Pañcakkhandha or Five Aggregates – A Misinterpreted Concept

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Pañcakkhandha or Five Aggregates – A Misinterpreted Concept

December 25, 2015; revised September 29, 2018; September 10, 2022

First, many people have the impression that rūpakkhandha is one’s own body OR that pañcakkhandha is “in one’s own body.” The problem with this critical mistake can be seen with the description of rūpakkhandha (and the other four khandha as 11 types).

Eleven Types of Rūpa in the Rūpakkhandha (Same for Other Khandhā)

1. This is clearly described in many suttā, even though the true meaning has been hidden all these years. In particular, the WebLink: suttacentral: Khandha sutta (SN 22.48) summarizes what is included in each aggregate.

Eleven types of rūpa (mental impressions) are in the rūpakkhandha: past, present, future, near, far, fine (sukuma), coarse (oḷārika), likes (paṇīta), dislikes (appaṇīta), internal (ajjhatta), and external (bahiddha). Here internal rūpa means (mental impressions) of one’s body parts, and external rūpa are (mental impressions) of external objects.

Thus, it is quite clear that rūpakkhandha encompasses anything that we ever saw (including previous births) we are seeing now and hope to see in the future. The record of what belongs to the past is permanent and is called namagotta. Any rūpa about the future (for example, a sketch of the type of house one is thinking about building) can change with time.

The other four khandhā have the same 11 types.

An acceptable English translation of the Khandha sutta is available online: “WebLink: Khandha Sutta: Aggregates.”

It does not explain the concept discussed above. But one can see the 11 components of each khandha are there. Also, note that it is NOT Skandha sutta; it is Khandha sutta. This is why I say that skandha is a WRONG TERM.

2. We can see that Buddha Dhamma has become so contaminated over the past thousands of years. Fortunately, we still have the Tipiṭaka in close to its original form. The Buddha stated that his Buddha Sasana would last for 5000 years, and the way he made sure that will happen, was to compose the suttā as I described in the post, “Sutta Interpretation – Uddesa, Niddesa, Paṭiniddesa.”

Furthermore, Abhidhamma and Vinaya sections, as well as three original commentaries, are still intact in the Tipiṭaka; see “Preservation of the Dhamma” and other posts in “Historical Background.”

The main problem even with the Theravāda version of “Buddhism” is that instead of using the Tipiṭaka as the basis, the tendency is to use the Visuddhimagga written by Buddhaghosa, who had not attained any magga phala and stated that his “wish” was to become a deva in the next life from the merits he gained by writing Visuddhimagga!

Even when using the Tipiṭaka, most people use the wrong interpretations of keywords such as anicca, dukkha, anatta, khandha, and Paṭicca Samuppāda. This problem is apparent in the Sinhala translation of the Tipiṭaka, which was done with the sponsorship of the Sri Lankan government several years ago.

Rūpa and Rūpakkhandha – The Difference

1. Contrary to popular belief, pañcakkhandha or pañca khandha (five aggregates) is all mental, and realizing this fact can help get rid of the “ghana saññā,” the perception that the world around us is “solid and permanent” I will write more on this later.

It is sometimes erroneously called pancaskhandha, and I will explain why that is incorrect.

2. For example, there is a huge difference between rūpa (material form) and rūpa khandha, the aggregate of material form. Rūpa khandha is commonly written as rūpakkhandha by connecting the two terms to one word, by adding an extra “k” (a common way of connecting words or “sandhi” in Pāli). The same is true for the other four aggregates. The correct interpretation makes many other concepts easier to understand.

Rūpa is matter (and energy) and is made of the cattāro mahā bhūta (pathavi, āpo, tejo, vāyo) and their derivatives.

Rūpa khandha is all MENTAL.

Similarly, there is a difference between vedanā (feelings) and vedanākkhandha (the aggregate of feelings), even though here both kinds are mental; we will discuss the difference below. The other three khandha of saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa are similar to that of vedanā.

This is very important to understand, and I will proceed slowly to clarify the concepts.

3. The key to clarifying what rūpakkhandha is to examine why the Buddha added “khandha” to the rūpa. He could have labelled past rūpa, future rūpa, sukuma rūpa, oḷārika rūpa, etc. to describe the 11 types of them as discussed above. What was the need to add “khandha“? That is because rūpakkhandha is all MENTAL, and to see how it comes about we need to examine how each of us experiences “the world.” Each of us does it differently.

Each person has his/her own rūpakkhandha or how he/she perceives the material rūpa in the world. That rūpakkhandha has associated with its other four khandhas and thus comprises the pañcakkhandha. And panca upadanakkhandha, or what one has cravings for, is a small part of that.

Just like the concept of anicca, this again is a very important concept to understand, so please try to read through slowly at a quiet time and grasp the concepts. As the Buddha said, “at the end what matters is understanding a concept, not memorizing words.”

When I first grasped this concept, it was like turning the lights on in a previously dark area that I did not even know existed! This is a good example of what the Buddha meant by “aloko udapādi.”

What is a Khandha?

1. One of the main problems we have today is that many key terms are in Sanskrit rather than the original Pāli. The meanings get distorted. A good example is Paṭicca Samuppāda, for which the Sanskrit term is pratittyasamutpada, which does not convey the meaning; see, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppāda.”

2. Similarly, the Sanskrit term “skandha” is commonly used in the place of khandha, the original Pāli term. Khandha is a heap and the Sinhala term is kanda, which is even used today to denote a heap or a pile.

When we experience the world, we do that with our six senses, and that experience is registered as thoughts (citta). But a single citta is born and gone in a small fraction of a second. What we EXPERIENCE are the aggregates of numerous citta that go through our minds even in a fraction of a second.

We experience a rūpa (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, dhamma) with a citta AND based on that generate mental qualities of vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa. In each citta, the mind analyzes all these, and that citta is gone in a fraction of a second.

The manasikara cetasika that is in each citta puts together the contents in all these “packets” — including our past impressions — and provides us with an overall experience that includes a “sketch of what we see, hear, ..”, and those feelings, perceptions etc that arise due to that sense impression.

This can be compared to connecting individual links in a metal chain. In the old days, blacksmiths used to make chains by manually connecting one link to the next by hand. He can only see himself linking two of them at a time, but if he looks back he can see the whole chain. In the same way, the five aggregates or heaps keep building up with each passing second.

3. In another example, it is like a movie recording that keeps recording non-stop from our birth to death. And when we die it does not stop, it just starts recording the new life. And these five heaps or aggregates that have accumulated over ALL previous lives are in the namagotta, a permanent record; see, “The Amazing Mind – Critical Role of Nāmagotta (Memories).”

Of course, we remember only a fraction of it, even in the present life. But some people remember more things than others; see “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM).”

But we also make plans for the future. And those heaps about the future are also in the pañcakkhandha, but not in the namagotta, which only records what has already happened. As soon as the present moment passes, more of the five heaps are added to the namagotta.

Thus pañcakkhandha includes past, present, and future, whereas namagotta includes only that portion of the pañcakkhandha that has gone to the past.

Even though I have discussed these concepts in the introductory posts in the Abhidhamma section, I will go through a simpler version to get the ideas across here. Those interested can then also review the posts in Abhidhamma section; see “Essential Abhidhamma – The Basics.”

What We Experience Comes in “Packets” or “Heaps” or “Khandha

1. A simple view of how we sense the outside world is as follows: The five physical senses receive images, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches from the outside. Those sense inputs are sent to the brain via the nervous system. The brain analyzes such “signals” and helps the mind (hadaya vatthu) to extract the “meanings” conveyed by those images, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches.

Let us take an example of looking at a cake. The eye is like a camera; it captures an image of the cake just like a camera does. That image is sent to the brain and the brain analyzes that picture and sends it to the mind (hadaya vatthu), which matches it with previous experiences (manasikāra cetasika does this) and identifies it as a chocolate cake made by grandma. The brain and mind working together this way can analyze many such pictures in a fraction of a second.

This is basically what scientists believe happens too. Still, the difference is that scientists believe that the brain compares the current image of the cake with zillions of images “stored in the brain,” which I say is an impossibility. The brain needs to scan through “its depository of images” and not only identify that it is not a loaf of bread or a piece of wood, but also what kind of a cake it is, and whether it is made by grandma or bought from a store. And this is done within a fraction of a second. Think about it! This is real vipassana meditation! What we are trying to do is to understand how nature works.

2. In Buddha Dhamma, the brain is in constant communication with the “hadaya vatthu” which is the seat of the mind. All our past experiences are “stored” in the mental plane (mano loka), and hadaya vatthu can access that information; these are what we call “namagotta.” A record of each sensory event gets added to nāmagotta in viññāṇa dhātu — via the mana indriya in the brain.) See, “Our Two Worlds: Material and Immaterial.”

The Abhidhamma section discusses how the brain constantly communicates with the hadaya vatthu and other details. Those details are not important as long as one can picture this process in one’s mind.

This image sent by the eyes (and the brain) to the hadaya vatthu generates an imprint or a record. That record gets added to nāmagotta in viññāṇa dhātu — via the mana indriya in the brain. Thus, our memories are “stored” in viññāṇa dhātu (or nāma loka) and not in the brain.

That record is now part of the rūpakkhandha. It is not material but a record.

If a smell is analyzed, then a record of that smell is made. Thus the rūpakkhandha here is a record of that particular smell. In this way, rūpakkhandha are just records or imprints. All five physical senses help generate rūpakkhandha; remember that sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch are all rūpa.

The mind receives a set of static frames in a given second. Many such records for various sensory inputs go through our minds in second. The mind can make this appear as a continuous movie, with pictures, sounds, tastes, etc flowing smoothly.

Animation Video

1. Just to give the flavor of what happens, we can look at what happens when we watch a movie. The movie is a series of static pictures or frames. When making a movie, what is done is to take many static pictures and then play them back at fast enough speed. If the playback speed is too slow, we can see individual pictures, but above a certain “projection rate”, it looks like real motion. Here is a video that illustrates this well:

WebLink: YOUTUBE: Animation basics: The optical illusion of motion

2. When we experience (see, hear,…) the outside world, what happens is very similar to the above. At the end of the video it is stated that the “movie” we see is an illusion, and as the Buddha explained, that holds for real life as well. In real life when we see someone coming towards us, what we actually see is a series of “static pictures” or citta projected at a very fast rate in our minds, giving us the illusion of a “movie like experience.”

Even though in the above video it is suggested that the brain put together all the information from the “previous static frames,” that is true only to a certain extent.

The brain puts together the individual frames, but without actual “memories,” it is impossible to get the details about what is seen.

We not only “see” the video, but we also RECOGNIZE what is seen (we identify a given actor, we can even remember previous movies with that actor, we KNOW all about the scenes in the background, etc); to have all that information instantly available to the brain is not possible. This is a point that needs a lot of thought.

What happens, according to Abhidhamma, is that the brain periodically sends packets of acquired data put together by the cortex in the brain to the hadaya vatthu (the seat of the mind.) Citta vīthi arise in hadaya vatthu accepting that information from the brain, and it is the mind that does all the compiling (with the help of the manasikāra and cetanā cetasika.) That is how we EXPERIENCE any sensory input.

For those who are interested in more details, see, “Citta and Cetasika – How Viññāṇa (Consciousness) Arises.”

3. When the mind analyzes those packets of information sent by the brain with cittā, it generates feelings (vedanā), perception (saññā), and follow-up thoughts (viññāṇa); if the mind likes/dislikes that sense input it may decide to act on it by generating saṅkhāra.

Thus we can see that depending on the nature of the sensory input, the mind will generate a “packet” of vedanā (i.e., vedanākkhandha), a “packet” of saññā (saññākkhandha), a “packet” of saṅkhāra (saṅkhārakkhandha), a “packet” of viññāṇa (viññāṇakkhandha) , in addition to the rūpakkhandha that was involved in the sensory input. All these five khandhā are generated within the same series of citta.

Our Experience is Stored in Those Khandhā

1. Thus, our experiences are stored in five types of “heaps” (rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa) in the mental plane (mano loka). Some of these “clips” or “packets” from those five heaps or aggregates can be recalled and played back in our minds just like a movie is played on a screen. When we do that, we can recall that particular experience with sights, sounds, etc.

It is the sum of all such packets of a given kind called a khandha, for example, a rūpakkhandha. All these are memories of what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think.

The ability to recall past experiences, we call memory. Some have better memories than others. Some people can “playback” basically one’s life day-by-day for many years into the past; see, “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM).” It is amazing to see how much they can recall.

Yet, one can recall not only memories from this life, but also from past lives by developing abhiññā powers. Thus the Buddha Gotama vividly described the scene, eons ago, when the Buddha Dīpaṅkara stated that he was to become a Buddha in the future.

But let us get back to the main discussion.

2. The brain analyzes multiple sense inputs of different kinds in a second. When we watch a movie, we see the picture, hear the sounds, and if we are eating popcorn we can smell and taste popcorn too; see, “What is a Thought?.” Even if you are unfamiliar with Abhidhamma, you can get a good idea of what happens by reading that post. Just try to get the overall picture of what happens instead of trying to analyze in detail.

Thus our perception of an object is due to the sum of many thoughts (cittā) that arise per second. And each citta has “embedded in it”, our feelings (vedanā), perceptions (saññā), our decisions on how to act (saṅkhāra), and our overall sense experience (viññāṇa). In the case of a visual, auditory, … event, we also have the corresponding “imprints of them” in our mind.

In other words, all our sensory experiences can be described by five heaps or khandhas. The totality of our experience or “our world” is panca khandha (pañcakkhandha). And it has nothing to do with our physical bodies.

Thus it is important to understand that “rūpa” can be used in the sense of “matter” and also in the sense of “records of such material rūpa.”

3. These mental components are what the Buddha called khandhas. Rūpakkhandha does not include actual material objects, sounds, smells, tastes, or touches. Rather rūpa khandha includes only the mental records or imprints of those sense inputs.

We continuously accumulate khandhā or bundles of heaps of sense imprints during our life. Thus a rūpa khandha or rūpakkhandha (note how the two words were connected by inserting an additional “k”) is not an actual rūpa but our mental images of such rūpa.

Similarly, we keep accumulating bundles of vedanā (vedanākkhandha), saññā (saññākkhandha), saṅkhāra (saṅkhārakkhandha), and viññāṇa (viññāṇakkhandha).

4. These khandhā are all that we have ever experienced, and would like to experience in the future. The five khandhā encompass our (changing) identity, and our sense of the whole world out there. They have embedded in them all our past experiences and also future hopes.

That is why pañcakkhandha (the five aggregates) represent our whole world.

And these records can go back to beginning-less time! Some people can recall more records than others, but by gradually developing abhiññā powers, one can recall more and more past lives.

Part 2: Pañcupādānakkhandha – It is All Mental