Five Aggregates

The Five Constituents of Life


From the perspective of Buddha-Dhamma, all things exist according to their own nature. They do not exist as separate fixed entities, and in the case of living creatures, they are not distinct and immutable ’beings’ or ’persons’, which one could validly take to be a legitimate owner of things or which are able to govern things according to their wishes.1

Everything that exists in the world exists as a collection of convergent parts. There exists no inherent self or substantial essence within things. When one separates the constituent parts from each other, no self or core remains. A frequent scriptural analogy for this is of a vehicle.2 When one assembles the various parts according to one’s chosen design, one assigns the conventional term ’wagon’ to the end product. Yet if one disassembles the parts, no essence of a wagon can be found. All that remains are the various parts, each of which is given its own specific name.

This fact implies that the ’self’ or ’entity’ of a vehicle does not exist separate from its constituent parts. The term ’car’, for instance, is simply a conventional designation. Moreover, all of those constituent parts may also be separated into further parts, none of which possesses a stable, fixed essence. So when one states that something ’exists’, one needs to understand it in this context: that it exists as a collection of inconstant constituent elements.

Having made this claim, the Buddhist teachings go on to describe the primary elements or constituents that make up the world. And because the Buddhist teachings pertain directly to human life, and in particular to the mind, this elucidation of the constituent parts encompasses both mind and matter, both mentality (nāma-dhamma) and corporeality (rūpa-dhamma). Here, special emphasis is given to the analysis of the mind.

There are many ways to present this division into separate constituents of life, depending on the objective of the specific analysis.3 This chapter presents the division into the ’five aggregates’ (pañca-khandha), which is the preferred analysis in the suttas.

In Buddha-Dhamma, the human living entity – what is referred to as a ’person’ or ’living being’ – is divided into five groups or categories:4 {14}5

  1. Rūpa (corporeality; body; material form): all material constituents; the body and all physical behaviour; matter and physical energy, along with the properties and course of such energy.

  2. Vedanā (feeling; sensation): the feelings of pleasure, pain, and neutral feelings, arising from contact by way of the five senses and by way of the mind.

  3. Saññā (perception): the ability to recognize and to designate; the perception and discernment of various signs, characteristics, and distinguishing features, enabling one to remember a specific object of attention (ārammaṇa).6

  4. Saṅkhāra (mental formations; volitional activities): those mental constituents or properties, with intention as leader, which shape the mind as wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral, and which shape a person’s thoughts and reflections, as well as verbal and physical behaviour. They are the source of kamma (’karma’; intentional action). Examples of such mental formations include: faith (saddhā), mindfulness (sati), moral shame (hiri), fear of wrongdoing (ottappa), lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), appreciative joy (muditā), equanimity (upekkhā),7 wisdom (paññā), delusion (moha), greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), conceit (māna), views (diṭṭhi), jealousy (issā), and stinginess (macchariya). They are the agents or fashioners of the mind, of thought, and of intentional action.

  5. Viññāṇa (consciousness): conscious awareness of objects by way of the five senses – i.e. seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling tangible objects – and awareness of mind objects.

There are several points to bear in mind in reference to the final four aggregates, comprising the mental aggregates (nāma-khandhā):8

Perception (saññā) is a form of knowledge.9 It refers to the perception or discernment of an object’s attributes and properties, including its shape, appearance, colour, etc., as well as its name and conventional designations. For example, one knows that an object is ’green’, ’white’, ’black’, ’red’, ’loud’, ’faint’, ’bass’, ’high-pitched’, ’fat’, ’thin’, ’a table’, ’a pen’, ’a pig’, ’a dog’, ’a fish’, ’a cat’, ’a person’, ’him’, ’her’, ’me’, ’you’, etc.

Perception relies on the encounter or comparison between previous experience or knowledge and new experience or knowledge. If one’s current experience corresponds with previous experience – say one meets someone familiar or one hears a familiar sound – one has ’recognition’ (note that this is not the same as ’memory’). For example, Mr. Jones knows Mr. Smith. A month later, they meet and Mr. Jones recognizes Mr. Smith. {15}

If a new experience does not correspond with previous experiences, people tend to compare it to previous experience or knowledge, looking at those aspects that are either similar or different. They then identify the object according to their labels or designations, determined by the similarities and differences. This is the process of perception – of designation and identification.

There are many layers to perception, including: perception in accord with common agreement and understanding, e.g.: ’green’, ’white’, ’yellow’, and ’red’; perception in accord with social conventions and traditions, e.g.: ’this is polite’, ’this is beautiful’, ’this is normal’, and ’this is abnormal’; perception according to personal preferences and conceptions, e.g.: ’this is attractive’, ’this is admirable’, and ’this is irritating’; perception based on multiple factors (perception of symbolism), e.g.: ’green and red represents this university’, and ’two rings of the bell designate mealtime’; and perception according to spiritual learning, e.g.: ’perception of impermanence’ and ’perception of insubstantiality’.

There is both common, everyday perception and subtle, refined perception (i.e. perception that is intricately connected to the other aggregates). There is perception of matter and perception of the mind. The various terms used for saññā, such as ’recognition’, ’remembering’, ’designation’, ’assignation’, ’attribution’, and ’ideation’ all describe aspects of this aggregate of perception.

Simply speaking, perception is the process of collecting, compiling, and storing data and information, which is the raw material for thought.

Perception is very helpful to people, but at the same time it can be detrimental. This is because people tend to attach to their perceptions, which end up acting as an obstruction, obscuring and eclipsing reality, and preventing one from penetrating a deeper, underlying truth.

A useful and practical division of perception (saññā) is into two kinds: ordinary perceptions, which discern the attributes of sense objects as they naturally arise; and secondary or overlapping perceptions. The latter are sometimes referred to by specific terms, in particular as ’proliferative perception’ (papañca-saññā): perception resulting from intricate and fanciful mental proliferation driven by the force of craving (taṇhā), conceit (māna), and views (diṭṭhi), which are at the vanguard of negative mental formations (negative saṅkhāra). This division highlights the active role of perception and shows the relationship between perception and other aggregates within mental processes.

Consciousness (viññāṇa) is traditionally defined as ’awareness of sense objects’. It refers to a prevailing or constant form of knowing. It is both the basis and the channel for the other mental aggregates, and it functions in association with them. It is both a primary and an accompanying form of knowledge.

It is primary in the sense that it is an initial form of knowledge. When one sees something (i.e. visual consciousness arises), one may feel pleasure or distress (= feeling – vedanā). One then identifies the object (perception – saññā), followed by various intentions and thoughts (volitional formations – saṅkhāra). For example, one sees the sky (= viññāṇa) and feels delighted (= vedanā). One knows the sky to be bright, beautiful, the colour of indigo, an afternoon sky (= saññā). One is delighted by the sky and wishes to admire it for a long, uninterrupted period of time. One resents the fact that one’s view is obstructed, and one wonders how one can find a place to watch the sky at one’s leisure (= saṅkhāra).

Consciousness is an accompanying form of knowledge in that one knows in conjunction with the other aggregates. When one feels happy (= vedanā), one knows that one is happy (= viññāṇa). (Note that the feeling of happiness is not the same as knowing that one is happy.) When one suffers (= vedanā), one knows that one is suffering (= viññāṇa). Perceiving something as pleasurable or painful (= saññā), one knows accordingly.10 And when one engages in various thoughts and intentions (= saṅkhāra), there is a continual concomitant awareness of this activity. {16} This prevailing stream of awareness, which is in a continual process of arising and ceasing, and which accompanies the other mental aggregates, or is part of every aspect of mental activity, is called ’consciousness’ (viññāṇa).

Another special characteristic of consciousness is that it is an awareness of particulars, a knowledge of specific aspects, or a form of discriminative knowledge. This may be understood by way of examples. When one sees say a striped piece of cloth, although one may not initially identify it as such, one discerns specific attributes, for example its colours, which are distinct from one another. Once consciousness discerns these distinctions, perception (saññā) identifies them, say as ’green’, ’white’, or ’red’. When one eats a particular kind of fruit, although one may not yet have identified the flavour as ’sweet’ or ’sour’, one already has an awareness of such distinctions. Similarly, although one may have not yet distinguished between the specific kinds of sourness, of say pineapples, lemons, tamarind, or plums, or between the specific kinds of sweetness, say of mangos, bananas, or apples, by tasting the flavour one is aware of its distinctive nature. This basic form of knowing is consciousness (viññāṇa). Once this awareness arises, the other mental aggregates begin to operate, for example one experiences the flavour as delicious or unsavoury (= vedanā), or one identifies the flavour as one particular kind of sweetness or sourness (= saññā).

The knowledge of specific aspects referred to above may be explained thus: when consciousness arises, for example when one sees a visual object, in fact, one is seeing only specific attributes or facets of that object in question. In other words, one sees only those aspects or angles that one gives importance to, depending on the mental formations (saṅkhāra) which condition the arising of consciousness (viññāṇa).11

For example, in a wide expanse of countryside grows one sole mango tree. It is a large tree, yet it bears only a few pieces of fruit and in this season is almost barren of leaves, providing very little shade. On different occasions, five separate people visit this tree. One man is fleeing from a dangerous animal, one man is starving, one man is hot and looking for shade, one man is searching for fruit to sell at the market, and the last man is looking for a spot to tie up his cattle so that he may visit a nearby village.

All five men see the same tree, but each one sees it in different ways. For each one eye-consciousness arises, but this consciousness varies, depending on their aims and intentions in regard to this tree. Similarly, their perceptions of the tree will also differ, according to the aspects of the tree that they look at. Even their feelings (vedanā) will differ: the man fleeing from danger will rejoice because he sees a means to escape; the starving man will be delighted because the 3-4 mangos will save him from starvation; the man suffering from heat may be disappointed, because the tree does not provide as much shade as it normally would; the man looking for fruit may be upset because of the paucity of fruit; and the man driving his cattle may be relieved to find a temporary shelter for them.

Feeling (vedanā) refers to the ’sensing’ of sense impressions, or of experiencing their ’flavour’. It refers to the feeling or sensation arising every time there is contact and cognition of sense objects. These feelings may be pleasurable and agreeable, painful and oppressive, or neutral. {17}

To avoid confusion with the aggregate of mental formations (saṅkhāra), it is important to note that feeling (vedanā) is an activity at the level of reception – it pertains exclusively to the immediate effect an object has on the mind.12 It does not pertain to the stage of intention or of acting in response to sense impressions, which is the function of mental formations (saṅkhāra). For this reason, such terms as ’like’, ’dislike’, ’delight’, and ’aversion’ usually refer to the activity of mental formations, which involves a subsequent level of activity. These terms normally refer to volitional activities or to reactions to sense impressions, as illustrated on Figure Feeling (Vedanā) and Mental Formations (Saṅkhāra) about mental processes.

Feeling (Vedanā) and Mental Formations (Saṅkhāra) image

Feeling (vedanā) plays a pivotal role in the lives of sentient creatures, because it is both desired and sought after (in the case of pleasure), and feared and avoided (in the case of pain). Each time there is contact and cognition of a sense object, feeling acts as the juncture, directing or motivating the other mental factors. For example, if one contacts a pleasurable sense object, one pays special attention to it and perceives it in ways that reciprocate or make the most out of that sensation. One then thinks up strategies for repeating or extending one’s experience of this object.

Mental formations (saṅkhāra) refer to both the factors determining the quality of the mind (the ’fashioners’ of the mind), with intention (cetanā) as chief, and the actual volitional process in which these factors are selected and combined in order to shape and mould one’s thoughts, words, and deeds, resulting in physical, verbal, and mental kamma.

In any case, the traditional analysis of the five aggregates focuses on the components of reality, rather than focusing on the various dynamics in nature that affect human life. For this reason, the description of mental formations (saṅkhāra) in this context normally only mentions a list of these determining factors (the ’fashioners’ of the mind), along with their attributes. As for an explanation of conditioned processes, at which stage these factors reveal themselves and are set in motion, this is reserved for the analysis of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda), which demonstrates precisely how these factors affect people’s lives.

In the teaching of Dependent Origination, mental formations (saṅkhāra) are defined in the context of practical application or operative function; they are divided into: kāya-saṅkhāra (physical intentional activity; bodily volition); vacī-saṅkhāra (verbal intentional activity; verbal volition); and citta-saṅkhāra (mental intentional activity; mental volition). This differs from the analysis of mental formations in the exposition of the five aggregates, in which various determining factors are simply presented as a list, e.g.: faith (saddhā), mindfulness (sati), lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), wisdom (paññā), greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), intention (cetanā), and concentration (samādhi). If one compares these analyses to a motor show, the analysis of the five aggregates is similar to laying out all of a car’s parts for people to see, while the analysis of Dependent Origination is like demonstrating the car as it is being driven on the road. {18}

Of all the determining factors of the mind, intention (cetanā) is leader or chief. No matter how many mental formations are operative at any one time, intention always participates as the key factor in the process. For this reason, the term cetanā is sometimes used alone to represent all of the mental formations (saṅkhāra). Saṅkhāra in this context can thus be defined as: ’intention (cetanā), along with associated factors (sampayutta-dhamma; ’connected factors’), which shapes the mind as good, bad, or neutral, and which determines thoughts, speech, and physical actions, giving rise to mental, verbal, and physical kamma.’

Besides occasionally representing or defining all mental formations (saṅkhāra), the term cetanā is also used to define or represent the term ’kamma’. In this sense, these three terms – saṅkhāra, cetanā, and kamma – all have roughly the same meaning. To offer an analogy, Venerable Mani, the abbot of Majjhima Monastery, goes to receive an offering of Tipiṭaka books. At the formal gathering, the announcement of the honoured guest may state Venerable Mani, or the abbot of Majjhima Monastery, or simply Majjhima Monastery – all three terms express the desired meaning.

Besides its central role, intention (cetanā) also reveals the special and distinctive properties of mental formations (saṅkhāra), which set this aggregate apart from the others. Cetanā may be translated as ’intention’, ’volition’, ’purpose’, or ’deliberation’. The special attribute differentiating mental formations (saṅkhāra) from the other mental aggregates is that they can originate spontaneously. The other mental aggregates – of feeling, perception, and consciousness – on the other hand operate or function with sense impressions that are immediately manifesting in the mind. They are associated with and attend to these sense impressions, and they rely on the reception of them in order to function. Mental formations, however, both deliberate over sense impressions and act in response to them.13

These explanations may clarify the following questions: Why are feelings of ease and dis-ease classified as sensations (vedanā), while the subsequent factors of liking and disliking are classified as mental formations (saṅkhāra)? Why are perception (saññā; recollection) and mindfulness (sati; memory) classified into separate aggregates (sati is included among the mental formations – saṅkhāra)? Why is wisdom (paññā), which, similar to perception (saññā) and consciousness (viññāṇa), is a form of knowledge, classified as a mental formation (saṅkhāra)?

Saññā and Sati: Memory, Recollection, and Mindfulness

There tends to be confusion among Buddhist scholars as to which mental factor in the Pali vocabulary corresponds to ’memory’. Saññā is often translated as ’recollection’, whereas sati may be translated as ’mindfulness’, ’recollection’, ’recall’, or ’memory’.14 In regard to the latter term, there are some prominent sutta examples, for example the passage praising Ven. Ānanda as foremost among the bhikkhu disciples in ’remembering the Buddha’s words’. In this context the Buddha uses the term sati: ’Of all my disciples, Ānanda is supreme in memory (sati).’15

In the formal teachings, there is no confusion about this matter. Memory is not the exclusive function of just one mental factor, but rather it is part of a mental process, within which perception (saññā) and mindfulness (sati) play the most prominent and important roles.

Both the terms saññā and sati have overlapping meanings in respect to the concept of ’memory’. One aspect of perception (saññā) has to do with memory, while other aspects are separate from it. This is the same for mindfulness (sati): one aspect pertains to memory, while other aspects function apart from the process of memory. {19}

Note these important distinctions between saññā and sati in the process of memory:

Perception (saññā) designates and identifies sense objects. When one encounters such objects again, saññā compares their current features with established perceptions, determining any similarities and differences. If one determines that the two (the old perceptions and the new) correspond, this may be called ’recognition’. If there are differences, one creates additional perceptions. The term saññā refers both to the recognition, designation, and identification of objects (the comparison and accumulation of data), and to perceptions themselves (the actual data and information created and stored). In this context, saññā creates the requisite conditions for memory. The important attribute of saññā is that it engages with sense objects immediately present; when these sense objects manifest, saññā is able to focus on, identify, or remember them.

Sati functions to draw sense objects to attention and to hold them firmly in the mind. It directs and sustains attention to sense objects, preventing them from drifting by or slipping away. These sense objects may be currently manifesting or they may have occurred in the past. The term sati thus encompasses such nuances of meaning as: ’recall’, ’recollection’, ’calling to mind’, ’reflection’, ’remembering’, and ’attentiveness’. In the context of memory, it remembers and enables recall. In this sense, sati is the opposite of sammosa, which means ’forgetting’ (saññā is not paired with forgetting). Sati is generated from within an individual, relying on the power of volition, even when sense objects are not immediately manifest. Because it is a volitional response to sense objects it is classified as a mental formation (saṅkhāra).

Saññā records and notes sense objects; sati draws sense objects to attention. Both a healthy perception – the ability to identify things clearly, to designate things in a well-ordered and structured way, and to integrate and connect things (which relies on attentiveness and understanding) – and a strong recall – the ability to recollect (which relies on clear perceptions, constant mindfulness, and a bright, peaceful, and concentrated mind) – are factors for a good memory.

At one time in the past Robert and Jake knew each other well. Ten years later, they meet again and Robert recognizes Jake and remembers the places they once visited and the activities they once shared. The recognition of the other person is saññā, whereas the recollection of past events is sati.

On one occasion Greg meets and talks with Karl. A month later, Greg’s friends ask him whom he met and spoke with on that specific date. Greg reflects on the past and remembers that he met with Karl. This recollection is sati.

A telephone is located in one corner of a room, and a phone book is located in another. Karen opens the book and finds the number she is looking for. She makes a note of this number in her mind and then walks to the telephone to dial it. As she crosses the room she keeps this number constantly in her attention. The reading and noting of the number from the book is saññā; the recall of that number from the moment she leaves the book is sati.

When sense objects become manifest, one is able to perceive them immediately. Yet when they do not manifest, and in the case that they are mind objects (dhammārammaṇa; matters inherent in the mind), one can use sati in order to draw them forth and focus on them. Moreover, sati is able to call perceptions to mind, that is, it can recollect past perceptions to be the objects of attention. Saññā is then able to identify, clarify, and consolidate these previous perceptions, or to perceive them in a new way according to one’s aims and objectives. {20}

Perception, Consciousness, and Wisdom

Perception (saññā), consciousness (viññāṇa), and wisdom (paññā) are all aspects of knowledge, yet they are part of three distinct aggregates. The first two factors, described earlier in this chapter, constitute an aggregate in themselves, whereas wisdom is classified among the mental formations (saṅkhāra).

Wisdom (paññā) refers generally to understanding, and more specifically to comprehensive or clear understanding: to a thorough and accurate understanding of the truth. This term paññā is defined in many different ways, including: knowledge of causality; knowledge of good and evil; knowledge of right and wrong; knowledge of suitability; knowledge of benefit and harm; knowledge of advantages and disadvantages; thorough knowledge of conditioned phenomena; knowledge of constituent factors; knowledge of causes and conditions; knowledge of origin and destination; knowledge of the interrelationship of things; knowledge according to the truth; genuine knowledge; genuine understanding; knowledge of reality; and knowing how to reflect on, contemplate, analyze, and engage with or manage things and situations.

Simply speaking, wisdom is clear, correct, and genuine understanding. Wisdom possesses an insight into reality and it penetrates into the heart of problems. It supports both perception (saññā) and consciousness (viññāṇa). In regard to the latter, it broadens and deepens the range of consciousness. Likewise, in regard to the former, it increases the range of perception, because the cognition and apprehension of things is dependent on one’s knowledge. This is similar to solving mathematical problems; as long as one cannot solve the initial equations, one has no data or criteria for further calculations. With increased understanding, one possesses the markers or raw material for further perception and analysis.

Wisdom (paññā) stands in opposition to delusion (moha; ’ignorance’, ’misunderstanding’), whereas perception (saññā) and consciousness (viññāṇa) are not contrasted with delusion in this way. Indeed, perception and consciousness may fall prey to delusion. When one is deluded and confused, one’s conscious experience and perceptions are equally distorted. Wisdom assists here to rectify both consciousness and perception.

Perception (saññā) and consciousness (viññāṇa) rely on currently manifesting sense objects in order to function. Images or concepts of these sense objects are thus created and discerned. Wisdom, on the other hand, reflects on sense objects and responds actively to them (wisdom is a deliberative faculty, and is thus classified among the volitional formations – saṅkhāra). It links various sense impressions with each other, analyzes their various attributes, compares and considers various perceptions, and discerns cause, effect, interrelationship, and the ways to benefit from things. By doing this, it provides consciousness and perception with wholesome food for engagement.

Ven. Sāriputta once responded to the question on how wisdom (paññā) and consciousness (viññāṇa) differ. He explained that wisdom knows (’understands’; ’knows clearly’) that ’this is suffering’, ’this is the cause of suffering’, ’this is the cessation of suffering’, and ’this is the way leading to the end of suffering’. Consciousness, on the other hand, knows (= discriminative understanding) that ’this is pleasure’, ’this is pain’, and ’this is neither pleasure nor pain’. Wisdom and consciousness, however, are intimately entwined and in a sense inseparable. Having said this, there is a distinction in that wisdom is a ’quality to be trained and developed’ (bhāvetabba-dhamma), in order to increase and strengthen it. In contrast, consciousness is a ’quality to be fully understood’ (pariññeyya-dhamma); its nature and its attributes should be truly recognized and understood.16 {21}

The commentarial texts, including the Visuddhimagga,17 explain the distinction between perception (saññā), consciousness (viññāṇa), and wisdom (paññā) in this way: perception (saññā) simply recognizes the properties of a sense object, say that it is ’green’ or ’yellow’; it is unable to understand the characteristics of impermanence, dukkha, and nonself. Consciousness (viññāṇa) also knows the object’s properties (of ’green’, ’yellow’, etc.), and it is able to understand the characteristics of impermanence, dukkha, and nonself (it understands according to the counsel and guidance by wisdom). But it cannot deliver one to the actualization of the Path (i.e. to the realization of the Four Noble Truths). Wisdom, however, accomplishes all three: it knows the properties of sense objects, it discerns the three characteristics, and it enables the actualization of the Path.

The commentaries use the analogy of three people who look at the same coin. Perception (saññā) is like a young child who simply discerns the shape of the coin – small, large, square, or round – its colour, attractive sheen, and strange markings. He does not know that it is an agreed-upon means of trade and exchange. Consciousness (viññāṇa) is like an adult who discerns the shape, markings, etc. of the coin, and who knows that it is used for trade and exchange, but he does not possess the deeper understanding of whether the coin is genuine or counterfeit, or of what combination of metals were used to mint the coin. Wisdom is like a treasurer, who discerns all of the above data, and in addition possesses expert knowledge, to the extent that he may look at, tap and listen to, smell, taste, or weigh the coin in his hands, and know everything about it, including where and by whom it was made.

Moreover, wisdom does not always arise. It may happen that only perception and consciousness arise, devoid of wisdom. Yet when wisdom arises alongside these other two qualities, it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.

When Jāli and Kaṇhā18 sought a hiding place, they walked backwards into the lotus pond, convinced that their pursuer would think that they had only recently come out of the pond. This line of thinking on their part may be referred to as wisdom (paññā). Later, Vessantara saw their footprints and knew immediately that they had walked backwards into the pond. This was because there were only prints leading away from the pond and none leading towards it, and the impression in the prints was deepest at the heels. This understanding may also be referred to as wisdom. The children and their father applied different levels of wisdom and circumspection, which indicates how wisdom (paññā) derives benefit from perception (saññā).

Prince Siddhattha saw an old person, a sick person, and a human corpse, and as a result he reflected on and discerned the suffering to which everyone is prone, without exception. He then went on to understand how all conditioned things are impermanent, subject to arising, to alteration, and eventually to passing away, and he saw the need to bring to an end the suffering based on these conditions. These are all examples of wisdom (paññā). When the Buddha was preparing to establish Buddhism in the Magadha country, he went to visit the matted-hair ascetics of the Kassapa clan, who were revered by the people of Magadha, in order that they gain confidence in and endorse the Buddha’s teachings. The insight and intuition behind this line of thinking by the Buddha is also an expression of wisdom.

The term paññā is a general term describing the kinds of knowledge mentioned above. There are many different levels of wisdom, for example mundane wisdom (lokiya-paññā) and transcendent wisdom (lokuttara-paññā). There are many other Pali terms indicating specific levels, degrees, or aspects of wisdom, or referring to its specific activities, qualities, or benefits, for example: ñāṇa (’knowledge’), vijjā (’true knowledge’), vipassanā (’insight’), sampajañña (’clear comprehension’), pariññā (’thorough knowledge’), abhiññā (’supreme knowledge’), and paṭisambhidā (’discriminative knowledge’). {22}

Relationship between the Aggregates

The five aggregates are interdependent. The aggregate of corporeality (rūpa-khandha) comprises the body, while the four aggregates of mentality (nāma-khandha) make up the mind. Human life requires both the body and the mind. When the body and mind function normally and operate in unison, life progresses well. Mental activities, for example, require an understanding of the external world and this understanding relies on sense data (visual forms, sounds, odours, tastes, and tangible objects) entering by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body. Both the five sense objects and the five sense faculties are material things (rūpa-dhamma) and part of the aggregate of corporeality – they are part of materiality.

In this chapter the emphasis is on the mind, considering the body to be similar to a readymade instrument prepared to serve mental activities. The mind is considered to be the focal point of life, and its range of functions is vast, complex, and profound. The mind gives value and meaning to life, and it is directly connected to the teachings by the Buddha presented in this book.

The four aggregates of mentality are intimately related, influencing and conditioning one another. The arising of these four aggregates is ordinarily outlined in the following way:19

Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises (similarly with the ear and sounds, the nose and odours, etc). The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one thinks about…

M. I. 111-12.

Here is an example: Gordon hears the sound of a bell (ear + sound + ear-consciousness). He finds the sound pleasant (= vedanā). He perceives the sound as ’melodious’, ’the ringing of a bell’, and ’the sound of a melodious bell’ (= saññā). He likes the sound and wants to hear it again; he thinks about striking that bell himself; he wants to obtain the bell; he thinks about buying or stealing the bell, etc. (= saṅkhāra).

Note the crucial role of feeling (vedanā) in this process. Perception (saññā) pays particular focus on those objects providing pleasurable sensations. The greater the pleasure, the greater the importance bestowed on the object by perception. In addition, such pleasurable feeling incites people to think and act in order to increase the pleasure. One may describe this as a basic, ordinary, or elementary process.

In this process, feeling (vedanā) acts as the incentive, similar to a person who invites one to take something, or to refuse and avoid it. Perception (saññā) is similar to a person who gathers and stores data or raw material. Mental formations (saṅkhāra) resemble a person who takes this raw material and shapes it in preparation for work. Consciousness (viññāṇa) is similar to the director of the work, aware of everyone else’s activities; it both opens the way for the work to be performed and it receives the results of the work.20

One complex aspect of this process is that feeling (vedanā) does not act as a catalyst for the other aggregates in a one-sided way. The other aggregates, too, have an influence over feeling. Take the example of a single piece of music that one person listens to and finds delightful, whereas another person listens to it and feels depressed. Similarly, the same person may listen to a song at one time and feel elated, while at another time he may feel disturbed by it. {23}

A general principle is that those things that one likes and finds pleasure in correspond to one’s desire. When one encounters them one is happy. Inversely, those things one dislikes conflict with one’s desire; when one encounters these things, one suffers. The mental formations, say of liking, disliking, desire, and aversion, then condition another round of feeling. Here, perception is also engaged, that is, mental formations condition perception, which in turn influences feeling.

Here is an example: a person may see someone whom he admires behave in a particular way and perceive that behaviour as lovely or endearing. And he may witness other behaviour by someone he dislikes and perceive it as annoying or abhorrent. Later he may encounter others exhibiting such behaviour, which he has previously perceived as either endearing or annoying (= saññā), and as a result feel either delighted or distressed (= vedanā), and either approve of or be angered by it (= saṅkhāra).

This interrelationship between the aggregates can be even more complex. Take for example a work project or study lesson that is difficult and demanding. Performing the task alone may involve much turmoil and discomfort, causing one to be disinclined from engaging with it. Yet, if there are particular incentives, one may be more interested and determined to do the work or to pursue the lesson. These incentives may be pleasurable sensations in the present, for example the method of learning is fun and entertaining, or they may be elaborate matters associated with perceptions of future pleasure, say of gaining a reward, achieving success, or deriving some benefit, either for oneself or for others. These perceptions are dependent on various mental formations, for example craving (taṇhā), conceit (māna), and wisdom (paññā), which then lead to further perceptions by bestowing meaning, value and importance to the work or study. Moreover, one now experiences pleasure while performing the deed. Although one may feel physical discomfort, one’s mind is imbued with joy, making one more eager to do the work or to complete the lesson.

When the school bell rings in the late afternoon, the students hear the sound (= viññāṇa). Having heard this sound every day, they may feel neutral about it (= vedanā). All of them identify the sound as the bell denoting the end of the school day (= saññā). Some children may be delighted (sukha-vedanā + saṅkhāra), because they ache from sitting all day and may now go out and play (= accompanying perceptions). Other children may be sad (dukkha-vedanā + saṅkhāra), because they must interrupt a useful and valuable lesson, or because they must return to unkind and intimidating guardians (= accompanying perceptions).

This entire process, beginning with consciousness, is an intricate interrelationship of causes and conditions, which together create people’s personalities and determine each person’s unique fortune and destiny. Volitional formations (saṅkhāra), represented by intention (cetanā), are the agents which shape and mould the process, and in this context saṅkhāra is the technical name for volitional action (kamma). Inversely, kamma is the informal title for volitional formations, representing them when they are actively operative. It is the term used when referring to the crucial role that volitional formations play, e.g.: ’It is kamma that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior’;21 ’beings exist according to their kamma.’22 {24}

The Five Aggregates and Clinging to the Five Aggregates

In the Buddha’s elucidation of the Four Noble Truths, encapsulating the essence of Buddhism, there is a noteworthy reference to the five aggregates found in the teaching on the first noble truth, on suffering.

At the beginning of the Buddha’s explanation of the first noble truth, he defines suffering by citing various examples and circumstances, which are easily recognizable and a part of people’s everyday lives. At the end of this discussion, however, he summarizes the entirety of suffering into the single phrase: ’the five aggregates of clinging (upādāna-khandha) are suffering’:

Monks, this is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, death is suffering, association with the disliked is suffering, separation from the liked is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering. In brief, clinging to the five aggregates is suffering.

Vin. I. 10.

Here, let us look at the distinction between the term khandha by itself as opposed to the term upādāna-khandha, by examining these words of the Buddha:

Monks, I will teach you the five aggregates and the five aggregates subject to clinging. Listen attentively.

And what are the five aggregates? Whatever kind of form … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near…. These are called the five aggregates.

And what are the five aggregates of clinging? Whatever kind of form … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, that is tainted (sāsava; accompanied by mental taints), that is a foundation for clinging (upādāniya)… These are called the five aggregates of clinging.

S. III. 47-8.

Monks, I will teach you the foundations for clinging, and clinging itself. Listen…

Form … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness is a foundation for clinging. The desire and lust (chanda-rāga; delight or intense desire culminating in attachment) for form … feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness is the clinging there.

S. III. 167.

This distinction between the five aggregates and the five aggregates of clinging is an important principle required for a deeper study of Buddha-Dhamma. {25}

Practical Application

Ordinarily, human beings are inclined to believe that they possess a true and lasting self, in some form or another. Some people attach to their mind as the ’self’;23 some believe that something exists separate and yet somehow connected to the mind, which acts on another level to be responsible for and to control the body and mind. The exposition of the five aggregates is intended to reveal how that which is called a ’being’, ’person’, or ’self’ – when it is closely examined and analyzed – is simply comprised of these five components. There is no residual essence or substance existing separate from these five. And even these five aggregates exist within an interdependent relationship. They do not exist independently; they are not autonomous. Therefore, these aggregates, too, do not function or exist as a stable, substantial ’self’.

In sum, the teaching on the five aggregates refers to the principle of selflessness (anattā; ’nonself’, ’not-self’). Human life consists of a convergence of various elements or parts; there exists no substantial ’self’ as unifying principle or centre-point of these parts. None of the aggregates (components, etc.) exist as a stable, lasting ’self’, and no such self exists apart from them.24 When one gains insight into this truth, one lets go of one’s attachments to self. This principle of nonself is clarified in the teaching on Dependent Origination in relation to the five aggregates.25

Furthermore, when one understands that the five aggregates exist in an interrelated and interdependent manner, one does not develop the wrong views of either annihilationism (uccheda-diṭṭhi) or eternalism (sassata-diṭṭhi). Moreover, this understanding also leads to a correct understanding of the workings of kamma. Again, the teaching on Dependent Origination explains this interrelationship and interdependence in more depth.

Examining things by separating them into the five aggregates helps to train one’s thinking abilities and it nurtures the disposition to analyze the truth. When one encounters or engages with something, one does not look simply at surface appearances; instead, one inclines towards investigation and inquiry of deeper truths. And crucially, this examination leads to an objective discernment of things, to seeing things ’as they are’. This is in contrast to a subjective understanding, by which one relates to things by way of craving and grasping (taṇhā-upādāna), and sees things according to one’s preferences and aversions. An objective understanding is the goal of Buddha-Dhamma and of this teaching on the five aggregates. Rather than relating to things by way of attachment, craving, and grasping, one relates to them by way of wisdom.

In any case, the Buddha normally did not teach about the five aggregates in isolation. In most cases, the five aggregates are the chief factors of consideration within the context of other principles and teachings, which act as the criteria for contemplating and determining the nature and function of these aggregates. The five aggregates need to be examined in relation to other principles, say of nonself (anattā), in order to fully appreciate their value on a practical level. The benefits of such contemplation will become clear in subsequent chapters. {26}

Appendix 1: Additional Details in Regard to the Five Aggregates

Rūpa: body; physical form; materiality

The Abhidhamma divides rūpa into twenty-eight factors:

  1. Four primary elements (mahābhūta-rūpa; referred to simply as the four ’elements’ – dhātu): earth (paṭhavī-dhātu; element of extension; solid element); water (āpo-dhātu; element of cohesion; liquid element); fire (tejo-dhātu; element of heat or radiation); and wind (vāyo-dhātu; element of vibration or motion).

  2. Twenty-four derived material qualities (upādā-rūpa; derivative materiality; matter resulting from the four primary elements):

    • The five sense bases: eye (cakkhu), ear (sota), nose (ghāna), tongue (jivhā), and body (kāya).

    • The four sense objects: form (rūpa), sound (sadda), smell (gandha), and taste (rasa). Tangible objects (phoṭṭhabba) are not included here, because they are equivalent to paṭhavī, āpo, and vāyo, above.

    • Femininity (itthatta).

    • Masculinity (purisatta).

    • Physical basis of mind (hadaya-vatthu).

    • Bodily intimation or gesture (kāya-viññatti).

    • Verbal intimation; speech (vacī-viññatti).

    • Life-faculty (jīvitindriya; vitality; vital force).

    • Space element (ākāsa-dhātu).

    • Physical lightness (rūpassa lahutā).

    • Physical pliancy; elasticity (rūpassa mudutā).

    • Physical adaptability; wieldiness (rūpassa kammaññatā).

    • Physical growth or enlargement (rūpassa upacaya).

    • Physical continuity (rūpassa santati).

    • Decay (jaratā).

    • Disintegration (aniccatā).

    • Edible food; nutriment (kavaḷiṅkārāhāra).

Note that the term hadaya-vatthu, which is translated as ’heart’, is considered the locus of the citta, yet this interpretation is expressed in later texts; it does not occur in the Tipiṭaka.

Vedanā: feeling; sensation

  • Threefold division: pleasure (sukha; physical and mental); pain (dukkha; physical and mental); neutral feeling (adukkhamasukha; neither pleasurable nor painful; it is sometimes referred to as upekkhā).

  • Fivefold division: physical pleasure (sukha), physical pain (dukkha), happiness (somanassa), unhappiness (domanassa), neutral feeling (upekkhā).

  • Sixfold division (according to its origin doorway): feeling stemming from contact by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.

Saññā: perception

It is divided into six factors, according to the pathway of cognition:

  1. Perception of form (rūpa-saññā), e.g. of ’black’, ’red’, ’green’, or ’white’.

  2. Perception of sound (sadda-saññā), e.g. of ’loud’, ’faint’, ’base’, or ’high-pitched’.

  3. Perception of scent (gandha-saññā), e.g. of ’fragrant’ or ’malodorous’.

  4. Perception of flavour (rasa-saññā), e.g. of ’sweet’, ’sour’, ’bitter’, or ’salty’.

  5. Perception of tangibles (phoṭṭhabba-saññā), e.g. of ’soft’, ’hard’, ’coarse’, ’fine’, ’hot’, or ’cold’.

  6. Perception of mental objects (dhamma-saññā), e.g. of ’beautiful’, ’revolting’, ’constant’, or ’impermanent’.

Saṅkhāra: volitional formations

The Abhidhamma divides the mental concomitants (cetasika) into fifty-two factors. If one compares this division with the teaching of the five aggregates (khandha), the mental concomitants comprise feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), and volitional formations. Of the fifty-two factors, one of them is feeling and another is perception; the remaining fifty factors are all volitional formations. These fifty factors are subdivided as follows: {27}

  1. Eleven mental factors common to both the wholesome and the unwholesome (aññasamāna-cetasika). (If one includes vedanā and saññā here, these constitute thirteen factors; these two factors are excluded here because they are not volitional formations):

    1. Five universal mental factors (sabbacittasādhāraṇa-cetasika; those arising in every mind moment): contact (phassa), intention (cetanā), one-pointedness (ekaggatā = ’concentration’ – samādhi), life-faculty (jīvitindriya), and mental application (manasikāra). (With vedanā and saññā, these constitute seven factors.)

    2. Six ’particular’ mental factors (pakiṇṇaka-cetasika; those factors common to both the wholesome and the unwholesome, yet they do not arise in every mind moment): applied thought (vitakka), sustained thought (vicāra), determination (adhimokkha), effort (viriya), joy (pīti), and enthusiasm (chanda).

  2. Fourteen unwholesome mental factors (akusala-cetasika), arising along with unwholesome mind states:

    1. Four universal unwholesome factors (sabbākusalasādhāraṇa-cetasika; those factors always present in unwholesome mind states): delusion (moha), shamelessness (ahirika), lack of moral dread (anottappa), and restlessness (uddhacca).

    2. Ten particular unwholesome factors (pakiṇṇaka-akusala-cetasika): greed (lobha), wrong view (diṭṭhi), conceit (māna), hatred (dosa), jealousy (issā), stinginess (macchariya), worry (kukkucca), sloth (thīna), torpor (middha), and doubt (vicikicchā).

  3. Twenty-five beautiful mental factors (sobhaṇa-cetasika), arising along with wholesome and indeterminate (abyākata) mind states:

    1. Nineteen universal beautiful mental factors (sobhaṇasādhāraṇa-cetasika): faith (saddhā), mindfulness (sati), conscience (hiri), moral dread (ottappa), non-greed (alobha), non-hatred (adosa = ’lovingkindness’ – mettā), equanimity (tatra-majjhattatā; sometimes referred to as upekkha), tranquillity of the mental body (kāya-passaddhi; tranquillity of the collection of mental concomitants), tranquillity of mind (citta-passaddhi), lightness of mental body (kāya-lahutā), lightness of mind (citta-lahutā), pliancy of mental body (kāya-mudutā), pliancy of mind (citta-mudutā), adaptability of mental body (kāya-kammaññatā), adaptability of mind (citta-kammaññatā), proficiency of mental body (kāya-pāguññatā), proficiency of mind (citta-pāguññatā), rectitude of mental body (kāyujukatā), and rectitude of mind (cittujukatā).

    2. Six particular wholesome factors (pakiṇṇakasobhaṇa-cetasika): right speech (sammā-vācā), right action (sammā-kammanta), and right livelihood (sammā-ājīva) – collectively called the three factors of abstinence (viratī-cetasika); compassion (karuṇā) and appreciative joy (muditā) – together called the two boundless states (appamaññā-cetasika); and wisdom (paññā).

In the suttas, volitional formations (saṅkhāra) are normally defined as the six kinds of volition (sañcetanā; ’intention’, ’thought’), pertaining to: form (rūpa-sañcetanā), sounds (sadda-sañcetanā), smells (gandha-sañcetanā), tastes (rasa-sañcetanā), tangible objects (phoṭṭhabba-sañcetanā), and mental objects (dhamma-sañcetanā).26

Viññāṇa: consciousness

It is divided into six factors, according to the pathway by which it originates: awareness of objects by way of the eye (cakkhu-viññāṇa), the ear (sota-viññāṇa), the nose (ghāna-viññāṇa), the tongue (jivhā-viññāṇa), the body (kāya-viññāṇa), and the mind (mano-viññāṇa).

The Abhidhamma refers to the consciousness aggregate as citta, and it divides the citta into either 89 or 121 types of consciousness:27

  • Divided according to the state or level of consciousness: fifty-four sense-sphere states of consciousness (kāmāvacara-citta), fifteen fine-material states of consciousness (rūpāvacara-citta), twelve immaterial states of consciousness (arūpāvacara-citta), and eight transcendent states of consciousness (lokuttara-citta; these may be divided into more detail, resulting in forty transcendent states of consciousness).

  • Divided according to the quality of mind: twelve unwholesome states of consciousness (akusala-citta), twenty-one wholesome states of consciousness (kusala-citta; the detailed analysis results in thirty-seven), thirty-six kamma-resultant states of consciousness (vipāka-citta; in the detailed analysis – fifty two), and twenty functional states of consciousness (kiriyā-citta). It is unnecessary in this presentation to list all of these various states of consciousness, and it may even cause confusion for the reader. {28}

Appendix 2: Commentarial Explanation of Perception

The commentaries describe the following function and attributes of perception (saññā): its unique attribute is sañjānana (recognition; remembering). Its function is to establish a sign as a key for memory, so that in the future one knows that ’this is such-and-such’; this function is similar to a carpenter who marks a piece of wood. Its result is an attachment to those established signs; this is similar to a blind man who touches an elephant and consequently identifies an elephant with that part of its body that he has touched. Its ’footprint’ (padaṭṭhāna) – the object as it appears – resembles how a fawn sees a scarecrow and believes it to be a real human being (Vism. 462). In comparison to Western psychological terms, saññā encompasses ’perception’, ’conception’ (as ’mental representation’), and ’recognition’, and to a certain degree, but not exclusively, to ’memory’.


(Open large size)

Sāla blossoms from the Sāla tree.
The Buddha was born under a Sāla tree.


In Pali, one may refer to ’things’ as phenomena (dhamma), elements (dhātu), or aspects of reality (sabhāva). The complete spelling of this third term is sabhāva-dhammā (from sa + bhāva + dhamma), which literally means ’things that exist according to their own nature’.


S. I. 135. [Trans.: in ancient India this referred to a wagon; in modern parlance we may refer to this as a ’car’.]


The broadest division is into mind (nāma) and body (rūpa), or mentality and corporeality. The Abhidhamma texts prefer the threefold division of the mind (citta), mental constituents (cetasika), and the body (rūpa). If one compares this analysis to the five aggregates, one may equate the following: citta = viññāṇa-khandha; cetasika = vedanā-khandha, saññā-khandha, and saṅkhāra-khandha; rūpa = rūpa-khandha.


See more details on the five aggregates see Appendix 1.


The numbers in curly brackets refer to the page number of the Thai edition of Buddhadhamma.


The term ārammaṇa (’object of attention’) refers to those things cognized by the mind by means of the six ’doorways’ (dvāra), i.e.: visual forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, and mind objects (thoughts).


The meaning of this important term upekkhā is often misunderstood. This term appears in the group of mental formations (saṅkhāra), where it is equivalent to specific neutrality (tatramajjhattatā), and also in the group of feelings (vedanā), where it is equivalent to neutrality (adukkhamasukha), i.e. to neither-painful-nor-pleasant sensations.


The following explanations are based on references from the Pali Canon as well as comparative references from the commentaries, in particular: M. I. 292-3; S. III. 87; [MA. II. 462]; SA. II. 291; Vism. 436, 452-3.


For the commentarial analysis of perception see Appendix 2.


Trans.: one sometimes encounters the term ’apperception’ as a definition for saññā. According to the ’Collins Concise Dictionary’ (© 1999), apperception is defined as: ’the awareness of perceiving’, which is closer to this function of consciousness.


For more on this subject, see chapter 4 on Dependent Origination.


Vedanā is classified as an ’effect’ (vipāka; fruit of kamma). By itself, it is neither wholesome nor unwholesome.


In the doctrine of the threefold life-cycle (tivaṭṭa) in relation to Dependent Origination, vedanā, saññā, and viññāṇa are classified as ’fruits of kamma’ (vipāka), whereas saṅkhāra is classified as kamma itself. This classification of saṅkhāra as kamma refers exclusively to those times when intention (cetanā) is operative. The various mental determinants (within the round of rebirth – saṁsāra-vaṭṭa) are classified as mental impurities (kilesa).


One aspect of sati is recollection – the ability to recall; another aspect is mindfulness.


A. I. 24-5.


M. I. 292-3.


Vism. 436.


Trans.: the children of the bodhisatta Vessantara and his wife Maddī.


For the complete sequence of this process, see the following chapter on the six sense spheres.


The commentaries, including the Visuddhimagga, provide the following analogies: the body is like a bowl, feeling is like staple food, perception is like the side dishes of food, mental formations are like the cook, and consciousness is like the consumer of the food. Similarly: the body is like a prison; feeling is like the punishment; perception is like the offence; volitional formations are like the magistrate inflicting the penalty; and consciousness is like the prisoner. See: Vism. 479; CompṬ.: Samuccayaparicchedavaṇṇanā, Sabbasaṅgahavaṇṇanā.


M. III. 203.


Sn. 118-19.


Note the Buddha’s words: ’It would be better, monks, for the uninstructed worldling to take as self this body composed of the four great elements rather than the mind. This is because this body composed of the four great elements is seen standing for one year, for two years, for three, four, five years, for ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years, for a hundred years, or even longer. But that which is called ’mind’ (citta), ’mentality’ (mano), or ’consciousness’ (viññāṇa) arises and ceases perpetually, by day and by night’ (S. II. 94-5).


See: S. III. 3-5, 16-18, 110-15.


See chapter 4 on Dependent Origination*.*


E.g.: S. III. 60-61.


Trans.: for more information on the terms citta, viññāṇa, and mano see the Special Appendix at the end of this book.