Clarifying the 5 aggregates

Can someone please clarify “perceptions, choices (mental formations), and consciousness” of the 5 aggregates? Especially, consciousness!


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Very quick answer.

  • Rupa (form) means - earth,water,air and fire
    -Vedana (feeling) - pleasant feeling, unplesant feeling and nutreal feeling.
    -Sann (Perception) - Knowing blue,red is ie cognition
    -Shankahara (Choices/fabrications) - Verbal (speach), bodily (action) and mind (thoughts) fabricaitons.
    -Vinnana (consciousness) - eye,ear,nose,body,tounge and mind conciousness.
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Is it possible to reword perceptions as the ability to categorize?

Are not choices mental actions? Or, the initial mental aspect before the manifestation of speech and physical action? ( I see you referred to bodily actions as well.)

Would it be possible to further define consciousness without using said word in the definition? I’ve seen conscious referred to several things including “environment”.

I think of sanna as “recognition”. The example in the suttas is recognising different colours.
Vinnana seems to mean “awareness”, and in the suttas its described as a transitory phenomena which arises in dependence upon sense-base and sense object. For example eye-consciousness arises in dependence upon the eye and visible form.

As a general observation I would advise not getting too caught up with the idea of the aggregates as actual “things”. They are really just a model, a means of noticing and analysing aspects of experience. An alternative model of experience in the suttas is derived from the six sense bases.


Perception (cognition) is the identification of the object and it could in some cases be said to be the ability to categorize, where habitual associations are projected onto the object, and in repeated perceptions of an object it functions as memory. Thought follows cognition. “Once the conditioned sequence of the perceptual process has reached the stage of conceptual proliferation one becomes, as it were, a victim of one’s own associations and thoughts” (Analayo). But perception can be changed through training.

Changing a perception is achieved by contemplating and meditating on a subject, for example the perception of permanence can be changed by directed contemplation of impermanence of the body and in the natural world as in the exercises under the first foundation of mindfulness in the Satipatthana sutta. Or the perception of the repulsiveness of food can be developed by following the instructions in Vism XI.


A good starting point to approach this topic, in my opinion, would be by acknowledging that phenomena is empty of self, and from that perspective, perception can be seen as a passive choice because to perceive something in a certain way happens only through negating all other possible interpretations.

Separating choice from perception through the doctrine of dependent origination serves as a reminder that perception has an element of choice, so the practitioner becomes more aware if his choices and his choices become more active than passive or reactive. If i perceive X in a certain way, there will predictable consequences based on the nature of that perception, but i don’t have to.

Separating consciousness from perception and choice by giving it a separate category directs the practitioners attention/perception to being (first person experience) rather than having (things outside of himself/herself). You can describe a person by how he experiences the world through the senses, or you can describe him through his career, his friends, partner, social status …etc. The former is more conducive to investigating the four noble truths but that does not make it ultimately true.

All in my opinion.

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My preferred translation for viññāna is discernment. I found it much easier to talk about than consciousness.

Discernment sounds like sanna too?

…is that which chooses conditioned by identity. :eyes:

The Buddha often stressed that apart from conditions, there is no arising of consciousness. “This act of being conscious is most prominently responsible for providing a sense of subjective cohesiveness, for the notion of a substantial “I” behind experience. Consciousness depends on the various features of experience supplied by name-and-form (nãmarûpa), just as name-and-form in turn depend on consciousness as their point of reference. This conditional interrelationship creates the world of experience, with consciousness being aware of phenomena that are being modified and presented to it by way of name-and-form " (Analayo). Namarupa= the other aggregates

The foundations of mindfulness are divided into awareness of body, feelings and mind states (consciousness), with the fourth foundation dealing with actions that influence consciousness.

Name-and-form shows how mind is linked to name, and name is the fundamental link between the individual and the institutions of conventional reality.


Interesting question. According to my understanding, saṅkhāra is the biggest and most sprawling aggregate (a kind of catch-all for what’s left over from the others).

Rūpa (matter or form) encompasses the five physical sense organs, what they sense, the body, the physical speech apparatus, the physical universe they experience etc.

Viññāṇa (consciousness) seems to be limited enough in scope in the suttas. It appears to be just base awareness. It appears where there’s contact between a sense and a sense object, and is classified according to the particular sense organ (eye consciousness, ear consciousness etc.) involved. There’s also a sixth type of consciousness: mind consciousness, which occurs on contact between the mind and a mind object. I guess a mind object is any individual object member of the three mental aggregates: vedanā, saññā or saṅkhāra.

Vedanā and saññā appear to be the mental front line to raw experience. Analayo translates vedanā as affective feeling tone (there’s an either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling in response to the raw experience). I’d also understand saññā to mean something like recognition. The mind makes sense of a raw experience/sensation and puts a mental concept/idea to it; recognizes or identifies it; forms the initial interpretation.

That covers everything except saṅkhāra, which seems to have multiple aspects/nuances of meaning: formations, activities, mental processes, fabrications, intentions, actions, reactions, choices, karma, conditioning. Everything mental apart from vedanā and saññā seems to reside here. I suppose any tendency to greed, aversion and delusion will dwell here (negatively conditioning vedanā, in particular greed conditioning pleasant feeling, aversion unpleasant feeling, and delusion neutral feeling). One possible categorization of saṅkhāra occurs in MN 44, which talks of the verbal (vacīsaṅkhāro), bodily (kāyasaṅkhāro) and mental (cittasaṅkhāro) formations.

Vacīsaṅkhāro (the verbal formation) is what underlies/triggers/motivates speech (the mental activity that underlies it). The verbal formation is also necessary for conventional thinking. Jhana meditation is supposed to successively quiet these three formations/saṅkhāra. By the 2nd jhana, vacīsaṅkhāro is supposed to have ceased entirely and the mind completely free of conventional discursive thinking.

Kāyasaṅkhāro (the bodily formation) underlies/conditions the bodily activity (including breathing). By the immaterial/arupa jhanas this is supposed to have ceased. From my understanding, the various categories of bodily consciousness/viññāṇa (eye consciousness to touch consciousness) will also have ceased at this point. That’s because they are dependent on all the earlier associated aggregates, e.g. eye consciousness depends on eye-related saṅkhāra and eye-related vedanā and saññā (almost all the aggregates can be sub-categorized according to which sense organ is involved) and the eyes and eye objects and eye-related contact. It seems that when saṅkhāra related to seeing has ceased then eye consciousness also ceases (same for the other physical senses).

In the immaterial jhanas, only the mental formation (cittasaṅkhāro) is left of these three saṅkhāra types. MN 44 defines this to be vedanā and saññā, so confusingly defines this category of saṅkhāra as being composed of/equivalent to these two earlier aggregates. Maybe it means the mental conditioning associated with these aggregates?

Anyway, in the immaterial jhanas, there is still vedanā and saññā present. The only feeling is neutral feeling and the recognition, I guess, is recognition of the particular immaterial sphere involved: infinite space etc.

After the four immaterial jhanas, a further state called the cessation of feeling and perception is described in the suttas. Here the mental formation (cittasaṅkhāro) has ceased, and presumably all mental objects (including any members of the vedanā and saññā aggregates). And without any mental objects or mental saṅkhāra, there is no mental consciousness/viññāṇa either since it depends on these (so all consciousness has ceased, temporarily anyway). The sutta describes the difference between this state and death as just there still being the life force remaining (so not a lot of aggregate-related stuff going on in that state :slight_smile: )!

Anyway, that’s my current understanding of the aggregates!


Perhaps this is due to an underlying assumption that the aggregates are designed to cover the entirety of experience. That’s not an unreasonable approach: that aggregates, sense bases, etc can be though of as different ways of classifying all of our experience, slicing it up in different ways… But maybe they are not supposed to be so all-encompassing and consistent. Perhaps they are just designed to be useful for certain expositions.

For example, the aggregates are used in analyses of (not-)self: SuttaCentral. The sense bases are used in analyses of greed, hatred, and delusion: SuttaCentral. Furthermore, name-and-form + consciousness play a key role in Dependent Origination: SuttaCentral, SuttaCentral. Should we try to force all three to cover the whole of experience?


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sanna is labeling while viññāna is discerning something as result of contact with one of the six senses.

The six sense bases, I think, have a stronger claim to cover all of experience (it’s hard to think of how there could be human experience that’s not through them) and are, after all, called “the all” in SN35.23 and related suttas. I think “the all” refers to all of what a human can experience, though not all of everything that actually exists (plus I imagine there are beings out there in the vast universe that have other than five physical senses; five seems quite a human associated number :slight_smile: ).

Maybe all that transfers to the aggregates in the sense that the five aggregates can be viewed as a kind of reworking of the six sense bases (five of them amalgamated under rūpa and the mind base expanded out in more detail). I’m sure there are plenty of things that exist but that humans can’t directly experience (we can intuit or figure out that they exist but never experience directly) that won’t fit into this categorization. However, the sense bases and aggregates seem reasonable enough to me as broad categories of what we can observe and experience first-hand. Maybe saṅkhāra wasn’t intended as a catch-all for any mental phenomena not covered by the other aggregates. However, it is, though, a fairly broad and vague term all the same! :slight_smile:

Interesting point about the scope and purpose of the aggregates and sense-base models. I agree they look like different methods for “slicing up” experience, different methods for understanding and analysing.
The sense-bases are said to be “The All”, which sounds comprehensive, though mano-vinnana seems to have a limited scope, basically awareness of thoughts.
I agree that the aggregates aren’t necessarily a comprehensive model, it depends particularly on the assumed scope of the sankharas aggregate. Conceivably it has the more limited scope of the sankharas nidana?

Just to mention, there is another model of the “person” in MN140, based on six properties.
It looks like a ‘form-heavy’ version of the aggregates, ie earth, water, wind, fire, space and consciousness.

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You mentioned the four frames of satipatthana. I understand the third frame to be contemplation of citta rather than vinnana. As I understand it the mind takes on different states and qualities, but consciousness does not.

The states mentioned in the third foundation are the three unwholesome roots and their opposites, the balancing factors of expansion and contraction, and four higher states and their opposites. These permeate consciousness in its full meaning as including all the mental aggregates.

"Feeling, perception, & consciousness are conjoined, friend, not disjoined. It is not possible, having separated them one from another, to delineate the difference among them. For what one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one cognizes. Therefore these qualities are conjoined, not disjoined, and it is not possible, having separated them one from another, to delineate the difference among them."—MN 43

My understanding is that it is citta which is permeated, rather than vinnana, since vinnana is just the basic function of awareness. I haven’t come across the idea that vinnana includes all the mental aggregates - I’d think in terms of citta, or perhaps mano.
Anyway, I’ve included this question in another thread called “Is vinnana always passive? And can it take on different qualities?” where we can explore this in more detail.

As for vinnana, vedana and sanna being conjoined, I take this to mean that they always arise together, and represent what might be called “initial experience”, prior to all the mental proliferation represented by the sankharas aggregate.

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