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                       The Five Skandhas
 

     When we look inside -- when we wonder who and what we are and what's 
going on, when we ask who or what am I, who is experiencing our experience -- what 
do we find, if anything? Who am I? What am I? Where is the experiencer? Is it in my
head? My brain? My heart? My legs? What do we find? Do we really exist as we think 
we do? Am I different than you? Are we who we think we are? That's the main subject 
of self-inquiry in Dharma -- to know one's self; to know one's true nature; to realize who 
and what we all are; to recognize the Buddha-nature, the transpersonal, innate nature, 
not just our superficial, momentary, conditioned personality, which is just the tip of the iceberg.

       The original teacher of Buddhism in this world gave his idea about ho and what we are. 
We can use that as a framework, rather than just wandering around with "Oh, I don't know 
who I am" or "Who could know?" or "Who knows," always passing the buck. In truth the 
buck stops here, in your own lap. That's the bad news. But that's also the good news -- that 
mastery is in one's hands. We can know ourselves, as Socrates (among others) exhorted us. And this self-knowledge will make us free. 
       We have, or we are, a form. But what else are we? Are we just a body? Are we just 
flesh and blood, from dust to dust, as it says? The Buddha said we are the five skandhas. 
The word skandha is a tough word to translate. It means heap, aggregate, or component of 
individuality. We are five of these. Just check it out and let's see what it means, and what else there might be, if anything at all. 

 

The Five Skandhas of Personal Experience are as follows:

                                                                    1. FORM
                                                                    2. FEELING
                                                                    3. PERCEPTION
                                                                    4. WILL
                                                                    5. CONSCIOUSNESS

Or Perhaps you'd like to understand them this way:

                                                                   1. FORM
                                                         2. SENSATION
                                                         3. RECOGNITION
                                                         4. VOLITION
                                                         5. CONSCIOUSNESS

Or like this:

                                                          1. FORM
                                                          2. FEELING / SENSATION
                                                          3. CONCEPTION
                                                          4. MENTAL FORMATIONS
                                                          5. CONSCIOUSNESS

5.
 
 


 

Samyutta Nikaya XXII.48
Khandha Sutta

Aggregates


At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said, "Monks, I will teach you the five aggregates & the five aggregates of
clinging/sustenance. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak."

"As you say, lord," the monks responded.

The Blessed One said, "Now what, monks, are the five aggregates?

"Whatever form is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: that is called
the aggregate of form.

"Whatever feeling is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: that is called
the aggregate of feeling.

"Whatever perception is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: that is
called the aggregate of perception.

"Whatever (mental) fabrications are past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or
near: those are called the aggregate of fabrications.

"Whatever consciousness is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: that
is called the aggregate of consciousness.

"These are called the five aggregates.

"And what are the five aggregates of clinging/sustenance?

"Whatever form -- past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near -- is clingable,
offers sustenance, and is accompanied with mental fermentation: that is called form as an aggregate of clinging/sustenance.

"Whatever feeling -- past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near -- is
clingable, offers sustenance, and is accompanied with mental fermentation: that is called feeling as an aggregate of
clinging/sustenance.

"Whatever perception -- past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near -- is
clingable, offers sustenance, and is accompanied with mental fermentation: that is called perception as an aggregate of
clinging/sustenance.

"Whatever (mental) fabrications -- past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or
near -- are clingable, offer sustenance, and are accompanied with mental fermentation: those are called fabrications as an
aggregate of clinging/sustenance.

"Whatever consciousness -- past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near -- is
clingable, offers sustenance, and is accompanied with mental fermentation: that is called consciousness as an aggregate of
clinging/sustenance.

"These are called the five aggregates of clinging/sustenance."
 
 



                 Every doctrinal formula given us by the Buddha contains an insight. But it
                 is not enough that this insight is realized on an intellectual level only. The
                 intellect, for all its development, does not go deep enough to satisfy the
                 whole human being. There is too much within us that lies unknown and
                 often in direct opposition to the will of the intellect. An insight acts as a
                 centre of gravity different from that of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. In order for
                 such an insight to ripen, a wholehearted awareness must be cultivated. This
                 of course is going to conflict with ‘my’ wishes, normal habits and concerns
                 that otherwise distract me. At times it will feel like going against the grain
                 to work with a particular formula as more and more it comes into conflict
                 with the attitude of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. These emotional onslaughts must
                 be borne if the insight is to bear fruit. In fact it is the energy that powers
                 these emotional uprushes that will gradually loosen the bonds of ‘I’ and at
                 the same time nurture the developing insight into consciousness. It is
                 important to realize that as this process continues, small precursor insights
                 will arise and that it will be tempting to stop and intellectualize them. This,
                 however, would sustain the formation of ‘my opinions’, thus making further
                 insights impossible, as true insight is not an idea but something fluid,
                 something alive that will manifest slightly differently in different situations.
                 This is something that the intellect with its ‘either/or’ approach cannot do.

                 The insight in the formula of the Five Skandhas is the realization that no
                 part of the human mind-body is a separate ‘self’ or ‘I’. The skandhas are
                 like a river. It may have a particular name such as ‘Thames’ but it never
                 remains the same; it is in constant flux. And when awareness of this
                 flowing, changing quality of the skandhas is sufficiently cultivated, we
                 realize this from moment to moment.

                 The first skandha is Form (rupa), which takes in the physical senses and
                 their objects – shape and colour, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile objects.
                 Form stands for the body and the physical world. We need to be aware of
                 our cultural conditioning as regards both our bodies and the physical world
                 in general. Our native religion places great emphasis upon the separation
                 of the spirit from the material world and views the latter as flawed and even
                 intrinsically evil. This view is an example of the lopsidedness of ‘I’, of how
                 ‘I’ likes to split things into extremes and place them in opposition to each
                 other. Of late, this dislike and mistrust of the body has swung to the other
                 extreme. This other view sees ‘my body’ as a temple to ‘me’. It is here as a
                 centre to my life and to give me satisfaction. I like to pamper it and dress it
                 up and compare it to the bodies of others. I feel a need to constantly
                 reshape it, dye it, pierce it, tattoo it and, most important of all, protect it
                 from old age. Alas, old age cannot be kept at bay forever: the body
                 changes over time in accordance with nature, not my wishes, and my
                 attitude changes as I begin to hate and despise it because it has let me
                 down. In order to compensate for this, I may change my values and turn to
                 the spirit for comfort. Remember, in our Western view spirit and matter
                 are quite separate, and in this way I can ignore my body. But the emotional
                 highs of the spirit are not fulfilling either. I am caught between an
                 overemphasis on the body or a negation of it. I am never at ease with the
                 body.

                 Form needs to be recognized for what it is – Buddha-nature in corporeal
                 form. Buddha-nature gives rise to all forms yet it is neither a form in itself
                 nor separate from form. It manifests from one moment to the next, and to
                 try to cling to it is to try to capture the liveliness of a river in a teacup.

                 Staying with the body and the situation the body is in is an excellent way to
                 cultivate Awareness (sati). It provides an anchor and something to keep
                 giving myself to when my thoughts and underlying passions or emotions
                 (klesa) carry me away. Every few moments we can refresh our awareness
                 of the five senses. Or we can use one sense in particular just to ‘ground’
                 ourselves: when I become aware of being carried away by a daydream or
                 other ‘head noise’, I can open up instead and really listen, as if someone is
                 calling my name. Alternatively, I can become aware of my feet on the
                 ground or my behind on the chair. In this way I give myself into Form, sink
                 into Form, become absorbed into Form.

                 With the arising of sensory consciousness, Sensation (vedana), the second
                 skandha, comes to be. Sensations are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This
                 is the subjective experience of them. In terms of our behaviour it is
                 movement towards, away from or neither towards nor away from
                 something. Sensation acts as a motivating force on the instinctual level. It
                 moves us away from danger or an undesirable situation, and towards things
                 that are conducive to our well-being, rather like a cat moves from a cold
                 spot to a warmer place. But if the warm place becomes too hot, vedana will
                 arise and the cat will move to a cooler spot. Plants too move according to
                 vedana, moving their leaves and flowers towards the sun and their roots
                 towards water. Their shoots grow upward and their roots downward. We
                 humans experience vedana in the same way. I may be absorbed in reading
                 a favourite book, and suddenly a delicious smell from the kitchen wafts
                 under my nose. In a flash attention shifts from the book to the pleasant
                 smell ‘Ah, dinner!’

                 In meditation, following the breath or counting the out-breath is mundane.
                 It can be experienced as boring, as an unpleasant Sensation. Immediately
                 craving arises and as a result, there is grasping for something more
                 pleasant. Thoughts arise and are experienced as pleasant, thus I become
                 absorbed in them until some time later the awareness arises that I have
                 been daydreaming, and once again it is back to meditation. This process of
                 slipping into pleasant day dreams happens unconsciously, which is why the
                 conscious experience is of suddenly coming to oneself and realizing that
                 day dreaming has been taking place. I do not ‘choose’ to think. If, however,
                 we are fully conscious of vedana and completely given into or absorbed into
                 it, then no outflow takes place and no craving arises. Awareness of this
                 process gives rise to the insight that vedana is conditioned by the arising of
                 sensory consciousness and in turn conditions the arising of craving. In
                 other words, there is no ‘doer’ or subject to be bored by meditation, and no
                 one who decides to think about something more pleasant instead.
                 Understanding that vedana can be habituated leads us to see why
                 difficulties arise in changing old patterns of behaviour and adopting new
                 ones that are conducive to the Buddha’s Way.

                 Perception (samjña) is the third skandha and it involves identifying and
                 recognizing the data that arise from the sense gates. It brings objects into
                 consciousness and names them. Thus if I look at a crowd of people and
                 recognize the face of an old friend, that face will seem to stand out.
                 Perception recognizes by selecting two or three characteristics and
                 committing them to memory. So if, for example, my friend has a distinctive
                 hair style, that will be a primary characteristic for identification. However,
                 should my friend change his hair style, I may not recognize him for a
                 moment when next I see him. I must rely on the other, unchanged
                 characteristics. Thus we can see that the faculty of recognition relies on
                 recognizing external characteristics and matching them to memories. All
                 perceived objects are seen as collections of these characteristics. As these
                 are all subject to change, there is no essential self-hood to any perceived
                 form.

                 Volitional Mental Objects (samskara), the fourth skandha, consist of
                 thoughts, dreams, wishes, imaginings, emotions etc. It is important to
                 understand that ‘volitional’, by an act of will, refers to the passions (klesa).
                 Any volitional action, whether in thought, word or deed, is ‘I’ trying to get
                 something or to get rid of something, thus the awareness of ‘self’ is born
                 out of the energy manifesting as the passions. This means that far from
                 being separate from my thoughts and feelings, I am my thoughts and
                 feelings and will act in accordance with the nature of that particular
                 emotion. Consequently, a sense of self born from aversion just wants to get
                 rid of the undesired object, and the thoughts that arise are aversive,
                 aggressive or withdrawn. A self that is born from the emotion of desire
                 wants something. The resulting feelings of craving and grasping are only
                 concerned with the desired object and cannot rest until the desire burns
                 itself out. This shows up the futility of trying to push unwanted mental
                 states away. The pushing and the desire to push are born from the mental
                 state of aversion that I am trying to get rid of.

                 Our mistake in Buddhist training is to take these feelings and thoughts and
                 allied mental states as real. In fact, they are like a dream. The dreamer
                 does not know that he is dreaming: he is part of the dream and cannot be
                 separated from it. The dream seems quite real, just as in waking life the
                 physical world is quite real. Nor is it of use to say there is nothing real to
                 be afraid of to someone who is terrified of spiders. The fear is quite real.
                 The feeling of threat is real. Thoughts then arise that compound and
                 reinforce the feeling. Maybe this spider has escaped from a zoo and has a
                 fatal bite! We know only too well how in a crisis the mind manufactures
                 thoughts that always seek to establish the current mental state.

                 These thoughts and states do not remain the same; they constantly change.
                 Even powerful emotions do not last. If something has really upset me, and
                 we know how that goes, I go over the grievance in my mind, re-visiting it
                 again and again. But just try to maintain the level of anger. A point will
                 come when it begins to subside. At that moment try to keep up the
                 irritation. Even if I try by going over the irritating scene in my head, sooner
                 or later I shall be distracted by something else. Other mental states arise
                 and crowd the anger out. Someone talks to me and I become involved in a
                 conversation or something interesting comes on the TV. Yet when a
                 powerful emotion is in full spate, it is not possible to concentrate on
                 anything else. Even if a distraction would normally interest me, I cannot
                 give it my full attention, as the anger will not let me go. Thus we can see
                 that such a state, with its accompanying thoughts and wishes, fears and
                 hopes and imaginings, expectations and longings, is not mine. It comes and
                 goes as forces outside ‘my control’ dictate, and these forces are much
                 stronger than I. As anyone involved in a Buddhist training knows, these
                 forces are constantly creating distractions from this moment, and this ‘me’
                 is generated by those selfsame states from moment to moment.

                 Consciousness (vijñana), the fifth skandha, is the way by which the other
                 skandhas are known. Everything manifests itself through Consciousness.
                 Nothing can come into existence without it. Consciousness, on the other
                 hand, cannot arise without an object, thus there is no such thing as ‘empty-
                 of-all-objects Consciousness’. Buddhist terms such as emptiness or void
                 (sunyata) mean that Consciousness is empty of anything permanent and is
                 in a constant state of flux, that nothing exists without prior cause or
                 condition and that there is nothing separate or independent from
                 Consciousness.

                 Ajahn Chah once gave a beautiful metaphor for just this. He likened
                 meditation to a pool in a forest. Day after day animals come to drink from
                 it. Some of these animals are well known; some are strange. All of them
                 come for a long or short time but sooner or later they all disappear back
                 into the darkness of the forest.

                 Finally, we must understand that the insight within the Five Skandhas does
                 not arise by me intellectually puzzling things out. It arises, as intimated
                 above, by immersing myself in the stream of life, by being as open and
                 attentive as possible to the skandhas as they come and go. It is the
                 difference between wandering through the landscape with my head lowered,
                 wrapped in thoughts about me, my problems and what I want and don’t
                 want, and holding my head up and opening up to that landscape of which for
                 the time being I am part.
 
 



             This is the last in the series of twelve sessions that we have spent together, and in this last
             session we are going to look at the teaching of the five aggregates (Skandhas):
             1. Rupa,
             2. Vedana,
             3. Samjna,
             4. Samskara
             5. Vijnana.
             In other words, we are going to look at the Buddhist analysis of personal experience or the
             Buddhist analysis of the personality.

             Throughout the last lectures, I have had occasions a number of times to make the point that
             Buddhist teachings have been found relevant to modern life and thought in the fields of science,
             psychology and so forth. Here, in regard to the analysis of personal experience into the five
             aggregates, this is also the case. Modern psychologists and psychiatrists have been particularly
             interested in this analysis. It has even been suggested that in the Abhidharma and in the analysis
             of personal experience into the five aggregates, we have a psychological equivalent to the table of
             elements worked out in modern science. What we have in the Buddhist analysis of personal
             experience is a very careful inventory and evaluation of the elements of our experience.

             What we are going to do today is basically an extension and a refinement of what we were doing
             at the end of last week’s lecture. There, we spent some time on the teachings of impermanence,
             suffering and notself. In the course of looking at the teaching on not-self, we have explored briefly
             how the analysis of personal experience can be carried out along two lines, and that is with regard
             to the body, and with regard to the mind. You will recall that we have examined the body and mind
             to see whether in either of them we can locate the self, and we have found that the self is not to be
             found in either of them. We have concluded that the name ‘self’ is just a convenient term for a
             collection of physical and mental factors, in the same way that the name ‘forest’ is just a
             convenient term for a collection of trees. This week, we are going to take our analysis still further,
             and rather than looking at personal experience simply in terms of body and mind, we are going to
             analyze personal experience in terms of the five aggregates.

             Let us first look at the aggregate of matter or form (Rupa). The aggregate of form corresponds to
             what we would call material or physical factors. It includes not only our own bodies, but also the
             material objects that surround us - the earth, the oceans, the trees, the buildings, and so forth.
             Specifically, the aggregate of form includes the five physical sense organs and the corresponding
             physical objects of the sense organs. These are the eyes and visible objects, the ears and sound,
             the nose and smell, the tongue and taste, and the skin and tangible objects.

             But physical elements by themselves are not enough to produce experience. The simple contact
             between the eyes and visible objects, or between the ears and sound cannot result in experience
             without consciousness (Vijnana). The eyes can be in conjunction with the visible object indefinitely
             without producing experience. The ears too can be exposed to sound indefinitely without
             producing experience. Only the co-presence of consciousness together with the sense organ and
             the object of the sense organ produces experience. In other words, it is when the eyes, the visible
             object and consciousness come together that the experience of a visible object is produced.
             Consciousness is therefore an indispensable element in the production of experience.

             Before we go on to our consideration of the mental factors of personal experience, I would like to
             mention briefly the existence of one more set of an organ and its object, and here I speak of the
             sixth-sense -the mind. This is in addition to the five physical sense organs - eyes, ears, nose,
             tongue and skin. Just as the five physical sense organs have their corresponding physical objects,
             the mind has for its object ideas or properties (dharmas). And as in the case of the five physical
             sense organs, consciousness is present to unite the mind and its object so as to produce
             experience.

             Let us now look at the mental factors of experience and let us see if we can understand how
             consciousness turns the physical factors of experience into personal conscious experience. First
             of all, we must remember that consciousness is mere awareness, or mere sensitivity to an object.
             When the physical factors of experience, as for example the eyes and a visible object, come into
             contact, and when consciousness too becomes associated with the physical factors of
             experience, visual consciousness arises. This is mere awareness of a visible object, not anything
             like what we could call personal experience. The way that our personal experience is produced is
             through the functioning of the other three major mental factors of experience and they are the
             aggregate of feeling, the aggregate of perception and the aggregate of mental formation or volition.
             These three aggregates function to turn this mere awareness of the object into personal
             experience.

             The aggregate of feeling or sensation (Vedana) is of three kinds - pleasant, unpleasant and
             indifferent. When an object is experienced, that experience takes on one of these emotional
             tones, either the tone of pleasure, or the tone of displeasure, or the tone of indifference.

             Let us next look at the aggregate of perception (Samjna). This is an aggregate which many people
             find difficult to understand. When we speak of perception, we have in mind the activity of
             recognition, or identification. In a sense, we are talking about the attaching of a name to an object
             of experience. The function of perception is to turn an indefinite experience into an identified and
             recognized experience. Here, we are speaking of the formulation of a conception of an idea about
             a particular object. Just as with feeling where we have a emotional element in terms of pleasure,
             displeasure or indifference; with perception, we have a conceptual element in the sense of
             introducing a definite, determinate idea about the object of experience.

             Finally, there is the aggregate of mental formation or volition (Samskara). This aggregate may be
             described as a conditioned response to the object of experience. In this sense, it partakes of the
             meaning of habit as well. We have spent some time discussing the component of mental
             formation when we considered the twelve components of dependent origination. You will remember
             that on that occasion, we described mental formation as the impression created by previous
             actions, the habit energy stored up from countless former lives. Here, as one of the five aggregates
             also, the aggregate of mental formation plays a similar role. But it has not only a static value, it
             also has a dynamic value because just as our reactions are conditioned by former deeds, so are
             our responses here and now motivated and directed in a particular way by our mental formation or
             volition. Mental formation or volition therefore has a moral dimension just as perception has a
             conceptual dimension, and feeling has a emotional dimension. You will notice I use the terms
             mental formation and volition together. This is because each of these terms represents one half of
             the meaning of Samskara - mental formation represents the half that comes from the past, and
             volition represents the half that functions here and now. So mental formation and volition function
             to determine our responses to the objects of experience and these responses have moral
             consequences in the sense of wholesome, unwholesome or neutral.

             We can now see how the physical and mental factors of experience worked together to produce
             personal experience. To make this a little clearer, let us take the help of a couple of concrete
             examples. Let us say after today’s lecture you decide to take a walk in the garden. As you walk in
             the garden, your eyes come into contact with a visible object. As your attention focuses on that
             visible object, your consciousness becomes aware of visible object as yet indeterminate. Your
             aggregate of perception will identify that visible object as, let us say, a snake. Once that happens,
             you will respond to that visible object with the aggregate of feeling - the feeling of displeasure, or
             more specifically that of fear. Finally, you will react to that visible object with the aggregate of
             mental formation or volition, with the intentional action of perhaps running away or perhaps picking
             up a stone.

             In all our daily activities, we can see how all the five aggregates work together to produce personal
             experience. At this very moment, for instance, there is contact between two elements of the
             aggregate of form - the sound of my voice and your ears. Your consciousness becomes aware of
             the sound of my voice. Your aggregate of perception identifies the words that I am speaking. Your
             aggregate of feeling responds with an emotional response - pleasure, displeasure or indifference.
             Your aggregate of mental formation or volition responds with a conditioned reaction - sitting in
             attention, daydreaming or perhaps yawning. We can analyze all our personal experience in terms
             of the five aggregates.

             There is one point that has to be remembered regarding the nature of the five aggregates, and that
             is that each and all of them are in constant change. The elements that constitute the aggregate of
             form are impermanent and are in a state of constant change. We discussed this last week - the
             body grows old, weak, sick and so forth. The things around us are also impermanent and change
             constantly. Our feelings too are constantly changing. We may respond today to a particular
             situation with a feeling of pleasure. To-morrow, we may respond to that same situation with the
             feeling of displeasure. Today we may perceive an object in a particular way. At a later time, under
             different circumstances, our perception will change. In semi-darkness we perceive a rope to be a
             snake. The moment the light of the torch falls upon that object, we perceive it to be a rope. So our
             perceptions like our feelings and like the material objects of our experience are ever changing and
             impermanent. So too, our mental formations are impermanent and ever-changing. We alter our
             habits. We can learn to be kind and compassionate. We can acquire the attitudes of renunciation
             and equanimity and so forth. Consciousness too is impermanent and constantly changing.
             Consciousness arises dependent upon an object and a sense organ. It cannot exist
             independently. As we have seen, all the physical and mental factors of our experience like our
             bodies, the physical objects around us, our minds and our ideas are impermanent and constantly
             changing. All these aggregates are constantly changing and impermanent. They are processes,
             not things. They are dynamic, not static.

             What is the use of this analysis of personal experience in terms of the five aggregates? What is
             the use of this reduction of the apparent unity of personal experience into the various elements of
             form, feeling, perception, mental formation or volition, and consciousness? The purpose of this
             analysis is to create the wisdom of not-self. What we wish to achieve is to arrive at a way of
             experiencing the world which is not constructed upon and around the idea of a self. We want to
             see personal experience in terms of processes, in terms of impersonal functions rather than in
             terms of a self and what affects a self because this will create an attitude of equanimity, an
             attitude which will help us overcome the emotional disturbances of hope and fear. We hope for
             happiness, we fear pain. We hope for praise, we fear blame. We hope for gain, we fear loss. We
             hope for fame, we fear infamy. We live in a state of alternating between hope and fear. We
             experience these hopes and fears because we understand happiness and pain and so forth in
             terms of the self. We understand them as personal happiness and pain, as personal praise and
             blame, and so forth. But once we understand them in terms of impersonal processes, and once
             through this understanding we get rid of the idea of the self, we can overcome hope and fear. We
             can regard happiness and pain, praise and blame and all the rest with equanimity, with
             even-mindedness, and we will then no longer be subject to the imbalance of alternating between
             hope and fear.