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The Five Aggregates: Buddhism and the Human Personality


The Five Aggregates (khandhas)

According to Buddhist thought, in particular the Theravāda tradition, the human personality is composed of five aggregates (khandhas).  These constituents are often referred to as, ‘The five aggregates of clinging’.  The five aggregates, in addition to the chain of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda), are believed to play an integral role in the formation of suffering (dukkha) or ‘clinging to the wheel of suffering’.  The existence of suffering is known as the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.  Attachment or clinging to any of the khandhas continues the wheel of suffering, through the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (saṃsāra).  It is the eradication of these attachments and the realization of the self as impermanent that leads an individual to the path of eliminating dukkha.  Although no formal definition of the aggregates is found in Buddhist literature, they can be rudimentarily defined as: matter (rūpa); feeling (vedanā); perception (saññā); volition (saṅkhāra); consciousness (viññāna).


Defined as matter and form, rūpa is comprised of four primary elements: earth, water, fire and air.  In the context of the human being, these elements are linked to various physiological processes that reflect the nature of these forces.  The earth element emulates bodily elements which are solid such as teeth, nails and bone.  This element supports the others, much like the earth itself supports the various forms that inhabit its sphere.  Liquid bodily constituents such as blood and saliva are represented by the water element, which is further characterized for its liquidity and binding nature.  The heat produced to process foods is represented by the fire element and is indicative of the quality of temperature.  The last of the primary elements, air, is attributed to motion and mobility.  This element is represented in biological functions such as the various abdominal gases.  These four elements are interdependent – each relying on the existence of the others.  Further, they are believed to exist in equal quantities, yet varying intensities in all matter.  Rūpa is the only physical or material aggregate, while the remaining four are more aptly described as cognitive.  The realization of the impermanence of matter, including the physical self, is integral toward eradicating dukkha.


Vedanā, described as feeling, sensation or emotion, is typically categorized as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.  The experience or perception of vedanā occurs through the six sense organs.  Five of these sense organs are physical, including: eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body, while the sixth, mind, falls into the mental realm.  Despite vedanā being primarily based on the physical senses of the body, there is an integral mental aspect comprising them as well.  The eradication of vedanā, particularly craving arising from pleasurable sensations, is an important aspect for the annihilation of dukkha.  Emotions are a fundamental aspect of being human; however, it is the assessment, attachment and proliferation of these emotions that lead an individual toward a path of unhappiness or a path of the eradication of suffering.  While vedanā is an aspect of craving that leads to unsatisfactory states, it can also be attributed to states that are more wholesome and conducive toward annihilating dukkha.  This is primarily achieved by one who has mastered acknowledging and then ‘letting go’ of vedanā.  While vedanā can lead to detrimental states, such as craving, it is not the only contributory factor to these states.


Craving can also arise from certain conditions of saññā, which is typically defined as perception; however, more accurately thought of as recognition.  Similar to vedanā, saññā is categorized by six sense areas: visual form, sound, smell, taste, touch, and mental form.  It is also further classified as wholesome, unwholesome or neutral.  Saññā is responsible for how an individual perceives feelings (vedanā), and may have both positive and negative effects on the eradication of dukkha.  Wholesome saññā leads to the recognition of the nature of certain liberating characteristics of existence, such as impermanence, selflessness, and pain.  In contrast, unwholesome saññā leads to the interpretation of reality that is not favourable toward liberation and the eradication of dukkha.  It is the propagation and attachment to obsessions that hinder spiritual progress.  In order for spiritual progression to occur, an individual must recognize notions of the permanent self as merely obstacles on the path of enlightenment where one recognizes the true nature of reality as impermanent and without self or ‘selfless’.


The fourth aggregate, saṅkhāra, is the most difficult of which to formulate a concrete definition.  It is often associated with volition, will and disposition.  Saṅkhāra is also viewed as all conditioned phenomena encompassed within the entire universe.  Philosophically, this can be thought of as all things that cause and are caused.  The concept of karma (kamma) is also connected to saṅkhāra as seen through the association of volition viewed as any action which produces a result.  Saṅkhāra falls under the realm of mental formations that have an imminent influence on an individual’s situation.  There are 52 mental elements that constitute saṅkhāra and these can be further categorized as positive, negative or neutral.  The kind of saṅkhāra results from its interaction with the other aggregates and the subsequent influence this has on an individual’s kamma.  Particularly, this cognitive phenomenon plays an important role in the formation of the final aggregate; however, the interdependent nature of all five aggregates must be recognized as a fundamental aspect in binding an individual to dukkha.


The fifth and final aggregate, viññāṇa, is most often translated as consciousness; however, it is as difficult to define as saṅkhāra.  As with previous aggregates, viññāṇa can be divided into six categories of sense.  These six kinds of consciousness are visual (eyes and material forms), auditory (ears and sounds), olfactory (nose and smells), gustatory (tongue and tastes), corporeal (body and touching), mental (mind and cognitive states).  Viññāṇa is seen as displaying or manifesting the characteristics of the other four aggregates, that is all conditioned phenomenon.  These inseparable components arise together and create the formation of an abstract, intangible mental representation of the self.    It is the realization of the impermanent nature of the self that leads to the eradication of dukkha.

These five khandas are integral to the theory of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda).  The relationship of each of these aggregates to each other, and to paṭiccasamuppāda, speaks to the conditioned causal nature of all things.  It is the conditioned arising of form, feeling, sensation, mental formation and consciousness that lead to ignorance, craving and clinging which bind an individual to the wheel of suffering.  As such, an individual will continue to experience dukkha through rebirth (saṃsāra).  Through meditation practices an individual may realize all that causes is caused, and the impermanent nature of reality and the self.  It is here where one finds enlightenment and freedom from the wheel of saṃsāra.  This freedom leads to the state of nirvana (nibbāna) which is the highest attainment of the Buddhist practitioner – namely, the transcendence of mind and matter.

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Further Readings:

Bodhi, Bhikku. (1976). Aggregates and Clinging Aggregates.  Pali Buddhist Review 1(2), 91-102, accessed March 14, 2012, http://www.ukabs.org.uk/ukabs/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/PBR-1.2-1976.pdf.

This article provides an explanation of the meaning of “clinging aggregates” as a whole concept, rather than breaking the aggregates down into their separate parts.  It further illustrates the relationship of the aggregates to the concept of dukkha.  Beginners will find this article difficult without established knowledge of the meaning of each of the aggregates.

Boisvert, Mathieu. (1995). The Five Aggregates: Understanding Theravada Psychology and Soteriology.

Boisvert provides a comprehensive overview of each of the aggregates and their relationship to the theory of dependent origination.  Overviews of many arguments and translations assist in understanding the complex nature of translating the ancient texts.  For beginners this book would be the most useful for providing more in-depth knowledge on the subject, particularly within the Theravāda tradition.

De Silva, Padmasiri. (2005). An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology, 4th Edition.

This easy-to-read book provides an overview of general concepts in Buddhism that relate to general psychological models.  Beginners will find this book as a straight-forward introduction to many Buddhist concepts that intersect with psychology, including discussion of the five aggregates.

Kalupahana, David J. (1987).  The Principles of Buddhist Psychology.

This complex and comprehensive book provides a comparison of Buddhist thought and psychological concepts.  A chapter entitled, “The Buddha’s Conception of Personhood” provides a discussion on each of the aggregates.  A good book for beginners who are interested in gaining knowledge of the aggregates and many other concepts of the notion of self and the mind in Buddhist thought.

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