Five Aggregates – Introduction

Re-written April 17, 2020; revised April 19, 2020


1. Five aggregates (pañcakkhandha) represent ANY given living-being. In a series of posts, I will try to explain this concept by addressing the following points.

  • Most people today, including many scientists, believe that a “person” exists as long as the physical body exists. We are born (due to no apparent reason), then we live our lives, and when we die, that is the end of the story. Enjoy life while it lasts! That is the “materialist view.”
  • Then there are people belonging to various religions who believe the following. At the end of this life, one will either go to hell or merge with the Creator (in heaven) for an eternity. For them, there is something in us in addition to the physical body. That is the “soul” that either goes to hell or heaven. We can call this the “soul theory” for simplicity. In Hinduism, it is a little bit different, but primarily the same result. They believe that the “mental body” or the “ātman” goes through many “re-incarnations,” but the ultimate destiny is to merge with “Mahā Brahma” and to exist there forever.
  • Those are straightforward concepts to grasp. But they do not have a solid “scientific” or logical foundation. Neither “theory” explains how each of us came to existence. The Buddha’s explanation is very different and based on the Principle of Causality, which is Paṭicca Samuppāda. However, it takes a real effort to understand fully.
  • This is going to be another way that I will try to explain Buddha Dhamma. It could be simpler than my previous approaches. Of course, they are all self-consistent. The most recent series of posts based on a bit deeper analysis is at “Origin of Life.”
Mind and Matter – Where Is the Connection?

2. How consciousness arises is THE critical issue that no one else but a Buddha can provide a logical and self-consistent answer. Materialists are focusing on the brain as the origin of thoughts or consciousness. However, that is a futile effort since inert matter (atoms and molecules) can NEVER give rise to “mental phenomena” like pain, joy, jealousy, greed. That should be self-evident!

  • The proponents of an “unchanging soul” BELIEVE (without any evidence or a proof-of-principle) that consciousness (and thoughts) arise in a “mental body” and that mental body (soul or ātman) detaches from the physical body at death and goes to hell or heaven.
  • The Buddha said that there is a “mental body” (gandhabba) that detaches from the physical body, but that mental body is not an unchanging entity like a “soul” or an “ātman.” Furthermore, that mental body can take many different forms based on the existence in one of the 31 realms of existence. For example, the mental-body of a human is very different from that of an animal, a Deva, or a Brahma. There is no unchanging “soul” or an “ātman.” That should be very clear since, at Parinibbāna of an Arahant, no trace of that Arahant left in “this world of 31 realms.” There was NOTHING of the essence, to begin with!
The Irrelevant Issue of a “No-Self” in Buddha Dhamma

3. So, it should be quite clear that the idea of a permanent “self” is absent in Buddha’s teachings. However, the Buddha taught that it is also not correct to say a “self’ does not exist for an average human. In other words, a “self” exists until one fully comprehends that the root cause of saṃsāric suffering is the perception (saññā) of a “self” or “me.” See, “An Apparent “Self” Is Involved in Kamma Generation.”

A Living-Being – Body and Mind

4. Each living-being (whether we see them or not) has a body and a mind. Some of the “bodies” in other realms are so subtle that we cannot see them. Nevertheless, a living-being has at least a “trace of matter.”

  • Furthermore, our mind is not working at all times. While we are in a deep sleep, we are “totally out of this world.” It is as if we did not exist during that time. That is especially true if one becomes unconscious. That is a critical point to understand.
  • We need to realize that we do not have either an “unchanging body” or “an unchanging mind.” Even during a lifetime, both those change moment-to-moment. The physical body (part of rupa) is different from rūpakkhandha.
Rupa Versus Rupakkhandha

5. The Buddha included all types of matter that one has encountered at any time in one huge “collection” or “aggregate.” That is the “rupa aggregate” or “rupa khandha” or “rūpakkhandha.” 

  • That means what is in the rūpakkhandha are not real (physical) rupa. Whatever observed becomes just a mental imprint or a memory, moments after observed. I will discuss this in detail in the next post.
  • The Buddha divided the mind or “mental aspects” into four categories: vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa. These entities arise and fade away, but a record of them exists (going back to an untraceable beginning.) Those “collections” or ‘aggregates” are vedanākkhandha, saññākkhandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, and viññāṇakkhandha
The Five Aggregates Describe any “Living-Being”

6. As we will see, a living being’s existence, together with experiences, can be described entirely in terms of those five aggregates. The Buddha showed that those five entities arise and fade away in a manner fully explained in terms of causes and their effect. There is no hidden “soul” or an “ātman.”

  • However, at any given time, there is a “person” with a set of gati (habits/character) responsible for the actions done at that time. It is not an automated process. That is why we cannot say that there is no ‘self’ up to the Arahant stage. There is a “self” doing things on his/her own. Of course, only until seeing the futility of such “doings” or “(abhi)saṅkhāra.”
  • That last bullet point is what we need to understand. We will discuss that systematically, this time with a little bit different approach.
One Type of Consciousness (Vipāka Viññāṇa) Arises With an Ārammana

7. We tend to think of the mind as our own. But in reality, our consciousness arises based on two conditions.

  • First, we must be awake, and a sensory event must trigger one of the six senses. If someone is unconscious, no matter how loud we talk, he will not hear. No matter how hard we shake him, he will not feel, etc.
  • Second, one of our six senses must be stimulated by an external sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or a memory. The first five come through our five physical senses, and the sixth are the thoughts that come to our mind directly.
  • An “external trigger” that initiates a new consciousness is called an ārammana. Such an ārammana comes to the mind via one of the five physical sensory-inputs or directly to the mind. Then one of the six consciousness (viññāṇa) arise. These are vipāka viññāṇa. They just come in due to prior kamma, as kamma vipāka.
  • These types of vipāka viññāṇa arise via, for example, “Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjāti cakkhu viññāṇaṃ.” See, “Contact Between Āyatana Leads to Vipāka Viññāna.”
Second Type of Consciousness (Kamma Viññāṇa) May Arise Based on an Ārammana

8. If that external “thought object” or “ārammana” is of interest, then we start generating CONSCIOUS THOUGHTS about that ārammana.

  • At this point, our consciousness switches to a new type called a kamma viññāṇa. That is because this new consciousness is more than just “consciousness” or “awareness.” Now we are interested in pursuing what we have seen, heard, etc. and to “accomplish something more.”
  • For example, a friend may offer a piece of cake, and the taste of that cake is a vipāka viññāṇa. But if we generate a craving for that cake, we may want to taste it again in the future. We may start thinking about how to either buy it or make it, and ask the friend about those two possibilities. That future expectation is in the new type of kamma viññāṇa generated via “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.”
  • In other words, now we have gone beyond “just experiencing the taste of the cake” or the “vipāka viññāṇa.” Now we have a future expectation to taste it again with a “kamma viññāṇa” generated via our conscious thoughts (vaci saṅkhāra.)
  • Stated in another way, we have initiated a Paṭicca Samuppāda process with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” and “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa.” That viññāṇa is a kamma viññāṇa.
A Living-Being – Body With a Mind Interacting With the External World

9. What we discussed above in summary form is what our lives are all about.  We have a physical body with a mind. The physical body gets sensory inputs from the external world. Then we think about them and pursue some sensory inputs that we like and try to avoid those we do not like.

  • In that process, we create new kamma that leads to the arising of a new body when the current body dies.
  • Of course, the types of bodies that arise in future lives depend on the types of kamma that we do, based on those sensory experiences. If one kills another person to acquire that person’s wealth, then one will be reborn in a bad realm (apāyā.) If one generates compassionate thoughts about hungry people and offer them food, one may be reborn in a good realm.
  • That is how the rebirth process continues.

10. We have laid the framework to look at the conscious life and the rebirth process from a viewpoint based on the five aggregates or pañcakkhandha.

  • In this analysis, the whole world is divided into just five categories. One is the rupa aggregate, the “collection of MEMORIES of all rupa” or the rūpakkhandha. That includes memories of all “material objects,” including our physical bodies and all external objects that one has seen in all previous lives. We will discuss that in the next post.
  • The other four aggregates or “heaps” or “collections” of four types of mental entities: vedanā (feelings), saññā (perception), saṅkhāra (thoughts), and viññāṇa (vipāka viññāṇa or kamma viññāṇa.)
  • We will discuss each category in detail in future posts.
  • I am re-writing the sub-section on the “Five Aggregates” and will be replacing the old posts there. Of course, now I have many recent related posts to provide more information.
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