The Buddhist Teaching on the Five Aggregates – Part 1
What are the five skandhas or aggregates?
Why are the five aggregates important? This is a fundamental Buddhist teaching, and it’s basically got two purposes. I’ll start with the obvious one. The term “aggregates” refers to things that are coming together, so when we talk about the aggregates, it’s a way of describing how and in what sense our experience of life, phenomena, ourselves, and others is “conditioned.” In other words, any experience we have arises due to causes and conditions. So in one way this teaching is like mapping the world of our body and mind and the bodies and minds of all beings.
There’s something very useful in mapping our experience because it allows us to dispel some of our false imaginings or mistaken projections about what’s really going on. This mapping is described in the abhidharma teachings of the Buddha, and is important because making erroneous assumptions about our world is, in a way, the source of all of our problems, disappointments, and difficulties. We keep conjuring up imaginary things, imaginary entities, imaginary egos or “selfs,” and all the rest of it, and there’s no lasting happiness in our misperception.
By dispassionately and calmly taking a closer, targeted look at what’s really going on and analyzing that which is appearing, arising, and passing away in our field of experience, we can let go of some of these troublesome projections that crop up. And so mapping our experience starts out as a descriptive and analytical tool, and finally it becomes a kind of liberating tool, which is its second purpose.
Why do I experience things in this way, in this moment? Why have I got this particular difficulty regarding this person or that person or the world? Why do I seem to be programmed in such a way? In looking at the five aggregates, we’ll get answers to these questions. Actually, in Buddhism, there are other ways of looking at the world and grouping it in different bunches, but all of them have the same characteristic in that they describe a world that is arising and passing, a world that is built upon a set of interacting, impermanent patterns. And so the aggregates, or skandhas, as they’re called in Sanskrit, are just one way of patterning things. There are others, and all of them are equally useful and valid in a way, but perhaps the aggregates model is the most accessible.
So the psycho-physical patterns that we call the aggregates are what we’ll be looking at when we start looking for that imaginary self that we talk so much about in Buddhism. These five skandhas or aggregates that map our experience of ourselves and the world are:
- Form, or rūpa in Sanskrit
- Sensation, or vedanā in Sanskrit
- Perception, or saṃjñā in Sanskrit
- Formations, or saṃskāra in Sanskrit
- Consciousness, or vijñāna in Sanskrit
The way the five are laid out and presented goes from the most obvious—form—down to the most subtle: momentary apprehending consciousness. It’s important to note that even though we chop them up in this way, each is linked to the others. This categorization is just a device—please don’t see the aggregates as solid and discreet: they’re not. It is, however, a very useful device, and once we’re more familiar with the skandhas we’ll see why. So let’s start with the first one, form.
Translating the Sanskrit word rupa into English can be tricky; we’ll go with “form.” It sounds like we’re talking about physical forms and in a way, we are. What is the aggregate of form composed of? Using classical Buddhist categories, form includes physical things, what one might call apparent reality, like the elements of earth, water, fire, and air, or, if you like, the solidity, cohesion, temperature, and movement that seem to make up our world. If you want to give the elements different names or talk about them according to different lists, that’s okay too.
In brief, form refers to that which has shape and which we seem to be able to apprehend and grasp. It’s our body, for instance, and not just the fundamental physical elements, but also the senses—the eye sense, the ear, and so on—and their objects: visual objects, audial objects, et cetera. So the domain of the five senses and the five sense objects are also part of the touchable world which belongs to the skandha of form.
Look how knowing that has somehow already given us a wider vision. Now we can’t think of material phenomena as inert, solid things. They are actually the interplay of the different elements, the senses, and the different sense objects. But let’s take it a step further. Form, the first aggregate, is not only what we consider concrete, material phenomena, it also includes mental objects such as, for instance, dreams. What we perceive in our dreams can have a shape, as can certain types of meditation experience. There are mental objects which have a structure that we apprehend and are affected by just like with concrete physical structures and shapes. These are all part of the aggregate of form.
The touchable or perceptible world is our first contact, we might say, with the present moment. Immediately after this contact with the perceptible world we enter the domain of the following aggregates, which are mental: of the mind. Later on we may deconstruct the whole notion of physical and mental as being separate categories, but for now, we’re not going to go that far.
On to the second skandha or aggregate, well, how shall we translate it? Some translators call it “feeling,” some call it “sensation.” “Feeling” is okay but it could lead one to think about this in almost a too complex way, as if we’re talking about emotional feelings—perhaps already triggering thoughts of some dreary lounge singer in Las Vegas emoting about their feelings. No, this is much simpler. It’s the feeling of pleasure, displeasure, or indifference that arises when you’ve made that contact with an object. It’s the touch of something on your hand, the impression of the visual object on your eye, et cetera. It can be physical or mental pleasure, physical or mental displeasure. It’s the raw experience arising. This is very important. It’s raw; it’s not yet been processed.
And then that triggers or stimulates the third aggregate, the one that notices. Usually it’s translated as “perception.” There’s a certain sense of naming, of recognition, not in a big intellectual sense, but in the sense of noticing that this is pleasure, that’s pain; this is this, that’s the other. It starts to categorize the world of our experience. Because, you see, the skandhas are creating a world; they’re the building blocks of our world. And we are going to arrive at a perfectly finished moment of experience through this building up via the five aggregates.
Perception names and notices each experience as if to say, this is pleasurable, that is not. Perception can be a very limited kind of noticing that has no spaciousness about it or, if we’re used to opening the mind and developing stillness through Buddhist meditation or other practices, it can become a more expanded type of perception. Perception sets about framing and shaping the raw experience of sensation, the second aggregate. We haven’t got a complete picture of the world, but some kind of categorization, of framing, is going on.
And it leads right into the fourth skandha: formation (see our next article, part 2 in the series).