Aggregates

 Articles

 An Introduction to the Five Aggregates

Flowers in Spring with Palms in BackgroundThe historical Buddha spoke about the Five Aggregates – five components that come together to make an individual. These component parts work together seamlessly and create the sense of a single self, or an “I.” The following is a basic introduction to each of the Five Aggregates:

1. Matter (Pali: rupa)

Rupa refers to matter or form – something material that can be sensed. This includes the five sense organs (or “sense doors”) – eye, ear, nose, tongue, body – and the sense organ or faculty of the mind. It also includes the corresponding objects: visible form, sound, odour, taste, tangible things, as well as thoughts and ideas.

2. Consciousness (Pali: vinnana)

Consciousness (awareness) arises when an object comes in contact with one of the senses – the data neutrally received by one of the senses. In other words, vinnana is a neutral reaction between one of the senses and the corresponding object. For example, aural consciousness arises due to the interaction between the ear and a sound. Mental consciousness arises due to the interaction between the mind and an idea or thought. Vinnana is an awareness but not a recognition; it is not sensation.

3. Perception (Pali: sanna)

Sanna is the mental faculty that recognizes – it is the capacity to conceptualize and recognize things by associating them with other things. For example, we recognize a belt as a belt because we associate it with our previous experience with belts.

Based on our past conditioning and training (through life’s experiences), we place positive, negative, or neutral judgments (evaluations) on our experiences. For example, we use labels such as good/bad, right/wrong, like/dislike, or allowed/disallowed. These perceptions and judgments can occur consciously or sub-consciously – and will lead to sensations that occur inside and outside of the body.

4. Sensation (Pali: vedana)

Vedana is a physical or mental sensation that we experience through contact of one of the six faculties with the external world. In other words, it is the sensation experienced through the contact of the eye with visible form, ear with sound, nose with odour, tongue with taste, body with tangible things, and the mind with ideas or thoughts.

Since vedana is a physical or mental sensation, it can be an experience of pleasure or pain. Pleasure then conditions craving (to acquire something pleasurable) and pain conditions aversion (to avoid something painful).

5. Reaction (Pali: sankhara)

The sensations in the body cause conscious reactions – that is, volitional actions, either good or bad. These mental reactions are associated with karma, because volitional acts create karma. Sankhara also contains latent (dormant, buried, hidden) karma that conditions our attitudes – in the form of biases and prejudices (“I don’t want this”), or interests and attractions (“I want this”).

Alexander Peck

Five Aggregates: A Table

THE FIVE AGGREGATES

Five Aggregates of which a Human Being Is Composed

 The Five Aggregates lead to the Buddhist analysis of personal experience or the Buddhist analysis of the personality. The analysis of personal experience follows along two lines: (1) with regard to the body, and (2) with regard to the mind. The concept of ‘self’ is a convenient term for a collection of physical and mental factors, in the same way that the word ‘forest’ is a convenient term for a collection of trees. 

Aggregate 

Description

Body (Pali: rupa)Form Matter or form refers to material or physical factors. It includes the body, and the material objects that surround us – the earth, trees, buildings, oceans, etc.In relation to the physical body (composed of sub-atomic particles; Pali: kalapa):

  • 6 sense faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, intellect)
  • 6 sense objects (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, non-physical objects of perception) 
Consciousness(Pali: vinnana) Cognizing – observing objectively:

  • 6 consciousnesses (visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, intellect) 
Perception (Pali: sanna)RecognizingDiscrimination  Conceptual dimension: This is the forming of a concept of an idea about a particular object. One has a conceptual element in the sense of introducing a definite, determinate idea about the object of experience, for example: good/bad; nice/not nice; right/wrong.
Sensation (Pali: vedana)Feelings Emotional dimension: When an object is experienced, that experience takes on one of these emotional tones or elements: pleasant (pleasure)/unpleasant (displeasure)/neutral (indifference) 
Reaction (Pali: sankhara)Mental formation andVolition   Moral dimension: This aggregate may be described as a conditioned response to the object of experience (reacting based on mental conditioning), for example: liking/disliking; attachment/aversion; greed/hatred.

  • Mental formation is the impression created by previous actions, the habit energy stored up from countless former lives.
  • Mental formation and volition each represent one half of the meaning of sankhara – (1) mental formation represents the half that comes from the past, and (2) volition represents the half that functions here and now. So mental formation and volition function to determine our responses to the objects of experience.
  • These responses have moral consequences in the sense of: wholesome/unwholesome/neutral. 

 Notes 

  • Personal experience is produced is through the functioning of the three major mental factors of experience: (1) aggregate of perception, (2) aggregate of feeling, and (3) aggregate of mental formation and volition. These three aggregates function to turn mere awareness of an object into personal experience. We can analyze all our personal experience in terms of the five aggregates. 
  • The five aggregates are all in constant change: (1) The elements that constitute the aggregate of form are impermanent and are in a state of constant change (e.g. the body grows old, weak, sick, etc.). The things around are also impermanent and change constantly. (2) Consciousness, too, is impermanent and constantly changing – it arises dependent upon an object and a sense organ. It cannot exist independently. (3) Today, we may perceive an object in a particular way; at a later time, under different circumstances, our perception will change. (4) Feelings are constantly changing as well. (5) So too, mental formations are impermanent and ever-changing. We alter our habits. We can learn to be kind and compassionate. We can acquire the attitudes of renunciation and equanimity, and so forth. 
  • All these aggregates are constantly changing and impermanent. They are processes, not things. They are dynamic, not static. 
  • The purpose of this analysis is to create the wisdom of not-self – to arrive at a way of experiencing the world which is not constructed upon and around the idea of a self. Personal experience can be seen in terms of processes, in terms of impersonal functions – rather than in terms of a self and what affects a self. This view will create an attitude of equanimity, which will help one overcome the emotional disturbances of hope and fear. 
  • We hope for happiness, we fear pain. We hope for praise, we fear blame. We hope for gain, we fear loss. We hope for fame, we fear infamy. We live in a state of alternating between hope and fear. We experience these hopes and fears because we understand happiness and pain, and so forth, in terms of the self. We understand them as personal happiness and pain, as personal praise and blame, and so forth. 
  • However, once we understand them in terms of impersonal processes, and once through this understanding we leave the idea of the self, we can overcome hope and fear. We can regard happiness and pain, praise and blame, and all the rest, with equanimity, with even-mindedness, and we will then no longer be subject to the imbalance of alternating between hope and fear. 
Source: Based on and adapted from: Buddha Dharma Education Association (1996-2012),  “Fundamentals of Buddhism” (a BuddhaNet production). Accessed at http://www.buddhanet.net/funbud14.htm (December 20, 2013) 
© Alexander Michael Peck, 2013