Pancakkhandha or Five Aggregates – A Misinterpreted Concept

December 25, 2015

This post has a new format for breaking up a given post into sections, using a Table of Contents. This is a different approach compared to breaking a post into several pages that I used in the post, “Does the Hell (Niraya) Exist?“.  Please let me know (comment below) which format is better if you have a preference.

Introduction

1. Contrary to popular belief, pancakkhandha or panca khandha (five aggregates) is all mental, and realizing this fact can help get rid of the “ghana sanna“, the perception that the world around us is “solid and permanent”‘ I will write more on this later. 

  • It is sometimes erroneously called pancaskhandha, and I will explain why that is not correct.

2. For example, there is a huge difference between rupa (material form) and rupa khandha, the aggregate of material form.  Rupa khandha is commonly written as rupakkhandha by connecting the two terms to one word, by adding an extra “k”.  The same is true for other four aggregates. The correct interpretation makes many other concepts easier to understand.

  • Rupa is matter (and energy) and is made of the satara maha bhuta (patavi, apo, tejo, vayo) and their derivatives.
  • Rupa khandha is all MENTAL.
  • Similarly, there is a difference between vedana (feelings) and vedanakkhandha (the aggregate of feelings), even though here both kinds are mental; we will discuss the difference below. The other three khandha of sanna, sankhara, and vinnana are similar to that of vedana.
  • This is very important to understand, and I will proceed slowly to make the concepts clear.

3. The key in clarifying what rupakkhandha is to examine why the Buddha added “khandha” to rupa. He could have labelled past rupa, future rupa, sukuma rupa, olarika rupa, etc. to describe the 11 types of them (see #1 under “Eleven Types of Rupa in the Rupakkhandha” section below). What was the need to add “khandha“? That is because rupakkhandha is all MENTAL, and to see how it comes about we need to examine how each of us experience “the world”. Each of us does it differently.

  • Each person has his/her own rupakkhandha or the way he/she perceives the material rupa in the world. That rupakkhandha has associated with it other four khandhas and thus comprise the  pancakkhandha. And panca upadanakkhandha, or  what one has cravings for, is a small part of that.
  • Just like the concept of anicca, this again is a very important concept to understand, so please try to read through slowly at a quiet time and grasp the concepts. As the Buddha said, “at the end what matters is understanding a concept, not memorizing words”.
  • When I first grasped this concept, it was like turning the lights on in a previously dark area that I did not even know existed! This is a good example of what the Buddha meant by “alökö udapadi“.

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What is a Khandha?

1. One of the main problems we have today is that many key terms in use are in Sanskrit rather than original Pali. The meanings get distorted. A good example is paticca samuppada, for which the Sanskrit term is  pratittyasamutpada, which does not convey the meaning; see, “Paticca Samuppada – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppäda“.

2. Similarly, the Sanskrit term “skandha” is commonly used in the place of khandha, the original Pali term. Khandha is a heap and the Sinhala term is kanda, which is even used today to denote a heap or a pile.

  • When we experience the world, we do that with our six senses, and that experience is registered as thoughts (citta). But a single citta is born and gone in a small fraction of a second. What we EXPERIENCE are the aggregates of numerous citta that go through our minds even in a fraction of a second.
  • We experience a rupa (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, dhamma) with a citta AND based on that generate mental qualities of vedana, sanna, sankhara, and vinnana. In each citta, the mind analyzes all these, and that citta is gone in a fraction of a second.
  • The manasikara cetasika that is in each citta puts together the contents in all these “packets” — including our past impressions — and provides us with an overall experience that includes a “sketch of what we see, hear, ..”, and those feelings, perceptions etc that arise due to that sense impression.
  • This can be compared to the process of connecting individual links in a metal chain. In the old days, blacksmiths used to make chains by manually connecting one link to the next by hand. He can only see himself linking two of them at a time, but if he looked back he could see the whole chain that is being made. In the same way, the five aggregates or heaps keep building up with each passing second.

3. In another example, it is like a movie recording that keeps recording non-stop from our birth to death. And when we die it does not stop, it just start recording the new life. And these five heaps or aggregates that have accumulated over ALL previous lives are in the namagotta, a permanent record.

  • Of course, we remember only a fraction of it, even for the present life. But some people remember more things than others; see, “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM)“.
  • But we also make plans about the future. And those heaps about the future are also in the pancakkhandha, but not in the namagotta, which only has records of what has already happened. As soon as the present moment goes by, more of the five heaps are added to the namagotta.
  • Thus pancakkhandha includes past, present, and future, whereas namagotta includes only that portion of the pancakkhandha that has gone to the past.
  • Even though I have discussed these concepts in the introductory posts in the Abhidhamma section, here I will go through a simpler version to get the ideas across. Those who are interested, can then review the posts in Abhidhamma section as well.

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What We Experience Comes in “Packets” or “Heaps” or “Khandha”

1. A simple view of how we sense the outside world is as follows: The five physical senses receive images, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches from the outside. Those sense inputs are sent to the brain via the nervous system. The brain analyzes such “signals” and helps the mind (hadaya vatthu) to extract the “meanings” conveyed by those images, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches.

  • Let us take an example of looking at a cake. The eye is like a camera; it captures an image of the cake just like a camera does. That image is sent to the brain and the brain analyzes that picture, matches it with previously stored pictures and identifies it as a chocolate cake made by grandma. The brain can analyze many such pictures in a fraction of a second.
  • This is basically what scientists believe what happens too; but the difference is that scientists believe that the brain compares the current image of the cake with zillions of images “stored in the brain”, which I say is an impossibility. The brain needs to scan through “its depository of images” and not only identify that it is not a loaf of bread or a piece of wood, but also what kind of a cake it is, and whether it is made by grandma or bought from a store. And this is done within a fraction of a second. Think about it! This is real vipassana meditation! What we are trying to do is to understand how nature works.

2. In Buddha Dhamma, the brain is in constant communication with the “hadaya vatthu” which is the seat of the mind. All our past experiences are “stored” in the mental plane (manothalaya) and hadaya vatthu can access that information; these are what we called “namagotta“. How the brain is in constant communication with the hadaya vatthu and other details are discussed in the Abhidhamma section. Those details are not important as long as one can picture this process in one’s mind.

  • This image sent by the eyes (and the brain) to the hadaya vatthu generates an imprint of that image and it goes into memory. That image is the rupakkhandha generated by that object, the cake in our example; it is not material, it is a record.
  • If it was a smell that was analyzed, then a record of that smell is made. Thus the rupakkhandha here is a record of that particular smell. In this way, rupakkhandha are just records or imprints. All five physical senses help generate rupakkhandha; remember that sight, sound, smell, taste, touch are all rupa.
  • What the mind receives is a set of static frames in a given second. Many such records for various sense inputs go through our minds in a second. The mind is able to make this appear to us as a continuous movie, with pictures, sounds, tastes, etc flowing smoothly.

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Animation Video

1. Just to give the flavor of what happens, we can look at what happens when we watch a movie. The movie is a series of static pictures or frames. When making a movie, what is actually done is to take many static pictures and then play them back at fast enough speed. If the playback speed is too slow, we can see individual pictures, but above a certain “projection rate”, it looks like real motion. Here is a video that illustrates this well:

2. When we experience (see, hear,…) the outside world, what happens is very similar to the above. At the end of the video it is stated that the “movie” we see is an illusion, and as the Buddha explained, that holds for real life as well. In real life when we see someone coming towards us, what we actually see is a series of “static pictures” or citta projected at a very fast rate in our minds, giving us the illusion of a “movie like experience”.

  • Even though in the above video it is suggested that all the information from the “previous static frames” were put together by the brain, that is true only to a certain extent.
  • The brain does put together the individual frames, but without actual “memories” it is not possible to get the deep details about what is seen.
  • We not only “see” the video, but we also RECOGNIZE what is seen (we identify a given actor, we can even remember previous movies with that actor, we KNOW all about the scenes in the background, etc); to have all that information instantly available to the brain is not possible. This is a point that needs a lot of thought.
  • What happens according to Abhidhamma, is that the brain periodically sends packets of acquired data put together by the cortex in the brain to the hadaya vatthu, which is basically the seat of the mind. There citta vithi arise in accepting that information from the brain, and it is the mind that does all the compiling (with the help of the manasikara and cetana cetasika) and that is how we EXPERIENCE any sense input.
  • For those who are interested in more details, see, “Citta and Cetasika – How Vinnana (Consciousness) Arises“.

3. When the mind analyzes those packets of information sent by the brain with cittas, it generates feelings (vedana), perception (sanna), and follow-up thoughts (vinnana); if the mind likes/dislikes that sense input it may decide to act on it by generating sankhara.

  • Thus we can see that depending on the nature of the sense input, the mind will generate a “packet” of vedana (i.e., vadanakkhandha), a “packet” of sanna (sannakkhandha), a “packet” of sankhara (sankharakkhandha), a “packet” of vinnana (vinnanakkhandha) , in addition to the rupakkhandha that was involved in the sense input. Actually all these five khandhas are generated within the same series of citta.

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Our Experience is Stored in Those Khandhas

1. Thus our experiences are stored in five type of “heaps” (rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara, vinnana) in the mental plane (manothalaya). Some of these “clips” or “packets” from those five heaps or aggregates can be recalled and played back in our minds just like a movie is played back on a screen. When we do that we can recall that particular experience with sights, sounds, etc.

  • It is the sum of all such packets of a given kind that is called a khandha, for example, a rupakkhandha. All these are our memory records of what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and also think.
  • The ability to recall past experiences, we call memory. Some have better memories than others. There are some people who can “playback” basically one’s life day-by-day for many years into the past; see, “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM)“. It is amazing to see how much they can recall.
  • Yet, one can recall not only memories from this life, but also from past lives by developing abhinna powers. Thus the Buddha Gotama was able to describe in vivid detail the scene, aeons ago, when the Buddha Deepankara stated that he was to become a Buddha in the future.
  • But let us get back to the main discussion.

2. The brain analyzes multiple sense inputs of different kinds in a second. When we watch a movie, we see the picture, hear the sounds, and if we are eating popcorn we can smell and taste popcorn too; see, “What is a Thought?“. Even if you are not familiar with Abhidhamma, you can get a good idea of what happens by reading that post. Just try to get the overall picture of what happens instead of trying to analyze in detail.

  • Thus our perception of an object is due to the sum of many thoughts (cittas) that arise per second. And each citta has “embedded in it”, our feelings (vedana), perceptions (sanna), our decisions on how to act (sankhara), and our overall sense experience (vinnana). In the case of a visual, auditory, … event, we also have the corresponding “imprints of them” in our mind.
  • In other words, all our sense experiences can be described by five heaps or khandhas. The totality of our experience or “our world” is panca khandha (pancakkhandha). And it has nothing to do with our physical bodies.
  • Thus it is important to understand that “rupa” can used in the sense of “matter” and also in the sense of “records of those material rupa“.

3. These mental components are what the Buddha called khandhas. Rupakkhandha does not include actual material objects, sounds, smells, tastes, or touches. Rather rupa khandha includes only the mental records or imprints of those sense inputs.

  • During our life, we continuously accumulate such khandhas or bundles of heaps of sense imprints. Thus a rupa khandha or rupakkhandha (note how the two words were connected by inserting an additional “k”) is not actual rupa, but our mental images of such rupa.
  • Similarly, we keep accumulating bundles of vedana (vedanakkhandha), sanna (sannakkhandha), sankhara (sankharakkhandha), and vinnana (vinnanakkhandha).

4. In fact, these khandhas are all that we have ever experienced, and would like to experience in the future. The five khandhas encompass our (changing) identity, and our sense of the whole world out there. They have embedded in them all our past experiences and also future hopes.

  • This is what was meant by saying that pancakkhadha (the five aggregates) is our whole world.
  • And these records can go back to beginningless time! Some people can recall more past records than others, but by gradually developing abhinna powers, one can recall more and more past lives.

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Eleven Types of Rupa in the Rupakkhandha (Same for Other Khandhas)

1. This is clearly described in many suttas, even though the true meaning has been hidden all these years. In particular, the Khandha sutta summarizes what is included in each aggregate.

  • Eleven types of rupa (mental impressions) are in the rupakkhandha: past, present, future, near, far, fine (sukuma), coarse (olarika), likes (paneeta), dislikes (appaneeta), internal (ajjatta), and external (bahidda). Here internal rupa means (impressions) of one’s own body parts, and external rupa are (impressions) of external objects.
  • Thus, it is quite clear that rupakkhandha encompasses anything that we ever saw (including previous births), we are seeing now, and hope to see in the future. The record of what belongs to the past is permanent and is called namagotta. Any rupa about the future (for example, a sketch of the type of house one is thinking about building) can change with time.
  • Other four khandhas have the same 11 types.
  • A short version of the Khandha sutta is available online: Khandha Sutta: Aggregates
  • Even though it does not explain the concept as discussed above, one can see the 11 components of each khandha are clearly there. Also, note that it is NOT Skandha sutta; it is Khandha sutta. This is why I say that skandha is a WRONG TERM.

2. Now we can see yet again that Buddha Dhamma has become so contaminated over the past thousands of years. Fortunately, we still have the Tipitaka in close to original form. The Buddha stated that his Buddha Sasana will last for 5000 years, and the way he made sure that will happen, was to compose the suttas as I described in the post, “Sutta – Introduction“.

  • Furthermore, abhidhamma and vinaya sections, as well as three original commentaries, are still intact in the Tipitaka; see, “Preservation of the Dhamma” and other posts in “Historical Background“.
  • The main problem even with the Theravada version of “Buddhism” is that instead of using the Tipitaka as the basis, the tendency is to use the Visuddhimagga written by Buddhaghosa, who had not attained any magga phala and stated that his “wish” was to become a deva in the next life from the merits he gained by writing Visuddhimagga!
  • Even when using the Tipitaka, most people use the wrong interpretations of key words such as anicca, dukkha, anatta, as well as khandha, and paticca samuppada. This problem is apparent in the Sinhala translation of the Tipitaka, that was done with the sponsorship of the Sri Lankan government several years ago.

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Part 2: pancaupadanakkhandha – It is All Mental

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