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Five skandhas

People in a boat, the usual image for name-and-form in the Wheel of Life
Five skandhas (Skt. pacaskandha; Tib.
pungpo nga; Wyl. phung po lnga) the five
psycho-physical aggregates, which according to Buddhist philosophy are the basis for selfgrasping. They are:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

form (Skt. rpa; Tib.


, Wyl. gzugs)
feeling (Skt. vedan; Tib.
, Wyl. tshor ba)
perception (Skt. saj; Tib.
, Wyl. du shes)
formations (Skt. saskra; Tib.
, Wyl. du byed)
consciousness (Skt. vijna; Tib.
, Wyl. rnam shes)

Contents
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1 Etymology
2 Introduction
3 Form/Matter
4 Feelings/Sensations
5 Perceptions
6 Formations
7 Consciousness
8 Alternative Translations
9 French Texts

10 Notes
11 Further Reading

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

Introduction
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.[1]
And Chgyam 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.[2]
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.

Form/Matter
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 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 organsour eyes and ears and so onbut 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 colours and shapes that
appear to our eyes. Broadly speaking, colours may be divided into the primary colourswhich
according to the Abhidharma are white, red, yellow and blueand the secondary colours. 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 odours 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, bitter, hot, astringent and
pungent.
Textures, or tactile sensations, may be felt on the bodys 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.

Feelings/Sensations
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.

Perceptions
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 nonconceptual sense perceptions are regarded as discerning when they are operating normally and
perceiving their proper objects: colours/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
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
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 nonconceptual. Then the information is fed to the mental consciousness, where concepts can enter
in.
Visual consciousness registers only colours and shapes. It does not recognize particular colours,
which is the function of the skandha of perception. Nor does it identify certain colours 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, or alaya vijana.
The defiled 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, 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.