaneous occurrence may be coincidence, due to another factor, or does indeed imply some sort of cause and effect.
  • Perceived cause and effect – This is anything where we believe one thing will follow another because it has happened a lot.
  • Intended cause and effect – These are cause and effect of our human-engineered machines. We intend for gas to explode in cylinders, driving a transmission, that ultimately spins wheels.

For software, such relationships have traditionally been programmed by people. These are procedural relationships. However, in this Big Data age, relationships are wrested from a large history of facts by statistical algorithms.

Thoughts, whether human or machine, are about wonder, “what-if”. The human or machine then investigates what if by playing around with the web of relationships in the heads or in a graph database.

For example, in these pre-A.I. days, the process for optimizing something like low sales goes like this:

  1. A sales manager experiencing low sales (pain in the 2nd Aggregate) would wonder what to look for in a customer most likely to purchase a luxury car now. That way, the sales personnel can maximize their sales performance (a goal of the 5th Aggregate) by spending more time with such people.
  2. A data scientist will then run years of sales history and customer demographics through some sort of “machine learning” algorithm. That sales history and demographics data could be thought of as “sensed” in the 1st Aggregate.
  3. The output of the algorithm are relationships between various customer attributes – gender, education level, age, income level, etc. This set of relationships is then deployed into production as a function (3rd Aggregate) of the enterprise, no different from anything we know to do as a human.

As it is for a human, the 4th Aggregate is the web of relationships as well as the process of finding possible solutions to a pain detected in the 2nd Aggregate. It’s not really that hard to trace a line of relationships when the dots are all connected. What is hard is finding a solution that minimizes negative side-effects. What are negative side-effects? Those are goals and desires that are hampered, the 5th Aggregate.

The 5th Aggregate – Metrics (Consciousness)

Like human creatures, corporate enterprises have goals, missions, and feel “pain”. Some of these corporate goals keep us from breaking laws and there are goals towards growth and higher profits. Goals not doing well register as pain. Metrics (nodes) statuses tie to functions of the 3rd Aggregate – think of these as pain and joy receptors. The web of these goals dictates the “values” or character of the system.

Businesses are founded upon strategies. Strategies are a web of “cause and effect”, a theory that if we perform some action, there will be a chain of effects leading to the satisfaction of our goals. For example, in the 2nd Aggregate, I mentioned Revenue Growth as a key metric. However, Revenue Growth itself isn’t a good thing. We could increase revenue easily by slashing prices, increasing revenue, but lowering profit – and increasing volume, which increases expenses, which also lowers profit.

The illustration below shows a simple strategy map for a doctor’s office. If the practice adds a doctor, that leads to more billable hours, which contributes to higher utilization which leads to higher revenue, which contributes to higher profit.

A Strategy Map lays out the theoretical cause and effect for actions taken by a corporation.

The strategy map above illustrates the trade-offs taken for some action represented by the blue boxes. If it weren’t for the fact that more doctors cost more (in many more ways than just salary), we could simply add as many doctors as possible to make as much money as possible. But there’s always trade-offs.

The complex world in which the aCEO must thrive goes way beyond such simple trade-offs. There are cascading webs of cause and effect that make almost everything hard. For example, the task of something as universal as hiring is so complicated that every business has a specialized Human Resources department. Do candidates have a long list of required skill, required education, are they trustworthy, will they get along with everyone, will they be assertive when necessary, cooperative otherwise?

A more realistic strategy map would be a big unwieldy mess, impractical as a visualization for our human brain. Fortunately, handling such a web of relationships is something computers can do better than us!

Each item is an issue because it interferes with some goal or another. Such magical employees meeting all requirements are rare and so delicate trade-offs (compromises) are made that will hopefully make all goals reasonably “happy”.

Because things are always changing in a business ecosystem, the aCEO will always be “buzzing” like a human brain dealing with constant change. A consciousness isn’t some static picture, but an in-motion process. It’s a process that goes something like this:

  1. Things in the world change (1st Aggregate) …
  2. Which could result in pains (bad KPI statuses in the 2nd Aggregate) …
  3. As well as invalid results from functions in the 3rd Aggregate …
  4. Which results in goals in the 5th Aggregate trying to minimize pain, re-balance itself …
  5. And the 5th Aggregate employs the web of cause and effect in the 4th Aggregate to find candidate solutions, and test them out.

Exploring for a set of measured trade-offs that will eventually satisfy all goals, a solution to a minimizing pain, is actually the relatively easy part. Much tougher is organizing the map of relationships in the 4th and 5th Aggregates, connecting the dots. “What” is usually an easier question to answer than “How”.

The biggest breakthrough in software will not be further improvements in accuracy, speed, and volumes of data processed with well-defined tasks. It will be the ability to re-program itself, self-organize the connected dots.

From a Buddhist perspective, software today is dukkha, incapable of adapting itself to constant change. Software today is mostly rather “hand-wired” organizations of functions – meticulously hand-coded by highly-skilled human programmers. And that’s starting to change.



1 It’s not exactly correct to say that software is composed of functions since what appear to be functions can return different results under since it depends upon circumstances outside its inputs and/or the functions often does not handle exceptions (inputs it wasn’t designed to take in) well enough. Those two inadequacies account for much of the reason software has so many bugs. There is a movement towards “functional programming” that enforces at least the first issue, towards the goal of writing software that is less complex.

2 Any time I utter the phrase “cause and effect”, someone reminds me that “correlation does not imply causation”. I don’t think anyone actually does think correlation implies causation. It doesn’t make sense to do something for an effect unless you believe there would be the desired effect. Whatever decisions that are made by people of sound mind are based upon what they perceive to be cause and effect relationship.


The Five Aggregates – Part 1

This is the last photo I took of our Bodhi Day 2018 (the “secular” one on Dec 8, 2018) place as Mrs. Hanamoku and I left our Airbnb cabin. The photo looks so dynamic, but to my human sentience, it was so still and quiet. Do you see The Eternal Fishnu towards the middle-left waving good-bye?

Happy Bodhi Day !!!

Today is January 13, 2019, the 8th Day of the 12th moon for 2018 – Lunar Bodhi Day. The header above is painted in the Eternal Fishnu’s colors.

Here is a little post I hope helps you meditate on a very important aspect of Enlightenment on this Bodhi Day: What is the Five Aggregates?

The Whole is Greater than the Aggregation of its Parts

Here’s what the “The Five Aggregates” are if you’re taking an online practice test and just need a fast answer: In Buddhist literature, it’s a collection of things/concepts that comprise our sentience – body, feelings, perception, thoughts, and consciousness.

The Five Aggregates plays a big part in the core lesson of the Heart Sutra. The most succinct way to state the lesson is:

The Universe is One inseparable thing, so stop acting like it’s a bunch of independent pieces.

Roughly, the argument of that lesson can be broken down like this:

  1. Everything is always changing …
  2. So any thing we think we see is just a temporary assemblage of other things  …
  3. So none of the things we use our brains to recognize really exists anymore  …
  4. Which renders as invalid any cause and effect relationships that we’ve learned about between those things which no longer exists …
  5. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense suffering through our relentless and eventually futile attempts to coerce the Universe to what our minds compute based on that outdated information …
  6. Rather, turn it around and learn how to better read and respond to the Universe.

However, point #6 above doesn’t mean we humans should become completely thoughtless, spineless, gooey, creatures. As many say in Buddhism, “there is a middle way“.

But even if we can intellectually understand that lesson, at our human realm of sentience it’s really difficult as our actual experience is more like that of a goldfish in a bowl. We’re trapped in our little cubicle of space with a whole lot going on outside of those glass walls, as well as a whole lot more we cannot ever see.

Let’s start this journey with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “Man is a piece of the Universe made alive.

In this post I will cover the Five Aggregates one at a time, but remember that the whole that’s made up of those five aggregates is our Sentience.

An “aggregate” is the product of an assemblage of parts. That product could be a homogeneous collection of customer service reps, a stack of one dollar bills, or inventory of some mass-produced commodity. For such a collection of things, each member is interchangeable. These are things we count and measure in volume, for example, 50 cartons of milk or one-thousand dollars.

More interestingly, an aggregate could be a heterogeneous collection of parts. For example, an automobile, a surgical team, a hamburger, the Earth’s environment, or the Beatles. Such assemblages of  parts into a whole are very different things from simply a “bag o’ parts”. Think of the music from each of the Beatles members’ solo work. All are very different nor as good as the music they created as a band.

Therefore, we say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s not usually true for homogeneous aggregates where the whole is simply the sum of its parts – ten customer service reps is just ten customer service reps.

Each of the Five Aggregates is a heterogeneous aggregate. We’ll cover each shortly, but for now, let’s take the example of the 1st Aggregate, which includes our senses – sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. They are all very different kinds of information at our human level of existence. For example, the picture painted in our heads through the photons hitting our retinas are an aggregate of three kinds of rods (red, green, blue), a bunch of cones, the adjustable aperture of our pupils, etc.

As just mentioned above, our Sentience is an aggregate of the Five Aggregates. In fact, it doesn’t take much pondering to realize that practically everything we can think of is a hierarchical aggregate of aggregates – from the uber aggregate of the Universe itself, to the Earth’s ecosystem, to machines we design and build, to sub-atomic particles.

For example, a car is a hierarchical aggregation of aggregations. One of those parts of a car is the engine which is itself an aggregation of parts. One of those parts of the engine is the distributor, which is an aggregation of parts, …

We often call an aggregation “the Big Picture”. Do we see the forest or do we see the trees? It’s easy for us to lose sight of the big picture because we’re trained to specialize – break down the big picture into smaller pieces so each of us can become an expert in our assigned bite-sized piece. As specialized experts, we can optimize the hell out of each of those pieces, then assemble all the pieces back together into a theoretically better machine.

Overview of the Heart Sutra

This blog could be considered part of a set centered around the The Heart Sutra along with these three others:

  1. No Thing Exists
  2. Everything Forms Every Thing
  3. The Other Shore

If you haven’t read or don’t want to read those three blogs before continuing, the section  below, Symbolic Thinking, sort of recaps the material covered in No Thing Exists and Everything Forms Every Thing. As for the notion of “The Other Shore”, think of it simply as the side of the Bay where the sun shines brighter and there’s a prettier view.

From Thich Nhat Hanh’s English translation of the Heart Sutra, The Five Aggregates are mentioned a couple of times such as in this excerpt:

That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.

Deeper understanding of the Heart Sutra equates to peace of mind. The Heart Sutra is a succinct encapsulation of Buddhism which one can read within about two minutes, three tops. However, as “spot-on” as the Heart Sutra may be, what it encapsulates is ineffable without decades of experience mindfully soaking in its deepest wisdom.

For example, I know what Business Intelligence is – at least I hope I do, as that’s my job. But I can’t effectively pass on the full depth of that knowledge to someone, even through a big book. To fully understand that knowledge space, it takes years of pressure-filled work, exploration of thousands of dead ends (which usually comes in handy some time in the future), an endless succession of unknown unknowns, terrible mistakes incentivizing you to find betters ways, and the resourcefulness skill built from having the technological rug constantly pulled out from under you every other year.

Likewise, progress towards a full understanding of the Buddha’s teaching (enlightenment) goes well beyond reading the Heart Sutra over and over again or analyzing each word to death. Think of it more as a periodic test of your understanding gained through your direct life experience and guidance from those who offer advice from their own experience. Hopefully, this post and the other three I mentioned above is one of those sources of guidance.


Our capabilities provided through these Five Aggregates – senses, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness – enable we flesh and blood creatures to “preserve” our form longer (live longer) in this indescribably dynamic reality in which we are manifested (Life on Earth). In our human case, “long enough” means to live long enough to mature enough to raise children. The Five Aggregates are our “smarts”, which enable us to some extent to outsmart the soul-less laws of physics – at least for a while.

If things didn’t change, we wouldn’t need senses, thoughts, consciousness. As Ringo said, “I think because things change.” We may recognize things such as our parents, our car, or our chair at work, but what we think we recognize is never exactly as it was before. “No man ever steps in the same river twice”, as Heraclitus observed. We could be seeing someone in disguise, they could be high on drugs, angry, therefore “different”.


Sentience for humans is centered around our awareness or ourselves being aware – self-awareness. That is, I’m aware of something I define as “myself”. My sentience involves my body, sensations about my body and other things out there, my primal emotion about what I’m sensing, my perceptions of what I’m sensing, my thoughts, and the ability to reflect upon those thoughts – the Five Aggregates.

We’re aware of our mortality, in fact, the mortality of other creatures as well. But that awareness is merely a by-product of the real value sentience afforded to us. That real value is that we can manipulate things in our environment. Our human forms are machines that can recognize things, form a map in our heads of how those things relate to each other, imagine what the rearrangement of these things will look like, and to a good extent mold the physical world to that vision.

Sentience isn’t a uniquely human thing. It’s a continuum onto which creatures of Earth fall at some point. Even an amoebae is an intricate assemblage of molecules resulting in the skill to conduct a species-perpetuating life; birth, eat, develop, evade being eaten, reproduce. There’s really no  man-made machine as I write this that can do that with absolutely no human intervention.

Gus, a dog we met on our Bodhi Day Holiday, is certainly feeling something right now. These feelings may not be exactly expressible in human terms, but something is going on in that big lug’s head.

Sentience isn’t just “thinking”. Most if not all animals can “think” to some extent. We humans are just much better at it than other animals. It also depends on how one defines “think”. For the purposes of this blog, “think” means that when presented with a decision to make, you’re capable of coming up with a novel answer that’s more effective than what you’d get plugging numbers into some rote formula.

And, although we humans are “sentient”, our sentience isn’t the epitome of sentience. Perhaps we’re at the top of one kind of sentience. But as our human brand of sentience may stand at the very top of a hill, there are other types of sentience throughout the Universe on peaks much higher than ours.

Symbolic Thinking

The Eternal Fishnu tells me that symbolic thinking is what the story of Adam and Eve is about. Adam and Eve were at first one with the Universe, until they made a choice to exercise their own will by going against God’s instructions not to eat the apple. The ability to exercise their own will is founded in symbolic thinking.

We are trained from the instant we’re born to recognize things – usually starting with Mama, Dada, then on to various toys, foods, etc. We’re taught the alphabet, a set of symbols, before we’re taught to recognize words (a symbol for a thing) before we’re taught to read a book (a symbol for a story).

The coffee mug sitting on my desk as I type is a thing. If I drop it on my foot, will I not feel pain? If I bonked my teeth with it, will I not require a trip to the dentist? The mug is a thing in the context of the “normal world”, that realm where you need to go to work to pay the bills and have no time to ponder enlightenment.

However, in the realm of your Dukkha, enlightenment, the Heart Sutra, and Buddhism, a “thing” is a symbol in your brain representing something we’ve sensed. Those things and the relationships between them form a “soft” model of the Universe from which we make all of our decisions.

Those things in our brains are organized into a map of relationships we’ve observed between those things, we’re able to perform experiments in our brain before taking physically irreversible actions. However, none of those symbols in your head, any of those “things”, really exist anymore – in the Buddhist context.

Those experiments we run in our head are the secret sauce to humanity’s ability to manipulate our world … as well as the source of our Dukkha. We take the continuous, fully inter-dependent processes and break them down into discrete things and discrete steps. If we think of any machine we humans have made, such as a watch (the mechanical sort), we can see all of the interacting gears, springs, and dial hands. We can understand how the cascading cause and effect from spring to gear, to gear, to dial works.

The Five Aggregates

The Five Aggregates comprises the high-level architecture of our human sentience – all that we feel and think, the foundation of decisions we make. In the context of the Heart Sutra, the Five Aggregates are discussed to methodically lay out the wisdom that all we think about is based on what is usually a highly flawed reading and interpretation of what’s really out there.

There are two over-arching points to keep in mind as you read through this section on The Five Aggregates. The first, as just mentioned, is that our reading and perception of what is around us is very prone to mistakes. Our symbolic thinking breaks down the oneness of the Universe into discrete things and discrete steps. That way, we can move around the pieces on the game board in our minds to predict what will happen. Thinking that this is an adequate model of the real thing is like thinking we can butcher a cow, reassemble the steaks, soup bones, organs and hide, and it will again be a live cow.

It’s all about building, utilizing, and maintaining a model of the Universe encoded in our neurons. However, this model is never nearly as good as the real thing, the Universe. In fact it’s pitifully inadequate.

Second, we really don’t have much control over anything going on around us, even though we want to think we do. We have some control over what is “close” to us. That is, what is physically nearby, not far off in the future, or what we have strong ties to, such as our possessions, our responsibilities at work, our close friends and family, etc. But that level of control, already not very well-founded, rapidly diminishes the farther out in time and space we go.

More interestingly, we don’t even have as much control over our own selves as we want to think. We have little control over how we feel about an event, what we think about it, and often what we decide to do about it. We don’t have much control over rather hard-wired instincts. What we often think of as our ability to control ourselves is our ability to suppress our expression of negative feelings that will get us into trouble. That’s not the same as genuinely expunging a negative feeling out of our mind.

Therefore, the point of this blog is to convince you of the futility of your desire to control things. Then you can settle into the world, at peace.

The 1st Aggregate – Body and Form

The Body and Form Aggregate is an aggregation of all that there is outside of ourselves and our sensory organs to detect what is out there. Those sensory organs sensing – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch – are the windows into our brain.

But practically everything we sense is flawed. Or at least information we sense will quickly become obsolete because everything is always changing. Right out of the gate, our sentience is prone towards huge opportunities for misinterpretation of the world.

At this point, it’s easy to think of the phrase, garbage in, garbage out. However, that’s not quite right. Our eyes see real photons. Our ears pick up real sound waves. Our noses and tongues detect real molecules. There’s no “garbage” being sensed – those photons, sound waves and molecules are right here, right now. Where there is garbage is in your brain where there are conclusions you come to founded upon outdated and limited information.

Imperfect Information and Information Overload

The philosopher, Bishop George Berkeley’s, “koan” of the tree falling in the forest (and no one was there to hear it, does it make a sound?) fantastically reminds us that although we don’t hear or see everything, that doesn’t mean it’s not there. What we sense with our senses is such a small part of the whole story that there’s an inherent degree of speculation to everything. There is so much going on in the Universe that it’s impossible for our brains to sense everything.

Just about all information we process in our brains is based on imperfect information – we don’t and can’t know everything. But none the less, we still must make our decisions based on what little we really know – the real world won’t stop to give us all the time we need to make a decision.

Although it’s easy to accept that we don’t and can’t know everything, it may be even tougher to accept that we shouldn’t know too much. Even if our brains were much larger, capable of sensing much more than it currently can, that information still needs to be processed. “Process” means connect the dots about what all is happening and make decisions fast enough to matter. This point is very loosely analogous to having 80 billion neurons in our head, but that the real information is in the quadrillion connections between them, connecting those neuron “dots”.

Sensing more information than our brain can effectively process is information overload. Imagine your eight bosses in a room overwhelming you with all they need and all the reasons why. Your brain will be so scattered that you wouldn’t be able to help even one of them as well as you can. That’s a minor illustration of information overload.

Nature worked out the problem of the immense volume of information in several ways. One is the natural tuning of our senses, limiting them towards the goal of optimized fitness for competing in the game of Life on Earth. Everything we’re geared to notice is a lean and mean package of sense capability, honed through thousands of generations of competition – light, sound, smell. All so the better to notice our predators or our prey smartly and quickly enough to matter – day or night, hot or cold, in the forest or on the savanna.

Pretty cool, huh? But it comes with the price of the atrophy of whatever doesn’t matter most of the time. Our eyes have cells (rods) that detect red, blue, and green, but not yellow. Yellow rods would be redundant because we can also detect yellow as a combination of red and green. So if we hypothetically used to have yellow rods, if a human were to be born without them, it wouldn’t matter since there is a workaround. In fact it would positively affect that unfortunate yellow-rod-less human, as there’s room for more red, green, and blue rods.

Similarly, we don’t have receptors up our nose for every chemical – which means those left out chemicals have no smell, and so as far as our brain is concerned, it doesn’t exist. It can seem detrimental that we can’t smell everything, but if we could, that would again overload us with information. Now, if we really needed to smell more things, we could have evolved long snouts like dogs to expand the number of olfactory receptors.

So we don’t see, hear, smell, or taste everything – just what happens to have been the bag o’ powers most beneficial for our ancestors at the time and place of their lives, going back tens of thousands of generations. We’ve naturally evolved the bag o’ powers that recognizes the most important things – even though every now and then that trade-off of a wider breath of powers towards the goal of mitigating information overload fails us. But it works well enough for enough of us to mature enough to raise enough children. The heuristic of evolution is a “good enough”, not necessarily the “best”.

Further, much of what we sense undergoes a lot of massaging before it hits our thinking brain, like highlighting a picture for better presentation. For example, our eyes take in our three dimensional world on our two-dimensional retinas and uses algorithms in our brain to simulate three-dimensions. It even creates the illusion that we’re seeing a big view of what is in front of our eyes, even though only a small percentage of it is in focus at any instant.

Predator and Prey

If Life on Earth were a board game, it would be named “Predator and Prey”.

Our senses are mostly geared to sense change – i.e. the activity of our predators or our prey. Change is a good word in Buddhism, right? Ironically, at our human scale of existence, time frames of seconds and at the scale of creatures we would normally consider predators and prey, you often will not notice change – you won’t see your predators or prey move. Why? Because a primary tactic is to stay really still and/or pretend you’re something else so your predators walk right passed you and your prey walks closer.

At our “normal” scale of existence things may seem unchanged, but that doesn’t mean things are not changing. Although we may be aware of how things work at smaller or larger scales, we live at the scale of human existence. Are we usually cognizant of the billions of bacteria on our skin? Or the electron buzzing in the atoms? Even at the scale of an insect, “normal” is different. Insects can carry balls of water as big as them.

The bottom line is that our senses don’t see everything, and that’s by design. The net of what nature evolved in humans to sense and ignore, at the end of the day, results in nothing less than our position as the apex animal of Earth.

The Sixth Sense

Guess what? We are psychic. Not like Miss Cleo, but we do have the ability to read the minds of other people. We have empathy because we need the ability to read other minds – predict what is in their heads, so that we can effectively work with them or not be fooled by them. This is another sense along with smell, sight, hearing. Big parts of our brain are dedicated towards recognizing very subtle things in faces, such as the minutest of eye twitch or smile. Without a word or a sound, we’ re pretty good at telling if someone didn’t like something we said, if they are happy, angry, we’re still on the same page, maybe even lying to us.

It’s not “psychic” as in fortune tellers, seeing into your future. There’s nothing magic, it is mind-reading, an innate skill developed in our human brains out of necessity we call Theory of Mind. It’s just reading body language, which we all have as a natural gift and can improve with training.

We wouldn’t be able to communicate anything more than the simplest of information if we weren’t able to read peoples’ minds to some extent. That “unspoken” communication in peoples’ expressions and body language sets swaths of context.

It would be too cumbersome to craft completely unambiguous messages to be of practical use while we’re working together. It’s very valuable for to me just see the look of fear or anger in your face and know I’d better run now and ask questions later. No need for you to write an essay first.

But of course, we’re still often wrong about what we sense people are thinking. We may see someone is angry or in a receptive mood, but incorrectly guess why, which can lead to wrong conclusions.

Further, they could be great actors faking a behavior. Lying is something every animal is capable of. For lower animals, it’s called camouflage – prey hiding from predators and predators hiding from prey to ambush them. We humans are just able to take lying to another level.

The 2nd Aggregate – Feelings

Think of feelings as our most primitive and simple of thoughts. For example, when we were simple one-celled creatures swimming around a billion years ago, we felt water too hot or too cold and moved away from it. These are the sorts of mechanisms that are simple enough that we can imagine them evolving without some sort of “intelligent design”. I’ve described these simple “thoughts” in a series of blogs starting with The Root of Dukkha – Part 1 – Envy.

The Buddha mentions that feelings can be pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. In our human logic, we tend to seek pleasant feelings and avoid unpleasant feelings. However, the actions of seeking and avoiding are the cause of stress. That’s because in our human realm of existence, which is little more complex than that of an amoeba, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain isn’t as easy as binary choices of yes/no, up/down, or fight/flee.

The only widely effective solution in a complex world is to be like the Zen master, Hakuin, 100% accepting of what Is. Or, at the very least, learn to be happy with what you have, and know things can always be worse – believe me, it’s very true. I know that’s boring, cliched advice, but it is a necessary start that does lead to 100% acceptance like that of Hakuin.

This doesn’t mean we ignore our feelings. But we have no control over them, so ignoring them is too a kind of avoidance. Besides, our feelings are often wise advisers nature honed for us over countless generations. We keep faith and patience that they will pass through us knowing they are temporary.

However, although the ability to take comfort in knowing everything is temporary is a vast improvement, it really means you still don’t get it. It means you’re still judging things as good and bad as opposed to seeing the Universe as One, where all the wonders out there are due to opposing Yin and Yang forces.

The 3rd Aggregate – Perception

The 3rd Aggregate is the aggregate of the things we “know”, things we’ve learned, which we use to assess what’s happening now or could happen later. That knowledge is applied to information we’re sensing from the 1st Aggregate, our senses. We smell turkey roasting, we see people we know coming over to our house, and we assess that the Thanksgiving festivities are at hand. This is what’s happening now, right around us.

The 2nd and 3rd Aggregate differ in that the former is an aggregate of fairly hard-wired instincts, whereas the latter is more like software, the things we’ve learned and can modify as we learn more and our environment changes. Both are similar in that they process what we’re sensing and outputs actions we should take.

However, the problem is the world is constantly changing, as described in the 1st Aggregate. We sense only a very small fraction of what is going on, and it’s filled with deception due to the game of predator and prey. But we do need to make decisions before life makes a decision for us. We can’t all just sit still doing nothing. So we settle on something that seems plausible enough.

That means our brains often make mistakes.

I don’t mean to sound so negative. It only sounds terrible to humans because we’re aware of our mortality. Remember, we are spawned from a world where pretty much every creature makes a living devouring another creature. That’s how Life on Earth works, that’s why Life on Earth is over three billion years old, immortal for all practical purposes.

Note too that our perceptions of things dictates what we focus on. So going back to the 1st Aggregate of body/form, we direct our senses to focus on certain things, ignoring everything else. That’s how magicians fool us and fish get hooked. But we’re better than that. Aren’t we? Yes, we can think … we can reason.

The 4th Aggregate – Thoughts

Imagine having the intelligence of a fish. For that level of intelligence, if it looks like a worm, smells like a worm, and moves like a worm, it’s a worm. Or is the lure of a clever human fisherman?

It’s here in the 4th Aggregate (and the 5th Aggregate) where humans are much more developed than fish, reptiles, and plants. Thoughts and Consciousness are the keys for our highly adaptable skill. We’re harder to fool by our non-human predators or prey, we can manipulate our environment towards something we envision, and we can learn new skills.

Thoughts are what takes our minds to the past so we can better predict the future. But it comes with the cost of diluting our attention towards what’s happening right now. If what’s happening right now is that Thanksgiving festivities are underway, we may have thoughts of eventual family bickering based on past experience, regrets of weeks of dieting being wiped out, the mess that must be cleaned up.

It’s our unparalleled prowess in the 4th Aggregate, thoughts, which separates us from the other animals. By “unparalleled”, I mean that to be fair to other animals, our thought capability isn’t exactly exclusive to humans, since most have some level of thought capability. We’re just alone on the far end of the spectrum, an outlier of intelligence on Earth.

The 4th Aggregate is our “smarts”. It causes us to question what the 3rd Aggregate recognizes. It causes us to be on guard because we’re aware of the risk of something bad happening. It motivates us to action based towards what we predict to be something good. It develops novel solutions where the 3rd aggregate fails to find a fit tactic to employ.

It’s not quite as easy to say that perceptions are a picture of what we’re seeing now versus thoughts are what we make of it, what else could be going on, and what we should do about it. Thoughts and perceptions go back and forth, with thoughts coloring, distorting what we’re perceiving. There are dozens of types of biases applied to what we are perceiving.

We don’t record our memories as we would film. We reconstruct much of what we try to recall, and it’s always at risk for being pulled together in a slightly different way.

Thoughts come into play in perception when what we’re seeing doesn’t make sense. Thoughts direct us to look for something else that play provide a clue or something that may prove a hypothesis.

Thoughts possibly can be massively parallel, responding to stimuli, but putting two and two together, trying to recognize something not quite right.

Thoughts predict the future by projecting from the past. Perceptions and Thoughts are logical computations. They aren’t always right. Sometimes events are recalled, assembled, and are a little off. Occasional Error is a critical component of genes and memes.

The 5th Aggregate – Consciousness

I don’t know what consciousness is. There are good ideas out there, but all leaving gaping, unsatisfying holes. Understanding of consciousness is a nut really smart people have been trying to crack for thousands of years. For now, let’s go with re-purposing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase on pornography, “I don’t know what consciousness is, but I know it when I see it.”

Materially, consciousness is the aggregation of all our goals and desires. These include our responses to our primal emotions (2nd Aggregate), addictions, hopes and dreams, habits, and even our sacred beliefs. They are encoded in a yet undecipherable code distributed all over the web of neurons and synapses of our brain. But that’s not our consciousness any more than being a human means having human DNA.

That material description of consciousness is as dead as a photo of a Giant Sequoia or Bryce Canyon versus being there in person – with walking around it, smelling the smells, sharing moments of awe with fellow visitors, the tactile feel of the heights of the tree and walls. Even a video or art by the best artists ever falls short of fully capturing the conscious experience.

There is a big hint in the paragraph above. When we’re really there at Sequoia National Forest and Bryce Canyon, our senses are fully engaged, dynamically reacting to incomparably richer information than we could get from a photo or video. But “richer information” doesn’t mean higher resolution of what we’re seeing (5 megapixels vs 20 megapixels), or simply adding smell and touch to the experience.

The richer data stimulates more things in our head, and they are all connected in that web of neurons, synapses, and all the other stuff (fluids, neurotransmitters, “glial cells”) crammed into our skull. All our goals and desires compete with each other. For example, our addiction to junk food versus our desire to be healthy versus our limited time to shop for healthy food versus the convenience of junk food.

Our consciousness is made up of this tangled web of competing goals and desires. But consciousness is the dynamic process of trying to make all our goals and desires happy. Consciousness is a verb.

The Aggregate of the Five Aggregates is Us

So how does this knowledge of the Five Aggregates help us to be at peace? We see from much of the discussion above that the Five Aggregates are highly integrated. That means changes to one of the Aggregates affects them all.

We can conclude a few actionable items that will help us:

  • The fewer goals and desires that we have, the easier it is to make all of them happy, and so the less “turmoil” it makes for your brain.
  • What we think we sense and what we make of it is most likely incorrect to varying degrees. Therefore, we’re better off not clinging to what our experience tells us about what we’re sensing. Always have an open mind.
  • We have little control over the Universe and that our mostly futile attempts to control it is the source of our own suffering.

Our minds are not something we can see in a static blueprint. Our minds are a dynamic process as it is for the entire Universe. But we spend the bulk of our energy trying to stop the world, rather than using our sentience just to provide an occasional nudge to something caught in an endless loop.

See You on the Other Shore

There is a big trade-off taken for our prowess thoughts, the 4th Aggregate. Caught in the storm of the turmoil of thoughts, we suffer because we’re mercilessly sloshed around by years of our hoarded crap trying to predict uncountable possible outcomes.

If we didn’t have thoughts, we could be as content as the other animals just being what they are – perfect cows, perfect ants, perfect fish, perfect trees – unhindered by what has happened and what could happened. Cows, ants, fish, and trees perceive and react. With our advanced level for thought, life isn’t nearly that simple.

Zen and Buddhism are the skills we utilize on board our boat (our mind and body) to the other shore, just as we would utilize sailing skills on a literal boat. That journey starts from the shore of content animals perceiving and reacting, One with the Universe – to the other Shore, where surprisingly, we’re also One with the Universe! So what’s the point of getting to the other shore?! In between is a journey across a treacherous ocean where we’re at an Ugly Stage, half-way between the shores.

On the treacherous ocean we suffer. We’re aware of our mortality. We’re cut off from the “solid” ground from which we emerged and and all it offers. It’s a journey all humans are on because our elders pulled us onto the boat. They intend to take us to a better place, but the vast majority don’t make it all the way to that other shore. Caught in the middle of the ocean, caught between animal and fully awaken sentience, they suffer until the end.

Our ability to think didn’t develop in us for the lofty human goals and desires we strive for. It developed to better protect ourselves from lions and tigers and bears, as well as to better hunt rabbits and seals and deer. But it swept us off the safe shore of just being another animal to another shore.

What awaits us at the other shore? Well, almost magically, we’ll have our cake and you can eat it too! That is, we’ll be sentient creatures capable of design and manipulation, without all the suffering we experience due to clinging. If we see that everything is connected, we’re all one, not fragmented, we don’t cling to the past, we don’t cling to beliefs, we’ll be a force of the Universe. We’ll again we One with the Universe, without our Dukkha and the effects of our Dukkha on everything around us.