FIVE AGGREGATES OF CLINGING (PANCHA-UPADANAKKHANDA) IN THERAVADA BUDDHISM
NOVEMBER 6, 2017 | ARIUBEY
Five Aggregates of Clinging (Pancha-upadanakkhanda) in Theravada Buddhism
Dr. Ari Ubeysekara
Lord Gautama Buddha who lived in India during the sixth and fifth centuries BC, was a Supreme human being who attained full enlightenment. The Buddha attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) on the full moon day of the month of May at a place called Bodh Gaya. Having attained full enlightenment at the age of 35 years through His own effort with no help from any teacher, Gautama Buddha decided to teach the path of liberation that He discovered to the others as well in order to help them attain enlightenment through their own effort and escape from human suffering and the cycle of birth and death (samsara). The Buddha first wanted to teach His two previous teachers Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, but they had already passed away by then. The Buddha then decided to give His first sermon to the five ascetic companions who had supported Him during the previous six years named Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji. At that time they were staying at the Deer park at Isipathana now called Sarnath near Varanasi, India. The Buddha walked one hundred and fifty miles from Bodh Gaya to Isipathana and delivered the first sermon called the Dhammachakkappavattana Sutta, meaning turning of the Wheel of the Truth. In this sermon, the Buddha expounded on the Middle Path to liberation, the Path that avoids the two extremes of self-indulgence in sensual pleasures and self-mortification, and disclosed the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths
The Truth of universal suffering (dukkha arya sacca)
The Truth of the origin of suffering (samudaya arya sacca)
The Truth of the cessation of suffering (nirodha arya sacca)
The Truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering (magga arya sacca)
The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha arya sacca)
The First Noble Truth is the fact that all forms of existence are subject to unavoidable and inevitable suffering (dukkha). The Pali word dukkha which has no adequate equivalent in English language can mean not only suffering, pain, sorrow, and misery as commonly known, but also dis-satisfaction, imperfection or un-satisfactoriness. Suffering can be both physical suffering and mental suffering as declared by the Buddha in His first sermon;
“Birth is suffering.
Ageing is suffering.
Sickness is suffering.
Death is suffering.
Association with the unpleasant is suffering.
Dissociation from the pleasant is suffering.
Not to receive what one desires is suffering.
In short, the five aggregates of clinging is suffering”
While suffering due to birth, ageing, sickness, death, association with the unpleasant, dissociation from the pleasant and not receiving what one desires is commonplace and understandable in most other religions, the statement that “ In short, the five aggregates of clinging is suffering” is unique to the Buddhist doctrine.
The Five Aggregates
Form or matter (rupa)
Feeling or sensation (vedana)
Mental formation (sankhara)
Khandhas in Pali language and Skandhas in Sanskrit language mean aggregates, heaps, bundles or groupings. These five aggregates together constitute the Psycho-physical complex or mind and matter (nama-rupa) described as a being or personality and can be said to cover the whole range of experiences of a living being. The five aggregates function together as a group to produce all our personal experiences. The first aggregate of form represents the material aspect while the other four aggregates represent a variety of mental actions. They arise due to physical and mental antecedent conditions only to cease instantly and are in a constant state of flux with no stable or permanent entity. As such, they can be described as five dynamic processes rather than five static elements or factors. They constantly arise and cease, so they are impermanent (anicca), and because they are impermanent they are suffering (dukkha) and lack any stable entity or self (anatta).
There are three different types of suffering described in Buddhist teaching;
Dukkha dukkha – suffering due to any type of physical pain and mental distress.
Viparinama dukkha – suffering caused by the fact that everything, including the happy and pleasant experiences are not stable, but are transient, and subject to change.
Sankhara dukkha – suffering due to the constant change inherent in any conditioned phenomena (sankhara). Sankhara dukkha is the type of suffering that most people find it difficult to comprehend.
The aggregate of matter represents the aspect of materiality (rupa) while the mind (nama) aspect consists of the four non-material mental aggregates of feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formation (sankhara) and consciousness (vinnana). According to the Buddha’s higher teaching (Abhidhamma), the mind aspect consists of the mind (citta) and the 52 mental factors (cetasikas). The 89 types of mind (citta) or 121 types in the longer description, is the aggregate of consciousness (vinnana). Two mental factors (out of 52) of feeling (vedana) and perception (sanna) are included in the aggregates of feeling (vadana) and perception (sanna). All the other 50 mental factors are included in the aggregate of mental formation (sankhara).
The five aggregates that constitute what we call an individual or personality are themselves conditioned phenomena in a state of continuous flux arising and ceasing from moment to moment with no persisting or permanent nature in them. One has no ownership or control over them and when one identifies with them as “I” or “me”, it can only lead to suffering (dukkha) due to their very transient nature.
In the Devadaha Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, Ven. Sariputta, one of the two Chief Disciples of the Buddha, has stated that the Buddha’s advice was to subdue desire and passion for the five aggregates of clinging. Because when one is not free from passion, desire, love, thirst, fever and craving for the five aggregates of clinging, then from any change and alteration in the five aggregates, there arises sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. However, when one is free from passion, desire, love, thirst, fever and craving for the five aggregates of clinging, then from any change and alteration in them there does not arise any sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair (1).
During the time of the Buddha, there were two prevalent doctrines with regard to the nature of an individual or personality. The first was the theory of eternalism (sassata–vaada) which believed that there was a permanent and enduring entity, a metaphysical self called the atman or soul which after the death of the physical body will transmigrate from existence to existence until it reunites with Brahma, the Creator. The second was the theory of annihilationism, nihilism or materialism (uccheda-vaada), which believed that the body and the soul will both annihilate at the time of death with nothing remaining.
The Buddha rejected both of those doctrines as both the doctrines believed in the existence of an enduring and fixed entity or a soul either on an eternal or a temporary basis. The Buddha stated that there is no metaphysical self and that an individual or personality is nothing but a Psycho-physical complex (nama-rupa), consisting of the five aggregates of material form, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness which are interdependent and none of them can exist without the presence of others.
There are two types of truth in the world; conventional truth (sammuthi sacca) and ultimate truth (paramaththa sacca). According to Buddhist teaching, the ultimate truth is that there is no permanent, unchanging meta-physical entity called self but, an empirical self which is nothing but a Psycho-physical complex of mind-matter (nama–rupa) consisting of the dependently arisen five aggregates. The use of the terms such as an “individual”, “person”, “I” or “you” is just a conventional way of describing this empirical self.
All physical and mental phenomena in existence can be divided into conditioned (sankata) and unconditioned (asankata) phenomena. Nibbana, the state of final liberation from suffering and the cycle of birth and death has been described as an unconditioned phenomenon while all other phenomena in existence including the five aggregates of clinging are conditioned phenomena. The conditioned phenomena arise dependent on certain causes and conditions and cease to exist when the causative conditions change or cease to exist. Hence, it is the nature of all conditioned phenomena to arise and cease to exist on a continuous basis from moment to moment with no sense of permanency.
In the Parivatta sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya (collection of the Buddha’s Grouped Discourses), the Buddha has stated the significance of realising the true nature of the five aggregates with the following statement;
“Now, as long as I did not have direct knowledge of the fourfold round with regard to these five clinging-aggregates, I did not claim to have directly awakened to the unexcelled self-awakening”
The fourfold direct knowledge that the Buddha was referring to, was with regard to;
Direct knowledge of each aggregate
Direct knowledge of the origination of each aggregate
Direct knowledge of the cessation of each aggregate
Direct knowledge of the path of practice leading to the cessation of each aggregate (2)
The Buddha has likened the five aggregates to five different insubstantial phenomena as follows;
Material form to a lump of foam
Feeling to a water bubble
Perception to a mirage
Mental formation to a trunk of a plantain tree with no central hard wood
Consciousness to an illusion
Personality View (sakkaya ditthi)
This is the self-identification view which mistakenly identifies with one of the five aggregates of the Psycho-physical complex of mind-matter (nama-rupa) as “self”, ”soul”, “I” or “me”. In Buddhist teaching, clinging to the aggregates believing them to constitute a permanent and absolute entity like “I” or “Me” has been described as an illusion which can only result in eventual suffering and continuous existence in the cycle of birth and death (samsara). Identification with a self has been described as being responsible for the development of mental defilements such as egoism, conceit, craving, attachment, selfishness, ill-will, hatred etc. Self-identification with any one of the five aggregates will lead to the development of clinging (upadana) towards that aggregate. The true nature of an aggregate is that it is impermanent, in a state of constant change and hence, it is inevitable that this clinging will eventually cause grief and suffering. There are three possible ways in which self identification can take place.
This is mine – due to craving (tanha)
This I am – due to conceit (mana)
This is myself – due to wrong view (ditthi)
In the Brahmajala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya (the collection of the Buddha’s long discourses), the Buddha has described 62 bases of wrong views prevalent among the spiritual leaders during the Buddha’s time, and among all such wrong views, the most commonly held wrong view was described as the personality view or self view (sakkaya ditthi) (3).
Personality belief (sakkaya ditthi) is the first of the ten fetters or shackles (samyojana) that keep one bound to the cycle of birth and death. It is completely abandoned only when one attains the first noble stage of the Buddhist path of liberation, called Stream Entry (sotapanna). By applying four types of this false belief of a self to each of the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness) there are 20 different types of personality belief (sakkaya ditthi). For the form or the body (rupa), the following 4 types of self view are possible;
Assumption of the body to be the self
Assumption of the self as possessing the body
Assumption of the body as within the self
Assumption of the self as within the body
Likewise, the same 4 types of self view can be applied to the other four aggregates of feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness.
The five aggregates are mere transitory dynamic phenomena with no substantial entity in them. They are conditioned by ignorance, craving and previous volitional formations but, by projecting an identity of a self into one, more or all of the five aggregates one creates suffering and continued existence in the cycle of birth and death.
The form or matter aggregate (rupa khandha)
The aggregate of matter includes the four primary elements (mahabhutha rupa) and the secondary physical phenomena derived from them (upadaya rupa). The four primary elements are;
Solidity or earth element (pathavi)
Fluidity or water element (apo)
Heat or fire element (thejo)
Motion or air element (vayo)
These four primary elements are the fundamental matter present in all the existing material substances with no exception. In Buddhist teaching, form or matter (rupa) is described as such because it is deformed, disturbed or broken (ruppati) by elements such as cold, heat, hunger, thirst, flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun and snakes etc. The aggregate of matter is present not only in our physical bodies but, also in the bodies of other living creatures as well as all the in-animate physical objects present in the world. The four primary elements are interdependent on each other and none of them is able to exist on their own without the presence of the other three elements. For example, earth element contains not only the earth element but also the other three elements of water, fire and air. They are present in equal quantities in all material phenomena, the prominence of one particular element being due to its greater intensity compared to the other three elements rather than its quantity.
According to Abhidhamma (Buddha’s Higher Teaching) the derivatives of the above four primary elements consist of 24 different secondary physical phenomena that include the five sense organs of the body namely;
The faculty of sight – eye
The faculty of hearing – ear
The faculty of smell – nose,
The faculty of taste – tongue
The faculty of touch – body
The derivatives also include the external objects perceived by the internal sense organs excluding the tangible objects perceived by the body, which are composed of the three elements of earth, fire and air;
The rest of the derivatives are femininity, masculinity, heart-base, life faculty, bodily intimation, verbal intimation, space, bodily lightness, malleability, wieldiness, integration, continuity, decay, impermanence and nutriment (4).
According to Buddhist teaching, whatever kind of materiality there is, whether past, present or future, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, that is connected with mental defilements and subject to clinging has been described as the materiality or form aggregate of clinging. Form or materially can originate in four ways;
From past wholesome or unwholesome volitional actions (kamma)
From consciousness (citta)
From temperature, both heat and cold (utu)
From nutriment (ahara)
In the Maha-Rahulovada sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (Collection of the Buddha’s middle length Discourses), the Buddha has described the internal solidity or materiality in the body as anything that is hard and solid that is; head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, contents of the stomach and faeces. The internal water property in the body has been described as any thing water and watery that is; bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, oil, saliva, mucus, oil of the joints and urine. The internal fire property in the body is any thing that is fire and fiery which keeps the body warm, age, causes fever and digests what is eaten and drunk. The internal wind property in the body is any thing that is wind and windy that is; up going winds, down going winds, winds in the stomach, winds in the intestines, winds that course through the body and in-and-out breathing (5).
The sensation or feeling aggregate (vedana khandha)
The aggregate of feeling, which is the mental factor that feels an object received through a sense organ is the affective quality of an experience. It includes the physical and mental feelings experienced when there is contact between any one of the six sensory organs of the body namely; eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and the mind with a sense object and there is corresponding sense consciousness. Whatever kind of feeling there is, whether past, present or future, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, that is connected with mental defilements and subject to clinging has been collectively described as the feeling aggregate of clinging. In the higher teaching of the Buddha (Abhidhamma), feeling has been described as one of the seven universal mental factors (cetasika) which are common to all types of consciousness. The true nature of a feeling is that, it is conditioned, dependently arisen, impermanent and is subject to change and cessation with no substance in it that can be described as “I”, “mine” or “my self”.
A feeling always arises in association with the other three mental aggregates of consciousness, perception and mental formations. Whenever a feeling arises, initially it is in the nature of a bare feeling with no associated emotional tones. However, a feeling can develop emotional tones such as love, hate, anxiety and fear etc. due to perception and volitional mental formation.
The Buddha has classified feeling in different ways into groups of two, three, five, six, eighteen, thirty six and one hundred and eight kinds of feelings.
Two kinds of feelings:
Three kinds of feelings:
Pleasant feeling (sukha vedana)
Painful feeling (dukkha vedana)
Neither pleasant nor painful or neutral feeling (adukkham-asukha vedana)
Five kinds of feelings that apply to both bodily and mental feeling:
Pleasant bodily feeling (sukha vedana)
Painful bodily feeling (dukkha vedana)
Pleasant mental feeling (somanassa)
Painful mental feeling (domanassa)
Neither pleasant nor painful bodily and mental feeling (upekha vedana)
Six classes of feelings based upon the sensory organ through which a feeling is experienced:
Feeling born of eye contact
Feeling born of ear contact
Feeling born of nose contact
feeling born of tongue contact
feeling born of body contact
Feeling born of mind contact
Eighteen kinds of feelings:
Here, each feeling born from contact at the six sense organs as described above is further divided into the three kinds of pleasant, painful and neutral feeling making a total of eighteen kinds of feeling.
hirty six kinds of feelings:
In this group, each of the 18 kinds of feeling in the above group is further divided into two depending on whether it is based on the household life or renunciation making a total of 36 kinds of feeling.
One hundred and eight kinds of feelings:
Each of the 36 kinds of feeling in the above group is further divided into three based on the past, future and the present making a total of 108 kinds of feeling;
36 kinds of feeling of the past
36 kinds of feeling of the future
36 kinds of feeling of the present
Feelings that are pleasant and pleasurable will lead to the development of craving and attachment towards sense objects while unpleasant and painful feelings will lead to the development of aversion, ill-will and hatred towards sense objects. Neutral feelings will lead to the development of an indifferent attitude.
Feeling arises from contact or sense impression (phassa) in any of the six sense organs. Contact or sense impression, is a mental process rather than a physical process and is a consequence of the combination of three factors namely, a sense organ, a sense object received by the sense organ and an associated consciousness. For example, a feeling born of eye contact arises when there is the combination of eye, a visual object and associated eye consciousness. Feelings born of contact with visual objects, sound, smell and taste are always neutral feelings initially but, will become pleasant or unpleasant feelings as a result of the subsequent process of perception. However, feelings born of body contact can lead to pleasant or unpleasant feelings while feelings born of mind contact can lead to pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feelings.
The perception aggregate (sanna khandha)
It is called perception because it perceives or recognizes the qualities of an object, both physical and mental. Perception can be described as the mental process that registers, recognises and labels a sensory object received through one of the six sense organs by noting the distinctive qualities of that object. For example, if a colour, shape or a form is seen through the eye and is cognized by the visual consciousness, it is the aggregate of perception that recognizes and labels it as a colour, shape or a form. Perception is similar to a carpenter making a mark on a piece of wood so that it can be identified later. In the higher teaching of the Buddha (Abhidhamma) perception has been described as one of the seven universal mental factors that arise with each arising consciousness. Similar to sensations, perceptions are also produced as a consequence of sense impression or contact (phassa) which is the combination of the three factors of a sense organ, a sense object and a sense consciousness.
Whatever kind of perception there is, whether past, present or future, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, that is connected with mental defilements and subject to clinging has been collectively described as the perception aggregate of clinging. Like the other four aggregates, perception also has the characteristic of constantly arising and passing away and hence it is in a constant state of change and impermanence.
While the aggregate of feeling feels the affective quality of a particular experience received through one of the six sense organs, the aggregate of perception formulates the concept of a definite idea about that sense object or experience such as black or white, short or tall, good or bad etc. This process helps to recognise an object as distinct from other sense objects and to remember it in case the same object is experienced again sometime in the future.
Perception is classified in respect of the six sense organs and the respective sense objects recognised and labelled by the aggregate of perception.
Perception born of eye contact (rupa sanna)
Perception born of ear contact (sadda sanna)
Perception born of nose contact (gandha sanna)
Perception born of tongue contact (rasa sanna)
Perception born of body contact (phottabbha sanna)
Perception born of mind contact (dhamma sanna)
Perception has also been divided as;
Unwholesome perception (akusala)
Wholesome perception (kusala)
Neutral perception (avyakata)
Unwholesome perception does not recognize the true characteristics of the sense objects received through the six sense organs. What is impermanent is seen as permanent, what is suffering is seen as happiness and what is non-self is seen as self which will lead to suffering and continuation of the cycle of birth and death (samsara).Wholesome perceptions on the other hand, recognize the true nature of things as impermanent (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anatta), which will help to end suffering and escape from the cycle of birth and death.
The mental formation aggregate (sankhara khandha)
There are several meanings of the Pali word sankhara such as mental fabrication, mental construction and mental formation. Mental formation is the conditioned response to a sense object received through one of the six sense organs. It is also known as volitional or kamma formation, as volition or intention is a significant aspect of any action taken in response to contact, feeling and perception. The word kamma in Pali means action, but only intentional, volitional and wilful actions will lead to consequences sooner or later. The mind (citta) on its own cannot perform or direct any mental, verbal or physical action, but it is the intention, the will, the mental effort or the volition (cetana) that directs all mental, verbal or physical action. Thus the Buddha declared;
“Cetanaham bhikkhave kammam vadami”
“It is volition that I call kamma, by volition one performs kamma through body, speech or mind”.
There are three types of volitional actions (sankhara), depending on whether an action takes place through the body, speech or the mind;
Bodily action (kaya sankhara)
Verbal action (vachi sankhara)
Mental action (mano sankhara)
Physical, verbal and mental actions performed with wholesome, unwholesome or mixed volitions by all except the Buddha and Arahats (who have attained enlightenment), can be considered as kamma. Buddha and Arahats have eliminated all their mental defilements such as craving, aversion and ignorance which are considered to be the root causes of unwholesome actions and hence their actions are considered to be good and moral with no resultant kammic energy. For every one else, once a volitional action has been committed it carries with it the potential to produce a result when the conditions are right for it to ripen. Volition or intention is a significant aspect of mental formation which can lead to physical, verbal or mental actions of wholesome, unwholesome or neutral nature. Therefore, unlike the other aggregates, the aggregate of mental formation has a significant moral dimension.
Whatever kind of mental formation there is, whether past, present or future, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, that is connected with mental defilements and subject to clinging has been collectively described as the mental formation aggregate of clinging.
According to Buddha’s teaching, origination of mental formation comes from the origination of contact or sense impression and hence, there are six classes of intention based on the six sense organs and respective physical and mental sense objects;
Intention with regard to form (rupa-sancetana)
Intention with regard to sound (sadda-sancetana)
Intention with regard to smell (gandha-sancetana)
Intention with regard to taste (rasa-sancetana)
Intention with regard to tactile objects (Photthabba-sancetana)
Intention with regard to ideas (dhamma-sancetana)
Mental formation as the rebirth producing volitional actions is of three types;
Meritorious actions (punnabhi-sankhara) including the fine material deep absorption states (rupa jhana) which will lead to rebirth in happy existences such as human, celestial (deva) and fine material worlds (rupa loka)
De-meritorious actions (apunnabhi-sankhara) which will lead to rebirth in unhappy existences such as hell, animal, ghost and demon worlds
Imperturbable actions (anenjabhi-sankhara) which are the four immaterial deep absorptions states (arupa jhana) resulting in a rebirth in one of the formless worlds (arupa-loka)
The aggregate of mental formation consists of a large group of mental factors or mental concomitants (cetasika). These mental factors always arise together with the mind, perish together with the mind, take the same object (arammana) as the mind and share the same common physical base with the mind. Out of the 52 mental factors that are described in the Buddha’s Higher Teaching (Abhidhamma), apart from the mental factors of feeling (vedana) and perception (sanna) which are two aggregates by themselves, the other 50 mental factors constitute the aggregate of mental formation (sankhara).
Like the other four aggregates mental formation is also impermanent, and is in a state of constant change with no permanent substance or entity in them. The Buddha has likened the mental formation to the trunk of a plantain tree. When the trunk of a plantain tree is cut open layer by layer, one will find it empty and hollow with no evidence of any heartwood. Similarly, when the mental formation is investigated by a meditator it will also appear to be empty and hollow with no substantive entity or a self.
The consciousness aggregate (vinnana khandha)
The fifth and the final aggregate is called consciousness because its function is to cognize. Consciousness is the process of cognizing or knowing an object. However, it is just the bare awareness, awareness of the presence of a sensory object received through a sense organ. It is unable to recognize or identify the object or its distinguishing characteristics which is done by perception (sanna). The bare awareness of a sense object becomes one’s personal experience only through the action of the other three mental aggregates of feeling, perception and mental formation. In Buddhist teaching, the proximate cause of consciousness has been described as mind and matter (nama-rupa).
In the Nalakalapiyo Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, Ven. Sariputta, one of the two chief Disciples of the Buddha, has described the reciprocal relationship between consciousness (vinnana) and mind and matter (nama-rupa); consciousness arising with mind and matter as the requisite condition and, mind and matter arising with consciousness as the requisite condition. In the same Sutta Ven. Sariputta has likened consciousness and mind and matter to two sheaves of reeds leaning against one another supporting each other. If one of the two sheaves of reeds is pulled away the other will also fall and in the same way, if consciousness ceases mind and matter will cease, and if mind and matter ceases consciousness will cease (6).
Consciousness arises along with the other four mental aggregates of material form (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (sanna) and mental formation (sankhara). Similar to the other four aggregates of clinging, the aggregate of consciousness arises dependent on a condition which is contact between the six sensory organs and their respective sense objects.
Consciousness is always named in relation to the sense organ and the sense object that acted as its pre-conditions. For example, when consciousness arises dependent on the eye and visual object it is eye consciousness. So, there are six types of consciousness based on the six sense organs;
Eye consciousness (cakkhu vinnana)
Ear consciousness (sota vinnana)
Nose consciousness (ghana vinnana)
Tongue consciousness ( Jivha vinnana)
Body consciousness (kaya vinnana)
Mind consciousness (mano vinnana)
Consciousness is impermanent and subject to change, constantly arising and passing away dependent upon the six sense organs and their respective sense objects. Consciousness arises and passes away at an extremely rapid rate and what is normally considered as consciousness is, in actuality, a series of rapidly occurring moments of consciousness. In the Assutava Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha has likened consciousness to a monkey. Just like a monkey who, roaming through the forest and mountain side takes hold of one branch, let go of it and grabs another branch, consciousness arises as one and ceases as another like night and day (7).
Whatever kind of consciousness there is, whether past, present or future, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, that is connected with mental defilement and subject to clinging has been collectively described as the consciousness aggregate of clinging. The Buddha has likened consciousness to a magician’s magic show. If a man with good eye sight is to watch carefully and examine a magic trick, he will discover it to be empty, hollow and with no substance. Similarly, a meditator who sees, observes and examines consciousness appropriately will discover it to be empty and hollow with no substance or self.
Practical aspects of the five aggregates of clinging in the process of liberation
According to Buddhist teaching, any Buddhist disciple who wants to understand the true nature of the five aggregates of clinging in order to eradicate the mental defilements need to develop proficiency in reflecting on seven aspects of each aggregate;
True nature of the aggregate
Origin of the aggregate
Cessation of the aggregate
Practice (Noble Eightfold Path) leading to the cessation of the aggregate
Pleasure and joy (satisfaction) arising dependent on the aggregate
Instability and unsatisfactoriness (danger) of the aggregate
Abandonment of desire and lust for the aggregate (8)
The origin and the cessation of the aggregates have been described as follows;
From the origination of nutriment (ahara) comes the origination of form (rupa), from the cessation of nutriment comes the cessation of form
From the origination of contact (phassa) comes the origination of feeling (vedana), from the cessation of contact comes the cessation of feeling
From the origination of contact comes the origination of perception (sanna), from the cessation of contact comes the cessation of perception
From the origination of contact comes the origination of mental formation (sankhara), from the cessation of contact comes the cessation of mental formation
From the origination of name and form (nama-rupa) comes the origination of consciousness (vinnana), from the cessation of nama-rupa comes the cessation of consciousness
In the Silavant Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, Ven. Sariputta has described how a virtuous monk should attend to the five aggregates of clinging appropriately as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a dissolution, an emptiness and non-self. Through such appropriate attention to the five aggregates of clinging, a virtuous monk will be able to attain the Noble stages of Stream Entry (Sotapanna), Once Returner (Sakadagami), Non Returner (Anagami) and Arahat. When the practice of attending appropriately to the aggregates as above is developed and pursued by an Arahat who has already attained full liberation, it will lead both to a pleasant abiding in the here and now, and mindfulness and alertness (9).
In the Maha-punnama Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (Collection of the Buddha’s Middle Length Discourse) the Buddha has stated that the five aggregates of clinging are rooted in desire and that whenever there is passion and delight, clinging is there which is neither the same as the five aggregates of clinging nor separate from them. One needs to see the five aggregates of clinging as they truly are with wisdom as “this is not mine, this is not my self, and this is not what I am”. By seeing their true reality, a Buddhist disciple will become disenchanted and dispassionate with the five aggregates and thus become fully released with the knowledge that one is “fully released, birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done and there is nothing further for this world” (10).
Five Aggregates of Clinging and the Four Noble Truths
The five aggregates are impermanent and unsatisfactory (dukkha) – (The first Noble Truth of suffering)
Attachment to the five aggregates as self and craving for existence – (The second Noble Truth of the origin of suffering)
Liberation from the five aggregates – (The third Noble Truth of cessation of suffering)
The Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of the aggregates – (The fourth Noble Truth of the Path leading to the cessation of suffering) (11)
Five Aggregates of Clinging and Satipatthana Sutta
In the Satipatthana Sutta, Satipatthana meaning foundations of mindfulness, the Buddha stated the four foundations of mindfulness as the direct way to; purification from all the defilements, overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, destruction of all the suffering and mental grief, entry into the Noble Path and finally realisation of Nibbana. The four foundations of mindfulness are;
Contemplation of body as body (kayanupassana)
Contemplation of feelings as feelings (vedananupassana)
Contemplation of mind as mind (cittanupassana)
Contemplation of mind objects as mind objects (dhammanupassana)
In contemplation of mind objects, the Buddha has included the group of five aggregates of clinging to be contemplated on each aggregate separately as follows;
Such is form, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness
Such is the arising of form, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness
Such is the disappearance of form, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness
Additionally, there is also a relationship between the four foundations of mindfulness and each of the five aggregates of clinging;
Contemplation of body is concerned with the aggregate of form (rupakkhandha)
Contemplation of feelings is concerned with the aggregate of feeling (vedanakkhandha)
Contemplation of mind is concerned with the aggregate of consciousness (vinnanakkhandha)
Contemplation of mental objects is concerned with the aggregates of perception and mental formation (sanna and sankhara-kkhandha) (12)
Five Aggregates of Clinging and Dependent Origination
The Buddhist theory of Dependent Origination (paticca samuppada) consisting of twelve conditioning factors shows how the physical and mental phenomena in the universe arise due to the presence of other causes and conditions and cease to exist when those causes and conditions change or cease to exist. It explains the mechanism of the cycle of birth and death (samsara) and the arising of suffering in its forward chain while the reverse chain explains the cessation of suffering.
The forward chain of Dependent Origination is as follows;
“Avijjapaccaya sankhara : Conditioned by ignorance arise mental formations
Sankharapaccaya vinnanam : Conditioned by mental formations arises consciousness
Vinnanapaccaya namarupam : Conditioned by consciousness arise mind and matter
Namarupapaccaya salayatanam : Conditioned by mind and matter arise six sense bases
Salayatanapaccaya phasso : Conditioned by six sense bases arise contact
Phassapaccaya vedana : Conditioned by contact arise feeling
Vedanapaccaya tanha : Conditioned by feeling arise craving
Tanhapaccaya upadanam : Conditioned by craving arise clinging
Upadanapaccaya bhavo : Conditioned by clinging arise becoming
Bhavapaccaya jati : Conditioned by becoming arise birth
Jatipaccaya jaramarana-soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassa-upayasa :
Conditioned by birth arise ageing-death-sorrow-lamentation-pain-grief and despair”
The five aggregates of clinging are represented among the 12 links of Dependent Origination as follows:
Aggregate of form or matter (rupa) is the material aspect of mind and matter (nama-rupa) and the five physical sense organs in the link of the six sense organs (salayathana). It is also present as the five physical sense organs and sense objects in the link of contact (phassa) which is the combination of a sense organ, a sense object and a corresponding sense consciousness
Aggregate of feeling (vedana) is present as the link of feeling (vedana) within Dependent Origination while it is also present within the mind aspect (nama) in the link of mind and matter (nama-rupa)
Aggregate of perception (sanna) is present within the mind aspect (nama) of mind and matter (nama-rupa). Perception has not been described as a separate link within Dependent Origination but, its position should be between feeling (vedana) and craving (tanha)
Aggregate of mental formation (sankhara) is present as the second link of mental formations (sankhara) as well as in the two links of craving (tanha) and clinging (upadana) which are also mental formations involving volition or intention
Aggregate of Consciousness (vinnana) is present as the third link of the forward chain of Dependent Origination. It is conditioned by mental formations and is the conditioning factor for the arising of mind and matter (nama-rupa). Consciousness is also present in the link of contact (phassa) which is the combination of a sense organ, a sense object and a sense consciousness
Five aggregates (Panchakkhandha) and five aggregates of clinging (Pancha- upadanakkhanda)
While describing the first Noble Truth of universal suffering in His first sermon (dhammacakkappavatthana sutta), the Buddha stated;
“In short, the five aggregates of clinging is suffering”
Here, the Buddha has stated that the five aggregates of clinging (pancha-upadanakkhandha) is suffering rather than just the five aggregates (panchakkhandha) indicating the significance of clinging or attachment to the five aggregates as the cause of suffering. Through ignorance of the reality of all conditioned phenomena, one has the personality view (sakkaya ditthi) which is the self identification by clinging to one or more of the five aggregates of material form (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formation (sankhara) and consciousness (vinnana) as “self”, “soul”, “I” or “me” believing them to be permanent and absolute entities. This self identification takes place as “this is mine”, “this I am” and “this is my self”. However, being conditioned phenomena the five aggregates are impermanent, suffering and lack any substantiality.
In His second sermon (Anatta Lakkhana Sutta) to the five ascetic companions, the Buddha stated the three common characteristics of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anatta) in relation to all the five aggregates. In the form of questions and answers, the Buddha stated how the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness are impermanent, because they are impermanent they are painful, and because they are impermanent and painful they are not fit to be regarded as “this is mine”, “this is I” and “this is my self” (13).
In the Khandha Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha has described an aggregate as any form, feeling, perception, mental formation or consciousness whether past, present or future, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near. An aggregate of clinging was described as whatever form, feeling, perception, mental formation or consciousness whether past, present or future, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, that is connected with mental defilement and subject to clinging (14).
So, the five aggregates become aggregates of clinging when they are associated with mental defilements and subject to clinging leading to the development of self identification as “this is mine”, “this is I” and “this is my self”. Self identification (sakkaya ditthi) is the first of the ten chains or shackles (dasa samyojana) that bind the living beings to the cycle of birth and death (samsara). It is abandoned only when one attains the first Noble stage of Stream Entry (Sotapanna) in the Buddhist path of liberation by cultivating the Noble Eightfold Path.
When one is fully enlightened by attaining the final Noble stage of Arahat, one has abandoned all the mental defilements as well as any trace of clinging and self identification. Following the attainment of full enlightenment (Nibbana), the five aggregates of materiality, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness that constitute the Psycho-physical complex (nama-rupa) will continue to exist, but an Arahat has no attachment or clinging towards them. This state of Nibbana in which an arahat continues to live with the five aggregates intact is called Nibbana with residue (saupadisesa Nibbana). An Arahat continues to perform normal physical functions necessary for daily life but they are not influenced by the root mental defilements of greed (lobha), ill-will (dosa) and delusion (moha). At the time of death of the physical body (parinibbana), the five aggregates will disintegrate and the arahat will reach the end of the life process and attain the absolutely unconditioned Nibbana called Nibbana with no residue (anupadisesa Nibbana).
The five aggregates are bare aggregates (khandha) in those who are fully enlightened with no mental defilements or clinging while they are aggregates of clinging (upadanakkhandha) in un-enlightened ordinary people (puthujjana) with mental defilements and clinging to the aggregates. The five aggregates are not suffering in themselves but, because they are conditioned phenomena which are unstable and impermanent (anicca), they lead to suffering when untrained beings, through ignorance and wrong view, cling to them believing them to be “me”, “mine” and “I”.
Devadaha Sutta (SN 22.2), dhammatalks.org
“Parivatta Sutta: The (Fourfold) Round” (SN 22.56), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), November 2013
Brahmajala Sutta, The Discourse on the Perfect net, Translated by Piya Tan 2003, dharmafarer.org.
Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1993, A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
“Maha-Rahulovada Sutta: The Greater Exhortation to Rahula” (MN62), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition) 30 November 2013.
“Nalakalapiyo Sutta: Sheaves of Reeds”,(SN 12.67), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), November 2013.
Assutava Sutta: The Discourse on the Uninstructed, translated and annotated by Piya Tan 2006, dharmafarer.org.
A Manual of the Excellent Man, Ven. Ledi Sayadaw 2000, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
"Silavant Sutta: Virtuous” (SN 22.122), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), November 2013.
“Maha-punnama Sutta: The Great Full moon Night Discourse” (MN 109), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), November 2013.
A Manual of the Excellent Man, Ven. Ledi Sayadaw 2000, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Thus Have I Heard: The Long Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Maurice Walshe 1987, Wisdom Publications, London, England.
“Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Non-self Characteristic”, translated from the Pali by Nanamoli Thera, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), June 2010.
“Khandha Sutta: Aggregates” (SN 22.48), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), November 2013.