How to understand the 5 skandhas in Buddhism

You will encounter the 5 skandhas a lot when reading Buddhist texts, so it is important to understand what this means.

The 5 skandhas is basically our body with its mental activity, i.e., our body with its thoughts, feelings, sensory perceptions, autonomic processes and personality.  In other words, our body/mind complex (we’re talking about the ordinary, everyday mind here), the psycho-physical self – also called the false self, which we mistake ourselves to be.

In Pali, it is called panca upadana khandha – which means the 5 grasping aggregates or 5 aggregates of grasping.

Why?

Because if you ask most people who they are, they’ll say, “I am my body” or “I am my mind” or “I am my body and mind”.  So people “grasp” at their body and mind to be who they really are.  So they mis-take their ordinary mind and body to be their “self”.  Out of all the things that we can grasp (upadana) and cling to be who we really are – they are covered by the 5 skandhas – our body with its activity.

  • Most people think that they are their bodies because we live through our bodies our entire life and can command our body to do things.
  • For the more intellectual of us, we even think that we are our mind.  Descartes for example said, “I think, therefore I am”.  So we think that our thoughts define who we are.

This is why in the Shurangama Sutra, the Buddha says of our normal, everyday mind:

This mind is dependent on perceived objects, and it is this mind that you and all beings make use of and that each of you consider to be your own self nature.

A New Translation Buddhist Text Translation Society. The Śūraṅgama Sūtra With Excerpts from the Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua (Kindle Locations 1161-1163).

 

The word “skandha” means heap or aggregate – or something that comes together to form a heap or group.

Let’s look at each of the 5 skandhas.  You can break them up into 1 physical and 4 mental factors:

  • The Body (rupa)
  • 4 Mental factors:
  1. Feelings (vedana) experienced through the body – pleasant, unpleasant or neutral
  2. Perceptions (sanna) – what we perceive through our body
  3. Formations (sankhara) – you could call this habits or metabolic processes or autonomic processes of the body.  You are not aware of these processes.
  4. Sense consciousness (vinnana) – this is the activity of our 6 senses (our 5 senses + our brain activity), e.g., sound hits our hearing system – it becomes active and sound consciousness arises.

These 5 skandhas actually overlap into one another – so it’s not like they’re separate, distinct entities.

Here’s what the Buddha taught us about the 5 skandhas – don’t cling to your body, its processes and its mental activity to be your self.  They are not who you really are.

“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever…

“Any kind of feeling whatever…

“Any kind of perception whatever…

“Any kind of determination whatever…

“Any kind of consciousness whatever,

whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.nymo.html

Why?

Because they don’t last – and so are subject to suffering:

“Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it:

Is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” —

“Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.”

“Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.nymo.html

Notice that the Buddha did NOT say that “There is no self”.  What the Buddha says over and over and over again in the Suttas is that the 5 skandhas are NOT FIT TO BE REGARDED AS YOUR SELF, i.e., your body and it’s activity is NOT WORTHY to be regarded who you really are.

The Buddha even goes to the point of denying that he teaches that “There is no self” because:

  1. “There is no self” is the doctrine of annihilation
  2. It will cause immense confusion because people will question whether they really exist or not (as it is doing right now in the Buddhist community)

If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness].

and

“And if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self I used to have now not exist?‘”

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn44/sn44.010.than.html

As George Grimm, in his excellent book, The Doctrine of the Buddha, observed – the 5 skandhas are the machinery of our will (craving).  In other words, we use our body and its mental activity to get what we want in this world of the 5 skandhas, which we experience through our body with its consciousness.

Analogy of the car

Consider a car with its electronic activity.  We would never mistake the body and electrical activity of a car as being who we really are.  But we can use the car as tool to achieve what we want – to get somewhere.  So a car is the machinery of our will.  The same goes for our body and its activity.

If the car with its electrical activity is not who we are, does that mean that there is no driver?  No.

Similarly, if our body with its mental activity is not who we are – does that mean that there is no self?  No.

So the Buddha’s teaching on anatta – how the Buddha originally taught it over and over again – is NOT “There is no self” (which the Buddha called the teaching of annihilation).  Anatta means – don’t mistake your body and it’s mental activity to be your self – these 5 skandhas are not who you really are.

But you guys don’t have to believe me – just go to http://www.accesstoinsight.org right now and do a search on anatta.  Do NOT look at the articles on anatta (which are second hand interpretations), but rather, look ONLY at the Suttas – which are the recorded words of the Buddha himself.

What you will find is that the Buddha taught anatta as the 5 skandhas are not self again and again and again – like what I’ve presented above.  Also notice that the Buddha also does not and say “There is no self”.

Here’s another example:

[At Saavatthii the Blessed One said:] “Monks, I will explain to you grasping and worrying, and also not grasping and not worrying… Here, monks, the uninstructed worldling, with no regard for Noble Ones,[1] unskilled and untrained in the Dhamma of the Noble Ones,… of those who are worthy[2]

  • Regards body as the self, the self as having body, body as being in the self, or the self as being in the body. Change occurs to this man’s body, and it becomes different. Because of this change and alteration in his body, his consciousness is preoccupied with bodily change. Due to this preoccupation with bodily change, worried thoughts arise and persist, laying a firm hold on his mind. Through this mental obsession he becomes fearful and distressed, and being full of desire[3] and attachment he is worried.
  • He regards feeling as the self,… change occurs to his feeling… he is worried.
  • [Similarly with ‘perception,’ ‘the mental formations’ and ‘consciousness’].

In this way, monks, grasping and worrying arise. And how, monks, do not grasping and not worrying arise?

“Here, monks, the well-instructed Ariyan disciple, who has regard for the Noble Ones, is skilled and trained in the Dhamma of the Noble Ones,… of those who are worthy,

  • Does not regard body as the self, the self as having body, body as being in the self, or the self as being in the body. Change occurs to this man’s body, and it becomes different, but DESPITE THIS CHANGE and alteration in his body, his consciousness is NOT preoccupied with bodily change… Not being full of desire and attachment, he is not worried.
  • [Similarly with ‘feeling,’ ‘perception,’ ‘the mental formations’ and ‘consciousness’]. In this way, monks, grasping and worrying do not arise.”

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.007.wlsh.html

So notice here that the teaching of “anatta” or “not-self” is not something that the Buddha declared from up high saying, “There is no self”.  Rather, the teaching of anatta is taught as a tool by the Buddha to reflect on each of the 5 skandhas to let go of attaching to these transient activities of the body and mind as being who you really are.

Notice here, the Buddha is saying that though the body changes, that which is aware of these changes is not attached to the change, is not preoccupied by the change.  Let go of attaching to things that change.

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2 thoughts on “How to understand the 5 skandhas in Buddhism

    • Thanks Colin. I write about it because it strikes to the heart of right view – we Buddhists need to get it right – otherwise, our whole basis of understanding will be flawed as it’s based on a flawed premise.

      Incorrect assumptions will flow downwards towards incorrect practices and conclusions. Further, these incorrect assumptions, if not corrected at the outset will be amplified and propagated on to others at the speed of the internet.

      Hence why it’s important to read the original Suttas and Sutras for ourselves to see what the Master really taught – rather than rely on second hand interpretations.

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