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The Aggregates as Taught by the Buddha

In the teachings of the Buddha, there exist five aggregates (स्कन्ध; Sanskrit: skandha; Pāḷi: khandha) which are often mistaken for self insofar as they are the aspects of our psychophysical makeup with which we often most identify.

The five aggregates go by the following designations in Pāḷi:

1. rūpa – form, matter, corporeality (e.g, the physical body as a whole and its various organs and parts)

2. vedanā – sensation, feeling, affective tone (e.g., pleasant, unpleasant, neutral – pleasure, pain, neither)

3. saññā – perception, cognition, discrimination (e.g., of qualities, features, characteristics of objects entering the sense fields)

4. saṃkhārā – thoughts, impulses, mental fabrications (e.g., opinions, ideas, habits, mental processes)

5. viññāṇa – consciousness, discernment (e.g., of sensory experience, eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, etc.)

These five aggregates, which are likened to heaps of phenomena, can for the sake of parsimony be called form, feeling, perception, impulses, and consciousness.

The Buddha frequently asserted that none of the aggregates should be identified as self. Instead, they are all without self, empty of self, without self-nature. In the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta (SN 22.59) and elsewhere, the Buddha often repeats the formula:

“rūpaṃ bhikkhave, anattā…
vedanā bhikkhave, anattā…
saññā bhikkhave, anattā…
saṃkhārā bhikkhave, anattā…
viññāṇaṃ bhikkhave, anattā…”

Or in other words, as is found in the Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta (MN 109) and elsewhere:

rūpaṃ anattā, vedanā anattā, saññā anattā, saṅkhārā anattā, viññāṇaṃ anattā

This stock phrase, which reoccurs all throughout the Buddha’s teachings, means “form, bhikkhus (monks), is not self… feeling is not self… perception is not self… mental properties are not self… consciousness is not self…”

In more full translation, this is what the Buddha taught:

“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’

“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, perception is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self…

“Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN 22.59)

Thus, as can be read from the words of the Buddha himself, the five aggregates are not to be confused with any sort of self. To further illustrate this point in poetic form, in the Phena Sutta, the Buddha compares the aggregates, the phenomena that comprise a person, to foam in a river, bubbles in water, a mirage, and other illusory, impermanent phenomena. The aggregates are all empty, he asserts:

“However you observe them, appropriately examine them, they’re empty, void to whoever sees them appropriately”

Phena Sutta (SN 22.95)

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