Five aggregates (pancaskandha)

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There is every indication that the historical Buddha expanded upon this existing fund of psychological observation and speculation to formulate his own systematic analysis of individual human being into the ‘five aggregates' (pancaskandha).

This doctrine is conspicuously treated in the Saalistamba Sutra. According to this doctrine, what we typically experience as the individual self is divisible into at least five aggregates. They are matter (ruupa), feeling (vedanaa), conceptual identification (samjna), conditioning factors (samskaara) and consciousness (vijnaana).

Matter means stuff, and there is no stuff in Buddhism, for nothing persists. Matter is said to be of four kinds, namely, earth, water, fire and air, and to include also those things grasping (upaadaana) them. Specifically so included are the parts of the body, including the sense organs, and the external material things grasped by those organs, which are not substances but rather fleeting sensations or ‘sense data'.

Gethin points out, ‘what is clear.... is the extent to which the early Buddhist account of ruupa focuses on the physical world as experienced by a sentient being - the terms of reference are decidedly body-endowed-with-consciousness (savinnanaka kaaya)'. Matter associated with inert stuff independent of humans does not fit in to interpret ruupa. In fact, it rather means ‘colour or form (shape)'.

Though there are four basic sorts of ruupa, the Abhidharma presents the important and peculiar notion that every ‘material' thing has aspects of all four elements in it. The constituents of matter referring to earth, water, air, and fire only refer to the distinguishing aspects of certain factors, the peculiar ways in which each respective element behaves along with other ways.

In the case of a factor of earth, it has, therefore, certain features which it possesses in virtue of its being an earthy factor. But it does not occur independently. Rather, it must occur in the company of the features of watery, airy and fiery factors. These aggregates, then, are not atomic entities, as in Vaisesika, but rather aspects of fleeting experiences, numbers of which flash at any moment of occurrence. For instance, ‘earth ruupa', therefore, means the aspects of the experience, which is occasioned, or constituted, by the flashings. Such flashings occur in groups, not singly.

The aspects peculiar to earth flashings are said in the nikaayas to be hardness, rigidity, spreading out and occupying space. But these features do not occur independently. They represent the earthy aspects of any material experience, occurring with watery, airy and fiery aspects. Watery aspects are such as viscidity and cohesion, flowing in streams. Fiery aspects are especially heat, which is connected with the ripening and maturing of things. Airy aspects include inflation, fluctuation, motion, and lightness.

These four aspects of matter always arise together and disappear together. One cannot exist without the other three. And they always occur together, and in equal portion. In other words, one cannot outweigh any of the other three.

How is it, then, that we have qualitatively different experiences, in one of which the visual element is paramount, in another the tangible, and so on? The answer is that one of the four can be more intense than some or all of the others. A solid thing has earth predominant in intensity, a fiery thing water, and so on.

As for the second aggregate ‘feeling' (vedanaa), the classifications are simply into satisfying (sukha), frustrating (duhkha) and neutral (avyaakrta). There is further division of feelings into bodily and mental.
As for the third aggregate samjnaa (conceptual identification), the Sanskrit term strongly suggests the presence of linguistic aspects. Paul Williams states that ‘samjnaa... becomes the principal element in the creation of a single term for multitude of changing factors, and thus by virtue of the requirement of a single referent, samjnaa creates prajnaptisat entities.'

Prajnaptisat or samvrtisat entities are those, which have no real essence. They are ‘secondary entities... elements which are common to a number of spatial and temporal points and, therefore, cannot be uniquely described; they involve universals which necessarily transcend spatio-temporal momentariness, and, therefore, cannot themselves be ultimately real.

As for the fourth aggregate ‘conditioning factors (samskaaras), there are a large number of factors belonging to the general class of samskaaras. Gethin explains what samskaaras have in common that warrants their being so termed.

‘The nikaayas define samskaara primarily in terms of will or volition (cetanaa); they also describe them as putting together (abhisamkharanti) each of the khandha in turn into something that is put together (samkhata). In this way, samkhaaras are presented as conditioning factors conceived of as active volition forces. Cetanaa is, of course, understood as kamma on the mental level, and in the early abhidhamma texts all those mental factors that are considered to be specifically skillful (kusala) or unskilful (akusala) fall within the domain of samkhaara-khandha.'

Thus these factors correspond to a number of items, which condition our doings and thinking. The term ‘conditioning factor' suggests their involvement in the karmic conditioning process.

The fifth aggregate is consciousness (vijnaana). The very discussion of aggregates in making up a sentient being raises important questions. ‘If a person is an aggregate of aggregates, and these aggregates are themselves factors which are momentary, what happens when these streams of factors come to an end with the death of the individual person. Buddhists talk, as other Indians do, of karma and rebirth. But how is it possible given the over-reaching conception of momentariness of all things?'

The analysis of the person into physical (ruupa), emotional (vedana), conceptual (samjnaa) and conditioning (samskaara) elements does not help explain how a person can even seem to persist from death to rebirth. The physical body withers and dies. The emotions cease on death. Concepts and volitions also cease. In these circumstances, what is the connection between one who dies at a point of time and another who is born some time after the death of the one? Surely, the identity of the individual person needs to be included among the factors into which that person is analysed.

It is the need for an answer to this question, which leads to the aggregate of consciousness. This aggregate plays several roles.

There is an important difference between the consciousness, which arises when a sense organ contacts an object, and the mere sensing or identifying an object as something. In the Buddhist lists of factors, sensory awareness finds place in addition to the sensing and identifying themselves. But, beyond this, consciousness is that type of factor the stream of which persists beyond bodily demise. It is evidently this stream that maintains individual identity through the intermediate state and on into the next life.
The term vijnaana is used in another connection, too. It is to explain what it is that is still there as stream in the higher meditative states that Buddhist meditation theory describes. The descriptive terms for these higher meditative states regularly incorporate the presence of consciousness, if nothing else, into the descriptions of these states.

Besides these five aggregates, there are three sets of classifications of factors, accepted from the outset in the Buddha's own accounts, based on these distinctions. These are faculties, bases and elements. These classifications take account of the ways in which factors are grasped.
There are five external faculties - the visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory and tactile. These are not to be confused with the physical organs - eye, ear, nose, tongue and skin. The reference here to the external faculties is to momentary, possibly atomic-sized factors scattered over the ball of the eye and possessed of the faculty of vision, etc. There is a sixth faculty, too, the internal faculty of ‘mind'. This faculty grasps factors that do not involve external sensory elements.

Each of these six faculties has a type of factor it is capable of grasping. These factors flash together with factors of the other three material kinds. Grasping of the five sensory sorts constitutes the flashing. Corresponding to the sixth internal faculty, there is a mental kind of object grasped by it.

The twelve types of factors making up the list of faculties together with the things grasped by them is called the list of bases (aayatana). Everything that is grasped is comprised of bases, including the faculties themselves.
A third list presents eighteen elements (dhaatu). These are the twelve bases plus six more factors, identified as the consciousness (vijnaana) of each of the five sensory kinds plus, again, a sixth called the element of mental consciousness or ‘representative cognition'.

McGovern describes the function of representative cognition thus:
‘.... Each of six vijnaanas has only a momentary existence. Nevertheless, there is karmic or causal affinity between the various groups of consciousness of one moment and the next. The group of this moment inherits the tendencies, etc. of the immediately preceding group, and as the chief function of mano-vijnaanas is memory and reason, both separately connected with the continuity of mental process, it is said that the constantly dying away vijnaanas of the past moments constitutes the base or organ for the activity of the mano-vijnaana of the present moment. Just as activity of the caksur or indriya brings about the arising of caksur-vijnaana or the visual consciousness, so does the transmitted energy of all the immediately preceding vijnaanas bring about the arising of the mano-vijnaanas.'
Together these five aggregates form a constantly fluctuating conglomerate. The conglomerate only gives the appearance of abiding personal identity.

Each aggregate can be further analysed into constituent components. Body is composed of the elements earth, air, fire and water. Aakaasa, a fifth element recognized in the Saalistamba Sutra, and a common feature in the Mahayana literature, is relatively scarce in the Pali sutras as one of the recognised elements. Feelings, conceptual identifications and consciousness occur as results of the activity of the five senses, and the mind (manas). Thus there may be visual feeling, olfactory identification or tactile consciousness and so on up to eighteen types of feeling, identification and consciousness. These eighteen types are due to six senses times three aggregates.

In the Pali sutras themselves, each of the eighteen basic types of feeling, identification and consciousness may be yet further analysed according to the nature of the aggregate in question. Feelings, the most primitive level of experience, occur in three categories, namely, pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. Identifications represent the more refined experiences such as red, round, smooth, fragrant, etc. These are normally denoted with adjectives.

At this point, a specific identification regarding the object in question may be formed at the level of the ‘conditioning factors' aggregate. For instance, pleasant visual, tactical and olfactory feelings with similar identifications of red, round, smooth and fragrant may give rise to the concept of an apple. Upon further experience, this concept can be revised to something like a ‘pomegranate'.

In addition to conceptualisation, volition also occurs at the level of conditioning factors. In this context, volition indicates karmic efficient reactions such as desire or aversion. Such processes occur throughout one's waking life, and possibly in sleep and dream as well. However, there is no indication of an early Buddhist doctrine regarding sleep and dreaming, though such speculations were pursued in the Upanisads composed about the Buddha's time.

In the Pali sutras, the fifth aggregate ‘consciousness' is metaphysically represented as a stream. It appears to represent most often the sum total functioning of the other three nonmaterial aggregates. In some instances, however, it appears to denote a deeper, more essential level of being reminiscent of Upanisadic treatments of the layered self. This lack of clarity may be intentional, or may have been regarded as unavoidable, in the context of propounding a doctrine of rebirth without a soul, in a culture in which the two doctrines were so closely associated.

At any rate, consciousness occupies a unique position in early Buddhist doctrine by virtue of its crucial role in the process of rebirth and release.

On the one hand, the Pali sutras state explicitly that consciousness does not pass from one birth to another as an entity. On the other hand, several passages imply some role for consciousness in the rebirth passage. For instance, some sutras indicate that upon the realisation of final liberation, consciousness ‘ceases' or is not ‘reinstated', or that it ‘descends' at rebirth. Such phrases indicate that the consciousness aggregate represents the medium through which rebirth occurs.

However, consciousness characterised as a stream is not to be taken as an entity. A stream flows along, constantly changing, constantly modified by rocks, debris, etc. It is still recognisable as the same stream. At some point, it may plunge over a precipice, shatter into spray and then re-form at the bottom into another stream, which is ‘neither the same stream nor a different stream'.

Similarly, early Buddhist doctrine appears to represent consciousness - whether as a separate aggregate or the sum total functioning of the other non-material aggregates - as flowing along in a continuous, though constantly changing, pattern, throughout one's life, being radically interrupted at death, and then re-forming in rebirth in such a way as to be ‘not oneself, and yet not another'.

A systematic concept of cause and effect underlies all the foregoing psychological and philosophical material. This concept is governed by the four logical alternatives of the catuskoti. For example, one is not reborn as no abiding entity survives death. On the other hand, one is reborn in the sense that one's actions and experiences in this life will affect causally a consciousness reinstated in another life. Even in a single lifetime, an infant develops into an adult, in a sense, through the mechanism of cause and effect operating both mentally and physically. In another sense, the infant's physical body, desires, motivations, intentions, etc perish utterly through the same mechanism. The infant both does and does not survive infancy.

Both these processes of identity in difference, whether in one lifetime or across many lifetimes, are summarised in the Buddhist doctrines of dependent origination (pratiyasamutpaada). The Saalistamba sutra's detailed treatment of the twelve-fold formula of dependent origination reinforces the view that the classical formula expounded in the Pali sutras goes back to at least within a hundred years of the historical Buddha himself.

It deserves notice that the Theravaada Digha Nikaaya nowhere contains the complete, classical twelve-fold formula. Instead, it contains only abridged or variant formulae. This suggests that the classical formula is an amalgamation of several separate formulae, and may not have been assembled until after the death of the historical Buddha. This also suggests that the preservers and compilers of the Pali Nikayaas were remarkably conscientious as historians and textualists.
• The classical, twelve-fold formula of dependent origination runs as follows.
• Ignorance conditions conditioning factors.
• Conditioning factors, in turn, condition consciousness.
• Consciousness conditions name and form.
• Name and form condition the six senses including mind.
• The six senses condition sensual contact.
• Sensual contact conditions feeling.
• Feeling conditions craving.
• Craving conditions grasping.
• Grasping conditions existence.
• Existence conditions birth.
• &12. Birth conditions aging and death.

According to the classical Theravaadin interpretation of the formula, life goes on in a cycle. If one dies in a state of ignorance, this will influence (condition) the final thoughts occurring in that life, which will, in turn, determine the initial state of consciousness in the next life. This initial state of consciousness conditions ‘name and form' which is interpreted to mean the conscious and the corporeal aspects of the human being developing in the womb. There is, however, little in the Pali sutras themselves to suggest that ‘name and form' refers to the consciousness and corporeal duality supposed to constitute a human being. This situation suggests similarity between the overall standpoint of the Pali sutras and that of Mahayana Buddhism. This similarity centres on the term naama-ruupa.

Literally, naama means name; and ruupa means form or appearance. There are several appropriate words in Sanskrit and Pali to denote mind and body. It is very doubtful that naamaruupa originally meant ‘mind and body'. In the Upanisads, which are roughly contemporary with the historical Buddha, the term naamaruupa is a general designation for any discrete phenomenon.

According to the Upanisads, all phenomena are characterised by their names and forms. ‘Name' is more than a verbal designation. It implies a concept, in the mind of the perceiver, which is potentially nameable. ‘Form' does not necessarily imply substance. It is rather appearance or perceptibility. According to the Upanisadic reasoning, in order to exist in any meaningful sense of the term, a phenomenon must present a form perceivable by the senses, and must be greeted in consciousness with a concept corresponding to that form. In other words, consciousness and the objects of consciousness are interdependent. It is most likely that the term naama-ruupa in the Pali sutras must have meant a similar concept.

The Pali sutras repeatedly affirm the interdependence of consciousness and the objects of consciousness without asserting the priority of either. The following passage in the sutras is quite pertinent.

‘When, sir, the internal eye is intact, external forms come within its range and there is appropriate attention, then there is appearance of the appropriate type of consciousness. Whatever is the form (ruupa) of what has thus come to be is called the grasping aggregate of form.'
The following passage in the sutras just echoes the Upanisadic thought.

‘There is just this body and external to it, name-and-form. This is a pair. Conditioned by this pair are (sensory) contact and the six (sense) spheres.'
The term naama-ruupa occurring in the Pali sutras at several places is amenable to interpretation as concept-and-appearance. Only at a very few places it appears to refer to mind-and-body.

In the light of the above discussion, it is possible to construe the classical formula of dependent origination as a quasi-immaterialist treatment of the repeated arising and passing away of phenomena existing in mutual interdependence with consciousness. According to this interpretation, each new phenomenon is greeted with ignorance. This gives rise to a conditioning factor, an idea. This, in turn, influences the state of consciousness of the perceiving object.

This state of consciousness influences the concept and appearance (name and form) of the object perceived. The predisposition entailed in the subjective ‘concept and appearance' of the phenomenon in question conditions the nature of sensual information transmitted, and so on until the decay and demise of that particular, impermanent phenomenon occurs. Similarly, the perceiving subject is constantly modified by the nature of the objects perceived, and is also discontinuous and impermanent. Consciousness, like the phenomena to which it responds, arises and passes away repeatedly.

This interpretation makes sense in that, according to early Buddhist thought, one never experiences ‘external' objects as such. One only experiences apparent objects with an admixture of subjective bias. On the other hand, the objects with which it comes in contact influence one's subjective consciousness. In other words, consciousness and the objects of consciousness are interdependent and mutually determinative.

The Mahaapadaana Sutta of the Digha Nikaaya states this position succinctly. ‘When there is consciousness, there is name-and-form. Consciousness is the condition of name-and-form. When there is name-and-form, there is consciousness. Name-and-form is the condition of consciousness.' This psychological theory provides a convincing prototype for both the Maadhyamika dialectic and Vijnaanavaada metaphysics.

The implication of the Pali sutras as a whole, including the formula of dependent origination, is that the mutual interdependence of consciousness and its objects precludes valid knowledge of any independent reality, whether objective or subjective. In highlighting the necessary subjective component in any experience of an object, the Pali sutras discard the objective referent of consciousness altogether in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy.

Incidentally, in terms of the Maadhyamika dialectic, there can be no self-existent knower, no self-existent thing known and no self-existent act of knowing. In terms of Vijnaanavaada metaphysics, though there may be objectively existing external objects, it is impossible to establish their existence, and it is possible to proceed with formal logic without reference to any objectively existing reality.

K. R. Paramahamsa is an author of book Buddhism In Scripture and Practice 

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