“Ananda! Why are the five aggregates said to intrinsically be the wondrous nature of the reality-suchness of the tathagatagarbha?"
Excerpts from A Discourse on Śūraṅgama Sūtra
Venerable Xiao Pingshi
The practice method and principle of transcending the three realms adopted by those pursuing the Path of Liberation are based on the mundane dharmas, consisting of the five aggregates, twelve sense fields, eighteen elements, and six entrances. These are easily observable by secular people after they are taught. Their contents do not touch upon or realize the true reality.
The dependent arising of all the mundane dharmas that do not have an intrinsic nature refers to those of the aggregates, sense fields, elements, and entrances. When we have totally extinguished our five-aggregate selves, we will no longer have any future rebirths. This is called transcending the suffering of transmigration within the three realms. That is, the fundamental consciousness, the tathagatagarbha, that which does not cognize or see but is self-existing, will remain. This denotes the remainderless nirvana.
Arhats on the Path of Liberation rely on the mundane dharmas to observe the aggregates, sense fields, and elements. Such mundane dharmas are dependent-origination dharmas without an intrinsic nature and confined within the conventional world. They are impermanent and thus selfless and arhats cannot know the true reality. Therefore, the observation of dependent arising without an intrinsic nature in Mahayana denotes the ultimate truth while that in the Two-Vehicle (Hinayana) denotes the conventional truth.
Given that the arhats are still on the Path of Liberation, their dharmas cannot touch upon the realm of ultimate reality. The wisdom that they have attained has also not yet reached the true principle of the ultimate truth, which denotes the truth of the ten dharma realms: the four saint and six common realms. In brief, the notion of dependent arising without an intrinsic nature in arhats’ paths sets forth the truth of the phenomenal world while that in the Buddha Dharma covers the ultimate reality of the dharma realm.
Let us check at the three dharmas of “smell, tongue, and taste.” Do they belong to the dharma of the phenomenal world? Yes, they do! They have all the dharma characteristics of the phenomenal world! As they are condition-based dharma generated by the causes and conditions, all were only brought forth and arose, belonging to the cycle of arising and ceasing, constantly arising, changing, and ceasing. Thus, they are impermanent. These impermanent dharmas cannot be considered the true and solid Dharma.
On the other hand, what denotes the observation of the ultimate truth? To know the ultimate truth, one must closely observe and investigate (a.k.a. direct observation) where the tathagatagarbha locates. What are the wondrous natures of the reality-suchness in the tathagatagarbha? How does the tathagatagarbha bring forth the aggregates, sense fields, and elements, among others?
After direct observation, one will know that the aggregates, sense fields, and elements must be subsumed under the wondrous nature of the reality-suchness in the tathagatagarbha after all.
Therefore, the notions of “smell” “tongue” and “taste” have no real, solid locations. This is because all dharmas were only brought forth and arose, belonging to the cycle of arising and ceasing, constantly arising, changing, and ceasing. Thus, they are impermanent. These impermanent dharmas cannot be considered the true and solid Dharma, and untrue dharmas cannot have locations. Hence, the Buddha said, “That is why we should know that smell and taste have no locations and are both false.”
When we have attained awakening to the tathagatagarbha, we can directly observe the wondrous nature of reality-suchness. After observing and examining smell and taste in detail, we will realize that they are both false dharmas. They are not merely products of external causes and conditions; rather, their existence must be brought forth on the basis of the tathagatagarbha. They thus rely on various causes and conditions to change, transform, and eventually disappear. Therefore, the notions of aggregates, sense fields, and elements are not merely products of external causes and conditions.
(A Discourse on Śūraṅgama Sūtra Book 4, p 222 ~ 224)