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Five Skandhas - Pañca Skandha - Pungpo nga - Phung po lnga - Five Aggregates or Five Heaps

People in a boat, the usual image for name-and-form in the Wheel of Life

**Five Skandhas** (Skt.[[ //[[pañcaskandha// or //pañca skandha or pañcha skandha; Tib. ཕུང་པོ་ལྔ་ //pungpo nga//; Wyl. //phung po lnga//) — the five psycho-physical aggregates or Five Aggregates, which according to Buddhist philosophy are the basis for self-grasping. They are:

 - [[form]] ([[Skt.]] //[[rūpa]]//; [[Tib.]] [[གཟུགས་]], [[Wyl.]] //[[gzugs]]//)
 - [[feeling]] or [[sensations]] ([[Skt.]] //[[vedanā]]//; [[Tib.]] [[ཚོར་བ་]], [[Wyl.]] //[[tshor ba]]//)
 - [[cognition]] or [[perception]] or [[thinking]] ([[Skt.]] //[[saṃjñā]]//; [[Tib.]] [[འདུ་ཤེས་]], [[Wyl.]] //[[‘du shes]]//)
 - [[formations]] or [[impulses]] or [[compositional factors]] or [[habits]] ([[Skt.]] //[[saṃskāra]]//; [[Tib.]] [[འདུ་བྱེད་]], [[Wyl.]] //[[‘du byed]]//)
 - [[consciousness]] ([[Skt.]] //[[vijñāna]]//; [[Tib.]] [[རྣམ་ཤེས་]], [[Wyl.]] //[[rnam shes]]//)


The Sanskrit word //skandha// means an aggregate, heap or bundle.


Sogyal Rinpoche wrote:

Once we have a physical body, we also have what are known as the five skandhas — the aggregates that compose our whole mental and physical existence. They are the constituents of our experience, the support for the grasping of ego, and also the basis for the suffering of samsara.<ref>//The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying//, Chapter 15, p. 254</ref>

And Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said:

The five skandhas represent the constant structure of the human psychology as well as its pattern of evolution and the pattern of the evolution of the world. The skandhas are also related to blockages of different types — spiritual ones, material ones, and emotional ones.<ref>C. Trungpa Rinpoche, //Glimpses of Abhidharma//, Boulder, CO: Prajna, 1975</ref>

When we look more closely at what it is that we call ‘I’, we can see that it includes several elements, not just the parts that make up our physical bodies, but also our various senses and our minds.

In Buddhism, when we want to examine the self more precisely, we can make use of the five categories, which we call the ‘five skandhas’.

In actual fact, all conditioned phenomena may be included within these five groups, but when we are investigating the self, we limit ourselves to the form of our bodies, and our own thoughts and so on.


In its broadest sense, form is spoken of in terms of causal and resultant forms. Causal forms are the elements of earth, water, fire and wind, and then the resultant forms – which are made from these elements – are said to include the five sense faculties and their five sense objects, as well as a slightly more problematic category called ‘imperceptible forms’, which we do not need to go into here.

The sense faculties are not the ordinary sense organs – our eyes and ears and so on – but subtle forms within the sense organs. They have particular shapes which are described very precisely in the Abhidharma literature.

The first of the sense objects is **visual form**, which means the various colors and shapes that appear to our eyes. Broadly speaking, colors may be divided into the primary colors – which according to the Abhidharma are white, red, yellow and blue – and the secondary colors. They may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

**Sounds**, the objects of the ears, may occur naturally or be man-made, or they may be a combination of the two, such as when a person beats a drum. A lot of sounds are just meaningless noise, but some impart meaning. In the case of the latter, they might be a vehicle for ordinary notions, or else the sublime, liberating message of the Dharma. As with sights, sounds can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

**Smells** or odors can be natural or artificial, and once again, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

**Tastes** are said to be of six kinds, roughly translated as sweet, sour, salty, hot (pungent or acrid), bitter or astringent.

**Textures**, or tactile sensations, may be felt on the body’s surface or in its interior. Interior ‘textures’ include hunger and thirst, and the feelings that come with being ill or deeply relaxed.

In this investigation, form means our physical bodies. More generally, it is all that we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch, and also the subtle faculties that do the seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching.


Although this is called the skandha of feelings, it does not mean emotional feelings, but something more like sensations. These are said to be the painful, pleasant and neutral sensations in the body and the pleasant or unpleasant sensations in the mind. (It is said that neutral sensations of the mind are not counted separately, because they are indistinguishable from the neutral sensations of the body.)

We are always experiencing sensations, mostly neutral ones, but also painful and pleasant.

They can also be thought of as the sensations that occur based on sense impressions. A sense object such as incense would belong under the skandha of form, but the sensation created when we smell it belongs in this category. In this case, it would most likely be a pleasant sensation.

According to the teachings, feelings are important because they are the basis for attachment and aversion, which lie at the heart of many of the conflicts between lay people, who have not renounced mundane concerns (see renunciation).

Perceptions - Thinking - Cognition

Perception means the apprehension of a specific object, as circumscribed and distinct from something else.

On the conceptual level, this means the recognition of identities or names, and on the sensory level it means the discernment of the five objects of sense.

Technically, perception is defined as ‘that which grasps or identifies characteristics’. Perception could be non-conceptual, in the case of the five physical senses, or conceptual, as in the perception of thoughts and ideas.

In all these cases, perception can either be ‘discerning’ or ‘non-discerning’. The five non-conceptual sense perceptions are regarded as discerning when they are operating normally and perceiving their proper objects: colors/shapes, sounds, smells, tastes and textures. Mental perception is said to be discerning when it distinguishes identities or names. This happens when (a) mind recognizes an object and associates it with its name, and (b) the mind knows what is referred to when a name is given.

Perception is non-discerning when the sense organ in question is fully functional but there is no object. This occurs in states of deep meditative absorption, and also when the mind is unable to identify and name objects, as, for example, when you encounter something for the first time and therefore do not recognize it. This is the common experience of children.

Mental perception is also non-discerning when it does not know what is referred to when names are given as, for example, when an unknown language is heard.

(It should however be noted that non-discerning perception does not refer to the mere privation of sensory stimulus, as, for example, when you are in a dark place with your eyes open or in a soundproof room. In these cases, the senses do in fact have objects – darkness and silence, respectively.)

There are as many types of perception as there are phenomena.

Perceptions are subjective experiences, and are said to be important because they are the basis for disagreement and controversy, leading to conflict amongst philosophers who have renounced worldly affairs.

Formations - Impulses - Compositional Factors

The category called formations is a little complicated. But if we just limit ourselves to mental formations, then it basically refers to thoughts and emotions, or what are technically referred to as the ‘mental states’. Although there are many possible mental states, the Abhidharma teachings speak of fifty-one, which are held to be particularly important.

Sensation and perception are actually included in these fifty-one, but are treated separately in the list of the five skandhas because they are especially noticeable.

There is no need to go into all fifty-one here, but we should know that they include the components necessary for any cognition to occur, namely sensation, perception, intention (meaning the mind is directed towards a particular object), attention (the mind is held on that object) and contact (an object, a functioning sense organ and consciousness all come together).

There are also five states which assist in the discernment of objects. These are interest, appreciation, mindfulness, concentration and discernment. We are talking about these on a subtle level. For example, we need a certain amount of concentration to focus on a particular object, and some discernment to identify it.

These first ten are called ‘general mind states’.

Then there are the virtuous states of mind such as faith, conscientiousness, absence of attachment, absence of aggression, absence of delusion, and diligence.

Then there are the principal non-virtuous states of ignorance, desire, anger, pride, doubt and harmful beliefs; as well as the secondary negative states such as vindictiveness, spite, envy, deceit, stinginess, laziness and forgetfulness. Here we also include the drowsiness and agitation we experience in meditation, as well as distraction.

Finally, there are several ‘variable’ states which could be either positive or negative, such as regret.


Consciousness here refers to the consciousness of impressions from the five senses, and also consciousness of mental objects, like thoughts, ideas and emotions. (See: Six consciousnesses.)

The consciousnesses of the five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching) are non-conceptual. Then the information is fed to the mental consciousness, where concepts can enter in.

Visual consciousness registers only colors and shapes. It does not recognize particular colors, which is the function of the skandha of perception. Nor does it identify certain colors as pleasant, which is done by the feeling skandha.

The followers of the Mind Only school identified eight types of consciousness. In addition to the consciousnesses of the five senses and the mind, they spoke of a ‘defiled mental consciousness’ and the famous ‘all-ground consciousness’ (storehouse consciousness), or //alaya vijñana//.

The mental consciousness is closely connected with the ego, and is where the notion of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ enters into experience. It is absent in the meditation of noble beings (Arya beings), but never ceases in the mind stream of an ordinary being. This seventh consciousness relates very closely to our ‘self-image’. After we receive data from the senses, and process them with the sixth consciousness, the defiled mental consciousness asks whether or not this experience fits with how we have come to think of ourselves – our ‘image’, in other words. This means there is a lot of judgment here, paving the way for attachment and aversion.

The alaya consciousness is described as ‘mere knowing, an unspecified apprehension, the object of which is general and uncircumscribed’. It is often likened to a storehouse, in which we keep all our habits and instincts, the imprints or ‘seeds’ of our actions which will ripen into future experiences.

Alternative Translations

 * Five components (Dorje & Kapstein)

Further Reading

 * [[Kangyur Rinpoche]], //Treasury of Precious Qualities// (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2001), 'Appendix 4'. 
 * Appendix 7, 'The Five Aggregates' pp. 183-185 in //The Light of Wisdom Volume 1//. Root text by [[Padmasambhava]] and commentary by [[Jamgön Kongtrül]] the Great. Published by Shambhala Publications ISBN 0-87773-566-2

 * [[|The Five Skandhas in Translation]]






Five Skandhas

1) form, 2) feeling, 3) cognition, 4) formations, 5) consciousness.

The mind is like a Master painter

Who can paint all worlds.

From it are produced the Five Skandhas

As well as all Dharmas.

(FAS, HYSC 30:54-70))

When the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was practicing the profound Prajna Paramita, he illuminated the Five Skandhas and saw that they are all empty.

(HS 1)

meaning of “skandhas”

skandha is a Sanskrit word meaning heap, pile, or aggregate.The Buddha illustrated his teaching about the skandhas by using five small piles–heaps–of different grains. The skandhas are general divisions for categorizing all phenomena in the conditioned world. Because they include within them all transitory, Im[[permanent phenomena, they are an important tool for understanding the Buddhist doctrine of no self. If one analyzes all aspects of what one feels to be one's “self”, one finds that all fall within the scope of the Five Skandhas.

“The Five Skandhas as they are found in your body:

1) The body is the form skandha.

2) Once you have the form skandha, you then have feelings of enjoyment and pleasure.

3) You want pleasure, and so you give rise to polluted thinking, which is cognition. How can I get what I want? How can I actually indulge in pleasure?

4) You have to go and do it. That is formations*.

5) Acting requires a certain amount of wisdom, a consciousness which is a kind of small intelligence, a minute amount . . . .

“Your body achieves its aims. 'Oh, enjoyment! Ahhh!' The enjoyment lasts about five minutes. Because of the excessive exertion, your blood vessels rupture and then death comes. . . . What was it all about? It was just the Five Skandhas.

“The Five Skandhas are just five ways of Uniting, of working together to open a company. The company, once opened, opens again and again… The skandha-company grows everywhere like a wild vine which is never cut. Once opened, the Five Skandhas, Inc. always stays open, always feeling that there is hope. What hope? 'Ah! This life I didn't make money, but wait until next life and I will be able to make some.' Who can know whether there will be even less capital in the next life?” (HS 46-47)

“When you break through all Five Skandhas, and are no longer deluded by them, you can 'cross beyond all suffering (Dukkha)'. You can then put an end to all bitterness. seeing that the Five Skandhas are all empty is getting rid of the attachments to self.” (LY II 104)


And why, brethren, do ye say body (i.e., form)? One is affected , brethren. That is why the wordbody” is used. Affected by what? Affected by touch of cold and Heat, of hungerSand thirst, of gnats, mosquitos, wind and sun and snakes. One is affected, brethren. That is why we say “body”. (kindred sayings III 72-73)

“What is form? The body is included among the form-Dharmas; since it is form, it is called the ”form-body“. Your form-body has an appearance, but when you seek for its origin you will find that it is empty… When the four Great Elements, namely earth, water, fire, and wind, unite, the body comes into being.

This is what is meant by having a form. working together the elements establish a corporation. The corporation comes into being from the four conditioned causes: earth, which is characterized by solidity and durability; water, which is characterized by moisture; fire, which is characterized by warmth; wind, which is characterized by movement. When the four conditioned causes disperse, each has a place to which it returns; therefore, the body becomes empty.” (HS 44-45)

“Once you break through the form skandha, 'all the mountains, rivers, and Great earth are seen as empty.'” (LY II 103)

form includes the Four Great Elements and the eleven derived types of form known as the eleven form Dharmas.

A. Four Great Elements

name state activity

1) earth solidity produced by repulsion

2) water liquidity or produced by attraction


3) fire temperature produced by Heat

4) air/wind expansion, light- produced by motionless, mobility

When they are in equilibrium, the Four Great Elements together produce a pure form which is not detectible by the ordinary senses]]. That pure form is the inner substance of the five perceptual organs and the medium of their actual functioning. When the Four Great Elements are out of equilibrium, different combinations of them produce both the coarse material aspect, or “sHeaths”, of the perceptual organs and also their objects (what they perceive).

B. eleven form DharmaS

organs objects

1) eyes 6) sights 2) ears 7) sounds 3) nose 8) smells 4) tongue 9) tastes 5) body 10) tangible objects 11) subtle traces

The subtle traces are mental residue of verbal and physical action. They can be understood as the “seeds” of future retribution.


And why, brethren, do ye say “feeling”? One feels, brethren. That is why the wordfeeling” is used. feels what? feels pleasure and pain; feels neutral feelings. One feels, brethren. That is why the wordfeeling” is used. (kindred sayings III 73)

“Once the body manifests, it likes pleAsurable feelingS. There are Three kinds of feelings, which correspond to the Three kinds of suffering (Dukkha):

feelings of suffering (Dukkha); feelings of happiness; feelings which are characterized by neither suffering (Dukkha) nor happiness.” (HS 45)

“A state arises and you perceive it; you feel it is pleAsurable. eating good things, putting on a fine garment, feeling warm and being Greatly delighted–these feelings of con[[tentment]], as well as feelings of displeasure and pain, are all grouped under the feeling skandha.” (LY II 103)

feelings are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. They arise from contact of organ, object, and consciousness. feeling includes both the primary sensation and the primary affective categorization of it.


And why, brethren, do ye say “perception”? One perceives, brethren. That is why the wordperception” is used. perceives what? perceives blue-green, perceives yellow, or red, or white. One perceives, brethren. That is why the wordperceptions” is used. (kindred sayings III 73)

When you are awake, your mind thinks. When you are asleep, you dream. thus your thinking moves false emotions through interaction. (SS VIII]] 276)

“As for cognition, you certainly must have (the need for) false thoughts if you want enjoyment. You can't be without it. 'How can I think of a way to buy a car? How can I buy a beautiful home? How can I think of a way to buy a yacht? an airplane?' Your false thoughts fly back and forth and your hair turns white. Why? It turns white from false thinking.” (HS 46)

cognition is the differentiation and identification of objects both physical and mental. Therefore, it includes both higher perceptual functions and thinking processes, including those of language.


In many of the pasSages below the alternate translation 'activities' is used.

And why, brethren, do ye say “the activities-compound”?

Because they compose a compound. That is why, brethren, the wordactivities-compound” is used. And what compound do they compose?

It is the body that they compose into a compound of body. It is feeling that they compose into a feeling-compound. It is perception that they compose into a perception compound; the activities into an activities-compound; consciousness into a consciousness-compound. They compose a compound, brethren. Therefore, the word (activities)-compound is used. (kindred sayings III 73)

“These activities never stop. They progress and shift through subtle Changes. Your nails grow long, your hair grows, your energy wanes, and your face becomes wrinkled. The processes continue and yet you never wake up.” (SS VIII]] 277)

“When you lie in bed at night, you have a thousand plans…Sometimes you get up early and act on them. Sometimes sleeping seems nice, and you just sleep. formationS are basically the acting out of karma, that is, really acting upon your false thinking.” (HS 46)

activities mean movement. They are ceaseless. people are first young, and they become Middle-aged, and then old, and then they die. thought after thought arises and is extinguished, thought after thought without cease. This is the skandha of activities.” (SS III]] 22)

formations refer to both conscious and non-conscious volitional forces, including:

a) conscious intentions or acts of will, the most important category of this skandha;

b) innate predispositions (karma from past lives);

c) unconscious forces having to do with basic life functions, nourishment, and growth.


And why, brethren, do ye say consciousness?

One is conscious, brethren. Therefore, the wordconsciousness” is used. conscious of what? Of (flavours) sour or bitter; acrid or sweet; alkaline or non-alkaline; saline or non-saline. One is conscious, brethren. That is why the wordconsciousness” is used. (kindred sayings III 74)

It is like rapidly flowing water which appears to be still on the surface. You don't detect the flow, but it is, nevertheless, not flowing.“ (SS VIII]] 280)

“The skandha of consciousness involves the making of distinctions. It discriminates, considers, and seeks advantages from circumstances.” (SS III]] 22)

consciousness is the subtle basis of feeling, cognition, and formations. It consists of a subtle distinction-making awareness that distinguishes awareness from the objects of awareness. It is a flux of constantly Changing knowing activity.

THE five

body (i.e., form), brethren, is Im[[permanent. What is Im[[permanent, that is suffering (Dukkha). What is suffering (Dukkha), that is not the self.

What is not the self, “that is not mine, that am not I, that is not the self of me.” This is the way one should regard things as they really are, by right insight.

So likewise with regard to feeling, perception, the activities, consciousness.

So seeing, brethren, the well-taught Ariyan [i.e., noble disciple feels disgust at body, at feeling, perception, the activities and consciousness.

feeling disgust he is repelled: by repulsion he is released; by that release set free, knowledge arises: “in the freed man is the free thing,” and he knows: 'destroyed is rebirth; lived is the righteous life; done is the task; for life in these conditions there is no hereafter.” (kindred sayings III 68-69)

The skandha of form is like a mass of foam, because, when taken hold of, it cannot be kept together (in the hand); feeling is like a bubble because, as lasting only for a moment, it is Im[[permanent; perception (cognition) is like a mirage, because it is misled by the thirst of craving; the impulses (formation) are like a plantain tree because, when (the leaf-sHeaths) are taken away, no core remains; consciousness is like a dream, because it takes hold of what deceives. Therefore, the Five Skandhas have no self, (and they contain) no person (Pudgala), no living being, no living soul, no personality and no manhood (purusa). . . . (Conze, tr. Arya-Prajna Paramita-hrdaya-tika 54)

Five Skandhas: 1) Chinese: wu yun , 2) Sanskrit: skandha, pancopanDana- skandhah, 3) Pali khandha, 4) Alternate translations: heaps, aggregates, agglomerations.

See Also: Dharma/Dharma.

BTTS References: HS 24-28, 41-48; LY II 103-104, 223-225; SS III]] 4-24; SS VIII.

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