| The Five Aggregates (pañca khandha)
according to the Pali Canon.
|Source: MN 109 (Thanissaro, 2001) | diagram details|
In Buddhist doctrine and metaphysics, the word skandha (Sanskrit: स्कान्धास) refers to the five "aggregate" elements that are said to comprise the psychophysical personality. These five aggregates are: Form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), perception (samjñā), consciousness (Skt. vijñāna, Pāli viññāṇa), and reasoning (Skt. vāsanā or samskāra). The term skandha can also mean "compound, mass, heap, bundle, or tree trunk."
According to the teachings of the Buddha, a proper understanding of the Skandhas is an important step towards the attainment of Nirvana (freedom from suffering). In the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, suffering (dukkha) arises when one identifies with, or otherwise clings to, an aggregate; suffering is extinguished therefore by relinquishing attachments to aggregates. In the Mahayana (Madhyamika) tradition of Buddhism, ultimate freedom is said to be realized by deeply penetrating the intrinsically empty nature of all aggregates. These doctrinal developments arose out of Buddhist metaphysics, which denies the existence of any eternal soul (atman) outside of this aggregation.
Enumeration and relationship
In the Pali canon, the aggregates are causally related as follows:
- Form (rupa) arises from experientially irreducible physical/physiological phenomena.
- Form—in terms of an external object (such as a sound) and its associated sense organ (such as the ear)—gives rise to consciousness (viññāṇa).
- From the contact of form and consciousness arise the three mental (nāma) aggregates of feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), and mental formation (sankhāra).
In this scheme, physical form, the mental aggregates, and consciousness are mutually dependent. Other Buddhist literature has described the aggregates as arising in a linear or progressive fashion, from form to feeling to perception to mental formations to consciousness. (Trungpa 2001, 36–37) In regards to these aggregates:
- The first five sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body) are derivatives of form. The sixth sense organ (mind) is part of consciousness.
- The first five sense objects (visible forms, sound, smell, taste, touch) are also derivatives of form. The sixth sense object (mental object) includes form, sensation, perception, and mental formations.
- The six sense consciousness is the basis for consciousness.
Traditional Buddhist literature (such as the Abhidhamma) speaks of one physical aggregate (form), three mental factors (sensation, perception, and mental formations) and consciousness. Contemporary writers (such as Trungpa Rinpoche and Red Pine) sometimes conceptualize the five aggregates as "one physical and four mental" aggregates.
(See Table 1 for examples of definitional references to the aggregates in the Buddhist canon.)
Role in Buddhist metaphysics and soteriology
The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha), monks, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering—in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.
According to Thanissaro (2002):
Prior to the Buddha, the Pali word khandha had very ordinary meanings: A khandha could be a pile, a bundle, a heap, a mass. It could also be the trunk of a tree. In his first sermon, though, the Buddha gave it a new, psychological meaning, introducing the term "clinging-khandhas" to summarize his analysis of the truth of stress and suffering. Throughout the remainder of his teaching career, he referred to these psychological khandhas time and again.
The Buddha taught that self-identifying with an aggregate would, by necessity, lead to clinging (upadana) to that element; and, given that all aggregates are impermanent (anicca), it is invariable that this attachment would eventually yield agitation (paritassati), loss, grief, stress, or suffering. Therefore, to be free of suffering required the wisdom to experience the aggregates clearly, without clinging or craving (tanha), and without associating them with any notion of self (anatta). For example, if one believes "this body is mine" or "I exist within this body," then as their body ages, becomes ill, and approaches death, such a person will likely experience longing for youth or health or eternal life, will likely dread aging, sickness, and death, and will likely spend much time and energy lost in fears, fantasies, and ultimately futile activities.
In the Nikayas, such is likened to shooting oneself with a second arrow, where the first arrow is a physical phenomenon (such as, in this case, a bodily manifestation associated with aging or illness or dying) and the second is the mental anguish of the undisciplined mind associated with the physical phenomenon (see the Sallatha Sutta). Conversely, it is said that one with a disciplined mind, who is able to see this body as a set of aggregates, will be free of such fear, frustration, and time-consuming escapism.
The way in which one becomes aware of one's own identification with (thus clinging to) the aggregates is found in Buddhist mindfulness practices that are said to awaken understanding, release, and wisdom.
Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000b, 840) states that an examination of the aggregates has a "critical role" in understanding the Buddha's teachings: The five aggregates are the "ultimate referent" in the Buddha's elaboration on suffering (dukkha). Thus, "since all four truths revolve around suffering, understanding the aggregates is essential for understanding the Four Noble Truths as a whole." Understanding the Nature of Release (nirvana) can only be achieved once an individual ceases clinging to the five aggregates.
According to the Mahasunnata Sutta ("The Greater Discourse on Emptiness," MN 122):
When he [a monk] abides contemplating rise and fall in these five aggregates affected by clinging, the conceit "I am" based on these five aggregates affected by clinging is abandoned in him…. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2001, 975)
Theravada and Mahayana perspectives
In Theravada Buddhism, the Pāli Canon bears out the importance of the doctrine of the skandhas. In regards to how Theravada practitioners view the aggregates, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2002) argues:
The [Pāli] canon depicts the Buddha as saying that he taught only two topics: suffering and the end of suffering (SN 22.86). A survey of the Pali discourses shows him using the concept of the khandhas to answer the primary questions related to those topics: What is suffering? How is it caused? What can be done to bring those causes to an end?
In other words, Theravada practitioners do not see the notion of the aggregates as providing an absolute truth about ultimate reality or as a map of the mind, but instead as providing a tool for understanding how our method of apprehending sensory experiences and the self can lead to either our own suffering or to our own liberation. It is through the five skandhas that clinging (upadana) occurs.
Additionally, the Samyutta Nikaya contains a book entitled the "Khandhavagga" ("The Book of Aggregates"), which compiles over a hundred suttas related to the five aggregates. Typical of the materials in this collection is the Upadaparitassana Sutta ("Agitation through Clinging Discourse," SN 22:7), which states in part:
…The instructed noble disciple … does not regard form [or other aggregates] as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. That form of his changes and alters. Despite the change and alteration of form, his consciousness does not become preoccupied with the change of form…. [T]hrough non-clinging he does not become agitated. (Bodhi 2000b, 865–866)
Many of the suttas in the Khandhavagga express the aggregates in the context of the following sequence:
- An uninstructed worldling (assutavā puthujjana)
- regards form as self; self as possessing form; form as in self; self as in form.
- lives obsessed by the notions: I am form; and/or, form is mine
- this form changes
- with the changes of form, there arises dukkha
- An instructed noble disciple (sutavā ariyasāvaka) does not regard form as self, etc., and thus, when form changes, dukkha does not arise.
In contrast, Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the intrinsic emptiness of all things including skandhas. The classic "Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra" ("Heart Sutra") begins:
- The Bodhisattva Avalokita,
- while moving in the deep course of Perfect Understanding,
- shed light on the five skandhas
- and found them equally empty [of self].
- After this penetration, he overcame all pain.
From its very first verse, the Heart Sutra introduces an alternative to the practice and view of the Theravada school with respect to the aggregates. First, whereas Theravada meditation practice generally uses change-penetrating (vipassana) meditation, in Mahayana the non-dualistic prajnaparamita practice is invoked. Second, when "emptiness of self" is mentioned in Theravada texts, the English word "self" is a translation of the Pali word "atta" (Sanskrit, "atman"); in the Heart Sutra, the English word "self" is a translation of the Sanskrit word "sva-bhava." According to Red Pine, "the 'self' (sva) … was more generalized in its application than "ego" (atman) and referred not only to beings but to any inherent substance that could be identified as existing in time or space as a permanent or independent entity." (Red Pine 2004, 68) [Italics added]. In other words, whereas the Sutta Pitaka typically instructs one to apprehend the aggregates without clinging or self-identification, Prajnaparamita leads one to apprehend the aggregates as having no intrinsic reality.
In the Heart Sutra's second verse, after rising from his meditation on the aggregates, Avalokiteshvara (the bodhisattva of compassion) declares:
- Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,
- form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.
- The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness.
Red Pine interprets this statement as follows:
That form is empty was one of the Buddha's earliest and most frequent pronouncements. But in the light of Prajnaparamita, form is not simply empty, it is so completely empty, it is emptiness itself, which turns out to be the same as form itself…. All separations are delusions. But if each of the skandhas is one with emptiness, and emptiness is one with each of the skandhas, then everything occupies the same indivisible space, which is emptiness…. Everything is empty, and empty is everything. (Red Pine 2004, 75, 77)
The Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism further develops the Buddhist understanding of the skandhas in terms of mahamudra epistemology and tantric reifications.
The truth of our insubstantiality
Referring to mahamudra teachings, Chogyam Trungpa identifies the form aggregate as the "solidification" of ignorance (Pali, avijja; Sanskrit, avidya), allowing one to have the illusion of "possessing" ever dynamic and spacious wisdom (Pali, vijja; Skt. vidya), and thus being the basis for the creation of a dualistic relationship between "self" and "other."
According to Trungpa Rinpoche (Trungpa 1976, 20–22), the five skandhas are "a set of Buddhist concepts which describe experience as a five-step process" and that "the whole development of the five skandhas… is an attempt on our part to shield ourselves from the truth of our insubstantiality," while "the practice of meditation is to see the transparency of this shield." (Trungpa 1976, 23)
In this way, the illusory (or at least impermanent) nature of the bodily experiences, and the means of penetrating these illusions (tantric meditation) are emphasized.
Bardo deity manifestations
One of the major developments of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition was a profound exploration of the metaphysical and cosmological nature of reincarnation (samsara). One element of these discoveries was the description of various deities and interim states (bardos) that exist between incarnations, all of which came to be depicted in their unique iconographic tradition. Intriguingly, some Tibetan Lamas postulate a connection between this iconography and their particular perspective on the aggregates. It is in this sense that the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Fremantle and Trungpa, 2003) makes the following associations between the aggregates and tantric deities during the bardo after death:
- "The blue light of the skandha of consciousness in its basic purity, the wisdom of the dharmadhātu, luminous, clear, sharp and brilliant, will come towards you from the heart of Vairocana and his consort, and pierce you so that your eyes cannot bear it." (p. 63)
- "The white light of the skandha of form in its basic purity, the mirror-like wisdom, dazzling white, luminous and clear, will come towards you from the heart of Vajrasattva and his consort and pierce you so that your eyes cannot bear to look at it." (p. 66)
- "The yellow light of the skandha of feeling in its basic purity, the wisdom of equality, brilliant yellow, adorned with discs of light, luminous and clear, unbearable to the eyes, will come towards you from the heart of Ratnasambhava and his consort and pierce your heart so that your eyes cannot bear to look at it." (p. 68)
- "The red light of the skandha of perception in its basic purity, the wisdom of discrimination, brilliant red, adorned with discs of light, luminous and clear, sharp and bright, will come from the heart of Amitābha and his consort and pierce your heart so that your eyes cannot bear to look at it. Do not be afraid of it." (p. 70)
- "The green light of the skandha of concept [samskara] in its basic purity, the action-accomplishing wisdom, brilliant green, luminous and clear, sharp and terrifying, adorned with discs of light, will come from the heart of Amoghasiddhi and his consort and pierce your heart so that your eyes cannot bear to look at it. Do not be afraid of it. It is the spontaneous play of your own mind, so rest in the supreme state free from activity and care, in which there is no near or far, love or hate." (p. 73)
References in Buddhist literature
The table below briefly cites Buddhist primary sources that characterize different aspects of the aggregates. This table is by no means exhaustive.
Table 1. Some references to the aggregates in Buddhist primary sources
|It is the four Great Elements (mahābhūta)—earth, water, fire, wind—and their derivatives.||SN 22.56|
|It is afflicted with cold, heat, hunger, thirst, flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, reptiles.||SN 22.79|
|The cause, the condition, and the delineation are the four Great Elements.||MN 109|
|There are 24 kinds of "derived" forms (upādāya rūpam).||Vism XIV.36ff|
|It is feeling born of contact (phassa) with eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.||SN 22.56|
|It feels pleasure, pain, neither-pleasure-nor-pain.||SN 22.79|
|The cause, the condition, and the delineation are contact (phassa).||MN 109|
|As individual experience, can be analyzed as bodily pleasure, bodily pain, mental joy, mental grief, equanimity.||Vism XIV.127|
|It is perception of form, sound, smell, taste, tactile sensation, mental phenomena.||SN 22.56|
|It perceives blue, yellow, red, white.||SN 22.79|
|The cause, the condition, and the delineation are contact (phassa).||MN 109|
|Functions to make a "sign" for perceiving in the future that "this is the same."||Vism XIV.130|
|It is volition regarding form, sound, smell, taste, tactile sensation, mental phenomena.||SN 22.56|
|It constructs constructed forms, feelings, perceptions, volitional formation, consciousness.||SN 22.79|
|The cause, the condition, and the delineation are contact (phassa).||MN 109|
|Characterized by "forming," functions to "accumulate," manifests as "intervening."||Vism XIV.132|
|It is eye-, ear-, nose-, tongue-, body-, mind-consciousness.||SN 22.56|
|It cognizes what is sour, bitter, pungent, sweet, sharp, mild, salty, bland.||SN 22.79|
|The cause, the condition, and the delineation are name-and-form (nāmarūpa).||MN 109|
|There are 89 kinds of consciousness.||Vism XIV.82ff|
- In Philip Rawson (1991, 11), the first skandha is defined as: "Name and form (Sanskrit nāma-rūpa, Tibetan gzugs)…." In the Pali literature, nāma-rūpa traditionally refers to the first four aggregates, as opposed to the fifth aggregate, consciousness.
- Generally, vedanā is considered to not include "emotions." For example, Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000a, 80) writes: "The Pali word vedanā does not signify emotion (which appears to be a complex phenomenon involving a variety of concomitant mental factors), but the bare affective quality of an experience, which may be either pleasant, painful or neutral." Correspondingly, Chögyam Trungpa (2001, 32) notes: "In this case 'feeling' is not quite our ordinary notion of feeling. It is not the feeling we take so seriously as, for instance, when we say, 'He hurt my feelings.' This kind of feeling that we take so seriously belongs to the fourth and fifth skandhas of concept and consciousness."
- In some sutras, it is explicitly tied to all types of sensory experience: "These six classes of perception—perception of form, perception of sound, perception of smell, perception of taste, perception of tactile sensation, perception of ideas: This is called perception." Samyutta Nikaya 22.57. Translated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro, Sattatthana Sutta, accesstoinsight.org. Retrieved October 19, 2008.
- The Abhidhamma divides sankhāra into 50 mental factors consisting of all types of mental habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions, compulsions, and decisions triggered by an object (Bodhi 2000a, 26).
- Thanissaro (2002). Also see, for example, Thanissaro (2005) [MN 13], where khandha is translated as "mass" in the phrase dukkhakkhandha (which Thanissaro translates as "mass of stress"), and Thanissaro (1998) [MN 44] where khandha is translated as "aggregate" but in terms of bundling the Noble Eightfold Path into the categories of virtue (silakkhandha), concentration (samadhikkhandha), and wisdom (pannakkhandha).
- See, for instance, SN 35.93, "The Dyad (2)" (Bodhi 2000b, 1172–1173).
- In terms of how these phenomena are analyzed in traditional Buddhist texts, see the description of the "Great Elements" in the Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta, accesstoinsight.org. Retrieved October 19, 2008.
- In the Pali canon, the concurrence of an object, its sense organ, and the related consciousness (viññāṇa) is called "contact" (phassa). In addition to referring to the five form-derived sense faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body), their associated objects and consciousness, phassa also pertains to these aspects of mentality (nama): Mind, mind objects, and mind-consciousness. In the Abhidhamma (e.g., see Bodhi 2000a, 78), phassa is a mental factor, the means by which consciousness "touches" an object.
- Traditional Buddhist texts do not directly address Western philosophy's so-called mind-body problem since in Buddhism the exploration of the aggregates is not primarily to ascertain ultimate empirical reality but to obtain ultimate release from suffering.
- A mental aggregate arises either from conscious contact with form or from another mental aggregate (Bodhi 2000a, 78ff).
- Form and the mental aggregates together are technically referred to as nāmarūpa, which is variously defined as "name-and-form," "materiality-mentality," and "matter-mind." Bodhi (2000b, 47–48) mentions that Ñāṇamoli translated nāmarūpa as "mentality-materiality," which Bodhi assesses to be "in some respects … doctrinally more accurate, but it is also unwieldy…." Bodhi goes on to note that "in the Nikāyas, nāmarūpa does not include consciousness (viññāṇa)."
- According to Bodhi (2000b, 48), based on suttas in SN 14, consciousness "can operate only in dependence on a physical body (rūpa) and in conjunction with its constellation of concomitants (nāma); conversely, only when consciousness is present can a compound of material elements function as a sentient body and the mental concomitants participate in cognition." Also, for example, see the Nagara Sutta ("The City," SN 12:65) (Thanissaro 1997a), where the Buddha in part states: "[F]rom name-&-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness, from consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form."
- Bodhi (2000a, 287–288)
- Samyutta Nikaya 56:11, accesstoinsight.org. Retrieved October 19, 2008.
- Translated from the Pali by Thera Piyadassi (1999) Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth, accesstoinsight.org (boldface added). Retrieved October 19, 2008.
- Note that, in Buddhism, one clings to (guards) something they have (or mistakenly believe they have), whereas one craves (searches) for that which they lack. (See the articles on upadana and tanha for references.) Thus, the notion of the "clinging aggregates" refers to things with which we identify or which we think we can possess. When, instead, one desires such things, it is technically craving, not clinging.
- For on-line translations of the Sallatha Sutta ("The Arrow" or "The Dart," SN 36.6), see Thanissaro (1997c) and Nyanaponika (1998).
- Anuradha Sutta: To Anuradha
- Samadhi Sutta (SN 22:5)
- Note that in each of the suttas where the above formula is used, subsequent verses replace "form" with each of the other aggregates: Sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness.
- Nhât Hanh (1988, 1); see also Red Pine (2004, 2) and Suzuki (1960, 26).
- Suzuki (1960, 29) notes that the last sentence of this first stanza ("After this penetration, he overcame all pain") is unique to Hsuan-chuang's translation and is omitted in other versions of the Heart Sutra.
- "Svabhava" has also been translated as "self-nature" (Suzuki 1960, 26), "separate self" (Nhât Hanh 1988, 16), and "self-existence" (Red Pine 2004, 67).
- While Red Pine (2004) contextualizes the Prajnaparamita texts as a historical reaction to some early Buddhist Abhidhammas, some interpretations of the Theravada Abhidhamma are actually consistent with the prajnaparamita notion of "emptiness."
- Nhât Hanh (1988, 1). Again, also see Red Pine (2004, 2), and Suzuki (1960, 26).
- Trungpa (2001, 10–12) and Trungpa (2002, 124, 133–134).
- Bodhi (2000b, 841, 914–915); Buddhaghosa (1999, 443–464); Thanissaro (1997b, 2001a, and 2001b).
- Available on-line (Thanissaro 1997b).
- Bodhi (2000b, 1070, n. 110) points out and Thanissaro (2001a, nn. 1 and 2) suggests that this definition is at least in part "word play" related to the homophonic (non-etymological) correspondence between the Pāli words for "form" (rūpa) and "afflicted" (ruppati).
- Available on-line (Thanissaro 2001a).
- Bodhi (2000b, 743–744, n. 58; 1064–1065, n. 81) refers to MN 109's identification of the aggregates' causes/conditions as "proximate" or "synchronic" conditions, while the causes/conditions identified in other suttas, such as SN 22.5, accesstoinsight.org (retrieved October 19, 2008), are "collective distal" or "diachronic" conditions.
- Available on-line (Thanissaro 2001b).
- The Visuddhimagga XIV.36–72 (Buddhaghosa 1999, 443–450); also see Bodhi (2000a, 236) where the 24 derived forms are defined as:
- eye, ear, nose, tongue, body
- visible things, sound, odor, taste
- feminine characteristics, masculine characteristics
- life faculty (gives vitality to other matter)
- heart-basis (blood-borne physical basis for mind and consciousness)
- bodily intimation (movements), vocal intimation (speech utterances)
- space element (empty and delimiting region between material objects)
- matter's lightness, malleability, wieldiness
- matter's growth, continuity, decay, impermanence
- physical nutriment
- Regarding SN 22.79's typifying perception (saññā) through visual colors and consciousness (viññāṇa) through assorted tastes, Bodhi (2000b, 1072, n. 114) mentions that Samyutta Nikaya's subcommentary states that perception grasps appearances and shapes while consciousness "can grasp particular distinctions in an object even when there is no appearance and shape." Similarly, in the Visuddhimagga (Buddhaghosa 1999, 435–436), there is an extended analogy about a child, an adult villager, and an expert "money-changer" seeing a heap of coins: The child's experience is analogous to perception, the villager's experience to consciousness, and the money-changer's experience to understanding (paňňā).
- Consistent with MN 109's distinguishing between vinnāna and nāmarūpa, Bodhi (2000b, 48; also see Bodhi 2005, 447, n.19) states: "Nāma is the assemblage of mental factors involved in cognition: Feeling, perception, volition, contact, and attention (vedanā, sanna, cetanā, phassa, manasikāra…) … In the Nikāyas, nāmarūpa does not include consciousness (vinnāna). Consciousness is its condition, and the two are mutually dependent…."
- Of the 89 kinds of consciousness, 54 are of the "sense sphere" (related to the five physical senses as well as craving for sensual pleasure), 15 are of the "fine-material sphere" (related to the meditative absorptions based on material objects), 12 are of the "immaterial sphere" (related to the immaterial meditative absorptions), and eight are supramundane (related to the realization of Nibbāna) (Bodhi 2000a, 28–31).
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All links retrieved November 16, 2019.
- Khandavagga suttas (a selection), translated primarily by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
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