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The Five Clinging Aggregates
The Five Clinging Aggregates article and talk explains the discrete components that through ignorance of The Four Noble Truths combine to present the deluded view of a permanent self.
The Following is an excerpt from The Truth Of Happiness book. Information on The Truth Of Happiness book and ten-week course is here.
Dependent Origination describes the impersonal process resulting in confusion and suffering founded in ignorance. The Five Clinging-Aggregates describe the impersonal nature of the perception of an individual, permanent, personal self. Remember that the Dhamma is taught in the context of the Four Noble Truths. The Five Clinging Aggregates do not seek to explain a “self.” The Five Clinging-Aggregates describe the clinging vehicle that experiences suffering. When viewed from this Right View, The Five Clinging Aggregates are anatta, not-self, anicca, impermanent, and so, dukkha. The Five Clinging Aggregates are also known as the Five Kandhas.
“Clinging has craving as its cause. Craving is dependent on feelings, feelings dependent on contact. Contact is dependent on the six-sense base and the six-sense base dependent on the establishment of an ego-personality. The ego-personality is dependent on consciousness, consciousness dependent on fabrications. And what is the root of fabrications and the entire mass of confusion and suffering? Fabrications (deluded thinking) are dependent on ignorance for it’s cause.
From the cessation of ignorance comes true insight and the cessation of fabrications. From true insight comes cessation of clinging to sensory stimulus, to views and ideas, to rituals and practices or doctrines of self. This wise one is free of clinging, unbound, at peace. Being at peace they know ‘confusion and stress have ended. The integrated life has been lived. All tasks have been completed. There is nothing further for this world.” (Majjhima Nikaya 11)
The Five Aggregates
Form, matter (Pali: Rupa) The physical body and the physical domain. Included in the physical body are the senses and the thinking conditioned mind. The physical or phenomenal domain is all that we perceive through contact with the senses. Any physical form is called the form aggregate.
Feeling (Pali: Vedana) Feeling is the experienced reaction to mental or physical stimulus. Any emotional or physical feeling is called the feeling aggregate.
Perception (Pali: Sanna) Perceptions are views formed by discriminating thoughts. Reaction to perceptions further integrates the perception and further conditions the mind. Perception bound to a false view of self results in a deluded view of reality. It is through perception that we convey permanent and individuated reality where none exists. Delusion arises by believing that simply because we think something is as it appears to be, it is. This is discursive thinking, much like “I think therefore I am.” This is also mental/physical sleight-of hand you are the magician. Any perception is called the perception aggregate.
Mental Fabrications (Pali: Sankhara) Mental fabrications are thought constructs and held views. Mental fabrications develop from sensory stimulus perceived through wrong view, further conditioning clinging conditioned mind. Mental fabrications incline your mind to wrong views creating unskillful actions. It is unskillful volitional actions originating in deluded intentions that cause kamma. Sankhara is a component of consciousness. Any mental fabrication is called the fabrication aggregate.
Consciousness (Pali: Vinana) That which arises within form due to contact with the six senses (Sadayatana, five physical senses and thought). This is not to be taken as a part of an awakened mind. Consciousness bound to the clinging-aggregates is also impermanent. Consciousness is the active and reactive process of an ego-personality continually establishing itself. Any aspect of consciousness is called the consciousness aggregate.
Notice the close relationship between the five aggregates and the causative links of Dependent Origination. The aggregate of form relates to the last eight “links” of Dependent Origination. The aggregate of feeling is the requisite condition for craving (and indirectly relates to name & form, the six-sense base and contact.) The aggregate of perception relates to fabrications as does consciousness.
The aggregate of form originates in ignorance and is animated by consciousness and results in name & form.
The aggregate of feeling originates in ignorance and is animated by contact with your six-sense base and results in craving.
The aggregate of perception originates in ignorance and is animated by feelings consciousness.
The Aggregate of mental Fabrications originates in ignorance and results in (deluded) consciousness.
The Aggregate of consciousness originates in ignorance and is animated by mental fabrications resulting in the experience of confusion and unsatisfactoriness.
The significance of this is to understand that the Five Clinging-Aggregates are dependent on ignorance. End ignorance and the vehicle for continued confusion and suffering unbinds and unravels. Penetrating (complete understanding) the Five Clinging-Aggregates, or any single component of Dependent Origination, begins to unravel clinging and bring an end to ignorance.
When any aggregate binds to any other element through clinging it is called a clinging-aggregate. It is through these aggregates of observable phenomenon that a perception of a self arises. For example: when a physical form binds to a mental fabrication called John it is now a clinging-aggregate. John has a pleasant (or unpleasant) experience. Perception evaluates the feeling and further conditions consciousness to crave more (or less) of the experience.
Life becomes an endless experience of sensory input followed by discrimination. Each experience is filtered through discriminating and conditioned thought. Each experience provides more validity to the arisen form and further conditioning the consciousness of the form.
Notice that each of these factors is impermanent and uncertain. Through unskillful and deluded intention to establish a self based on these five impermanent factors your ego-personality is formed. From a wrong, or ignorant view, your ego-personality is established. Due to clinging to objects, ideas, and views your ego-personality is defended and maintained. It is your ego-personality, or not-self, that is subject to unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, disappointment, stress and suffering.
Being mindful of the Right Intention to recognize and abandon craving and clinging begins to unbind the five clinging-aggregates. Dependent Origination shows that it is from the condition of craving that the condition of clinging arises. Understanding the five clinging-aggregates begins to unbind the aggregates and brings the refined mindfulness to see the individual components for what they are and to (eventually) abandon the need to continue the ego-self through continued clinging.
The Buddha is using the concept of the five clinging-aggregates to show the insubstantial and impermanent nature of what is perceived as an individual:
“The five aggregates are anicca, impermanent; whatever is impermanent, that is dukkha, unsatisfactory; whatever is dukkha, that is without self. What is without self, that is not mine, that I am not, that is not my self. Thus should it be seen by perfect wisdom as it really is. Who sees by perfect wisdom, as it really is, his mind, not grasping, is detached from fabrications; he is liberated.” (Samyutta Nikaya 22.48)
The Eightfold Path provides the framework for developing mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness and concentration brings insight into the truth of the Five Clinging-Aggregates giving rise to the appearance of a self. Upon investigation it becomes clear that these aggregates are impermanent manifestations of mental and physical phenomenon given substance by conditioned thinking.
What we perceive as an individual self is a mental/physical personality that has arisen from conditioned mind by ignorance. Individuality or an individual personality should be understood as a combination, or an aggregate, of phenomena. The desire for an individual and permanent form is the cause of suffering. This is craving for existence.
All conditioned thoughts and fabrications arise from this initial thirst. The concept of a substantial and eternal self endowed with a soul arises from craving for existence. Acquiring a view of a soul brings a belief of eternity to the temporary phenomenon of the ego-personality, or not-self, continuing delusion and suffering.
The skillful view here is to not get too analytical as analysis does not develop insight. It is enough to recognize that by phenomenal contact with your six-sense base reaction occurs and is interpreted by the four aspects of consciousness. The Five Clinging-Aggregates experience this reaction and a personality is affirmed and established.
Reaction to sensory stimulus seems to give an experience validity. The experience is only “validated’ within the impermanence of the Five Clinging-Aggregates. Initial reaction to the implications of the truth of the Five Clinging-Aggregates can be disconcerting at first. Conditioned mind will reject any thought that self is without any permanent substance.
Understanding the Five Clinging-Aggregates does not limit or annihilate anything of actual substance. Understanding the Five Clinging-Aggregates shines the light of wisdom on the darkness of ignorance. Understanding frees your limited view of self that is bound to an impermanent and insubstantial “heap” of phenomenal elements.
The insistence on maintaining the delusion that an individual self is anything more than these Five Clinging-Aggregates continues to give rise to dukkha. It is the constant preoccupation with the distraction of dukkha that obscures wisdom.
Abandoning craving for existence and clinging to form is enlightenment. The distraction of the preoccupation with dukkha is lifted and Awakened Right View arises.
The Four Noble Truths explains the truth of stress, its origins, and the path leading to the cessation of stress. The Five Clinging-Aggregates explains the process that leads to the belief in an individual self subject to The Four Noble Truths. Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta explains the environment that the appearance of self and The Four Noble Truths are a part of.
Due to impermanence the Buddha teaches: “Form is not-self, feelings are not self, perception is not self, mental fabrications are not self, and consciousness is not self.”
The five factors, or aggregates, of form, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications, and consciousness combine to give the appearance of a “self.”
When personalized through self-identification these five factors are now self-referential clinging components of “myself.” With refined mindfulness, these five elements can be clearly seen as five separate elements.
Creating a personal and permanent self-identity from impersonal and impermanent factors results in a deluded view. The Buddha described this deluded view as “Anatta.” As seen in the previous chapter, Anatta means “Not-A-Self.” The Buddha is teaching that what is commonly viewed as a self, as “atta,” due to the delusion seemingly validated by The Five Clinging-Aggregates, is in fact Anatta, Not-A-Self.
You create self-establishing and self-referential views by identifying as a form that is animated by sensory input. The sensory input develops feelings. You decide if what has contacted your senses enhances, diminishes, or is neutral in effect to what is now established as “you.”
This feedback loop now continually affirms the belief that your form is in fact substantial and permanent. This belief is based solely on feedback from your six sense-base.
Notice how this process is rooted in the ignorant belief that a temporary form animated by temporary and arbitrary sense impressions must in fact be an individual. This is wrong view. This is discursive thinking. This is using an ignorant view to validate ongoing ignorant views based on the same feedback that set the deluded experience unfolding.
Do you see how ongoing ignorance is required to further this deluded thinking? Do you see how the inclination to ignore what would bring wisdom is an underlying factor of ignorance?
The Five Clinging-Aggregates refer to the appearance of a “self” that craves for existence and clings to what seems too establish “self-existence.” This process originates and perpetuate delusion, confusion and ongoing unsatisfactoriness.
The Four Noble Truths do not refer to an individual “self” that experiences the unsatisfactory nature of life in a personal way. The Four Noble Truths do not establish an individual “self’ that originates craving and clinging.
The Four Noble Truths are universal and impersonal truths that all human beings are subject to:
- There is confusion, delusion, unsatisfactoriness. There is Dukkha.
- Craving and Clinging originates and perpetuates confusion, delusion, unsatisfactoriness.
- Cessation of confusion, delusion, unsatisfactoriness is possible.
- The path to cessation of confusion, delusion, unsatisfactoriness is the Eightfold Path.
Notice that there is no permanent “self” that is referenced. These are statements of the truth of existence in this world.
The teaching of the Five Clinging-Aggregates is a simple and practical explanation of the personalization of impersonal phenomena.
The Five Clinging-Aggregates do not describe an established self in an absolute sense. The Five Clinging-Aggregates describe in a relative sense, in the context of The Four Noble Truths, and relative to worldly phenomena, the manifestation of dukkha.
Once the process of Dependent Origination “originates” from wrong or ignorant view (ignorant of The Four Noble Truths) kamma then must provide an expressive manifestation of ignorance. The Five Clinging-Aggregates is an impermanent and impersonal manifestation originating in ignorance.
Kamma is a word that describes the ongoing process of Dukkha. Kamma means action. It is past intentional actions moderated by present mindfulness that results in current experience, or present Kamma. Kamma and Rebirth is explained fully in week nine.
The Five Clinging-Aggregates describe the illusion of a permanent self providing the understanding to bring to cessation the ongoing attempt to continue to establish a “self.”
Once it is clearly seen that these five components are insubstantial and dependent on ignorance to maintain, and prone to constant unsatisfactory experiences, self-referential thoughts and fabrications will be abandoned.
In the language of the Buddha, “Kandha” had many meanings: Heap, pile, mass, a trunk of a tree. Nibbana, final release from craving and clinging, is described as “extinguishing the fires of passion” and relates to the burning away of a tree trunk. Also, as will be seen, Heap, pile, and mass also help describe the Five Clinging-Aggregates. The Buddha, as he often did, used common terms (of his day) to explain the Dhamma.
The Five Clinging-Aggregates explains that from ignorance a deluded view is formed. This ignorant view obscures reality and creates distraction. This results in the combining of five disparate parts, or aggregates, to objectify and provide a vehicle for the ensuing confusion and suffering.
This is a key concept of the Dhamma. If this is unclear at this point, remember that the Eightfold Path develops the wisdom and understanding to see this reality clearly.
From the point of view of an ego-personality this often sounds like nonsense. Resistance to seeing clearly, to useful insight, is rooted in wrong view. An aspect of ignorance is the ego-personality’s inclination to ignore anything that would challenge its existence.
When faced with truths that would bring wisdom to the ignorance that the ego-self is dependent on for continuance, questions such as “what am I?” and “what happens to me?” arise. (when I awaken, when I die, etc.) These questions seek answers that would continue to establish the Five Clinging-Aggregates.
These are inappropriate questions as they are rooted in the ignorance of the ego-self. Continued ignorance can not diminish ignorance. Clinging to views that have arisen from ignorance will only further ignorance and the ensuing confusion and suffering.
The Buddha consistently refused to answer self-referential questions, often replying “I teach suffering and the cessation of suffering. I teach The Four Noble Truths, nothing more.”
The Buddha was also cautious in discussing any mental fabrications that would likely generate more confusion and stress.
The wanderer Vacchagotta had many questions about the nature of the cosmos, eternity, infinitude, the self and the soul, existence after death, and others. After he put these questions to the Buddha, the Buddha responded: “You are confused (by your own questions). The phenomenon (Dependent Origination) you question is hard to understand realize. This phenomenon is tranquil and subtle and beyond discriminating thought. Realization only comes to the awakened.” (Majjhima Nikaya 72)
The Five Clinging-Aggregates are taught to develop the understanding of suffering, not to describe and establish a self.
Understanding the Five Clinging-Aggregates within the context of this course and within the context of The Four Noble Truths begins to diminish attachment to these ignorant views allowing for wisdom and Right View to arise.
Anicca, impermanence, shows that what is perceived of as a substantial and eternal self is in truth insubstantial and impermanent. Being impermanent, the ego-self is subject to stress and unhappiness due to craving and clinging to views of a permanent and substantial self.
It is ignorance that brings suffering. It is the belief in an individual soul or personality that provides the vehicle for the establishment and continuation of suffering. It is the constant preoccupation and distraction of dukkha that obscures liberation and freedom. One can’t know what is not known until what is believed to be true is abandoned. Insisting on maintaining the delusion of an individual self is a wrong view that is blocking Right View.
Understanding the Five Clinging-Aggregates does not answer the question of “what am I?” Understanding the Five Clinging-Aggregates brings wisdom to the nature of suffering.
Next week’s study will develop understanding of kamma and rebirth. Kamma and rebirth explains the condition caused by the ongoing unfolding of delusional beliefs. Through intention and volitional acts arising from a lack of understanding a self that suffers is maintained. Liberation arises and the mind awakens once all deluded views are abandoned:
“When ignorance is abandoned and true knowledge has arisen one no longer clings to sensual pleasures. One no longer clings to views, or to rules and observances, or to a doctrine of self. When one does not cling, one is not agitated. When one is not agitated, one attains Nibbana. Wisdom arises and birth is left behind. The life of virtue, mindful concentration and wisdom has been lived. The righteous Eightfold Path has been developed. There will be no more becoming to any state of being.” (Majjhima Nikaya 11)
The Buddha’s teachings are not to be only studied intellectually. The Buddha’s teachings are to be understood through wisdom born of the experience of integrating these teachings into your life.
Observe the Five Clinging-Aggregates and how they give rise to a belief in self. Notice that nothing (agitating) arises without clinging, craving or desire. Notice the unskillful intention to acquire or to become. Notice how the belief in the self continues the discursive cycle of craving, acquisition, disappointment and more craving.
This is also a practical lesson in Dependent Origination. The root craving for existence gives rise to a self that clings. The self is dependent on clinging for existence, and on continued craving to maintain existence. Clinging to the notion of a separate and individual self lessens by developing understanding through The Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path is the practical and direct way of understanding The Four Noble Truths and the belief in a self within the environment of Anicca. Wisdom and understanding arise and the idea of an individual self is abandoned. There is no more becoming as there is nothing for desire to arise from. The veil of dukkha is lifted.
While meditating with tranquility, allow insight to arise and have a direct experience of the Buddha’s teachings leading to abandoning clinging and the cessation of suffering. Experience awakening through unbinding the Five Clinging-Aggregates.
“Magandiya, when you hear the true Dhamma, you will practice the Dhamma correctly. When you practice the Dhamma correctly, you will know & see for yourself: ‘This is where confusion and suffering ceases without trace. With the cessation of my clinging comes the cessation of becoming. With the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth. With the cessation of birth then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering & stress.” (Majjhima Nikaya 11)
The Buddha describes a mind free of clinging and freed of association to the five clinging aggregates: “released from clinging the mind is without feature or surface, limitless, outside of time and space, freed from the six-sense base.” (Majjhima Nikaya 11)
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.