May 7, 2020; revised May 8, 2020
1. Five aggregates (pañcakkhandha) is a critical concept to understand. In the previous three posts, we discussed how the mind makes a “mental imprint” of a rūpa, whether it is due to sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or a dhammā. See, “Five Aggregates – Introduction,” “Difference Between Rupa and Rūpakkhandha,” and “Rūpakkhandha and Rūpa Upādānakkhandha.”
- Therefore, it is critical to understand that what is registered in the mind is not a rūpa but the “mental imprint” of it. That single imprint is part of rūpakkhandha. However, the mind sees not just a single “snapshot,” but the whole rūpakkhandha. We will clarify that point in #9 below.
- Furthermore, based on that rūpakkhandha, the mind generates vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa. Those also involve “aggregates” or “collections,” as we will discuss below.
- We NEVER experience a single imprint of a rūpa or a single citta with vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa. The mind ALWAYS deals with all five AGGREGATES. That is a critical issue to understand. Please ask questions if not clear.
The Role of an Ārammaṇa
2. The mind becomes active only after getting an ārammaṇa. An ārammaṇa is an external rūpa (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, dhammā) that comes to one of the six senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind.)
- A signal representing that external rūpa is “captured” by the sense door (say the eyes) and sent to the brain. The brain processes it and passes it to the mind. That is discussed a bit more in #5 below. The critical point is that the mind receives a “mental imprint” of that external rūpa. That “mental imprint” or the “signal” or the “image” registers in the MIND.
- The four mental parameters arise with the “image” or the “imprint” of the external rūpa. Therefore, the “mental imprint” is also in the “vipāka viññāṇa.” That is what we “see,” “hear,” etc. (cakkhu viññāṇa, sota viññāṇa, etc.) We will discuss a second type of “kamma viññāṇa” below.
- From the above discussion, it is clear that it is not possible to separate such “mental parameters.” It is not possible to separate awareness (vēdanā) from recognition (saññā,) or both those from the overall cognition (viññāṇa) and many kinds of “plans” or ‘possible actions” (saṅkhāra) that arise in mind.
- The word ārammaṇa is explained in detail in “Chachakka Sutta – No “Self” in Initial Sensory Experience.”
Mental Components of Pañcakkhandha (Five Aggregates)
3. Before we start discussing the four mental “aggregates,” it is a good idea to review the core entities: vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa. They arise in a MIND when an external “thought-object” or an ārammaṇa comes to one of the six senses.
- When an external rūpa (sight, sound, etc.) comes to a “sense door” (eyes, ears, etc.), we become aware of it. That is vēdanā. A pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling accompanies vēdanā.
- At the same time, we recognize what it is. Whether it is one’s mother or a tree, a dog bark or voice of the mother, etc., that recognition of the “thought-object” is saññā.
- Based on the recognition of the “thought-object” to the ārammaṇa, we generate our response or reaction to that ārammaṇa. Those responses/reactions are saṅkhāra. The initial “reaction’ is automatic and generates vēdanā and saññā (citta/mano saṅkhāra.) That means we immediately feel and recognize that rūpa. But if we start consciously creating more thoughts, those arise with two more cetasika called vitakka and vicāra. Such thoughts involve vaci saṅkhāra. If we then take bodily actions, those require kāya saṅkhāra. Therefore, we think, speak, and act with the three types of saṅkhāra.
- The overall “state-of-the-mind’ is viññāṇa. It is much more than just “consciousness.” Viññāṇa is complicated but falls into two broad categories. Vipaka viññāṇa is the overall sensory experience due to an ārammaṇa (that viññāṇa may be called consciousness.) If we start generating plans on what we saw, heard, etc., then that becomes a kamma viññāṇa with future expectations. That kamma viññāṇa is much more than “consciousness.”
What We Experience Is the Cumulative Effect of Many Citta
4. Therefore, those four entities arise together within a split-second, in the first citta.
- But the contents of citta keep changing as they arise in rapidly. Cittā (plural) always occur in packets (citta vithi,), and many of those arise in rapid succession.
- By the time we become aware of the ārammaṇa, the initial citta has evolved, and millions of citta may have run through the mind. That is how those parameters get “bundled up” and experienced as “aggregates” or “khandha.”
- Let us briefly go through that process step-by-step.
Creation of a “Mental Imprint” in the Mind
5. The mind must first re-create an image or an imprint of the rūpa that triggers the whole process. Let us first clarify how the mind first re-creates an image or an imprint of the rūpa that triggers the entire process of generating vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa.
- When an ārammaṇa comes to one of the five physical sense faculties, the brain prepares an imprint of the corresponding rūpa. For example, when looking at a tree, the eyes capture an image of that tree. That image then goes to the brain, where it is processed. At that point, there is not even an “image” like a photograph. It is just a “signal” created by the brain. Even scientists do not know what kind of “signal” or “information” the brain generates or exactly how we “see” a tree.
- Similar processes happen with the other sensory inputs. A sound comes to the ear as a “pressure wave” in air. The eardrum vibrates accordingly, and that vibration is somehow “converted” to a sound. That “sound” is heard only by the mind!
- Yes. Eyes cannot see, and ears cannot hear, etc. The brain cannot see, hear either. It is the MIND that experiences all six sensory inputs. Sense faculties and the brain work together to convert those external signals to a form that can be “felt” by the mind. Kammic energy controls all that.
The Critical Role of the Hadaya Vatthu
6. If you start thinking about it, you will realize how complicated that process is where an external rupa can lead to “thoughts” with “feelings.” That is the “hard problem of consciousness” that scientists and philosophers are trying to solve. See, “Hard Problem of Consciousness.”
- The bottom line is that it happens only in a hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind.) Only kammic energy can create a hadaya vatthu and the associated pasāda rupa. Details at “Body Types in 31 Realms – Importance of Manomaya Kaya.”
- When those signals generated by the brain are transmitted to the hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind,), it can interpret those signals as visuals, sounds, etc.
- That is the solution to the “hard problem of consciousness.” Abhidhamma describes the solution in great detail.
- Think about that for a while. When we see a tree, there is no trace of a “picture of a tree” inside the brain! The mind creates that picture, and it goes into rūpakkhandha. That is another way to see the difference between rūpa (a tree in the front yard) and rūpakkhandha (the mental imprint of that tree in mind.)
All Five “Mental Impressions” Arise Together!
7. The registration of that “mental imprint of a rūpa” in mind automatically leads to the arising of four mental parameters (nāma dhamma) in mind. Those are vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa.
- Therefore all five parameters (“mental imprint of a rūpa” and vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa) arise together!
- Now let us discuss how the evolution of these into “collections” or “aggregates” or “khandha” within a split-second.
Those Five “Mental Impressions” Quickly Evolve into Five Aggregates
8. The citta arises and evolves in nine stages during its lifetime of less than a billionth of a second. See, “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).” It is not necessary to know the details. I am trying to provide the “baseline picture.” Those who are interested can look into the details in that post.
- First, only mano saṅkhāra arises. The Buddha defined mano saṅkhāra as “vēdanā and saññā,” so saṅkhāra in this first citta has only vēdanā and saññā and no other cetasika (mental factors.)
- However, if the ārammaṇa is of interest (depending on one’s gati,), the mind starts adding more “cetasika.” Among the first are vitakka and vicāra. That starts the “deliberation process” in mind about various aspects of that ārammaṇa. Now, we are at the vaci saṅkhāra stage, and based on one’s gati (and the specific ārammaṇa) more cetasika (good or bad) may be added in.
- Therefore, by the time we become aware of the ārammaṇa, the mind is at the initial stages of vaci saṅkhāra. We may speak out at this stage if we become interested in the ārammaṇa. By the way, by this time, viññāṇa has changed to a kamma viññāṇa, because, now one is doing “vaci kamma.”
- If we become even more interested in the ārammaṇa, we may start doing things physically with kāya saṅkhāra.
- As an example, think about what happens when someone is mugged while walking on the street. In an instant, he would recognize what is happening, who is attacking and may try to fight back. It is always a good idea to analyze a real-life situation to clarify.
All Five Entities Instantly Become Five Aggregates
9. We started this post to consider what happens when a “mental imprint” registers in the mind due to an ārammaṇa (i.e., external rūpa,) However, not only that “snapshot” but the whole rūpakkhandha contributed to the arising of a citta with vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa. Let us clarify that now.
- Let us consider the first citta that arises due to the sight of a tree. As we discussed above, the brain generates a “mental imprint” of that tree and sends it to the hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind.) As we discussed in #2 above, the mind recognized what kind of a tree it is (to generate saññā) in the very first citta that received that “mental imprint” of the tree. For that recognition to happen, it must have compared that image with old “memories” of various types of trees and recognized it as an apple tree, for example.
- That means mind was not only dealing with that single “picture” sent by the brain but all of the rūpakkhandha! We remember that rūpakkhandha includes all past rūpa that one has experienced. For an average human, the mind will be able to recollect only those rūpa that one has experienced in this life.
- Thus, if one has not seen an apple tree (at least a picture of beforehand,), then one would NOT be able to recognize it as an apple tree. That is just a simple example.
- While this much detail is not necessary, it is good to realize how complicated this process of generating a citta is. And that happens in a billionth of a second! That is why the Buddha said that the mind is the fastest entity in the world. See, “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).”
Let us briefly review the four mental entities that arise in mind together with the “mental impression” of an external rūpa. That means the arising of the five aggregates or pañcakkhandha!
Vēdanā – Registration of the Experience as “Good,” ‘Bad,” or “Neutral”
10. Vēdanā comes from (“vé” + “danā”) which means “වීම දැනවීම” in Sinhala. That means to “become aware of something” when an ārammaṇa (thought object) comes to one of the six sense doors.
- When we sense something, first, we become aware of it. That is vēdanā.
- If the ārammaṇa comes through the physical body, that could be a sukha vēdanā, dukkha vēdanā, or adukkhamasukha vēdanā (meaning pleasant feeling, painful feeling, and neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.) These are the vipāka vēdanā.
- An ārammaṇa coming through any of the other five senses is initially felt as “neutral.” However, the mind MAY generate “samphassa-jā-vēdanā” (incorporating “san“) following that. See #11 below.
- We also need to be aware of “kāma guṇa.” For example, humans like certain types of food. Each animal species has its own “favorite foods.” Lions and tigers like to eat meat. Cows don’t eat meat, and they eat grass. They are a type of vipāka vēdanā (plural) that come through all six senses and “feel like” sukha vēdanā. In fact, most “samphassa-jā-vēdanā” have their origins in that type of vipāka vēdanā. That is discussed in, “Kāma Guṇa – Origin of Attachment (Tanhā).”
Two Types of Vēdanā
11. Based on vipāka vēdanā, we MAY generate “mind-made vēdanā” or “samphassa-jā-vēdanā.” This is where DEFILEMENTS (or “san“) are incorporated.
- For example, a sukha vēdanā COULD awaken our rāga anusaya. Then we may generate kāma sankappa (or sensual thoughts.) These are sōmanassa vēdanā (pleasant feelings) created by the mind.
- On the other hand, a dukkha vēdanā COULD trigger paṭigha anusaya, leading to dōmanassa vēdanā (angry thoughts) generated by the mind. That could happen, for example, if one accidentally cuts his finger while chopping an onion.
- Based on an adukkhamasukha vēdanā (coming through any of the six senses,) one MAY generate either sōmanassa or dōmanassa vēdanā out of ignorance (triggered by avijjā anusaya.) For example, one sees his enemy trip and fall, and a sōmanassa vēdanā may arise. In the above two cases also avijjā anusaya is there.
- Such a “samphassa-jā-vēdanā” arises due to saṅkhāra generated via avijjā, i.e., “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.” They do not occur in an Arahant. In all others, they may arise depending on one’s gati (or types of anusaya left.)
- For details, see, “Vipāka Vēdanā and “Samphassa jā Vēdanā” in a Sensory Event.”
12. Saññā is, at the very fundamental level, the recognition of an external stimulus. But it is more than that. We not only recognize that a given object is, say, a dog. But some people may be able to categorize it to be a bulldog. Thus saññā about a particular object depends on the person and his/her prior experiences.
- The same is true for the other four senses. When we hear a sound, we recognize what it is, say a bird singing. Some may be able to say what type of bird it is; some may not be. Any smell, taste, or touch works the same way. Without saññā, we cannot identify things around us, and also cannot communicate with each other meaningfully.
- One of the 31 realms of existence is the “Asañña realm.” There, beings have no saññā or perception. Thus in principle, those beings are without any awareness. Nothing registers in mind. If anyone has attained the 7th jhāna, the “Neva saññā Na’saññā, “then that person knows what it is like to born in the Asañña realm.
- Saññā is described in more detail in, “Saññā – What It Really Means” and “How to Cultivate the Anicca Saññā. “
Saṅkhāra – Our Response/Reaction to the External Stimulus
13. Saṅkhāra are our reaction to a given ārammaṇa. Three types of saṅkhāra are defined and discussed in the “Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44).” Let us summarize them now.
- Citta/mano saṅkhāra are saññā and vedanā. Therefore, citta/mano saṅkhāra arise with ALL citta.
- Vitakka and vicāra are vacī saṅkhāra because vitakka and vicāra arise before speaking can occur.
- Breathing is kāya saṅkhāra since ALL bodily activities (whether they have kammic consequences or not) depend on breathing (assāsa passāsā kāyikā ete dhammā kāyappaṭibaddhā).
- However, in both vacī and kāya saṅkhāra what counts for kamma generation is what kind of cetasika (good or bad) arise during those activities. For example, the act of stealing involves “bad” kāya saṅkhāra. Here, the greed cetasika is in kāya saṅkhāra.
Viññāṇa – Vipaka Viññāṇa and Kamma Viññāṇa
14. At the beginning of experiencing an ārammaṇa (external rupa,) there is the only vipāka viññāṇa. Since the ārammaṇa may come through any of the six sensory inputs, they can be of six types: cakkhu, sōta, ghāna, jivhā, kāya, and mano viññāna. They arise via, for example, “Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ” for “eye-consciousness” when seeing a rupa rupa. See, “Contact Between Āyatana Leads to Vipāka Viññāna.”
- But if we then start generating vacī or kāya saṅkhāra, that means we have become interested in that ārammaṇa. Then we will be making NEW kamma with kamma viññāṇa. That takes place in the Paṭicca Samuppāda steps, “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra; saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa.” See, “Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
- Therefore, both those type are in the viññāṇakkhandha.
Importance of Comprehending Key Pāli Words
15. Even though this post is a bit long, I hope it includes a lot of critical information that will help clarify the concept of the five aggregates (pañcakkhandha.)
- The above descriptions on vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa are just summaries.
- But I hope one can see that it is idiotic/dangerous to use English translations for saṅkhāra and viññāṇa as “mental formations” and “consciousness.” One will never be able to understand Buddha Dhamma with such interpretations.
- If one does not understand saṅkhāra (especially vacī and kāya saṅkhāra,), one would NOT be sandiṭṭhika. (or be able to “see” how one accumulates defilements or “san.”) See, “Paṭhamasandiṭṭhika Sutta (AN 6.47)” The English translations are not too bad, and one can get a good idea. However, the meaning of “sandiṭṭhika” is in the words itself: “san” + “diṭṭhi” or the “ability to see “san.”
- There is a subsection on “San” which I highly recommend.
- Furthermore, the terms “form aggregate” and “five aggregates” should be used with an understanding of what is meant by them.