Five skandhas

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Five skandhas (Sanskrit: pañca skandha; Pali: pañca khandha) are five psycho-physical aggregates, which according to Buddhist philosophy are the basis for self-grasping. They are:

  1. rupa-skandha - aggregate of form
  2. vedana-skandha - aggregate of sensations or feelings
  3. saṃjñā-skandha - aggregate of recognition, labels or ideas
  4. saṃskāra-skandha - aggregate of volitional formations (desires, wishes and tendencies)
  5. vijñāna-skandha - aggregate of consciousness

The five skandhas are essentially a method for understanding that every aspect of our lives is a collection of constantly changing experiences. There is no one aspect that is truly solid, permanent or unique. Everything is in flux. Everything is dependent upon multiple causes and conditions. For example, rupa-skandha (aggregate of forms) refers to everything in our material world–our body and our physical surroundings. All these things are constantly changing. Vedana-skandha (aggregate of sensations) refers to our sensations or feelings, whether positive, negative or indifferent–all our sensations are fleeting, changing from moment to moment. Samjna-skandha refers to all of our recognition or labeling of everything that we see, hear, smell, touch, or think; these labels are also constantly in flux. All of our volitional formations (samskara-skandha) are dependent on many causes and conditions and always changing. Our consciousness itself is not one single thing, but a collection of consciousness (vijnana-skandha) that are also constantly changing.

In the Buddhist view, by contemplating on the characteristics of the skandhas, and coming to understand that the skandhas, and thus all of our life experiences, are constantly changing and dependent on multiple causes and conditions, we can overcome our attachment to our concept of self. In the Buddhist view, it is this attachment to self that is the root cause of suffering. Therefore, by letting go of this attachment, we can liberate ourselves from suffering.


Translations of
English aggregate, mass, heap
Pali khandha
Sanskrit skandha (स्कन्ध)
Bengali স্কন্ধ (skandha)
Burmese ခန္ဒာ
(IPA: [kʰàɴdà])
Chinese 蘊 (T) / 蕴 (S)
Japanese 五蘊
(rōmaji: go'un)
Khmer បញ្ចក្ខន្ធ
(RR: on)
Shan ၶၼ်ႇထႃႇ
([khan2 thaa2])
Tibetan ཕུང་པོ་ལྔ་
(phung po lnga)
Thai ขันธ์
Vietnamese Ngũ uẩn

The Sanskrit word skandha (Pali: khandha) can mean mass, heap, pile, gathering, bundle or tree trunk.[1]

Thanissaro Bhikkhu states:

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.[2]


Aggregates, heaps, etc.

Each of five skandhas is a collection of things. For example, the skandha of form consists of everything in the material world. The skandha of feeling consists of feelings that are pleasant, unpleasant, and neither pleasant nor unpleasant. And so on.

...each aggregate is a collection of many components. The components of one aggregate may be different types of phenomena, such as love and anger, or they may be different possibilities of one phenomenon, such as the feeling of different levels of happiness. When part of experience, each variable component changes from moment to moment and has a different length of continuity.[3]

Constantly changing

Each of the five skandhas are impermanent; they are constantly changing, constantly in flux. They are never the same from one moment to the next. Contemporary scholars Smith and Novak write:

To underscore life’s fleetingness the Buddha called the components of the human self skandhas—skeins that hang together as loosely as yarn—and the body a “heap,” its elements no more solidly assembled than grains in a sandpile. But why did the Buddha belabor a point that may seem obvious? Because, he believed, we are freed from the pain of clutching for permanence only if the acceptance of continual change is driven into our very marrow. Followers of the Buddha know well his advice:

Regard this phantom world
As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp—a phantom and a dream.[lower-alpha 1][4]

Contemporary scholar Peter Harvey writes:

Buddhism emphasizes that change and impermanence are fundamental features of everything, bar Nirvana. Mountains wear down, material goods wear out or are lost or stolen, and all beings, even gods, age and die (M.II. 65– 82 (BW. 207– 13); EB. 3.2.1). The gross form of the body changes relatively slowly, but the matter which composes it is replaced as one eats, excretes and sheds skin cells. As regards the mind, character patterns may be relatively persistent, but feelings, moods, ideas, etc. can be observed to constantly change. The ephemeral and deceptive nature of the khandhas is expressed in a passage which says that they are ‘devoid, hollow’ as: ‘Material form is like a lump of foam, and feeling is like a bubble; perception is like a mirage, and the constructing activities are like a banana tree [lacking a core, like an onion]; consciousness is like a [magician’s] illusion. (S.III. 142 (BW. 343– 5); SB. 220– 2).[5]

No essence

The skandhas or aggregates don't constitute any 'essence'. In the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha explains this by using the simile of a chariot:

A 'chariot' exists on the basis of the aggregation of parts, even so the concept of 'being' exists when the five aggregates are available.[6][lower-alpha 2]

Just as the concept of "chariot" is a reification, so too is the concept of "being". The constituents of being too are unsubstantial in that they are causally produced, just like the chariot as a whole.[7]

The chariot metaphor is not an exercise in ontology, but rather a caution against ontological theorizing and conceptual realism.[8] 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.[9]

Clinging to the skandhas leads suffering

Clinging to the skandhas leads to suffering.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2002) explains:

The [discourses] depict the Buddha as saying that he taught only two topics: suffering and the end of suffering.[10] 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?

Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000b, p. 840) states:

The 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....

Thus, Buddhist 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.

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

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

In the first discourse of the Buddha (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), the Buddha provides the classic elaboration on the first of his Four Noble Truths, "The Truth of Suffering" (dukkhasacca):

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.[11]

Understanding leads to liberation

In the Pāli Canon and the Āgamas, the majority of discourses focusing on the five aggregates discusses them as a basis for understanding and achieving liberation from suffering.[12]

Liberation is possible by insight into the workings of the mind. Traditional mindfulness practices can awaken this by understanding, release and wisdom.

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).[lower-alpha 3] When discussing mental objects as a basis for meditation, the Buddha identifies five objects, including the aggregates.

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.[lower-alpha 4] As clinging disappears, so too notions of a separate "self."


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".[13]

The skandhas individually

Editor's note: this section needs attention. Review-icon.png

In the early texts, the scheme of the five aggregates is not meant to be an exhaustive classification of the sentient being. Rather it describes various aspects of the way an individual manifests.[14]


Rupa is typically translated as "form", and it refers to external and internal matter. Externally, rupa is the physical world. Internally, rupa includes the material body and the physical sense organs.[lower-alpha 5]

Alexander Berzin describes rupa-skandha as follows:

The network of all instances of all types of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, physical sensors, and forms of physical phenomena included only among the cognitive stimulators that are all phenomena. Any of these can be part of any moment of experience on someone's mental continuum.[15]


Vedana (Pāli; Sanskrit) is typically translated as either "feeling" or "sensation." In general, vedanā refers to the pleasant, unpleasant and indifferent sensations that occur when our internal sense organs come into contact with external sense objects and the associated consciousness.

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.


Saṃjñā (Sanskrit; Pali: sañña) is typically translated as "perception" or "cognition." It can be defined as grasping at the distinguishing features or characteristics.[16][17]

It is also said that samjna registers whether an object is recognized or not (for instance, the sound of a bell or the shape of a tree).

Alternate translations include: "conception", "apperception" and "discrimination".


Samskara (Sanskrit: saṃskāra; Pali: saṅkhāra) means 'that which has been put together' and 'that which puts together'.

This term has been translated as "mental formations", "impulses", "volition", or "compositional factors".

It has been described as all types of mental habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions, prejudices, compulsions, and decisions triggered by an object.[lower-alpha 6]


Vijnana (Sanskrit: vijñāna; Pali: viññāṇa) has been translated as "consciousness," "life force," "mind,"[18] or "discernment."[19]

This term has been defined variously as:

  1. In the Nikayas/Āgamas: cognizance,[20][lower-alpha 7] that which discerns[21][lower-alpha 8]
  2. In the Abhidhamma: a series of rapidly changing interconnected discrete acts of cognizance.[lower-alpha 9]
  3. In some Mahayana sources: the base that supports all experience.[lower-alpha 10]

According to the Visuddhimagga XIV.82, the Pali terms viññāṇa, citta and mano are synonymous (Buddhaghosa, 1999, p. 453).

Relation to other modes of analysis

The abhidharma tradition presents multiple modes with which to analyze the components of an individual and their relationship to the world. Such as:

  • five skandhas (aggregates, heaps, etc.)
  • twelve ayatanas (sense bases, cognitive stimulators, etc.)
  • eighteen dhatus (sources, etc)
  • six sense bases [Clarify]

This section describes how the five skandhas relate to other modes of analysis.

Six consciousnesses

According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, the teaching of the six sense bases provides an alternative to the five aggregates as a description of the workings of the mind.[22] In this teaching, the coming together of an object and a sense-organ results in the arising of the corresponding consciousness. Bhikkhu Bodhi emphasizes that the suttas themselves don't describe this alternative. It is in the Abhidhamma, striving to "a single all-inclusive system"[23] that the five aggregates and the six sense bases are explicitly connected.[23]

This might be described as follows (illustrated in the figure to the right):[24]

  • Form (rūpa) arises from experientially irreducible physical/physiological phenomena.[lower-alpha 11]
  • The coming together of an external object (such as a sound) and its associated internal sense organ (such as the ear) — gives rise to consciousness (viññāṇavijñāṇa).[lower-alpha 12]
  • The concurrence of an object, its sense organ and the related consciousness (viññāṇa • vijñāṇa) is called "contact" (phassasparśa).[lower-alpha 13][lower-alpha 14][lower-alpha 15]
  • From the contact of form and consciousness arise the three mental (nāma) aggregates of feeling (vedanā), perception (saññāsaṃjñā) and mental formation (saṅkhāra • saṃskāra).[lower-alpha 16][lower-alpha 17]
  • The mental aggregates can then in turn give rise to additional consciousness that leads to the arising of additional mental aggregates.[lower-alpha 18]

In this scheme, form, the mental aggregates,[lower-alpha 19] and consciousness are mutually dependent.[lower-alpha 20]

Twelve Sense Bases

There are Twelve Sense Bases:

  • The first five external sense bases (visible form, sound, smell, taste and touch) are part of the form aggregate.
  • The mental sense object (that is, mental objects) overlap the first four aggregates (form, feeling, perception and formation).
  • The first five internal sense bases (eye, ear, nose, tongue and body) are also part of the form aggregate.
  • 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).[25][26][27][lower-alpha 21]

Eighteen Dhātus

The eighteen dhātus[lower-alpha 22] – the Six External Bases, the Six Internal Bases, and the Six Consciousnesses – function through the five aggregates. The eighteen dhātus can be arranged into six triads, where each triad is composed of a sense object, a sense organ, and sense consciousness. In regards to the aggregates:[28]

  • 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, feeling, perception and mental formations.
  • The six sense consciousness are the basis for consciousness.
The Eighteen Dhātus
Six External Bases (bāhya-āyatana) Six Internal Bases (adhyātma-āyatana) Six Consciousnesses (vijñāna)
(1) Visual Objects (rūpa-āyatana) (2) Eye Faculty (cakṣur-indriya-āyatana) (3) Visual Consciousness (cakṣur-vijñāna
(4) Auditory Objects (śabda-āyatana) (5) Ear Faculty (śrota-indriya-āyatana) (6) Aural Consciousness (śrota-vijñāna)
(7) Olfactory Objects (gandha-āyatana) (8) Nose Faculty (ghrāṇa-indriya-āyatana) (9) Olfactory Consciousness (ghrāṇa-vijñāna)
(10) Gustatory Objects (rasa-āyatana) (11) Tongue Faculty (jihvā-indriya-āyatana) (12) Gustatory Consciousness (jihvā-vijñāna)
(13) Tactile Objects (spraṣṭavya-āyatana) (14) Body Faculty (kaya-indriya-āyatana) (15) Touch Consciousness (kaya-vijñāna)
(16) Mental Objects (dharma-āyatana) (17) Mental Faculty (mano-indriya-āyatana) (18) Mental Consciousness (mano-vijñāna)

Four Paramatthas

The Abhidhamma and post-canonical Pali texts create a meta-scheme for the Sutta Pitaka's conceptions of aggregates, sense bases and dhattus (elements).[29] This meta-scheme is known as the four paramatthas or four ultimate realities.

Ultimate realities

There are four paramatthas; three conditioned, one unconditioned:

  • Material phenomena (rūpa, form)
  • Mental factors (the nama-factors sensation, perception and formation)
  • Consciousness
  • Nibbāna

Mapping of the paramatthas

The mapping between the aggregates, the twelve sense bases, and the ultimate realities is represented in this chart:[lower-alpha 23]

aggregate external
sense base
sense base
form visible form,
sound, smell,
taste, touch
ear, nose,
tongue, body
sensation   52

Twelve links of dependent origination

The Twelve Nidanas describe twelve phenomenal links by which suffering is perpetuated between and within lives.

Inclusion of the five aggregates

Embedded within this model, four of the five aggregates are explicitly mentioned in the following sequence:

  • mental formations (saṅkhāra • saṃskāra) condition consciousness (viññāṇa • vijñāna)
  • which conditions name-and-form (nāma-rūpa)
  • which conditions the precursors (saḷāyatana, phassa • sparśa) to sensations (vedanā)
  • which in turn condition craving (taṇhā • tṛṣṇā) and clinging (upādāna)
  • which ultimately lead to the "entire mass of suffering" (kevalassa dukkhakkhandha).[lower-alpha 24]

The interplay between the five-aggregates model of immediate causation and the twelve-nidana model of requisite conditioning is evident, for instance underlining the seminal role that mental formations have in both the origination and cessation of suffering.[lower-alpha 25][lower-alpha 26]

Three lives

According to Schumann, the nidānas are a later synthesis of Buddhist teachings meant to make them more comprehensible. Comparison with the five skandhas shows that the chain contains logical inconsistencies, which can be explained when the chain is considered to be a later elaboration.[30] This way it is explainable that nāma-rūpa in consciousness in the nine-fold are the beginning or start, while in the twelve-fold chain they are preceded by ignorance and formations. Those can only exist when nāma-rūpa in consciousness are present. Schumann also proposes that the twelve-fold is extended over three existences, and illustrates the succession of rebirths. While Buddhaghosa in Vasubandhu maintains a 2-8-2 schema, Schumann maintains a 3-6-3 scheme, putting the five skandhas alongside the twelve nidānas.[30]

The 12-fold chain the 5 skandhas
First existence
1. Body
2. Sensation
3. Perception
1. Ignorance
2. Formations 4. Formations
3. Consciousness 5. Consciousness
Second existence
4. Nāma-rūpa 1. Body
5. The six senses
6. Touch
7. Sensation 2. Sensation
3. Perception
4. Formations
5. Consciousness
8. Craving
9. Clinging
Third existence
10. Becoming
1. Body
11. Birth
2. Sensation
3. Perception
4. Formations
5. Consciousness
12. Old age and death

Understanding in the Mahayana-tradition

The Mahayana developed out of the traditional schools, introducing new texts and putting other emphasises in the teachings, especially sunyata and the Bodhisattva-ideal.



The Prajnaparamita-teachings developed from the first century BCE onward. It emphasises the "emptiness" of everything that exists. This means that there are no eternally existing "essences", since everything is dependently originated. The skandhas too are dependently originated, and lack any substantial existence .[lower-alpha 27]

This is famously stated in the Heart Sutra. The Sanskrit version[lower-alpha 28] of the classic "Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra" ("Heart Sutra") states:

The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,

while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita
looked upon the Five Skandhas,
seeing they were empty of self-existence,[31][lower-alpha 29][lower-alpha 30][lower-alpha 31][lower-alpha 32][lower-alpha 33]

said, "Here Shariputra,

form is emptiness, emptiness is form,
emptiness is not separate from form,
form is not separate from emptiness;
whatever is form is emptiness,
whatever is emptiness is form."[31]

The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness.[32]


The Madhyaka-school elaborates on the notion of the middle way. Its basic text is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, written by Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna refuted the Sarvastivada conception of reality, which reifies dhammas.[7] The simultaneous non-reification of the self and reification of the skandhas has been viewed by some Buddhist thinkers as highly problematic.[33]


The Yogacara-school further analysed the workings of the mind, and developed the notion of the Eight Consciousnesses. These are an elaboration of the concept of nama-rupa and the five skandhas, adding detailed analyses of the workings of the mind.


When Buddhism was introduced in China it was understood in terms of its own culture. Various sects struggled to attain an understanding of the Indian texts. The Tathāgatagarbha Sutras and the idea of the Buddha-nature were endorsed, because of the perceived similarities with the Tao, which was understood as a transcendental reality underlying the world of appearances. Sunyata at first was understood as pointing to the Taoist "wu", nothingness.[34][35]

Absolute and relative

In China, the relation between absolute and relative was a central topic in understanding the Buddhist teachings. The aggregates convey the relative (or conventional) experience of the world by an individual, although Absolute truth is realized through them.

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

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.[36]


The Tathāgatagarbha Sutras, which developed in India, played a prominent role in China. The tathagatagarbha-sutras, on occasion, speak of the ineffable skandhas of the Buddha (beyond the nature of worldly skandhas and beyond worldly understanding). 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.


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


Referring to mahamudra teachings, Chogyam Trungpa [37] 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."[lower-alpha 34]

According to Trungpa Rinpoche,[38] 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." [39]

Deity yoga

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.

Bardo deity manifestations

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]

Contemporary interpretation

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche has described the aggregates as arising in a linear or progressive fashion, from form to feeling to perception to mental formations to consciousness.[lower-alpha 35]

Relavent sutras



See also


  1. The verse is from Vajracchedika (Diamond Sutra), 32.
  2. The passage is found at S 1.135, and also in the agamas.
  3. 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. 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 meditative instruction. 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"). 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.
  4. 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."
  5. External and internal manifestations of rupa are described, for instance, in Bodhi (2000b), p. 48.
  6. The Theravada Abhidhamma divides saṅkhāra into fifty mental factors (Bodhi, 2000a, p. 26). The Sarvastivada Abhidharma studied in Mahayana Buddhism states that there are fifty-one "general types" of samskara.
  7. 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."
  8. Harvey writes, "This is in contrast to saññā, which knows by grouping things together, labeling them. This contrast can be seen in terms of the typical objects of these states: colours for saññā (S.III.87), but tastes (S.III.87) or feelings (M.I.292) for viññāṇa. While colours usually be immediately identified, tastes and feelings often need careful consideration to properly identify them: discernment and analysis are needed."
  9. This conception of consciousness is found in the Theravada Abhidhamma (Bodhi, 2000a, p. 29).
  10. 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."
  11. 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".
  12. 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).
  13. 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).
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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).
  17. A mental aggregate arises either from conscious contact with form or from another mental aggregate (Bodhi, 2000a, pp. 78ff).
  18. 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).
  19. 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)."
  20. 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."
  21. 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).
  22. 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).
  23. Chart is based on Bodhi (2000a), p. 288.
  24. >Put another way, it is through the five skandhas that clinging occurs. See, for instance, the Samadhi Sutta (SN 22:5) (Thanissaro, 2006b).
  25. 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.
  26. 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."
  27. 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."
  28. 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.
  29. 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.
  30. In the Theravada canon, the English word "self-existence" is a translation of the Sanskrit word svabhava. 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 Paṭisambhidāmagga 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 suññaṃ (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.
  31. 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,
  32. Note that Chinese versions of the Heart Sutra do not contain the notion of svabhava.
  33. "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).
  34. This type of analysis of the aggregates (where ignorance conditions the five aggregates) might be akin to that described by the Twelve Nidanas.
  35. 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."


  1. Thanissaro (2002)
  2. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Five Piles of Bricks: The Khandas as Burden and Path. Access to Insight. 2002.
  3. StudyBuddhism icon 35px.png Basic scheme of the five aggregates
  4. Smith, Huston; Novak, Philip (2009-03-17). Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (p. 57). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
  5. Harvey, Peter (2012-11-30). An Introduction to Buddhism (Introduction to Religion) (pp. 57-58). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  6. Kalupahana (1975), page 78
  7. 7.0 7.1 Kalupahana (1975), page 78.
  8. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, [2].
  9. Noa Ronkin, Early Buddhist Metaphysics. Routledge 2005, page 245.
  10. SN 22.86
  11. Piyadassi Thera, trans. Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ("The Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth Discourse", Samyutta Nikaya 56:11). Access to Insight. 1999.
  12. See, for instance, in the Samyutta Nikaya's Khandha-saṃyutta's discourses SN 22.1 through 22.55 (Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 853-94).
  13. Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press 1995, page 229.
  14. Damein Keown quoting Sue Hamilton: [3].
  15. StudyBuddhism icon 35px.png Rupa-skanda
  16. Kunsang 2004, p. 22.
  17. Guenther 1975, Kindle Locations 364-365.
  18. See, for instance, Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 618, entry for "Viññāa," retrieved on 2007-06-17 from the University of Chicago's "Digital Dictionaries of South Asia". University of Chicago
  19. Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press 1995, page 143-146.
  20. See, for instance, SN 22.79, "Being Devoured" (Bodhi, 2000b, p. 915).
  21. Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press 1995, page 143-146
  22. Bodhi 2000b, p. 1122.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Bodhi 2000b, p. 1123.
  24. 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).
  25. Trungpa Rinpoche 1976
  26. Bodhi (2000b), pp. 1125-26
  27. Bodhi (2005b)
  28. Bodhi (2000a), pp. 287-8.
  29. Bodhi (2000a), p. 6.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Schumann 1974.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Red Pine (2004), p.2.
  32. Nhat Hanh (1988), p.1. Again, also see Red Pine (2004), p. 2, and Suzuki (1960), p. 26.
  33. Jinpa 2002 , page 112.
  34. Lai 2003.
  35. Swanson 1993, p. 373.
  36. Suzuki (1960), p. 29, n. 4.
  37. Trungpa, 2001, pp. 10–12; and, Trungpa, 2002, pp. 124, 133-4
  38. Trungpa Rinpoche 1976, pp. 20–22
  39. Trungpa Rinpoche 1976, p. 23



  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000b), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, Boston: Wisdom Publications, ISBN 0-86171-331-1 
  • Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu (trans.) & Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2001). The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-072-X.

Anthologies of suttas

  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2005a). In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon. Boston: Wisdom Pubs. ISBN 0-86171-491-1.

Abhidhamma, Pali commentaries, modern Theravada

  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2000a). A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Ācariya Anuruddha. Seattle, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1-928706-02-9.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (18 Jan 2005b). MN 10: Satipatthana Sutta (continued) Ninth dharma talk on the Satipatthana Sutta (MP3 audio file).
  • Buddhaghosa, Bhadantācariya (trans. from Pāli by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli) (1999). The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. Seattle, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1-928706-00-2.
  • Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu (trans.) (1998). Mindfulness of Breathing (Ānāpānasati): Buddhist texts from the Pāli Canon and Extracts from the Pāli Commentaries. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. ISBN 955-24-0167-4.
  • Soma Thera (trans.) (2003). The Way of Mindfulness. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. ISBN 955-24-0256-5.
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2002). Five Piles of Bricks: The Khandhas as Burden & Path.


  • Fremantle, Francesca & Trungpa, Chõgyam (2003). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo. Boston: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1-59030-059-9.
  • Nhât Hanh, Thich (1988). The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press. ISBN 0-938077-11-2.
  • Nhât Hanh, Thich (1999). The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching. NY: Broadway Books. ISBN 0-7679-0369-2.
  • Red Pine (2004). The Heart Sutra. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard. ISBN 1-59376-009-4.
  • Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro (1960). Manual of Zen Buddhism. NY: Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3065-8.
  • Trungpa, Chögyam (1976). The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation. Boulder: Shambhala. ISBN 0-87773-084-9.
  • Trungpa, Chögyam (1999). The Essential Chögyam Trungpa. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 1-57062-466-6.
  • Trungpa, Chögyam (2001). Glimpses of Abhidharma. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 1-57062-764-9.
  • Trungpa, Chögyam (2002). Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 1-57062-957-9.

Secondary literature

  • Gal, Noa (July 2003). The Rise of the Concept of ‘Own-Nature’: (Sabhāva) in the Paṭisambhidāmagga [excerpt from Ph.D. thesis]. Oxford: Wolfson College. Retrieved 2008-01-22 from "Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies" at Internet Archive.
  • Sue Hamilton. "From the Buddha to Buddhaghosa: Changing Attitudes Toward the Human Body in Theravāda Buddhism." In Religious Reflections on the Human Body, edited by Jane Marie Law. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995, pp. 46–63.
  • Sue Hamilton. Identity and Experience: the Constitution of the Human Being According to Early Buddhism. London: Luzac Oriental, 1996.
  • Jinpa, Thupten (2002). Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa's Quest for the Middle Way. Routledge.
  • Kalupahana, David (1975). Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii.
  • Lai, Whalen (2003), Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. In Antonio S. Cua (ed.): Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy (PDF), New York: Routledge 
  • Nattier, Jan (1992). "The Heart Sutra: A Chinese Apocryphal Text?" Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 153–223.
  • Rawson, Philip (1991). Sacred Tibet. NY: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-81032-X.
  • Schumann, Hans Wolfgang (1974), Buddhism: an outline of its teachings and schools, Theosophical Pub. House 
  • Swanson, Paul L. (1993), The Spirituality of Emptiness in Early chinese Buddhism. In: Buddhist Spirituality. Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese; edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori, New York: Crossroad 

External links



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


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