Components of existence in the 21 century

With respect, this seems like flimsy evidence to me. The first sutta itself says:

Living on the food brought to him, the Buddha then instructed and taught the remaining monks.
Atha kho bhagavā tadavasese bhikkhū nīhārabhatto dhammiyā kathāya ovadi anusāsi.

So, there are portions of these first instructions which were not recorded, and the five khandhas may have been explained at that time, no?


[quote=“Khemarato.bhikkhu, post:21, topic:23357”]
So, there are portions of these first instructions which were not recorded, and the five khandhas may have been explained at that time, no?[/quote]

Seems like some pretty crucial information to leave out.
There are these things called the 5 khandhas. They’re a whole lotta suffering… but you don’t need to know about them yet?

The first disciples were already ascetics and were pretty clever. “All that has the nature to arise, has the nature to cease.” Sariputta also didn’t need everything spelled out to get the point. :man_shrugging: Just saying, there are other reasonable explanations


I think Khemerato makes a good point - the implication in the sutta is that the Buddha talked to the 5 for DAYS - there is simply no way that the sutta itself could give anything more than the barest indication of the content of that teaching - in fact this is something I see all the time, and I am sorry to say, especially from scholars who also happen to be monastics, which is a sometimes deeply naive conflation of the phrasing of things in the suttas with what the Buddha actually said- I.e the thought that the suttas report things more or less word for word. You only have to read them to see that in almost every case this simply cannot be true, and the suttas use a well developed technical language and collection of stock phrases to indicate the topics and ideas that the Buddha discussed rather than the words they used. If the suttas are taken as more or less straight reportage then the Buddha basically went round repeating the same massively truncated and cryptic word formulas that we all spend years struggling to decode in the texts - I think it is much more plausible that someone who inspired a world religion spanning dozens of civilisations and thousands of years really did rouse, inspire and delight both hair-splitting philosophers and crowds of monks with brilliant insightful talks in the idioms and styles best suited to his audiences and we basically have not one single word of those speaches now. What I like to believe we do have is a pretty good list of the ideas and fundamental concepts that where the source of all those inspiring speeches and maybe a few similes, metaphors, perhaps even a joke or two, that again, where used by the Buddha, but when he used them I bet they where different each time, sparkled with wit and improvisation and where not laborious repetitive stock phrases repeated as-nauseous ala a 19th century school-teacher drilling verbs into schoolchildren which let’s be honest is the EBT vibe. So when the suttas say the 5aggregates where taught to the 5, I bet the Buddha unpacked the concept over the hours and days, using language they understood, rather than merely reciting the explanation as we have it in the canon which takes all of 2 minutes.

I would also like to say that sometimes when I am enjoying an intellectual forum very much I get excited, and am prone to hyperbole when putting across my ideas, I mean no disrespect and am absolutely often wrong despite how loud I’m ranting- so please take these comments in the spirit of vigorous debate they are meant and forgive me my trespasses if my words cause distress.

Much love.



Thanks for the support! :slight_smile:

Yeah, that’s also my reading of the sutta. It was the introduction, and the following days were the details which the rest of the suttas spell out.

If you’d like, I’d like to point out some alternative explanations for your own points!

The Buddha was a pretty clever guy, and I see no reason he couldn’t have developed and used a technical language himself. Even dumb, Western philosophers develop their own jargon.

While some of this is almost certainly the demands of memorization and oral recitation, the Buddha himself may have taught things verbatim exactly so they would stick in people’s memory. Or possibly because he figured out a clever way of wording something, and generally liked to stick to it. Again: just throwing out some possibilities.

The Buddha lived a long time ago. Even a sentence like “We have to flatten the Omicron curve.” would have made very little sense to you and me a few years ago. In Venerable @Pasanna 's defense: it is an open question how much of the terminology would have been obscure at the time. For example, the 12 links of Dependant Origination would likely have been recognized as a parody of the Vedic creation myth by people at the time. A joke that’s lost on most of us.

Idk People do love to hear the same jokes over and over again. Have you ever listened to Ajahn Brahm teach? :rofl:

Back at’chya, buddy! :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:


Thank you so much for your reply Khemaranto! I agree with what your saying, I blame my hyperbole for being misleading- I am sure that the Buddha did develop technical language and I personally think that the 37 aides to enlightenment where all endorsed by the Buddha close to his death precisely to make clear to people what he had taught - but I still think that some excavation or hermeneutics is required to get a sense of what it must have been like to hear the Buddha talk- I agree that some of his speaches may have been “stump speaches” I.e given repeatedly to different groups, but the suttas themselves describe a person who gave inspirational talks to a wide range of audiences, sometimes in depth and for days on end ala the 5 and I have to believe that those talks where not the formulaic material we have now, it just makes no sense- there’s just not enough diversity of content there - they taught for 45 years, to thousands of people, including a huge range of intellectuals who should have had sophisticated and nuanced views about a variety of religious and philosophical matters - there is nothing like that in the suttas- instead we get very bare formulas repeated over and over again that rather than convey the speaches of Gotama attempt to convey the dhamma that is the teaching and training that underlied the speaches - I assume because it was the dhamma that the reciters felt was the important thing to preserve rather than the specific words. I would also say it seems clear that several different formulations of the teaching was given by the Buddha to different groups - the gradual training, the 8fold path etc and that he endorsed them all as leading to enlightenment… I guess what I am suggesting is that in the EBT,s we have the curriculum or the lesson plan, several versions, but much less of the actual lessons that must have fleshed those curricula out.

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Just because I’m a monastic doesn’t make me a scholar… just someone with a cool haircut trying to understand the Dhamma.

I was going to make the same exact comment about Ajahn Brahm’s talks as Bhante @khemarato.bhikkhu I’ve heard the same talks so many times yet they’re still inspiring and entertaining even if I know what’s coming next.

I don’t really agree that they’re cryptic word formulas which are hard to decode.

I also disagree that we only have the ideas left from the Buddhas teaching. We have enough comparative studies to see the similarities between the Chinese and Pali. I don’t for a minute take the narrative at the beginning of the suttas as Buddhavacana but this isn’t what I’m talking about.

Also, if all we have left are the ‘ideas’ from the Buddha, then why bother with so many suttas? I can map all the main concepts on one A4 page.

My point about the 5 khandhas is that the buddha did talk at length in many different ways about the 5 khandhas throughout the suttas, but the first records we have of it is the Anattalakkhana Sutta. In fact, if the suttas were explained the other way around then I would tend to agree with you both that it was a technical concept created by the Buddha.

I understand that the Buddha spoke for days with the ‘group of 5’ bhikkhus; because we do have records of some of those conversations. However, if this is a new technical concept that was fleshed out by the Buddha I really think it would have been ‘recorded’. Of course, we could always argue that the first sermon wasn’t the first sermon and it was actually another Sutta about the 5 khandhas… but that’s getting a bit too rash!

The designer in me makes a small request; please employ paragraph breaks in your walls of text. So much easier to read :smiley:


Ha ha! I am sorry Passana, I didn’t mean to impune you with the label of scholar, I was actually thinking of Bahnte Sujato and Bikkhu Analayo, both of whom I admire immensely, it’s just that I don’t find arguments of the form, “technical term occurs in sutta X addressed to audience Y therefore audience Y must have understood term X” as being very convincing from a lit crit point of view. For me it asks for too much of ancient literature that it obeyed such realist niceties.

I do not see the agreement of the Chinese, Pali, Prakrit, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit and other textual sources as evidence for having anything like actual speeches of the Buddha, merely that we have evidence of pre-sectarian Buddhism.

I think that those same sources give good evidence of enormous and complex development from a base of almost “one liners”, perhaps as some have suggested mostly collected in their most archaic and “original” form in SN and then elaborated on and combined into longer and more developed literary forms in MN and DN over time. Possibly quite a long time.

I am however neither a scholar or a monastic, but merely a not humble enough lay follower also trying to make sense of the dhamma, and I appreciate, more than I can express, the great gift that this forum has brought me in being able to discuss these matters with scholars, monastics and laity alike.

And I will try to do better with my paragraphs :slight_smile:


I’m not sure that the Buddha would’ve used this to categorise the self in 21C, but I have sometimes used the idea of ‘neuroplasticity’ from neuroscience when talking about the impermanence of self. I guess that would maybe come under ‘form’ though.

I can’t help thinking that there would’ve been greater emphasis on “connectivity” between people, as for many in 21C urban environments there is said to be a lack of connectivity with others. Connectivity probably wasn’t a problem in Ancient India?


Thanks for the suggestion of neuroplasticity. I am the kind of person who flips through the neuroscience parts of books as I find it faddish, but I think this is a good candidate for helping to explain the 3 characteristics in the 21st century. I also don’t know if they would be broken into the same 5. Plus, we have to remember that the traditional 5 overlap. So neuroplasticity could be seperate from form yet overlap it. We are clearly more ‘brain-centric’ than in the buddha’s time. It didn’t even make the 31 body parts!

Nope, the Ancient Aunty Network which still operates today would have taken care of that :stuck_out_tongue:

Buddhas are forever. Selves are refuse we shouldn’t linger for. Choose the River of Nirvana over trying to posses relics of a forgotten time, as the Buddha Smashes the Meditating Lavaborn Self and replaces it with His Metta. Om and Om.

Does one think that in all this tradition there is some sort or Joke in constant intercession of the Dharmic Truth: There is no Self? We should wise up and find the difference between Self and Soul, and Buddha’s response.

A large Samyutta is dedicated to the khandhas. They get applied in slightly different ways to other aspects of the dhamma, mostly the anatta aspect. But where do we get an actual discussion or description of what the khandhas actually are?

Very few times we have definition-suttas, but not in a fleshed-out way, not with metaphors for each khandha (as far as I remember), not with discussions about why these five and not others, or why not another number. As if the five are self-evident, both in number as in composition.

But they can hardly be self-evident. The khandhas are for example clearly not Vedic, so at least the Brahmins who needed to be converted must have been given detailed descriptions in order to move away from their concepts of mahabhuta. Or as Yajnavalkya lays out the components in BU 3.2.13: speech, breath, sight, mind, hearing, body, atman, hair of body, hair of head, blood, semen.

So, unfortunately, I have to conclude that at some point cliff notes were taken for khandha content that was otherwise known, and after some generations only the cliff notes were left and had to be re-narrativized again.

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I agree that they’re not self evident when referred to just as the 5 khandhas, and also recognise that they aren’t vedic. However this is what puzzles me about why they appear in the the first noble truth, as a given, in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

IMHO we are left with two equally likely options;

  • either the first sermon was the 1.5th sermon and they got cliff notes beforehand,
  • or 5 khandhas were part of some existing lexicon which we don’t know about.

I guess there’s a 3rd option… someone heard the 1st sermon and said “Bhante, what are these 5 khandhas which are so much suffering?” and we got the 2nd sermon :stuck_out_tongue:

From what is in other suttas we know what the khandhas are… even from the second sermon we can understand that they are rupa vedana sañña sankara vinana and extrapolate to understand that these were common terms in the Buddhas time. Other than consciousness I can’t see that these could be even seen as confusing or need much more explaining within the cultural context.

I don’t know where it falls in the options you consider, but I more agnostically see the possibility that the real content of the 1st sermon was lost, and when asked, later teachers (probably rightly) assumed that it must have been about the most important distinct aspects of the dhamma and thus named the khandhas etc, which then became canonical.

Again, I have probably a more questioning mind, but rupa is not clear to me, if it represents senses/visuality or material bodiness, vedana = sensations or feelings?, sankhara = ?, and yes vinana has different possible connotations.

Not wanting to open this can of worms, but seeing the imprecision in our understanding of the khandhas, which components would we add today, and would we be able to give precise definitions without schisming over it?

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One thing I don’t see addressed explicitly in the suttas is the idea of either “multiple selves” or “interpersonal identities”.

Multiple selves being like the Walt Whitman line “I contain multitudes”. Many people today seem not to believe in a singular enduring self, but also do not disidentify with their pieces. “There’s a part of me that’s still angry at my ex, but most of me has moved on”. “That appealed to my inner child.” Etc.

“Interpersonal identities” is like the idea of identity as a social construct which you give credibility to. You’re a child, parent, sibling, citizen, etc. There’s nothing within yourself that you can point to as yourself, but there’s something within social relationships which you can credulously refer to as your “self”.

I think these can still be framed as self-views in terms of the five aggregates, but I don’t think they’re as well addressed as, say, the idea of the self in the body.

There’s actually a sutta that addresses this, and claims that the Buddha always spoke extemporaneously, but (to modernize the comparison) like a mechanic will always explain the transfer of energy from the engine to the wheels in the same steps, he always explains things in substantively similar ways simply because he knows them so well. Even certain things that are expressed metaphorically, will always be expressed with the same metaphor (e.g. “engine purr”). In the actual sutta, he’s speaking to a chariot-maker.

I also think the social context is important here. Prior to his awakening, Siddharta Gotama Shakya and Ananda were very likely raised with a context where it was expected Siddharta would take over rulership of their state, and Ananda would be a supporting elite, in a verbal society. It’s well-attested cross culturally that people like that spoke differently than us and developed specialized skills to support this. Precise and consistent speech is much more important when your word is law, or when you’re speaking on behalf of the person whose word is law. Cato the Elder wasn’t enlightened, but he definitely really developed the pericope “Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam

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What I meant was that these aggregates seem to have been a more common language in the Buddha’s time. Or at least we don’t have recordings of the Buddha spending so much time on explaining them, except the many different kinds of vedana.

These days we have to the questions which you raise to grapple with, but I’m not sure they were the same as in ancient India.

This was more the can of worms that I had intended for the thread :slight_smile: It’s got all too messy now to split into two threads; one for the question of what really happened before the first sermon and one for the how the khandhas would be handled in this day and age.

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When I read the suttas, I always get the feeling that even at that time, they knew that the five khandhas are a bit arbitrary in terms of their demarcation. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many qualifiers like “these couple of things cannot be separated, they are mixed” and so on. This arbitrariness might also account for the appeal of other schools of thought like the “mind only” school.
The five Khandhas are fundamental to our existence and experience but I don’t think they are some type of fundamental irreducible things or categories. Rupa is the most demarcated because the idea of external vs internal is deeply ingrained in us. The difficult ones for me are sankhāras and consciousness. I don’t quite understand what did they mean exactly by those two terms.
To offer a painting analogy, for the sake of convenience the teachings and even ordinarily we think of khandhas as if they are a bunch of neat geometric shapes, sometimes intersecting with each other like a Venn diagram but it seems the situation is more like we have demarcated some regions on a Jackson Pollock painting and given it some labels— blue bits are feelings and yellow bits are perceptions etc.

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Sankhara: I do therefore I am.
Consciousness: I know therefore I am.

To answer some of the original question too, I think a rough map which may not be accurate can be done for the rest of the 3 aggregates.

Rupa: I am my body.
Vedana: I feel therefore I am.
Sanna: I think therefore I am (???) I see (mind seeing) therefore I am? I am my views? As in political views, religious views, philosophical views etc.

That’s possible, but then why are they absent from both the Brahmin and the early Jain texts? Brahmin texts indeed have collections of five, for example Taittiriya Upanisad 2.8 mentions five atmans (bodies) that are encountered on the path to immortality: food (anna), breath (prana), mind (manas), perception (vijnana), and bliss (ananda). And of course there are many other ‘fives’ in Brahmin texts.

Jain texts only centuries later featured skandhas, which might well be influenced by Buddhism. The earliest Acaranga sutra has no similar concept, we rather find the five senses (minus the mind) a few times.

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A few aggregates I would consider fundamental

  • Intention: as in the preparation of an act, bodily or cognitive
  • Memory/imagination - being able to see what is not present
  • Consciousness - passive experiencing / power source of the mental world / spirit
  • The unconcious - as storage/ potential/ regressive biographical material/ undifferentiated drives, needs, desires, expectations, etc.
  • Attention - as a focusing faculty
  • Body incl. senses
  • Feelings/ moods

Beyond that people might have a few more contemporary psychological, yet superficial elements they consider fundamental today, e.g. gender, personality type (as in MyersBriggs), attachment style, maybe something like trauma-structure.

[Edit: I’d add another aggregate:

  • convictions / attitudes / beliefs]