A simple way to understand the 5 Skandhas (the mind/body complex that we call our “Self”)

In your Buddhist readings, you’ll encounter the “5 Skandhas” (Sanskrit).  Also called the:

  • “5 Khandhas” (Pali) or
  • “5 Heaps” or
  • “5 Aggregates”
  • Nama-rupa (name and form) – you’ll see this when you read about Dependent Origination.

 

What is meant by the “5 Skandhas”?

It means the ordinary mind and body – the psychophysical self.  It’s the body/mind complex that we usually consider to be our “selves” – it’s what we usually take to be “me”.

For example, our body + all our mental factors (our thoughts, feelings, memories and personality) are heaped together in 1 place – and we say “this is me”.  This is what is meant by the 5 skandhas.

Technically, the 5 Skandhas are divided into:

  • 1 Physical factor – the body
  • 4 Mental factors – feelings, perceptions, mental formations and thinking consciousness

 

Here’s what the Buddha said about the 5 Skandhas.  In the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta, he says:

We think the 5 Skandhas are us, but they are not the real us.

They are just guests that we have mis-taken to be the host.  They are but temporary visitors (guests), that come and go – but they are not the real master of the house (the host).

For example, our thoughts and feelings (part of the 5 skandhas) all flow into the Mind and they also flow out of the Mind – they all arise and cease within the Mind:

  • Now because they come and go, because they arise and cease, because they flow in and flow out – they are impermanent – and so they are like mere guests.
  • It is the Real Mind, the True Mind, which plays host to these thoughts and feelings which arise and cease within it.  It is the awareness – “that which is aware”, “that which knows” which plays host to the thoughts and feelings that arise and cease within it.

Now because we think that the 5 Skandhas are us, because we think that our thoughts and feelings are us – this is establishing a false sense of self in something which is not.  So the 5 Skandhas is a false self, also called the small self or small mind.

 

A word of caution

So the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta says that the 5 Skandhas is not the real us.  This means that my ordinary mind and body is not the real me, your everyday mind and body is not the real you.  The Anatta Lakkhana Sutta does NOT say that there is no self.

Nowadays, you will see Buddhists all over the place proclaiming, “The Buddha said that there’s no self” – this is NOT true.  As noted by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, you will not find a single place in the Buddhist Sutras or Suttas where the Buddha says “There is no self” (But this is a discussion for another time).

So it is incorrect to say that the Buddha proclaimed “There is no self”.  But still, the mistaken thinking that “There is no self” is quite prevalent amongst the Buddhist community – so be careful what you’re reading and who you talk to when they say “There is no self”.

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7 thoughts on “A simple way to understand the 5 Skandhas (the mind/body complex that we call our “Self”)

  1. Very very thankful to all of you who have made the teaching of the Blessed One so simple and understandable. I was benefitted a lot by your simple explanation. May the Buddha support you.
    K. D. Haidari(Dotetsu)

  2. I like your clear explanation. Can you describe a simple experiential way to understand the 5th Skandha? It always confuses me. I can’t seem to “get” the meaning in terms of one’s inner experiences or how recognize it. Most definitions are too intellectual and I can’t relate to them from my experience.

  3. Thank you….you have cleared up a 25 year old conundrum for me. It seems to me now that being a Buddhist, Christian or vedantist is all part of the 5 skandhas….Resting in the Host where there are no definitions is the final result of all this…do you agree?

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