Buddhist tool box: The five skandhas


The five aggregates (or “heaps,” or skandhas) are:

  1. Form, body
  2. Feelings, sensations (physical, emotional)
  3. Perceptions (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, thoughts)
  4. Impulses, volition, will, intention (karma)
  5. Consciousness, cognition (mind)

Together, these constitute what we generally consider to be our self. I often find it hard to place something into just one of the five heaps — in particular, I think No. 2 and No. 3 overlap a lot. But this is probably unimportant. What’s more important is that everything we “are” can be placed into one or more of the heaps, so it seems the idea of the five skandhas is pretty comprehensive.

The way I use these heaps as tools in my practice is to notice that every single one of them is always changing. Not a single heap is permanent or fixed.

So where is “I”? This self I am so sure of, that seems so real and solid to me — what is it?



11 responses

  1. Skandhas are great road signs and reminders in our Buddhist path. But like other words, we can clarify their meaning only through practicing regularly Zazen. Continuous practice.

    What is it not?

    Good post, thank you.

    With palms together,

  2. The skandhas are a useful analytical tools. And, of course, analysis doesn’t really respond to the profound lack of satisfaction that appears in our life. But when we notice how things actually are, then the skandhas are revealed as empty. What a relief!

    Thank you!

  3. Hello,

    Very nice blog. Artistic without sacrificing content. One quick note. #4 is actually “mental formations” as in “this tastes good” or “that smells bad”, etc. Consciousness would lead to volition, karma, etc. 😉

  4. @Gerald Ford – That’s not how it’s taught in the Kwan Um lineage, as far as I understand it. But it might be quibbling for me to say that.

    Thanks for the compliment. I also enjoy your blog very much.

  5. Thank you. 🙂

    The Pali Canon (and probably the Agamas) list out the aggregates frequently. Here’s a nice sutra which elaborates on the five aggregates:


    #4 does appear to be mental fabrications. The Buddha’s discourses on kamma are treated as a separate entity, apart from the aggregates:


    “Cetana” is the Pali word for intention.

  6. @Gerald Ford – In the texts from the Kwan Um school teachers (including the school’s founder, Zen Master Seung Sahn), No. 4 is usually called simply “impulses.” I have heard these described as “reactions” and also explained as habitual patterns — hence the connection to karma. So I don’t mean to say No. 4 –is– karma (it’s not), but rather that karma gives rise to these impulses, or reactions … unless we’re being good and mindful, and catch them in time!

    Thoughts (in the teaching of this school) would have to be in No. 3 because all the six senses and their products are there.

  7. Hello,

    Just following up again. I happen to be (poorly) translating the heart sutra right now, and the issue of what #4 is came up again. Sure enough, the Mahayana version has it translated more like “volition”, where the Theravada version has it translated as “mental formations”. In classical chinese it is the character “行” which carries the connotation of movement (i.e. volition). I was wrong in other words, so my apologies for causing any confusion. 🙂