Aggregates and bundles

i too find connotation of a branching out trunk quite plausible and vivid, it gives an impression of cohesiveness of a being comprised of these branches (khandhas) as opposed to a collection of disjoined components, which are in themselves for some reason not solid

This is also possible. The reason I mentioned banyan was because its multiple trunks fit so neatly into the khandha conception: there are several trunks that constitute one tree, there are five khandhas that constitute one being. It should not necessarily be described with banyan: if you take the translation ‘torso’, the whole thing starts looking somewhat as pentaple conjoined twins.

That is also interesting and plausible. The problem with this interpretation is that a trunk is not equal to branches, i.e. if all different forms are merely branches, what is the form trunk then? I mean, a trunk is not constituted of branches, it is not a branch, what is it, then? That’s where the metaphor kind of starts to break down. Besides, if the Buddha also wanted to evoke the image of branches, it is odd he never mentions the actual word ‘branches’.

But then again, all of the suggested interpretations have their problems, and my inability to find a satisfying explanation for ‘trunk vs. branches’ and the absence of ‘branches’ in the texts shouldn’t mean we should dismiss your suggestion. On the contrary, it is just one of alternative roads potential research may take.


Because ‘stem or trunk’, even if it describes the place where branched begin, is not a branch. I mean, this is literally what Monier Williams’ definition says: a stem or trunk, not branches. It is like using the word ‘ears’ instead of ‘head’: a closely related but semantically different term.

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Is this starting to drift from the sense in which “bundle” is meant? It’s not that the “person” is made up of the five bundles (which is a primarily Abhidhammic idea), but that each “bundle” is made up of a “mass” of things of that type: “whatever feeling, past, present, future…” and so on.

In other words, there are five “bundles” or “masses” (each of countless parts), not one bundle of five.


My point was that the word ‘khandha’ possibly does not evoke any connotation of compositeness, in other words the word ‘bundle’ can be not quite fitting (‘mass’ I find much nicer). The word ‘khandha’ quite possibly had a cognitive image of something solid, something coming in one piece. It is important to notice the tension between these possible connotations of the term and actuality of khandha referents as composite structures: one sees a khandha, naturally thinks it is ‘something solid, coming in one piece’ (‘atta’?), but upon a closer look the seemingly solid khandha starts to unravel, turns out to be composite, evanescent and non-self. This tension is absent from the very beginning if we translate ‘khandha’ as ‘bundle’.

The Buddha could have chosen the term khandha not because it reflects how khandhas are really structured but because ordinary people think this is how they are structured. Didactically it is like this: ‘Look at these five trunks / torsos / masses (again, a fitting word but lacking the vivid connection to our living experience that the other two have), these solid, biggish, overbearing things. Look at them. Do you see how they start to dissolve under your gaze? Now you are beginning to understand, aren’t you?’

It is a stretch, but it is also interesting how there are precisely five aggregates. The Abhidhamma showed us you can re-group into four categories instead. So, why five? Another important concept possibly containing the word ‘five’ is ‘papañca’. It is widely theorized it originally meant something like ‘prostrating a hand while spreading out its fingers’. So, ‘five’, through the medium of ‘hand’, could come to be associated with papañca-like proliferation. I mean, you don’t need to be an Ancient Indic etymology genius to clearly hear ‘pañca’ in ‘papañca’. That is why there are ‘five trunks’: a smart hearer who has some knowledge of the Buddha’s teaching would know from the get-go there is something fishy about these khandhas. If you look at the list of fives in DN 33, it is comprised mostly of bad things: fetters, bondages, dpiritual barrennesses. Even many good things in the list are really correlates to bad things, like the Five Precepts as correlates to the Five Ethical Faults. There are ‘good’ fives that are not correlated to something bad, but still the chances are that if you here ‘five’ in the Buddhist doctrine, get ready for something nasty to be discussed. In a mattika-mad culture like that of an Ancient India it could play an important role in people’s minds: numerology and all that.

An alternative and, given the history of the Buddha’s preaching, more logical explanation is that he first declared the existence of the Five clinging masses (five sticky fingers? :slight_smile:), and since they lead to our being stuck in Samsara, it is the khandhas that give the number ‘five’ its bad taste. This is why ‘out-fiving’, ‘papañca’, was picked up as a negative term. Otherwise it could be just a neutral word, ‘spreading out’.

It would be interesting to look if there are any works about the Ancient Indian or even more importantly Early Buddhist numerology or cultural significance of numbers that could corroborate or disprove this theory. It is quite a stretch, so I wouldn’t say it’s a big deal, but I think there could be something important in the relationship of pañcūpādānakkhandha and papañca. Or not and it’s just a coincidence.

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i may sound like a person who’s late to the party, but i wonder whether it’s known how generally accepted interpretation and English translation of khandha came to be aggregate/bundle passing over another and perhaps primary meaning of trunk/bulk/(solid) mass. is this clearly defined as such in the Nikayas or is it based on the commentarial tradition?

it’s noteworthy that Sanskrit skandhā, which must be cognate of skandha, means branch, and skandha itself has meanings of division and part


maybe Banyan tree because they have labyrinthine “aerial roots” (i.e. roots above ground), and maybe this has something to do with entanglement?

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This would certainly be because of Abhidhammic influence. It’s of a piece with the rendering of saṅkhārā as “formations” or muta as “sensed” or the fourth satipaṭṭhāna as “mental objects”. Having said which, the sutta usage makes the case of khandha more plausible than these.

(As a side note, while muta clearly means “thought”, the Abhidhammic interpretation as “sensed” is found in the Vinaya. Which doesn’t mean it’s correct; it shows that the Vinaya is late, and the explanations there should be considered as a kind of Abhidhamma text; or to be more precise, abhivinaya.)


I think it doesn’t make the translation of the term plausible. What it makes more plausible is our understanding of what this term is supposed to denote, and ultimately ‘khandhas’ can really denote aggregates of experience. However, it doesn’t justify the translation in any way. Take the English term ‘strange quarks’. Imagie someone would translat it into a foreign language as ‘non isospin carrying subatomic particles accounting for unusually long decay times of particles in strong and electromagnetic reactions’. This translation would be justified by the use of the term in scientific texts, because it pretty much describes its referent, but is it a good translation? To my mind, this is quite possibly what happened to ‘aggregates’.

Sometimes using a description of a referent as a translation for a term is necessary, but I don’t see how it is applicable in the case of ‘khandhas’.

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I dunno. Sounds strangely quirky to me. :expressionless:

Note that as I mention in the thread on hindrances, Nyanamoli was translating khandha as “categories”. At the very least, this is more comprehensible than aggregates.

The question really is to what extent the underlying metaphor was felt in the expression. “Categories” works if the metaphor has receded, so we use a bland, functional term. If the metaphor is still informing the term (as I suspect is the case with nivarana) then we can try to reflect this.


Looking back at my original post, I remember why I didn’t like “categories”. The term shifts attention to the abstracted entity rather than the things themselves. So we have the rebirth of “categories”, for example. But rebirth isn’t something that happens to categories, it happens to the things that are categorized.

Are we just going round in circles? I sometimes feel like I am trapped in an endless vortex of suffering. Someone should look into that. :confused:


The quirkiness of ‘aggregates’ is actually something that I personally don’t really like. I really feel like it was a very easy and widely understood word at the Buddha’s time. ‘Aggregates’ are certainly less well-known today. ‘Bundles’ would work better in that respect, but then I feel like it doesn’t capture the main metaphor behind the Buddha’s term. I don’t know if my own assumptions about the details of the metaphor are correct (my own intuition is that they are not quite correct), but I think the difference between the connotations of the Pali word and English translations are hard to ignore (again, I might be wrong about this one, but I feel this a theory pretty hard to refute). If our search for a fitting word carrying the same metaphorical meaning in English will be unsuccessful, well, the ‘bundles’ it will be. But I think you know this nagging feeling that each translator has: there must be a better fitting word :slight_smile:


In my native language (Sinhala) " Kanda" means mountain, During the colonial period name “Kandy” was introduced to the mountain region of Sri Lanka, I guess they could not either pronounce the word or wanted to modernise it. “Kandu” is the plural or “Kanda” . In Colloquial usage people refer to “Duk Kanda” when there is a great tragedy. image


Hi Sujato,
I like “the five bundles/sets produced by and provocative of grasping” as it incorporates the reciprocal relationship into the language used to describe it: it avoids the implied reification inherent in simple nouns like “bundle” or “aggregate” or, indeed, “grasping”.

It may encourage newbies to see more immediately that we are not talking about things but about constitutive and reciprocal relationships of asserted elements of experience.

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My impression is the above idea is behind the thinking of “bundles”. EBTs such as SN 22.48 may not support this. Also, the emphasis in SN 12.2 may possibly be the birth, aging & death of “beings” (“satta”) rather than the birth, aging & death of “aggregates”.



For me, this is boring plus it has no intrinsic meaning.

My impression is khandha are not constituents of a “being” (SN 23.2; SN 5.10) but rather constituents of life (SN 22.48; SN 22.85). Some suttas seem to refer to the constituents of “a being” (“satta”) as ignorance & craving (eg. SN 22.99) or as a view or convention (SN 5.10; MN 98).

I favour this, such as found in SN 5.10.

Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word ‘chariot’ is used,
So, when the aggregates exist,
There is the convention ‘a being’.

SN 5.10


Hello Bhante,

tldr; aggregate sounds like a perfect match!

I am wondering if you have not found the best explanation for what aggregates are in Bhuddism there.

I am new to the 5 khandas (well, 12 month ~ new) and I think that the aggregates are far more than bundles or groups.

Just as you cannot really separate one stone from the next on the illustration you present (added below) the aggregates are similarly complex compounds (or mass of elements - as in this great mass of suering - refered to elsewhere on this thread):

  • The form aggregate contains the 5 senses, but each sense is in itself an aggregate of sensing components. The eyes, olfactive system, taste budds, ears are all sizable compounds (made of large quantities of cells) whilst touch (and all the body internal sensing that can be experienced) is doubtless a huge aggregation of different sensing components (I dare not put any numbers here as I have no real data, but just thinkg about the epiderm as a whole)

  • the feeling aggregate seems to be a complex compound as well - the result is one of three feelings but how those feelings come about is not that simple. I tend to associate the feeling aggregate with “gut feelings”, and no doubt the interaction between the sensed / perceived object and our digestive system is again an aggregate of many complex compounds.

  • perception, volitional activities and consciousness are probably even more complex, as they aggregate the sensed external world with our own experiences ( and our culture, preferences, biaises and many other mind objects).

So I personally do prefer the 5 aggregates.

What about just using “the five parts that make up existence” for khanda?

I think this ties in nicely with dependent origination:

with craving as condition, upadana; with updana as condition, existence; with existence as condition, birth;

Any existence has to made up of parts. With birth, you take up those parts (as in one of the defs of birth in SN 12.2) of whatever existence you made for yourself.

And maybe the updana part as “the five parts that fuel existence”?


At Savatthi. “Bhikkhus, I will teach you the five parts that make up existence and the five parts that fuel existence.

“And what, bhikkhus, are the five parts that make up existence? Whatever kind of form there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near: this is called the form part of existence. …


“And what, bhikkhus, are the five parts that fuel existence? Whatever kind of form there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, that is tainted, that can be grasped: this is called the form part that fuels existence. …

The five khandas make up existence, the ‘desire and lust’ for the five khandas fuels existence (particularly the next one) :slight_smile:

Edit: Reading this, for me, this puts more emphasis on two aspects of reality: the fact that there is this form part of reality, and the fact that this form part of reality can be grasped.

Edit2: Actually this rendering makes something much clearer: The khandas make up reality, so the fuel for the rebirth process has to be somewhere in the khandas. Where is the fuel? It’s where in the khandas the khandas are grasped, the desire and lust there (which is part of the khandas) that is the fuel.

Maybe it should be “the five parts that make up/fuel reality”.

"A virtuous monk, Kotthita my friend, should attend in an appropriate way to the five parts that fuel existence as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a dissolution, an emptiness, not-self. Which five? Form as a fuel for existence, feeling… perception… fabrications… consciousness as a fuel for existence. […]

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I like ‘components’ however there is merit in @Sujato 's ‘bundles’, for which I prefer ‘aggregates’, namely, the basic khandha can be proliferated or built up into more numerous bundles or aggregates of the same khandha (when the mind is under the power of ignorance).

For example, attachment to food makes the body fatter, i.e, builds up bundles of rupa khandha.

Or mentally proliferating (papanca) ideas, views, opinions, cravings, desires, addictions, self-views (vanities, conceits), etc, builds up bundles or aggregates of sankhara khandha.

However, in meditation, when the ‘heaps’, ‘stock-piles’, ‘bundles’ or ‘aggregates’ are reduced in size, the basic five parts or components will remain.

When one abides inflamed by lust, fettered, infatuated, contemplating gratification, then the five aggregates affected by clinging are built up for oneself in the future; and one’s craving—which brings renewal of being, is accompanied by delight and lust, and delights in this and that—increases. One’s bodily and mental troubles increase, one’s bodily and mental torments increase, one’s bodily and mental fevers increase, and one experiences bodily and mental suffering.

MN 149


This is called, bhikkhus, a noble disciple who dismantles and does not build up; who abandons and does not cling; who scatters and does not amass; who extinguishes and does not kindle.

And what is it that he dismantles and does not build up? He dismantles form and does not build it up. He dismantles feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness and does not build it up.

And what is it that he scatters and does not amass? He scatters form and does not amass it. He scatters feeling … perception … volitional formations … consciousness and does not amass it.

SN 22.79


With contact as a requisite condition, there is feeling. What one feels, one perceives (labels in the mind). What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one objectifies. Based on what a person objectifies, the perceptions & categories of objectification assail him/her with regard to past, present, & future

MN 18

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To my non-native ear this sounds as if the bundles are doing the grasping. But that’s probably not what you mean. I guess what you mean is rather something like “bundles or aggregates that are associated with grasping” (in various ways).

I am struggling with translating khandha into German as well and haven’t found any satisfactory solution yet.

What are the reasons why you keep translating khandha as “aggregates”? I like your rocket picture, btw. :laughing:

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I’ve been leaning in this direction, myself. It seems to be a word that means categories or divisions, but originally referred to physically sorting things into piles, maybe.

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How does a hand grasp? Is the hand associated with grasping? Or is the hand itself grasping?

:raised_hand: :fist:

(The number 5 in the “5 grasping aggregates” is no coincidence! See the PTS dict definition for pañca.)

Good, at least you’re not just rendering the English! What are some of the options that different translators have used?

In the end, I couldn’t feel confident enough that “bundles” worked idiomatically in enough contexts. “Aggregates” is a bit clumsy, but reasonably accurate, and at least it’s familiar.