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In Buddhist phenomenology and soteriology, the five skandhas (Sanskrit) or khandhas (Pāli) are five "aggregates" which categorize all individual experience, among which there is no "Self" to be found.

In the Theravada tradition, suffering arises when one identifies with or otherwise clings to an aggregate; hence, suffering is extinguished by relinquishing attachments to aggregates. The Mahayana tradition further puts forth that ultimate freedom is realized by deeply penetrating the nature of all aggregates as intrinsically empty of independent existence.

Outside of Buddhist didactic contexts, "skandha" can mean mass, heap, pile, bundle or tree trunk.[1]


 The Five Aggregates (pañca khandha)
according to the Pali Canon.
form (rūpa)
  4 elements


  mental factors (cetasika)  



 Source: MN 109 (Thanissaro, 2001)  |  diagram details

Buddhist doctrine describes five aggregates:[2]

  1. "form" or "matter"[3] (Skt., Pāli rūpa, Tib. gzugs):
    external and internal matter. Externally, rupa is the physical world. Internally, rupa includes the material body and the physical sense organs.[4]
  2. "sensation" or "feeling" (Skt., Pāli vedanā, Tib. tshor-ba):
    sensing an object[5] as either pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.[6][7]
  3. "perception", "conception", "apperception", "cognition", or "discrimination" (Skt. samjñā, Pāli saññā, Tib. 'du-shes):
    registers whether an object is recognized or not (for instance, the sound of a bell or the shape of a tree).
  4. "mental formations", "impulses", "volition", or "compositional factors" (Skt. samskāra, Pāli saṅkhāra, Tib. 'du-byed) :
    all types of mental habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions, prejudices, compulsions, and decisions triggered by an object.[8]
  5. "consciousness" (Skt. vijñāna, Pāli viññāṇa[9], Tib. rnam-par-shes-pa):
    1. In the Nikayas: cognizance.[10][11]
    2. In the Abhidhamma: a series of rapidly changing interconnected discrete acts of cognizance.[12]
    3. In Mahayana sources: the base that supports all experience.[13]

See Table 1 for examples of definitional references to the aggregates in Buddhist primary sources.

In the Pāli Canon, the majority of discourses focusing on the five aggregates discusses them as a basis for understanding and achieving liberation from suffering, without describing relationships between the aggregates themselves.[14] Nonetheless, from some canonical discourses, a causal relationship between the five aggregates can be derived.[15] The following (illustrated in the figure to the right) exemplify such relational attributes:[16]

  • Form (rupa) arises from experientially irreducible physical/physiological phenomena.[17]
  • Form – in terms of an external object (such as a sound) and its associated internal sense organ (such as the ear) – gives rise to consciousness (viññāṇa).[18]
  • The concurrence of an object, its sense organ and the related consciousness (viññāṇa) is called "contact" (phassa).[19][20][21]
  • From the contact of form and consciousness arise the three mental (nāma) aggregates of feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā) and mental formation (saṅkhāra).[22][23]
  • The mental aggregates can then in turn give rise to additional consciousness that leads to the arising of additional mental aggregates.[24]

In this scheme, form, the mental aggregates,[25] and consciousness are mutually dependent.[26]

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.[27]

Parts of a chariot

In the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha is recorded as saying that "just as the word 'chariot' exists on the basis of the aggregation of parts, even so the concept of 'being' exists when the five aggregates are available."[28] Thus just as concept of "chariot" is a reification, so too is the concept of "being." The same analysis is applicable to the parts of the chariot; they too are unsubstantial in that they are causally produced, just like the chariot as a whole.[29] The most explicit denial of the substantiality of the components of the being in the early texts is one that was quoted by later prominent Mahayana thinkers:

All form is comparable to foam; all feelings to bubbles; all sensations are mirage-like; dispositions are like the plantain trunk; consciousness is but an illusion: so did the Buddha illustrate [the nature of the aggegates].[30]

Nagarjuna used ideas of this kind in the agamas to refute the Sarvastivada conception of reality.[29] The simultaneous non-reification of the self and reification of the skandhas has been viewed by some Buddhist thinkers as highly problematic.[31]

In the early texts, the scheme of the five aggregates is not meant to be an exhaustive classification of the human being: rather it describes various aspects of the way an individual manifests.[32] The chariot metaphor is not an exercise in ontology, but rather a caution against ontological theorizing and conceptual realism.[33] Part of the Buddha's general approach to language was to point towards its conventional nature, and to undermine the misleading character of nouns as substance-words.[34]

The skandha analysis of the early texts is not applicable to arahants. A tathāgata has abandoned that clinging to the personality factors that render the mind a bounded, measurable entity, and is instead "freed from being reckoned by" all or any of them, even in life. The skandhas have been seen to be a burden, and an enlightened individual is one with "burden dropped".[35]

Theravada perspectives

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Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000b, p. 840) states that an examination of the aggregates has a "critical role" in the Buddha's teaching for multiple reasons, including:

  1. Understanding the Four Noble Truths: The five aggregates are the "ultimate referent" in the Buddha's elaboration on suffering (dukkha) in his First Noble Truth (see excerpted quote below) and "since all four truths revolve around suffering, understanding the aggregates is essential for understanding the Four Noble Truths as a whole."
  2. Future Suffering's Cause: The five aggregates are the substrata for clinging and thus "contribute to the causal origination of future suffering."
  3. Release: Clinging to the five aggregates must be removed in order to achieve release.

Below, excerpts from the Pāli literature will bear out Bhikkhu Bodhi's assessment.[36]

Suffering's ultimate referent

In the Buddha's first discourse, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, he provides a classic elaboration on the first of his Four Noble Truths, "The Truth of Suffering" (Dukkhasacca):[37]

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:[38]

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.

In what way are the aggregates suffering? For this we can turn to Khandhavagga suttas below.

In the early texts, the skandhas explain what suffering is. According to Noa Ronkin, "What emerges from the texts ... is a wider signification of the khandhas than merely the aggregates constituting the person. Sue Hamilton has provided a detailed study of the khandhas. Her conclusion is that the associating of the five khandhas as a whole with dukkha indicates that experience is a combination of a straightforward cognitive process together with the psychological orientation that colours it in terms of unsatisfactoriness. Experience is thus both cognitive and affective, and cannot be separated from perception. As one's perception changes, so one's experience is different: we each have our own particular cognitions, perceptions and volitional activities in our own particular way and degree, and our own way of responding to and interpreting our experience is our very experience. In harmony with this line of thought, Gethin observes that the khandhas are presented as five aspects of the nature of conditioned existence from the point of view of the experiencing subject; five aspects of one's experience. Hence each khandha represents 'a complex class of phenomena that is continuously arising and falling away in response to processes of consciousness based on the six spheres of sense. They thus become the five upādānakhandhas, encompassing both grasping and all that is grasped.'"[39]

Future suffering's cause

The Samyutta Nikaya contains the Khandhavagga ("The Book of Aggregates"), a book compiling over a hundred suttas related to the five aggregates. Typical of these is the Upadaparitassana Sutta ("Agitation through Clinging Discourse," SN 22:7), which states:

...[T]he 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." (Trans. by Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 865-866.)

Put another way, if we were to self-identify with an aggregate, we would cling (upadana)[40] to it; and, given that all aggregates are impermanent (anicca), it would then be likely that at some level we would experience agitation (paritassati), loss, grief, stress, or suffering (see dukkha). Therefore, if we want to be free of suffering, it is wise to experience the aggregates clearly, without clinging or craving (tanha), apart from any notion of self (anatta).

Many of the suttas in the Khandhavagga express the aggregates in the context of the following sequence:

  1. An uninstructed worldling (assutavā puthujjana)
    1. regards: form as self; self as possessing form; form as in self; self as in form.[41]
    2. lives obsessed by the notions: I am form; form is mine
    3. this form changes
    4. with the changes of form, there arises dukkha
  2. An instructed noble disciple (sutavā ariyasāvaka) does not regard form as self and so on, and thus when form changes, dukkha does not arise. (Note: 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.)
Example of Aggregate-Clinging

To give a simplistic example, if one believes "this body is mine" or "I exist within this body," then as one's body ages, becomes ill, and approaches death, one will likely experience longing for youth or health or eternal life, will likely dread aging and 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[42]).

On the other hand, 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.[43]

But how does one become aware of and then let go of one's identification with or clinging to the aggregates? Below is an excerpt from the classic Satipatthana Sutta that shows how traditional mindfulness practices can awaken understanding, release and wisdom.[44]

Release through aggregate-contemplation

In the classic Theravada meditation reference, the "Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta" ("The Foundations of Mindfulness Discourse," MN 10), the Buddha provides four bases for establishing mindfulness: body (kaya), sensations (vedana), mind (citta) and mental objects (dhamma). When discussing mental objects as a basis for meditation, the Buddha identifies five objects, including the aggregates. Regarding meditation on the aggregates, the Buddha states:

How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five aggregates of clinging?

Herein, monks, a monk thinks, "Thus is material form; thus is the arising of material form; and thus is the disappearance of material form. Thus is feeling; thus is the arising of feeling; and thus is the disappearance of feeling. Thus is perception; thus is the arising of perception; and thus is the disappearance of perception. Thus are formations; thus is the arising of formations; and thus is the disappearance of formations. Thus is consciousness; thus is the arising of consciousness; and thus is the disappearance of consciousness."[45]

...Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, "Mental objects exist," to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five aggregates of clinging. (Nyanasatta, trans., 1994.)

Thus, through mindfulness contemplation, one sees an "aggregate as an aggregate"—sees it arising and dissipating. Such clear seeing creates a space between the aggregate and clinging, a space that will prevent or enervate the arising and propagation of clinging, thereby diminishing future suffering.[46]

As clinging disappears, so too notions of a separate "self." In the Mahasunnata Sutta ("The Greater Discourse on Emptiness," MN 122), after reiterating the aforementioned aggregate-contemplation instructions (for instance, "Thus is form; thus is the arising of form; and, thus is the disappearance of form"), the Buddha states:

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.... (Nanamoli & Bodhi, 2001, p. 975.)

In a complementary fashion, in the Buddha's second discourse, the Anattalakkhana Sutta ("The Characteristic of Nonself," SN 22:59), the Buddha instructs:

Monks, form is nonself. For if, monks, form were self, this form would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to [manipulate] form [in the following manner]: "Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus...." [Identical statements are made regarding feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness.]

...Seeing thus [for instance, through contemplation], monks, the instructed noble disciple becomes disenchanted with form [and the other aggregates].... Being disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. (Bodhi, 2005a, pp. 341-2.)

As seen below, the Mahayana tradition continues this use of the aggregates to achieve self-liberation.

Mahayanist perspectives

In one of Mahayana Buddhism's most famous declarations, the aggregates are referenced:

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.[47]

What does this mean? To what degree is it a departure from the aforementioned Theravada perspective? Moreover, more generally, how are the aggregates used in the Mahayana literature? These questions are addressed below.

The intrinsic emptiness of all things

The Sanskrit version[48] of the classic "Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra" ("Heart Sutra") begins:

The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, Arya avalokiteshvaro bodhisattvo
while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita     gambhiran prajna-paramita caryan caramano
looked upon the Five Skandhas, vyaavalokayati sma panca skandhas
...seeing they were empty of self-existence....[49] tansh ... svabhava shunyan pashyati sma....[50]
In the Theravada canon,[51] when "emptiness of self" is mentioned, the English word "self" is a translation of the Pali word "atta" (Sanskrit, "atman"); in the Sanskrit-version of the Heart Sutra,[52] the English word "self" is a translation of the Sanskrit word "sva-bhava".[53]

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.[54]

In the Heart Sutra's second verse, after rising from his aggregate meditation, Avalokiteshvara 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.[47]

Thich Nhat Hanh interprets this statement as:

Form is the wave and emptiness is the water.... [W]ave is water, water is wave.... [T]hese five [aggregates] contain each other. Because one exists, everything exists.[55]

Red Pine comments:

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.[56]

Tangibility and transcendence

Commenting on the Heart Sutra, D.T. Suzuki notes:

When the sutra says that the five Skandhas have the character of emptiness ..., the sense is: no limiting qualities are to be attributed to the Absolute; while it is immanent in all concrete and particular objects, it is not in itself definable.[57]

That is, from the Mahayana perspective, the aggregates convey the relative (or conventional) experience of the world by an individual, although Absolute truth is realized through them.

The tathagatagarbha sutras, on occasion, speak of the ineffable skandhas of the Buddha (beyond the nature of worldly skandhas and beyond worldly understanding), and in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Buddha tells of how the Buddha's skandhas are in fact eternal and unchanging. The Buddha's skandhas are said to be incomprehensible to unawakened vision.

Vajrayana perspectives

The Vajrayana tradition further develops the aggregates in terms of mahamudra epistemology and tantric reifications.

The truth of our insubstantiality

Referring to mahamudra teachings, Chogyam Trungpa (Trungpa, 2001, pp. 10-12; and, Trungpa, 2002, pp. 124, 133-4) identifies the form aggregate as the "solidification" of ignorance (Pali, avijja; Skt., 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."[58]

According to Trungpa Rinpoche (1976, pp. 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 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." (ibid, p. 23)

Bardo deity manifestations

Trungpa Rinpoche writes (2001, p. 38):

[S]ome of the details of tantric iconography are developed from abhidharma [that is, in this context, detailed analysis of the aggregates]. Different colors and feelings of this particular consciousness, that particular emotion, are manifested in a particular deity wearing such-and-such a costume, of certain particular colors, holding certain particular sceptres in his hand. Those details are very closely connected with the individualities of particular psychological processes.

Perhaps it is in this sense that the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Fremantle & 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]

Relation to other Buddhist concepts

Other fundamental Buddhist concepts associated with the five skandhas include:

It is through the five skandhas that the world (samsara) is experienced, and nothing is experienced apart from the five skandhas.
Three Characteristics
It is through the five skandhas that impermanence (anicca) is experienced, that suffering (duhkha) arises, and that "non-self" (anatta or anatman) can be realized.
sense base
sense base
formvisible form,
sound, smell,
taste, touch
ear, nose,
tongue, body
sensation 52
Four Paramatthas
The Abhidhamma and post-canonical Pali texts create a meta-scheme for the Sutta Pitaka's conceptions of aggregates, sense bases and elements.[59] This meta-scheme is known as the four paramatthas or four ultimate realities:
  • consciousness
  • mental factors
  • material phenomena
  • Nibbāna
The mapping between the aggregates, the sense bases (see below) and the ultimate realities is represented in the chart to the right.[60]
Twelve Sense Bases
  • The first five external sense bases (that is, the sense objects of visible form, sound, smell, taste and touch) are part of the form aggregate and the mental sense object (that is, mental objects) overlap the first four aggregates (form, feeling, perception and formation).
  • The first five internal sense bases (that is, the sense organs of eye, ear, nose, tongue and body) are also part of the form aggregate and the mental sense organ (mind) is comparable to the aggregate of consciousness. While the benefit of meditating on the aggregates is overcoming wrong views of the self (since the self is typically identified with one or more of the aggregates), the benefit of meditation on the six sense bases is to overcome craving (through restraint and insight into sense objects that lead to contact, feeling and subsequent craving).[61]
Twelve Nidanas / Dependent Origination
The Twelve Nidanas describe twelve phenomenal links by which suffering is perpetuated between and within lives. Embedded within this model, four of the five aggregates are explicitly mentioned in the following sequence: mental formations (saṅkhāra) condition consciousness (viññāṇa) which conditions name-and-form (nāma-rūpa)[25] which conditions the precursors (saḷāyatana, phassa) to sensations (vedanā) which in turn condition craving (taṇhā) and clinging (upādāna) which ultimately lead to the "entire mass of suffering" (kevalassa dukkhakkhandha).[62] Overlaying this chain of conditioning on top of "The Five Aggregates" diagram at the top of this article, the interplay between the five-aggregates model of immediate causation and the twelve-nidana model of requisite conditioning becomes evident, for instance, underlining the seminal role that mental formations have in both the origination and cessation of suffering.[63][64]
Eighteen Dhatus[65]
The eighteen dhatus function through the five aggregates. The eighteen dhatus can be arranged into six triads, where each triad is composed of a sense organ, a sense object and sense consciousness. In regards to the aggregates:[66]
  • The first five sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body) are derivates 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 are the basis for consciousness.

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.

Some references to the aggregates in Buddhist primary sources[67]
(Abbreviations: MN = Majjhima Nikaya; SN = Samyutta Nikaya; Vism = Visuddhimagga.)
aggregate description source
rūpa (Form)
It is the four Great Elements (mahābhūta) -- earth, water, fire, wind—and their derivatives. SN 22.56[68]
It is afflicted with cold, heat, hunger, thirst, flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, reptiles.[69] SN 22.79[70]
The cause, the condition and the delineation are the four Great Elements.[71] MN 109[72]
There are 24 kinds of "derived" forms (upādāya rūpam).[73] Vism XIV.36ff
vedanā (Feeling)
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
saññā (Perception)
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
saṅkhāra (Formation)
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
viññāṇa (Consciousness)
It is eye-, ear-, nose-, tongue-, body-, mind-consciousness. SN 22.56
It cognizes what is sour, bitter, pungent, sweet, sharp, mild, salty, bland.[74] SN 22.79
The cause, the condition and the delineation are name-and-form (nāmarūpa).[75] MN 109
There are 89 kinds of consciousness.[76] Vism XIV.82ff

See also


  1. Thanissaro (2002). Also see, for example, Thanissaro (2005) where khandha is translated as "mass" in the phrase dukkhakkhandha (which Thanissaro translates as "mass of stress") and Thanissaro (1998) 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).
  2. Contemporary writers (such as Tripitaka Master Shramana Hsuan Hua, Trungpa Rinpoche and Red Pine) sometimes conceptualize the five aggregates as "one physical and four mental" aggregates. More traditional Buddhist literature (such as the Abhidhamma) might speak of one physical aggregate (form), three mental factors (sensation, perception and mental formations) and consciousness.
  3. In Rawson (1991: p.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.
  4. External and internal manifestations of rupa are described, for instance, in Bodhi (2000b), p. 48.
  5. In these definitions, "object" refers to either a cognized form (what Western epistemologists might refer to as "sense data") or a mental expression, such as a cognized memory.
  6. The Pali canon universally identifies that vedana involves the sensing or feeling of something as pleasant or unpleasant or neutral (see, for instance, SN 22). When contemporary authors elaborate on vedana, they define it similarly (see, for instance, Nhat Hanh, 1999, p. 178; Trungpa, 2001, p. 21; and, Trungpa, 2002, p. 126). The one exception is in Trungpa (1976), pp. 20-23, where he states that the "strategies or impluses" of "indifference, passion and aggression" are "part of the third stage [aggregate]," "guided by perception." (This section of Trungpa, 1976, is anthologized in Trungpa, 1999, pp. 55-58.)
  7. Generally, vedanā is considered to not include "emotions." For example, Bodhi (2000a), p. 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." Perhaps somewhat similarly, Trungpa (1999), p.58, writes: "Consciousness [the fifth aggregate] consists of emotions and irregular thought patterns...." And Trungpa (2001), p. 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."
  8. The Theravada Abhidhamma divides saṅkhāra into fifty mental factors (Bodhi, 2000a, p. 26). Trungpa (2001), pp. 47ff, following the Sarvastivada Abhidharma studied in Mahayana Buddhism, states that there are fifty-one "general types" of samskara.
  9. According to the Visuddhimagga XIV.82, the Pali terms viññāṇa, citta and mano are synonymous (Buddhaghosa, 1999, p. 453). However, Trungpa (2001, p. 73) distinguishes between viññāṇa and citta, stating that viññāṇa (consciousness) is "articulated and intelligent" while citta (mind) is a "simple instinctive function .... very direct, simple and subtle at the same time."
  10. See, for instance, SN 22.79, "Being Devoured" (Bodhi, 2000b, p. 915).
  11. In commenting on the use of "consciousness" in SN 22.3[1], Bodhi (2000b), pp. 1046-7, n. 18, states:

    "The passage confirms the privileged status of consciousness among the five aggregates. While all the aggregates are conditioned phenomena marked by the three characteristics, consciousness serves as the connecting thread of personal continuity through the sequence of rebirths.... The other four aggregates serve as the 'stations for consciousness' (vinnanatthitiyo: see [SN] 22:53-54). Even consciousness, however, is not a self-identical entity but a sequence of dependently arisen occasions of cognizing; see MN I 256-60."

  12. This conception of consciousness is found in the Theravada Abhidhamma (Bodhi, 2000a, p. 29).
  13. While not necessarily contradicted by the Nikayas, this is a particularly Mahayana statement. For instance, Nhat Hanh (1999, pp. 180-1) states: "Consciousness here means store consciousness, which is at the base of everything we are, the ground of all of our mental formations." Similarly, Trungpa (2001, pp. 73-4) states that consciousness "is the finally developed state of being that contains all the previous elements.... [C]onsciousness constitutes an immediately available source of occupation for the momentum of the skandhas to feed on."
  14. See, for instance, in the Samyutta Nikaya's Khandha-sayutta's discourses SN 22.1 through 22.55 (Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 853-94).
  15. This is in reference to discourses particularly focusing on the five aggregates, as in the Khandha-sayutta (SN, ch. 22). Individual aggregates are provided an overlapping but somewhat different relationship in terms of "dependent origination" (Pali: paticca-samuppāda) and other canonical frameworks; for related information, see the "Relation to other Buddhist concepts" section below.
  16. See, for instance, MN 109 "The Great Full-moon Night Discourse" (Thanissaro, 2001b), SN 22.56 "Phases of the Clinging Aggregates" (Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 895-97) and SN 35.93, "The Dyad (2)" (Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 1172-3).
  17. For instance, see MN 109: "Monk, the four great existents (earth, water, fire, and wind) are the cause, the four great existents the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of form" (Thanissaro, 2001b). Also see SN 22.56: "The four great elements and the form derived from the four great elements: this is called form" (Bodhi, 2000b, p. 895). For more information regarding "the four great elements," see the "Mahābhūta".
  18. See, for instance, SN 35.93: "In dependence on the eye and forms there arises eye-consciousness...." (Bodhi, 2000b, p. 1172); and, MN 148: "Bhikkhus, dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises..." (Ñāamoli & Bodhi, 2001, p. 1134, para. 28).
  19. See, for instance, SN 35.93: "The meeting, the encounter, the concurrence of these three things [eye, form and eye-consciousness] is called eye-contact...." (Bodhi, 2000b, p. 1172).
  20. 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, p. 78), phassa is a mental factor, the means by which consciousness "touches" an object.
  21. 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.
  22. See, for instance, MN 109: "Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of feeling. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of perception. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of fabrications" (Thanissaro, 2001b). Also see SN 22.56: "With the arising of contact there is the arising of feeling.... With the arising of contact there is the arising of perception.... With the arising of contact there is the arising of volitional formations...." (Bodhi, 2000b, p. 896).
  23. A mental aggregate arises either from conscious contact with form or from another mental aggregate (Bodhi, 2000a, pp. 78ff).
  24. See, for instance, SN 35.93: "In dependence on the mind and mental phenomena there arises mind-consciousness" (Bodhi, 2000b, p. 1172). More broadly, see, for instance, SN 22.56: "With the arising of name-and-form [nāmarūpa] there is the arising of consciousness" (Bodhi, 2000b, p. 897); and, MN 109: "Name-&-form is the cause, name-&-form the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of consciousness" (Thanissaro, 2001b). In the Canon, nāmarūpa often refers to the four aggregates other than consciousness (e.g., cf. the relationship between consciousness and nāmarūpa in DN 15 [Thanissaro, 1997a] and MN 38).
  25. 25.0 25.1 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), pp. 47-48, mentions that Ñāṇamoli translated nāmarūpa as "mentality-materiality," which Bodhi assesses to be "[i]n 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)."
  26. According to Bodhi (2000b), p. 48, based on suttas in SN 14, consciousness "can operate only in dependenece 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, 1997b), 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."
  27. For an example of this unidirectional, linear causal model, see Trungpa (2001), pp. 36-37, where, in part, he states: "The first flash is the form and the next, feeling. As you flash further and further, the content becomes more and more involved. When you flash perception, that contains feeling and form; when you flash consciousness that contains all the other four."
  28. Kalupahana (1975), page 78. The passage is found at S 1.135, and also in the agamas.
  29. 29.0 29.1 Kalupahana (1975), page 78.
  30. Kalupahana (1975), page 85. The quote is from S 3.142, and also occurs in the agamas.
  31. Jinpa 2002 , page 112.
  32. Damein Keown quoting Sue Hamilton: [2].
  33. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, [3].
  34. Noa Ronkin, Early Buddhist Metaphysics. Routledge 2005, page 245.
  35. Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press 1995, page 229.
  36. In regards to how Theravada practitioners view the aggregates, Bodhi (2000b, p. 840) cautions:
    [T]he analysis into the aggregates undertaken in the Nikayas is not pursued with the aim of reaching an objective, scientific understanding of the human being along the lines pursued by physiology and psychology.... For the Buddha, investigation into the nature of personal existence always remains subordinate to the liberative thrust of the Dhamma....

    Likewise, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2002) underlines:

    The [Pāli] canon depicts the Buddha as saying that he taught only two topics: suffering and the end of suffering (SN 22.86[4]). 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.

  37. Piyadassi Thera, trans. Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ("The Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth Discourse", Samyutta Nikaya 56:11). Access to Insight. 1999.
  38. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Five Piles of Bricks: The Khandas as Burden and Path. Access to Insight. 2002.
  39. Noa Ronkin, Early Buddhist Metaphysics: the Making of a Philosophical Tradition." Routledge, 2005, page 43.
  40. Note that, in Buddhism, one clings to (or guards) something one possesses (or believes one possesses) whereas one craves (searches) for something one lacks. (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, it is technically craving, not clinging.
  41. In the Sutta Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka, there are four types of clinging: (1) clinging to sensual pleasure; (2) clinging to wrong views; (3) clinging to rites and ceremonies; and, (4) clinging to a doctrine of self. (For references, see the article on upadana.) By definition, the fourth type of clinging (clinging to a doctrine of self) involves having one or more of twenty possible identity views (sakkayaditthi). The twenty identity views are beliefs in:
    • form is self, is possessed by self, is in self; contains self.
    • sensation is self, is possessed by self, is in self; contains self.
    • perception is self, is possessed by self, is in self; contains self.
    • mental formation is self, is possessed by self, is in self; contains self.
    • consciousness is self, is possessed by self, is in self; contains self.
    In other words, references to "clinging" in terms of the aggregates generally refer to "clinging to a doctrine of self."
  42. On-line translations of the Sallatha Sutta ("The Arrow" or "The Dart," SN 36.6) include Thanissaro (1997e) and Nyanaponika (1998).
  43. For a more body-specific meditation method for developing detachment from bodily forms, see Patikulamanasikara.
  44. Unlike the Satipatthana Sutta, the classic Anapanasati Sutta ("Mindfulness of Breathing Discourse," MN 118) does not directly reference the aggregates. However, the Pali literature includes works that interpret the Anapanasati Sutta in light of the aggregates. In the Patisambhidāmagga: The Khuddaka Nikaya's book, the Patisambhidāmagga ("The Path of Analysis"), includes an analysis of the following meditative instruction (first tetrad, third instruction) from the Anapanasati Sutta:
    He trains himself, "I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body." He trains himself, "I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body." (Thanissaro, trans., 2006.)

    Regarding this instruction, the Patisambhidāmagga (Ñāṇamoli, 1998, p. 75) analyzes the word "body" (kaya) as follows:

    Body: There are two bodies—the mentality-body and the materiality body.

    Feeling, perception, volition, sense-impression, attention—mentality and the mentality of the body—and those (things) which are called the mental formations—this is the mentality body.

    The four great primaries and the materiality derived from the four great primaries—in-breath and out-breath and the sign for the binding (of mindfulness)—and those (things) which are called the bodily formationsthis is the materiality body.

    In other words, the Patisambhidāmagga frames the practice of the Anapanasati Sutta's third step as a contemplation of the five aggregates.

    The Visuddhimagga's analysis of the Anapanasatti Sutta includes an analysis of the following meditative instruction (fourth tetrad, first instruction) from the Anapanasati Sutta:

    He trains himself, "I will breathe in focusing on inconstancy." He trains himself, "I will breathe out focusing on inconstancy." (Thanissaro, trans., 2006.)

    In regards to this instruction, the Visuddhimagga (Buddhaghosa, 1999, pp. 282-3; see also Ñāṇamoli, 1998, p. 40) advises one to apprehend "inconstancy" (or "impermanence") as meaning the following:

    Herein, the five aggregates are "the impermanent". Why? Because their essence is rise and fall and change. "Impermanence" is the rise and fall and change in those same aggregates, or it is their non-existence after having been....

    Impermanence (anicca) is a characteristic common to all aggregates. This impermanence will lead to suffering (dukkha) if we identify with the aggregate. To avoid such suffering, the suttas instruct us to see the aggregates as the selfless (anatta) objects they are.

  45. Bodhi (2000b, pp. 743, n. 58) points out that this formula for aggregate-contemplation can also be found in SN 12.21, 12.23, 22.78, 22.89 and 22.101, as well as MN 122.
  46. That meditation creates a space between the aggregates (including clinging) is a readily accessible meditation experience. For a published authoritative statement regarding this experience, see, for example, Trungpa (2001), pp. 85-86, where in response to a student's query he replies: "By meditating you are slowing down the process. When it has slowed down, the skandhas are no longer pushed against one another. There is space there, already there."
  47. 47.0 47.1 Nhat Hanh (1988), p.1. Again, also see Red Pine (2004), p. 2, and Suzuki (1960), p. 26.
  48. According to Nattier (1992), the Heart Sutra was originally composed in Chinese and later back-translated into Sanskrit. Thereafter, it became popular in India and later Tibet. As indicated in an endnote further below, elements in this translation are not present in Chinese versions of this sutra.
  49. Red Pine (2005), p.2. See also Nhat Hanh (1988), p. 1, and Suzuki (1960), p. 26. Nhat Hanh (1988) adds to this first verse the sentence: "After this penetration, he overcame all pain." Suzuki (1960), p. 29, notes that this additional sentence is unique to Hsuan-chuang's translation and is omitted in other versions of the Heart Sutra.
  50. Sanskrit text based on Red Pine (2005), pp. 41, 50, 56, 67.
  51. Regarding the term sabhāva (Pali; Skt: svabhāva) in the Pali Canon, Gal (2003), p. 7, writes:
    To judge from the suttas, the term sabhāva was never employed by the Buddha and it is rare in the Pali Canon in general. Only in the post-canonical period does it become a standard concept, when it is extensively used in the commentarial descriptions of the dhammas [conditioned mental and physical processes] and in the sub-commentarial exegesis. The term sabhāva, though, does occur on various occasions in five canonical or para-canonical texts: the Paisambhidāmagga, the Peakopadesa, the Nettippakaraa, the Milindapañha and the Buddhavasa.

    Gal (p. 10) speculates that the use of the term sabhāva in the Paisambhidāmagga might be the earliest occurrence in Pali literature and quotes (p. 7, esply. n. 28) from this text (Pais. II 178) the application of the phrase sabhāvena suñña (Pali for "empty of sabhāva") to each of the aggregates — at least superficially similar to an application of svabhāva in the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra ("Heart Sutra") cited in this article.

  52. Note that Chinese versions of the Heart Sutra do not contain the notion of svabhava.
  53. "Svabhava" has also been translated as "self-nature" (Suzuki, 1960, p. 26), "separate self" (Nhat Hanh, 1988, p. 16) and "self-existence" (Red Pine, 2004, p. 67).
  54. While Red Pine (2004) contextualizes the Prajnaparamita texts as a historical reaction to some early Buddhist Abhidhammas, some interpretations of the Theravada Abhidhamma are consistent with the prajnaparamita notion of "emptiness."
  55. Nhat Hanh (1988), p. 15.
  56. Red Pine (2004), pp. 75, 77.
  57. Suzuki (1960), p. 29, n. 4.
  58. This type of analysis of the aggregates (where ignorance conditions the five aggregates) might be akin to that described by the Twelve Nidanas.
  59. Bodhi (2000a), p. 6.
  60. Chart is based on Bodhi (2000a), p. 288.
  61. Bodhi (2000b), pp. 1125-26; and, Bodhi (2005b). Bodhi conceptuatlizes the six sense bases as providing a "vertical" view of experience while the aggregates provide a "horizontal" (temporal) view (e.g., see Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 1122-23).
  62. Put another way, it is through the five skandhas that clinging occurs. See, for instance, the Samadhi Sutta (SN 22:5) (Thanissaro, 2006b).
  63. The apparent distinctions between the nidana model and the khandha model are reduced when, instead of using the twelve-nidana model of the Samyutta Nikaya, chapter 12 (e.g., Thanissaro, 1997d), one compares the nine-nidana model of the Maha-nidana Sutta (DN 15) (Thanissaro, 1997a) where consciousness conditions name-and-form and name-and-form conditions consciousness.
  64. Bodhi (2000b, pp. 839-840) writes: "Whereas the teaching on dependent origination is intended to disclose the dynamic pattern running through everyday experience that propels the round of rebirth and death forward from life to life, the teaching on the five aggregates concentrates on experience in its lived immediacy in the continuum from birth to death." Perhaps in a similar vein, Bodhi (2000b, pp. 762-3, n. 132) notes elsewhere that, according to the Samyutta Nikaya's subcommentary: "There are two kinds of origin, momentary origin (khanika-samudaya) and origin through conditions (paccaya-samudaya). A bhikkhu who sees one sees the other."
  65. The Pāli word dhātu is used in multiple contexts in the Pāli canon: For instance, Bodhi (2000b), pp. 527-8, identifies four different ways that dhātu is used including in terms of the "eighteen elements" and in terms of "the four primary elements" (catudhātu).
  66. Bodhi (2000a), pp. 287-8.
  67. Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 841, 914-5; Buddhaghosa, 1999, pp. 443-64; Thanissaro, 1997c, 2001a & 2001b.
  68. Available on-line at Thanissaro (1997c).
  69. Bodhi (2000b, p. 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).
  70. Available on-line at Thanissaro (2001a).
  71. Bodhi (2000b, pp. 743-4, n. 58, pp. 1064-5, 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, are "collective distal" or "diachronic" conditions.
  72. Available on-line at Thanissaro (2001b).
  73. The Visuddhimagga XIV.36-72 (Buddhaghosa, 1999, pp. 443-450; also see Bodhi, 2000a, p. 236) defines the 24 derived forms 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
  74. Regarding SN 22.79's typifying perception (saññā) through visual colors and consciousness (viññāṇa) through assorted tastes, Bodhi (2000b, p. 1072, n. 114) mentions tha the 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, pp. 435-6), 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).
  75. Consistent with MN 109's distinguishing between vinnāna and nāmarūpa, Bodhi (2000b, p. 48; also see Bodhi, 2005a, p. 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...).... [I]n the Nikāyas, nāmarūpa does not include consciousness (vinnāna). Consciousness is its condition, and the two are mutually dependent...."
  76. 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 of the "fine-material sphere" (related to the meditative absorptions based on material objects), 12 of the "immaterial sphere" (related to the immaterial meditative absorptions), and eight are supramundane (related to the realization of Nibbāna) (Bodhi, 2000a, pp. 28-31).


External links



  • The Five Skandhas, table showing the five skandhas, prepared by Alan Fox (Dept. of Philosophy, U. of Delaware).