Pañca Upādānakkhandhā – Introduction

May 19, 2020

Pañca Upādānakkhandhā – Key Role of Upādāna

Pañca Upādānakkhandhā is usually translated as “five grasping aggregates.” That does not explain much.

1. The concept of Pañca Upādānakkhandhā plays a critical role in Buddha’s teachings. In his first sermon, “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11),” the Buddha summarized dukkha (or suffering) in a single verse. That is, “Saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā.” The translation appears in most English texts as, “in brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.”

  • That translation does not convey the meaning of the verse until we understand what is meant by “pañcupādānakkhandhā.”
  • It is easy to see that the word “pañcupādānakkhandhā” comes from the combination of the three words: pañca, upādāna, and khandhā. Here, “pañca khandhā” means “five aggregates,” and “upādāna” means “the tendency to keep close.” As you will see, “keeping close” is a better translation than “grasping,” used in most translations.
  • Therefore, that verse indicates that suffering in this world arises due to our tendency to “keep close” to certain parts of those five “aggregates.”
  • We have already discussed some features of those “five aggregates.” See “The Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandha).”
Upādāna – Keeping Close “in the Mind”

2. Upādāna means “pulling something closer” (“upa” + “ādāna,” where “upa” means “close” and “ādāna” means “pull”).

  • It is critical to realize that upādāna happens ONLY in the mind.
  • Paṭicca Samuppāda describes phenomena that take place in the MIND. We can summarize Paṭicca Samuppāda simply as follows. Attaching to an ārammaṇa is taṇhā (gets “bonded” to it.) That leads to upādāna (keep it close in one’s mind.) That is the step, “taṇhā paccayā upādāna.” Also, see “Difference Between Tanhā and Upādāna.”
  • Furthermore, we saw that even the rupakkhandha is in mind. Many people have the perception that rupakkhandha is a “collection of rupa.” But we clarified rupakkhandha in the post “Difference Between Rupa and Rupakkhandha.”

3. In that post, we also discussed how some parts of rūpakkhandha become parts of rūpa upādānakkhandha or rūpupādānakkhandha.

  • Therefore, “pañcupādānakkhandhā” means “keeping those five aggregates (rupakkhandha, vedanākkhandha, saññākkhandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, viññāṇakkhandha) “close to one’s mind.” Then, one will be thinking, speaking, and taking actions based on particularly appealing parts of the five aggregates.
  • Again, all of rūpakkhandha, as well as the other four khandhā in pañca khandhā, are associated with the mind.
  • Thus, ALL of pañcupādānakkhandhā is associated with the mind. Those are what one thinks about and plan accordingly. A good example is to re-create a past sexual experience and to enjoy that. Another is to create a future expected experience in mind and to enjoy that. Both those activities involve pañcupādānakkhandhā.
  • As we can see, pañcakkhandhā is enormous and infinite. It has all our experiences from a beginning that cannot be discerned. But pañca upādānakkhandhā is a very small part of that.
Diṭṭhi and Taṇhā – Root Causes of Upādāna

4. We tend to keep something close to us if we believe it will be beneficial for us to do so. On the other hand, if we think something will be bad for us and can bring suffering, we would try to avoid it and try to keep it far away.

  • For example, if we know there is a bomb inside a beautiful object, we would try to get far away from it, even though it looks appealing.
  • Sometimes, we do not see dangers hidden in “things that appear appealing.”
  • An example I often give is a fish biting a worm on a hook. The fish cannot see the hidden hook or the fisherman holding the pole that is attached to the hook with a string. But we can see all that and we know what will happen to the fish if it bites that tasty bait.
  • However, we are unable to see the hidden dangers in sensual pleasures. Only a Buddha can figure out WHY attaching to sensual pleasures is dangerous, even if no immoral actions are involved. The question is, why sense pleasures are bad even if immoral actions (dasa akusala) are NOT involved? There are “hidden dangers” in sensory pleasures. See “Kāma Assāda – A Root Cause of Suffering.”
  • Have you seen ants getting stuck in spilled honey? They start drinking it and get stuck. They don’t see the “hidden danger” in a pool of tasty honey either.
Monkey Not Letting Go Even When the Life is in Danger

5. In the above example of the fish biting a “tasty bait” or the ants attracted to honey, at least one cannot see the “hidden danger.” However, look at what happens to the monkey in the following video:


  • The monkey could have let go of the grains in its fist, taken its hand out, and run away when it saw the hunter coming. (Note; I have set the video to stop early to show only the relevant portion for our discussion. If you play it again, you can see the whole video. The hunter wanted to find where the monkey’s water source was. So, he fed the monkey with salty food and let it go, and followed it.)
  • But it would not let go of the grains in its fist. It does not want to let go of its “tasty grains” even while seeing the danger. It is HOPING that it could get the hand out WITH the grains.
  • That is why even a Sotapanna has difficulty getting rid of the desire for sensual pleasures, even though he/she can SEE the dangers in them.
  • However, a large part of upādāna has been removed for a Sotapanna. He/she would NOT engage in any immoral deeds to fulfill sensual desires. For example, he/she would not engage in sexual misconduct at any time. The desire for sensual pleasures will keep one bound to the kāma loka. But it is only IMMORAL DEEDS (dasa akusala) done to gain sensual pleasures that will make one eligible for rebirth in an apāya.
  • In other words, a Sotapanna has not removed “kāma upādāna.” An Anāgāmi has removed “kāma upādāna.Thus, the four types of upādāna need to be removed in stages.
Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandhā) Fall into Two Main Categories

6. From our previous posts in “The Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandha),” we know that the five aggregates can be separated out into two MAIN categories: past and present.

  • There are 11 types of entities in each aggregate. See “Difference Between Rūpa and Rūpakkhandha.” However, all of them belong to three time frames: past, present moment, and future. The “present moment” is gone in a split second. The other categories (like internal and external or near and far) belong to each time frame. Thus, effectively we have two MAIN types in each aggregate.
  • Those two are the “past aggregates” and “future aggregates.” Put in another way; the five aggregates encompass our “memories” and our ‘future expectations/hopes.” 
Pañca Upādānakkhandhā – Reliving Memories and Making Future Plans

7. Pañcupādānakkhandhā can be thought of as mainly the following. Significant “events” that happened in the past and a set of events that we would like to see happen in the future. Put in simple terms, pañcupādānakkhandhā or “upādāna of pañcakkhandhā” means the following two cases.

  • Our tendency to constantly think, speak, and act to re-create past experiences.
  • In addition, we also do the same to fulfill future plans/hopes. 

Those activities are done via mano, vaci, and kāya (abhi)saṅkhāra. We will discuss that in the next post.

Upādāna – Why Is It Easier to Recall Somethings Than Others?

8. From our discussion so far in this series of posts, it is clear that records of ALL our past actions (and speech and thoughts) are “stored permanently” in “nāma loka.” You may want to refresh memory by reading “Memory Records- Critical Part of Five Aggregates.”

  • However, we know that it is easier to recall some of the past events than most others. In fact, we cannot even recall some things that happened just yesterday!
  • That is because there are events that we tend to “keep close” in our minds. That can happen out of greed, anger, or ignorance. If we eat tasty food, we would like to taste it again. If someone did something “bad,” we would like to remember that out of anger. We also tend to remember “funny things” of no significance (dirty jokes, for example) out of ignorance.
  • In addition to just “a record” or “nāmagotta,” such “memorable” events leave energy in the “nāma loka.” Those are kammic energies and are in “kamma bhava.” They originate in kamma viññāṇa in javana citta. Such events involve abhisaṅkhāra.
The Difference Between “Nāmagotta” and “Kamma Bija

9. A record of any and all events goes into “nāmagotta” as soon as that event is done. But some events involve “good” or “bad” strong kamma generated via abhisaṅkhāra. As we have noted, there are three types of abhisaṅkhāra: apuñña abhisaṅ­khāra, puñña abhi­saṅ­khāra, and āneñja a­bhisaṅ­khāra. 

  • Those are the types of abhisaṅ­khāra in the “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā” step in Paṭicca Samuppāda. See “Kamma, Saṅkhāra, and Abhisaṅkhāra – What Is “Intention”?.
  • We can put it in another way by saying that such actions lead to the formation of kamma bija. They have the potential to bring kamma vipāka. Especially strong kamma vipāka can lead to rebirth.
  • However, if such kamma bija do not get a chance to bring their vipāka, their energies run out over a long time. At that point, they become just “nāmagotta” without any associated energy.
  • A kamma bija, on its own, can bring us an ārammaṇa to the mind (i.e., bring back the memory of the event) even if we are not trying to recall it.
  • While a kamma bija can bring an ārammaṇa to mind on its own (due to its energy,) a “nāmagotta” NEEDS TO BE recalled. We will discuss that later.
  • Furthermore, it is easier to recall those events associated with strong kamma bija. Such events are of importance to us, and thus, it is easy to recall them. Nāmagotta, on the other hand, are more challenging to recall. However, there are a handful of people who can do that in fantastic detail (see below.)
Proof That All Nāmagotta Remain Intact

10. Strong evidence is beginning to emerge that there is a “complete record” of one’s past, just like a videotape. These studies started with Jill Price, who contacted a team of scientists in the early 2000s about her ability to recall anything from 1974 onward. Here is a video of her with Diane Sawyer on an ABC News program:

  • Note that she says she can “see” in her mind what happened on any day from 1974. It is not like she recalls a “summary” or the gist of what happened. She can actually recall the whole episode in detail. Even the day and date come out effortlessly.
  • Note that she can remember ONLY those things SHE had EXPERIENCED. That means just the portion of HER pañcakkhandhā from 1974. For example, if she had not watched the TV series “Dallas,” she would not be able to say on which day “JR was shot.”
  • Since then, more people have provided similar accounts. See “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM).”
  • This is why some children can recall their previous life. The ability to recall a previous life means that the memories could NOT have been in the brain and were ‘stored” outside the physical body. See “Evidence for Rebirth” and “Boy Who Remembered Pāli Suttas for 1500 Years.”
  • Ancient yogis who developed abhiññā powers could see all past lives in the present eon or Maha Kappa. But the Buddha could see numerous eons within a short time.

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