Aggregates and bundles

Following the discussion on khandhas, I thought I’d gather a selection of representative passages that mention them. I’m experimenting with using “bundles” instead of “aggregates”, and I’d like some feedback. These are passages taken from my draft translations of AN and SN.

I should briefly note here that the texts usually use upādānakkhandha. I translate upādāna as “grasping” rather than “clinging”, as clinging is specifically refusing to let go of what you have, whereas grasping is more about getting new things. Grasping is, of course, the immediate condition for “new life” in dependent origination.

My understanding of this is that what this means is that the bundles are both produced by grasping (upādinna) in the sense that they are generated by grasping in a past life; and they provoke grasping (upādāniya) in the sense that they are the things we get attached to in this life, especially those things we take to be the self.

These terms are sometimes translated in a way that specifies a relation between them. So we have, for example, “aggregates of grasping”; but this suggests that the bundles are different kinds of grasping, which is obviously not correct. Or if we say “subject to grasping”, we omit the aspect of “grasped”; and it suggests to me that they are a passive victim of grasping, whereas in fact they evolve together with grasping.

If we were to translate this we would have to say something like “the five bundles produced by and provocative of grasping”, which is a little clumsy! So to avoid this I simply do what the Pali does, and avoid specifying the relationship. Hence they are simply “grasping bundles”.

Anyway, have a look at these passages and tell me what you think.

The birth, inception, conception, rebirth, appearance of the bundles, and acquisition of the sense fields of the various sentient beings in the various orders of sentient beings.

The passing away, perishing, disintegration, demise, mortality, death, decease, breaking up of the bundles, and laying down of the corpse of the various sentient beings in the various orders of sentient beings.

And so they meditate observing impermanence in the five grasping bundles.

In summary, the five grasping bundles are suffering.

The grasping bundles of form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness.

Any kind of form at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: this is called the bundle of form.

Any kind of form at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near, which comes with defilements and provokes grasping: this is called the grasping bundle of form.

And when you’ve gotten involved with and grasped these five grasping bundles, they lead to your lasting harm and suffering.

“Mendicants, whatever ascetics and brahmins recollect many kinds of past lives, all recollect the five grasping bundles, or one of them.

“But sir, is that grasping the exact same thing as the five grasping bundles? Or is grasping one thing and the five grasping bundles another?”

“Sir, what is the scope of the term ‘bundles’ as applied to the bundles?”

Do you regard anything among these five grasping bundles as self or as belonging to self?’”

“What is the cause, sir, what is the reason why the bundle of form is found?

“But sir, can there be different kinds of desire and greed for the five grasping bundles?”

“Mendicants, whatever ascetics and brahmins regard various kinds of things as self, all regard the five grasping bundles, or one of them.

As long as I didn’t truly understand these five grasping bundles’ gratification, drawback, and escape for what they are,

To give up these five grasping bundles you should develop the four kinds of mindfulness meditation. …”


I don’t like bundles. It doesn’t give any more information than aggregates does. To me they both imply a grouping of something. Bundle has the further disadvantages of being a very general word and not having been used previously in Buddhism.

I think it is not bad to leave some technical aspect as you suggested before. In my mind it’s easier for a deeper meaning to develop around a concept when it is not limited by an over simplified English translation. The only way bundle could be better in my mind is if it was part of a long and awkward translation and not just a one to one substitution.


I am not sure if it makes much difference. The only advantage, perhaps, of using “bundles” or “groups” over “aggregates” is that they are more common. Newbies might get stuck on “aggregates” and lose the flow, whereas this is probably less likely with the other two words.

Also, I am not sure if “grasping aggregates” is ideal. To me this evokes the idea of the aggregates themselves doing the grasping. This is of course true, but it is not the main point at stake when the khandhas are mentioned. The main point is that the khandhas themselves are grasped (as a quick reading of the above listing makes clear), and this is not the obvious and immediate meaning of “grasping khandhas”, at least not for me.


As pointed out previously, you could follow Richard Gombrich (e.g. 1996, 66-81) and give upādāna literally as “fuel” to preserve the fire metaphor. So you would have five fuel-heaps, the fuel-heap of form, etc.

A post was split to a new topic: On grasping and fuel

Fair enough.

It’s not meant to. It’s meant to convey the same meaning in a simpler way.

I’m not intimidated about pioneering new renderings, though. In fact I think we are still in a beginning phase of western Buddhism, and it’s not a bad thing to shake things up a little, rather than settle prematurely on the “right” solution.

What I really want to do is translate stuff like this. Anything else is a compromise!


How about “grasped bundles”? Although upādāna is not a past participle, I think it may still be possible to justify this. The double meaning “fuel/grasping” would presumably have been understood by listeners at the time. When fuel is understood, the compound would mean “bundles/groups which are fuel”, that is, which act as fuel. This meaning is better rendered by “grasped bundles/groups”, since it is then clear that it is these bundles that constitute the fuel for rebirth. With “grasping bundles”, it is not clear what the fuel is.


If you use aggregates, you may as well use khandhas. When I read aggregates I automatically translate to khandha because aggregates is like a word in a foreign language.

I like bundles. At least it has associations for me: something tied up, a bundle of joy, a screaming baby… This has the sense of grasping already - though perhaps only in the active mode


O, not for me. I learned what aggregate was when I was a kid and we had a pool put in the back yard. It’s this.

Not sure what it’s got to do with Buddhism, though.

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I like bundle.

In my experience, the really good teachers use simple language and analogies/similes/metaphors to get more subtle points across.

It strikes me that the Buddha used a lot of analogies etc. it makes sense to me that the Buddha would have employed the same style; simple language, analogies/similes/metaphors to get subtle points across.

Using uncommon words like ‘aggregate’ is not good for explaining, it only works if the audience already knows what you’re talking about.

About upādāna, what about using ‘uptake’ and ‘fuel’?

‘uptake’ has these nice meanings:

  1. the action of taking up or making use of something that is available.
  1. the taking in or absorption of a substance by a living organism or bodily organ.

So you’d get:

“Venerable sir, is the uptake the same as these five fuel bundles, or is the uptake something apart from the five fuel bundles?”

“Bhikkhus, the uptake is neither the same as these five fuel bundles, nor is the uptake something apart from the five fuel bundles. But rather, the desire and lust for them, that is the uptake there.”

So, desire and lust for the five bundles are how they are made use of, how they are consumed and absorbed.

Dependent origination:

From thirst as a requisite condition comes uptake/fuel. From uptake/fuel as a requisite condition comes existence.

How does one allay thirst? By consuming something, by some sort of uptake. If someone is thirsty, they are just longing for some sort of substance to take up to get rid of that icky thirst. I think this is nice and evocative.

But that action of trying to allay thirst with uptake creates further existence.

Either way, I’m really looking forward to reading your translations of the suttas!

Edit: Bundle is also nice because it’s connected to fuel, in the sense of a ‘bundle of wood’.

I wonder if upādāna shouldn’t be translated as ‘consuming fuel’/‘fuel’ though? Because that’s what craving makes you do, consume stuff.


I can see the complaints with aggregates, but I am going to have to officially register my distaste for bundles.

Whenever I read it I find it both uninformative and awkward. It feels like it needs a referent which is not provided in all of the examples given so far. It makes me go, a bundle of what? Did I miss something? Anyway, whether anyone else agrees I really dislike bundles.

Groups to me seems to have some good qualities. The issue to me is that the word that is chosen should hint that they are groups of aspects of experience that we cling to as a self. I can’t think of any single word in English that even begins to hint at that. So even though bundles or groups are more common words, they don’t seem to me to hint at what is significant about the term. All they say is that they are a group. If I was new to Buddhism I am not sure any of the suggested words would tell me much, other than it is a group of something that is clung to. Maybe that is enough?

I am sorry I don’t have a better idea, it is very hard to choose a good word. For me using a common word only helps if it doesn’t mislead by not leading towards the deeper meaning.


In math and philosophy there is the term, ‘set’. So maybe:

At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said, “Monks, I will teach you the five sets & the five sticky sets. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak.”

“As you say, lord,” the monks responded.

The Blessed One said, "Now what, monks, are the five sets?

"Whatever form is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: That is called the form set.

"Whatever feeling is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: That is called the feeling set.

"Whatever perception is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: That is called the perception set.

"Whatever (mental) fabrications are past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: Those are called the fabrications set.

"Whatever consciousness is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: That is called the consciousness set.

"These are called the five sets.


This certainly makes for concise Dhamma :smiley:

Let A = form ∪ feeling ∪ perception ∪ formations ∪ consciousness.

x ∈ A ⇒ x is not me, not mine, not myself.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist this rare opportunity for a math joke.

Although, I’ve always felt that it should be (SN 36.31):

“And what, bhikkhus, is carnal rapture? There are, bhikkhus, these five subsets of sense experience. What five? Forms seen by the eye … tactile objects felt by the body that are desirable, lovely, agreeable, pleasing, sensually enticing, tantalizing. These are the five subsets of sense experience. The rapture that arises in dependence on these five subsets of sense experience: this is called carnal rapture.

Though this is a bit of a derail from the main topic on my part. Sorry about that.


This is quite nice; maybe ‘sense experience’ is repetitive, though, given that this is all that can be.

For some reason the primary usage of the Estonian word ‘agregaat’ is for a collection of machines or equipment (working in unison)…but it’s mostly used by people who were around at the advent of machines :stuck_out_tongue:


and the primary use of aggregates for germans is the states of solid ice, fluid, and gasoid


Looking through the Majjhima Nikaya I see khandha in different contexts:

  • mainly as “aggregates affected by clinging” (or grasping etc.)
  • as ‘necessary ingredients’ of being, e.g. when someone dies or gets born (without mention of upādāna) (MN 9, MN 109, MN 141)
  • ‘the three aggregates included by the Noble Eightfold Path’, meaning sila, samadhi, panna (MN 44, MN 77)
  • the ‘aggregate of noble virtue’ for a monk (probably like above as sila) (MN 27, MN 51)

In the Digha Nikaya it’s mostly khandha with upādāna.

In the Anguttara Nikaya we have a very different situation. Here the grand majority is the aggregates as sila, samadhi, panna (sometimes adding ’ the aggregate of liberation of one beyond training, the aggregate of the knowledge and vision of liberation of one beyond training’).

The Samyutta was too much to go through in detail, sorry, but displays all of the above and no additional context as far as I could see.

To translate khandha in a way that covers these contexts needs a general unspecific term. Based on the above I disagree with Gombrich about placing khandha in the context of fire. It is a speculation which he traces back “to a small sutta” and I don’t see how he can back this up substantially.
Like some of you I like to believe that the Buddha spoke in a way that appealed to newcomers as well - which is why I would rule out aggregate. Where khandha stands alone I would personally put in brackets the missing word so that the reader doesn’t ask 'bundles of what?'
To the question of which word to use, I would go very general with ‘cluster’ or ‘group’ (because it etymologically fits as well with the connotations of: heap, lump, bunch.)

All this said I don’t envy the translator :slight_smile: and know that people will always be just more or less happy with a translation…


and there’s one other very important - dukkhakkhandha - a mass of suffering

this time it’s a speculation on MY part, but theoretically the use of khandha could have started specifically to denote constituents of human experience, where its connection wiht fire is plausible, and only later was borrowed to cover other doctrinal areas

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I’m a friend of speculations myself and I’m grateful for the patience of people who put up with it :slight_smile: but there are some plausibility checks (not proofs of course). My question here would be: Would the Buddha have taken an existing term, and start using it with very different implications? It doesn’t make sense to me because I imagine he wouldn’t have wanted to confuse people (rather the opposite). So he for sure would have used khandha/skandha in the common understanding of his time. And from what we can gather it was for sure not an established term related to fire or firewood. You can look up skandha at As summarized here it rather goes in the direction of part, section, etc. There’s just not enough evidence to back up the root context of fire, wood etc. as the normal assumed meaning at the time of the Buddha.

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not to discredit your argument, whos rationale i acknowledge, but to just point out that the Buddha is found to have been doing just that, appropriating terms and concepts, particularly from brahmanical tradition, and loading them with new meanings

one example is the word brahman which in the Buddhist context means arahant, one who is noble not by virtue of birth but by virtue of spiritual attainment

it’s in view of this tendency that abstraction of khandha from mundane context couldn’t have seemed impossible

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