Aggregates and bundles

My vote is for khandhas. Second choice, aggregates, although it doesn’t sound as cool (but probably more beginner friendly).

In my opinion, I think transliterations are okay for some special and important terms, or those that don’t have a clear translation into English. I tend to keep skandha, dharma, samādhi, dhyāna, nirvāṇa, etc.

In the history of translators into Chinese, Kumarajiva used quite a few transliterated terms, but his prose was otherwise smooth and simple. He varied his phrasings, sometimes just for style, and created translations that were widely appreciated for their literary qualities. His terminology was never a big hurdle.


In reference to the attached picture beneath this quote, thank you, Ajahn, for the hearty laugh! Brilliant! :sweat_smile:
Grasping bundles does sound a touch weird, but I think many people would benefit from simplified translations, in the language of the people. :anjal:

1 Like


I much prefer grapsing or grasped over clingling so I’m glad you’re using that. But to be prefectly honest, I laughed out loud seeing ‘bundles’. Not sure why. I completley agree that aggregate is not a great translation, but as @ Aranya mentioned, I’d almost rather see khanda over ‘bundle’. Though I know you want to use simple language and stay away from using Pali words, to me bundles just makes things even more confusing. I don’t think it’s any more understandable (when used in this context of the teachings to someone not familiar with what ‘aggregate’ means (or khanda ) so I’m not sure what the advantage is. Simple language is fine, if and when it helps in terms of more readily getting the meaning but I don’t get that in this case.

I definitely think what you said earlier about it not being a bad idea to keep some technical language (in some cases) would apply here. Otherwise I think you risk your translation not being easily understandable for someone who is familar with some of the basics of Buddhism, but who doesn’t necesssarily know Pali.

Also, I actually relate to your picture of rocks–different materials glommed together and called/taken (up) as an actual thing :slight_smile: So I vote for sticking with aggregate (albeit not great) unless an even better alternative works. When you see something as/call something a rock, it’s an aggreagate of ‘stuff’ glommed together, not a bundle of rocks. And isn’t bundle used already for another Pali word (kalāpa)? And while groups or subsets (or just sets) have essentially the same meaning as ‘bundle’ (and really a bit different than aggreagate), I would prefer these over ‘bundle’.


I really protest the use transliteration and uncommon words!

Good teachers never use a bunch of words you don’t understand; if they have to introduce a new term, they give everyone a large heads up and explain the new term, often using analogy or simile.

Really good explainers don’t need fancy language to get their points across.

It makes it sound like the Buddha isn’t willing to give it to you straight, or worse, that he isn’t really that good at explaining things. (Or even worse, that he’s just another hoity-toity intellectual trying to dazzle you with his book-learning)

Edit: Though of course, translation is no easy task, I don’t mean to talk down on all the good work that’s been done.

From my own experience in tutoring math, evocative language is what makes people remember things - if you can explain something in a way that makes someone laugh they’re sure to remember it. This must have been important in an oral tradition.

I hope I don’t come across as harsh in this post, I mean this in a lighthearted way! Here’s some smilies to soften the post :slight_smile: :smiley: :grin:


Yes of course. This is the realm of lost echoes and disowned possibilities.

In English, to talk about a fire “grasping” (upādiyati) its fuel or faggot or bundle [which I rightly or wrongly understand to be the context of upādāna in this case] is unidiomatic. Like @Erik_ODonnell mentioned, verbs which would collocate better would include “consume”, “burn in dependence on” or even just “burn”. An alternative to a fuel-heap would be a “burn-pile”: a word in common use which gives 14,700,000 results on Google. Good luck with naming the co-evolving incendiary mass!


Five gripholds of clinging.

I just want to ask what it means when you say, “āhāra… in etymology… is exactly parallel with upādāna.” I know that they are parallels in DO in the suttas, but what is the etymological relationship between the two? Thanks.

Perhaps etymology is the wrong word, but in the root meanings. They both have stems meaning “pick up, take, carry”. Thus you could literally render them as “uptake, intake”, etc.

1 Like

Ah, yes! I never saw it (root meaning parallelism) that way. I knew the respective meanings; I noticed the paralleling in usage; but this went right past me! Thank you.

1 Like

As a native english speaker, when I first learned “aggregate” in Buddhism I didn’t know what the heck that meant. Even after studying it for quite a while I still didn’t get it. khanda is a specialized religious term, so no matter WHAT you use as an english translation, it’s going to be difficult and take a lot of time to understand. I can really appreciate what B.Sujato is trying to accomplish by using “bundle”, and I cast my vote in support. I’m definitely not a fan of using 50 cent words that make me have to interrupt the flow of reading a sutta, run for the dictionary. Yes, I had to look up “aggregate” the first time I encountered it. And then you feel frustrated that after learning the definition it doesn’t help you in understanding what it means in the Buddhist usage. So might as well use a less intimidating term as a translation.

“bundle” in the context of rebirth also makes me think of the english colloquialism “bundle of joy” referring to a newborn baby, which is pretty funny. how inverted human perceptions are. bundles of dukkha is seen as a bundle of joy.

However, bundle doesn’t capture the active “verb” sense of the 5 khandhas. 4 out of the 5 khandhas are clearly activities we do, not objects or nouns, and even rupa-khandha in some sutta passages seems to have a “verb” aspect.
But if “fuel” is a noun, then I guess there’s no harm following the Buddha’s precedent.


I think daverupta s suggestion of “set” instead of bundles is excellent

“Collection” - Collections" would do the job.

“Elements” and “components” others worth pondering?

1 Like

Although I have completely come to understand aggregates in this context and have no hesitation using it, I kind of prefer bundles. A bundle seems to describe things sort of tied up together into one bunch. I might prefer assemblage to aggregate, as an assemblage seems to be like things that associate together whereas aggregate might be a pile of different things. We have five different bundles or assemblages of things: forms, feelings, etc. that are grouped into bundles. For example we may have a variety of feelings along a spectrum, some pleasant, some unpleasant and some neither which are bundled together under the heading of Feelings. Just writing that sentence makes bundles sound better than assemblage because they are random feelings and not assembled into something cohesive.


I also like the connotation of bundled software; the five bundles come with underlying tendencies pre-installed, and filled with bloatware :slight_smile:


Hah! This is true, so very true. It is becoming clear to me at last.


I think what one should bear in mind is why the Buddha used this exact term to refer to five constituents of a being. In theory, one can use literally any word as a term having literally any meaning. However, in practice one often chooses a specific word as a term because of the two major factors: denotation of a word reinforcing its metaphorical significance and connotations of a word facilitating its reception.

Let us just set aside the possibilty that khandha as a technical term in philosophical discourse pre-dates Buddhism and consider why the Buddha could single out the word.

Denotation and Metaphor

In its original Vedic use, still found in compounds in Pali texts, the word ‘skandha’ meant ‘tree trunk’ or ‘upper torso’. Honestly, I personally don’t see how a word denoting something quite solid and perceptionally unified as torso or trunk could come to mean something composite like ‘heap’ or ‘bundle’. Even if you look at the word Gombrich discusses in ‘What the Buddha Thought’, aggi-khandha ‘blazing fire’, it’s hard to think of the flame as composite, ‘trunk of the fire’ just doesn’t sound like something inherently composite. If we translate and think of khandhas as ‘heaps’, ‘bundles’ or aggregates, it means the linguistic metaphor gets broken down somewhere along the way. Finally, it is somewhat unclear why the Buddha didn’t use the word like ‘bhaṇḍikā’, then, a word clearly conveying an image of something divided into parts, something composite.

What could be an alternative explanation? To start out, I don’t claim this is the only true interpretation, I don’t even claim it is true at all: there is a dire lack of evidence on my part to make such claims. Anyway, I think it could be interesting avenue of research. Let’s consider a specific type of metaphor that comes up in Russian and, quite possibly, in other European languages. Here’s a quote from the Soviet mini-series Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed:

If there is Devil in the world, he is not a goat-legged horn-bearer but rather a three-headed dragon, and these three heads are guile, greed, and betrayal.

We encounter a similar metaphor in the concept of three unwholesome roots. Is it possible that choosing the word ‘khandha’ the Buddha had something like a banyan tree in His mind?

I think there may be something to it, even though I am not competent to make any authoritative judgement on the matter. Whoever is competent can consider it as an invitation to consider this hypothesis. Alternatively, the metaphor was not directly referring to the trunks but rather to the logs or log-like big chunks of timber, that would account for the upadana-fuel metaphor. In the banyan metaphor case, upadana is a bit more of a puzzle.


I don’t think that many people apart from Ven. Sujato have any connotations in mind when hearing the word ‘aggregate’ apart from something along the lines of ‘boring, scholarly, what is that thing?’ :slight_smile: Most of the time, the ‘aggregates’ do not appear in non-Dhamma contexts in our everyday life. This is why most newcomers to the Buddhism are fairly uncomfortable with it. They can even know what it means but the sheer irrelevance of the word for their previous experience makes it look as awkward and misplaced as a camel in Antarctica. People who are comfortable with the word are usually experienced Buddhists who learned to use the word by developing their own connotations and mental pictures. When they say they find ‘bundle’ no more informative, it can be because for them ‘aggregates’ have become more informative. If the Buddha wanted to use a word that doesn’t have any connotations connected with the everyday life, I think he could use more neutral terms like ‘sannipata’: this word closely corresponds with the Latin root words like ‘aggregate’ or ‘assemblage’ and, moreover, denotates something inherently composite.

Since we are discssing a possibilty, that compositeness was not inherent in the use of ‘khadhas’, ‘heaps’ and ‘bundles’ and other word having the element of compositeness in their denotation won’t do. Can we translate 'khandhas’as ‘trunks’? That is certainly more informative than ‘aggregates’ but I have lived my entire life in the regions of the world where there are no banyan trees, just as so many other speakers of English. For me, the word ‘trunk’ is still not very illustrative of the idea behind khandhas.

One could use the word ‘bodies’ but it would mess just two much with other doctrinal terms and besides has related words like ‘embodiment’, i.e. is a bit too avatar-like (in the Hindu sense of the word) for my taste. I like the word ‘heads’ better because Cerberus and three-headed beings quite frequently come up in the Western mythology and folk traditions and are more readily understandable for a Westerner. The major issue with ‘heads’ is that there aren’t any _five-_headed beings I know of.

An interesting variant, if consider the banyan metaphor, would be ‘fingers’. It is a bit problematic because it also evokes an image of a ‘hand’, and there is no hand (maybe ignorance or craving?) and it doesn’t rhyme well with upadana.

To conclude,

  1. What do you think about the multi-trunk metaphor?

  2. What do you think about the metaphorical opposition ‘solidness-compositeness’ that is reversed in the current translations of khandha?

  3. How would you satisfyingly translated ‘khandha’ into English within the banyan framework? It’s not necessary that you think this framework is correct, you can regard it as an exercise in translation: even I am agnostic about its status.

Upd.: This may be even more subjective, but to me the English words ‘bulk’, ‘mass’, ‘trunk’, ‘torso’ that are associated with ‘khandha’ have a slight connotation of something overbearing, looming large, that also kind of gets lost in translation. Still, as I said, it is highly subjective and may not be true for the Ancient Indic perception of these words.


I think this is very interesting, and I will be keeping an open mind. Just one thing to add: the metaphor of the “hand” is, I think, very important. The fundamental term—found much more commonly than plain old khandha—is upādānakkhandha or even pañcūpādānakkhandha, “grasping khandha” or "five grasping khandhas. These words are tightly linked with the notion of “hand”: note that pañca “five” is not only obviously related to penta, etc., but also to “punch”. The hand is the basic metaphor for the number five.


The banyan tree metaphor was very helpful. But then I thought - why the banyan tree? every tree branches out into ‘fingers’. So why not ‘branch’ as the main translation? It could well have been the literal meaning anyway.
Monier Williams: skandha = the stem or trunk of a tree (especially that part of the stem where the branches begin)

1 Like

Perhaps we should look at it from this angle: form, feeling, perception, volition and conciousness are not the branches or fingers or heads but each one of them is a trunk or something that unites all the phenomena in the group - all the different forms are branches emanating from the form trunk etc. That would mean we could lose the banyan tree metaphor and think of it in terms of any old tree(s)…