Five Aggregates and Tilakkhaṇa – Introduction

May 27, 2020

We start a series of posts on the five aggregates and Tilakkhaṇa (anicca, dukkha, anatta.)

The Five Aggregates describe any Living Being’s “World”

1. The five aggregates (pañcakkhandhā) represent any living being together with its “external world.” It is not correct to say that the five aggregates are in one’s own “physical body.” Everything about a living being, including ALL past experiences and future expectations, is embedded in pañcakkhandhā. Furthermore, one’s gati, anusaya, etc., are all in pañcakkhandhā. Please read the previous posts in “The Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandha).”

  • What I summarized in those few posts is the material in many suttā in the Khandha Saṃyutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. There are also suttā in other parts of the Tipiṭaka.
  • In those suttā, the Buddha describes any given living being in terms of pañcakkhandhā: rupakkhandha, vedanākkhandha, saññākkhandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, viññāṇakkhandha.
  • Those are the five aggregates loosely translated as form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. As we have discussed, such translations are misleading. It is better to use the Pāli terms and learn their true BROADER meanings. For example, viññāṇa can be of two different types of kamma viññāṇa and vipaka viññāṇa. See, “Mōha/Avijjā and Vipāka Viññāṇa/Kamma Viññāṇa.”
Pañca Upādāna Khandhā (Five Clinging Aggregates) Is There Until Becoming an Arahant

2. We also discussed what is meant by pañca upādāna khandhā (loosely translated as “five clinging-aggregates”) in the section “The Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandha).”

  • Until attaining the Arahant stage, all living beings have pañca upādāna khandhā. A living Arahant has pañca khandhā but not pañca upādāna khandhā.
  • An Arahant‘s pañca khandhā will also cease to exist at the death of the physical body. That means an Arahant will not be reborn anywhere in the 31 realms.
The Definition of an “Ignorant Living Being” or “Satta

3. The Buddha explained what is meant by a “satta” or a “living being” to Rādha in the “Satta Sutta (SN 23.2).” “Rūpe kho, Rādha, yo chando yo rāgo yā nandī yā taṇhā, tatra satto, tatra visatto, tasmā sattoti vuccati. Vedanāya … saññāya … saṅkhāresu … viññāṇe yo chando yo rāgo yā nandī yā taṇhā, tatra satto, tatra visatto, tasmā sattoti vuccati”

Translated (just the meaning): “Rādha, when there is desire (chanda), rāga, and a perception of high value (nandī) of material form (rūpa), there is clinging (satto), strong clinging (visatto) for form, and then an ignorant living-being (satto) is spoken of. Similarly, when there is desire (chanda), rāga, and a perception of high value (nandī) of vedanā … saññā … saṅkhāra … viññāṇa, then a living-being is spoken of.”

  • Other translations at “Sentient Beings.”
  • Note that the Pāli word “satta” means “clinging” or “attach.” A strong version of clinging is “visatta.”
  • In other words, as long as there is upādāna for pañcakkhandhā (i.e., as long as there is pañcupādānakkhandhā) there is an “ignorant living being” or a “satta.” That living being has not comprehended the “real nature of this world” or “yathābhūta ñāṇa.”
Difference Between a “Satta” and “Puthujjano”

4. We also need to see the difference between the terms “satta” and “puthujjano.” The name “puthujjano” applies to a human being who has not heard and comprehended yathābhūta ñāṇa. The term satta” applies to any living being (includes Devā and Brahmā who have not attained any magga phala.)

  • I use the term “ignorant person” to differentiate an Ariya puggala (Noble Person) who is also a “person,” but has started cultivating yathābhūta ñāṇa.
  • Assāda Sutta (SN 22.129) defines the word “puthujjano” as, “an ignorant person (“puthujjano“) does not truly understand the pleasures, the drawbacks/dangers, and the liberation when it comes to the five aggregates.”
  • An Ariya puggala overcomes the “satta” status at eight levels (Sotapanna Anugāmi, Sotapanna, Sakadāgāmi Anugāmi, Sakadāgāmi, etc.)
  • Also, a Bodhisatta is still a “satta,” but proceeding towards “Bodhi” or the “Buddhahood.” We remember that a Bodhisatta can be born even in some higher animal species, but not in the other three apāyā.
  • Note that “satta” pronounced “saththa”.) See, “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1″ and the second part referred to in there.
Overcoming the “Satta” Status With the Comprehension of Tilakkhana

5. Using the analyses of the five aggregates and the “five clinging-aggregates,” we can get some insights into Buddha’s explanation of “suffering inherent in this world of 31 realms.” That explanation comes via the understanding of the Tilakkhana or anicca, dukkha, anatta. We now look at the connection between the five aggregates and Tilakkhaṇa.

  • The fourth characteristic of asubha appears in some suttā.
  • However, in most suttā, only the three characteristics of anicca, dukkha, anatta are discussed.
  • The essence of those characteristics is that craving for worldly things (rupa) with the perception of a “me” will only perpetuate the rebirth process leading to more suffering. We will discuss that in detail in upcoming posts.
  • However, we can get an idea by just looking at the key concepts that we have learned. Let us briefly discuss anatta and anicca.
Does “Anatta” Mean “No-Self”?

6. The representation of any living being with the five aggregates makes it clear that a permanent “soul” or a “ātma” cannot exist.

  • As we have discussed, none of those five aggregates has any “essence.” They all keep changing, even momentarily. In particular, they all undergo drastic changes when a living being moves from one realm to another. Such transitions have taken place an uncountable times in our deep past. We all have been born in the 26 realms (out of 31 realms, only Anāgāmis can be born in the five realms reserved for them.)
  • All of us have been born in the highest nevasaññanasaññayatana Brahma realm as well as in the lowest niraya realm.
  • If there were an unchanging “core” or “essence” as a soul was there, an Arahant would not be able to attain Parinibbāna. As we know, there is no trace of an Arahant in any of the 31 realms after Parinibbāna.
  • However, until one reaches the Arahant stage, it is also NOT correct to say that a “self” or a “me” does not exist. There is an ever-changing “lifestream” thinking, speaking, and doing things based on the view and perception of a “me” or “self” with a set of ever-changing “gati.”
  • Starting at the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage, one can begin to “see” that all those actions are based on Paṭicca Samuppāda. There is still a “self” with “gati” generating “abhisaṅkhāra” via “avijjā.”  But that “avijjā” will decrease with higher magga phala. “Sammā Diṭṭhi” becomes complete, and the perception of a “me” goes away only at the Arahant stage.
Does “Anicca” Mean “Impermanence”?

7. It is quite common these days to see the Pāli word “anicca” translated as “impermanence.” We can see the error in such a translation by looking at a simple  sutta. 

  • For example, the “Nandikkhaya Sutta (SN 22.51),” among others, state: “Aniccaññeva, bhikkhave, bhikkhu rūpaṃ aniccanti passati. Sāssa hoti sammādiṭṭhi.” or “A bhikkhu who sees rupa (form) as anicca has seen the anicca nature. He has Sammā Diṭṭhi.”
  • Most English translations INCORRECTLY translate that verse as “A bhikkhu who sees form as impermanent has seen the anicca nature. He has Sammā Diṭṭhi.”
  • Any reputable scientist knows that NO MATERIAL OBJECT in this world has permanent existence. See the following Scientific American article: “The Only Thing That Remains Constant Is Change.”  Does that mean those scientists all have “Sammā Diṭṭhi” and have attained Nibbāna? Of course not. Therefore, it must be clear that “anicca” CANNOT mean just “impermanence.”
  • We will discuss the real meanings of anatta and anicca in detail in this series in future posts.
The Need to examine the Tipiṭaka Without Biases

8. We need to be able to resolve such issues by using common sense rather than mechanically repeating such incorrect translations as “the truth.” Just because such statements are in “reputable books” or are “the opinions of reputable bhikkhus/scholars” does not mean they are compatible with the Tipiṭaka. We need to remind ourselves that Devadatta was a bhikkhu with abhiññā powers. Nagarjuna and Buddhaghosa are considered “scholars” by those who do not even believe in rebirth (and thus have micchā diṭṭhi.)

  • Their intentions may be good, but one needs to be able to accept errors in one’s thinking when clarified with substantial evidence.
  • It is dangerous to teach “wrong Dhamma” which will have corresponding consequences. Ignorance of mundane laws is not an excuse in a court of law. In the same way, ignorance of “the true teachings” is not an excuse, especially when the correct teachings are clear with evidence from the Tipiṭaka.
  • “Impermanence” is only a small part of the broad meaning of anicca. A single English word CANNOT convey the meaning of the word “anicca.” One needs to understand the meaning of the Pāli word and use that word.
Why Do Living Beings Crave Sensory Pleasures?

9. To “enjoy” sensory pleasures, the following two conditions must be met.

  • There must be a “me” or a “self” to “enjoy any pleasure.”
  • There must be contacts with five types of external rupa via the five physical senses. They are rupa rupa or “vaṇṇa rupa” (material objects), sadda rupa (sounds), gandha rupa (odors), rasa rupa (tastes), and phoṭṭhabba (body touches.) Furthermore, those rupa must be stable to provide long-lasting pleasures.

So, the average human makes the very best effort (and undergoes suffering) in seeking out such pleasures.

  • Those struggles only lead to more suffering, since both of the above assumptions are wrong in ultimate reality.
Both Those Assumptions Are Wrong Per Buddha

10. The Buddha pointed out the following regarding those two features.

  • There is no “me” or an “unchanging self” in ultimate reality. Any living being has a limited lifetime and subject to unexpected changes during its existence. There is no “core” or “substance” to any existence (like a “soul” or a “ātma.”) A given lifestream can be a Brahma, a Deva, or a human in some existences and an animal, a hungry ghost, or a “hell being” in other existences. Where is the “core”?
  • Any type of external rupa in this world also has a limited lifetime. It will also undergo unexpected changes during its existence. Thus, all those material “things” that we acquire with great effort do not last long. Furthermore, they become a burden since one needs to continually struggle to maintain them in good condition (think of houses, cars, one’s own physical body, etc.)

Therefore, both requirements for perceived happiness (an “unchanging self” and “stable external rupa“) are illusory.

  • That is one way to state the “previously-unheard Dhamma” (“pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu“) that the Buddha taught.
“Self” and “External Rupa” Have a Common Name – Sankata

11. Sankata is a key Pāli word. It comes from “san” + “kata.” As with many critically important Pāli words, the root “san” is there. A sankata is prepared via “san” or our tendency to “accumulate” things that only have a transient existence. A living being and what it enjoys are both sankata.

  • Both arise (the Pāli word for “arise” is “samudaya“) due to our fruitless actions based on those two wrong views about nature per #9 and #10 above. The key Pāli word “samudaya” comes from “san” + “udaya” or “arising due to “san.” You may want to refresh memory with “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Saṃsāra)” and “List of “San” Words and Other Pāli Roots.”
  • Both types of sankata arise (samudaya) via the universal process of Paṭicca Samuppāda, which starts with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.”
  • As we have discussed in many posts, the root cause of all suffering is abhi(saṅkhāra) that arise in our minds due to avijjā. Therefore, one way to explain the origin of suffering is ignorance (avijjā) of real nature or Tilakkhaṇa. That is the connection between the five aggregates and Tilakkhaṇa (and suffering.)
A Buddha Does Not Speculate on Anything

12. A Sammasambuddha, like Buddha Gotama, does not teach anything that he had not experienced/verified firsthand.

  • Several suttā in the Tipiṭaka discuss that. See, for example, the Vīmaṃsaka Sutta (MN 47).
  • There are many suttā in the Tipiṭaka that describe visits by the Buddha and some of his disciples to Brahma and Deva realms. I have discussed one of those, the “Brahmanimantanika Sutta (MN 49),” in the post, “Anidassana Viññāṇa – What It Really Means.”
  • There are many aspects in the teachings of the Buddha that are not discernible to an average human (puthujjano). Many of these phenomena can be verified by those who make progress on the path. They are also consistent with new findings by modern science. I have discussed some of them in “Mystical Phenomena in Buddhism?
  • Many people do not see the uniqueness of a Buddha. For them, he is just another philosopher. That assumption is wrong. A Buddha does not speculate on anything. But of course, each person needs to verify that. That is why I make an effort at to show the self-consistency within the Tipiṭaka and with many new findings in science.

In upcoming posts, we will continue the discussion on the connection between the five aggregates and Tilakkhaṇa (and suffering.)

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