The Five Skandhas in Buddhism
In this article I will be going over a core Buddhist teaching on the nature of the Self which is that of the Five Skandhas. This is one of the trickiest concepts to understand and one that is central to Buddhism. The concept of self and no-self is also intertwined with this teaching.
So what are skandhas? Skandhas in Sanskrit can be translated as “aggregate”, “function”, or “aspect”. But let’s drill down deeper, so what is an aggregate? An aggregate is defined as “a whole formed by combining several (typically disparate) elements”. So I think now we can make the jump that these five skandhas (aggregates) all need to be present for the ego to be present.
The Five Skandhas in Buddhism
As we’ve just seen, the individual sense of self or ego of a sentient being needs the following conditions in order to arise:
- Form – This is our physical body which includes our sense organs
- Sensation (or Feeling) – This is our emotional and physical feeling, and the five senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling
- Perception – This is thinking or more specifically cognition, reasoning, and conceptualization. It is the recognition we experience when our senses come into contact with an object. Perception allows us to recognize physical and mental objects.
- Mental formations (or Volition) – This includes our thoughts, habits, prejudices, and predispositions, volition, attention, faith, conscientiousness, pride, desire, and any other mental states; the cause and effect of karma
- Consciousness – This is our awareness of the objective world without conceptualization, raw consciousness.
We think that these Five Skandhas are us but each one can’t exist apart from the others.
For example once we have awareness (Fifth Skandha), we recognize objects and assign a value to them (Third Skandha) and then we react with either desire or revulsion or with another mental formation (Fourth Skandha). So you can see how intertwined the Five Skandhas are with one another.
Self and No-Self
The five aggregates are not the real self though, and so our ego appears to be an illusory mirage-like construct generated by the causes and conditions of the skandhas. When we understand that we are not the Five Skandhas, then we have reached a deeper level of insight.
The Buddha taught that clinging to these aggregates believing that they constitute a concrete self is the cause of suffering which connects it to the Second Noble Truth of the cause of suffering.
The concept of No-Self was a reaction to the Vedic teaching that taught that every person has an unchanging, eternal soul or identity or Atman inhabiting the body.
However, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have a self. The Buddha never stated that we don’t have a self but rather a no-self (anatman/anatta) which means that the self is actually a continually changing continuum that is ultimately impermanent.
Theravada and Mahayana Perspectives
Different schools of Buddhism interpret this teaching in slightly different ways. In the Theravada school of Buddhism, there is less of an emphasis on this teaching. According to scholar Walpola Rahula in his book “What the Buddha Taught”,
“According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of a self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems.”
In Mahayana Buddhism this principle of emptiness (shunyata) is applied to all things and all phenomena where all things ultimately don’t have intrinsic existence apart from everything else, meaning that nothing occurs without being relative to something else. This is somewhat similar to the general understanding of relativity in Western science.
This understanding has its roots in the Buddhist Madhyamika (“school of the Middle Way”) founded by Buddhist enlightened master Nagarjuna. In this view it is incorrect to say that phenomena either exist or don’t exist, so this view is the middle way between the concepts of existence of a self and the non-existence of a self.
As the Heart Sutra also states:
“Form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form ;
Emptiness does not differ from Form,
Form does not differ from emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form,
The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness.”
I hope this article on the Five Skandhas in Buddhism has brought some clarity to this teaching which tends to confuse a lot of people. If you have thoughts or questions, please leave them in the comments below.