The Mystery of the Khandhas

This came to me this morning.

The basic meaning of khandha is a pile, collection, group. Note that
the suttas talk not of A GROUP with 5 objects in it but of 5 GROUPS,
each with contents, rather like five Folders each with a number of
files in it, not of one folder with 5 files.

The khandhas are, to say the least, an important part of the Buddha’s
teaching - important enough to be presented as a summary of the first
great truth - sankhittena pañc’upādānakkhandhā pi dukkhā (in
brief, the five groupings of grasping are dukkha.) Moreover they are
clearly closely connected with meditation -

Yato yato sammasati khandhānaṃ udaya-bbayaṃ
Labhatī pīti-pāmojjaṃ amataṃ taṃ vijānataṃ. (Dh.374)
(Whenever one meditates on the rise and fall of the khandhas,
He experiences joy and rapture. It is immortality for men of discrimination.)

The meaning of the khandhas has long been a puzzle, and usually left
rather vague, as the very name “aggregates”, the usual
translation, clearly shows. One cannot give a clear translation until
one has decided what a word actually means!

There are a couple of verses in the Saṃyutta Nikaya, Gāthāvagga,
that SEEM to supply a meaning.

athā hi aṅgasambhārā hoti saddo rato iti,
Evaṃ khandhesu santesu hoti sattoti sammuti. (SI.135)

(As the collection of parts constitutes what is called a ‘chariot’,
so when there are the khandhas one has the idea of a ‘person’.)

But these verses show every signs
of being much later than the main body of the suttas. They are not
attributed to the Buddha or any of the main early disciples, but to a
couple of nuns, and the whole atmosphere of the verses is very
similar to the kind of verses we find in the Theragāthā and
Therīgāthā, rather than the suttas. It is a good image, in its
way, but mistakenly connected to the khandhas. There is nothing
comparable to this image in the suttas to do with the khandhas.

The khandha ‘folders’ (groupings) are rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, and viññāṇaṃ.
And I would suggest that the obvious contents, the files in the folders,
are the appropriate equivalents for each of the 6 senses - cakkhu,
sota, ghāna, jivhā, kāyo (poṭṭhabba) and mano, ie. the
physical (or quasi-physical) ‘object’ of each, its vedanā (pleasure
or pain), recognition, reaction of interest or recoil, and the
sense-conscousness itself.

In Practice
Sitting in meditation, one might hear a sound (sadda) - a nice sound (vedanā),
which one recognises as bird song (saññā), and reacts to
(saṅkhāra) and notes perhaps that it is ‘hearing’. But one sees it
for what it is, temporary and unsatisfactory, and drops it. The same
could be applied to a pain in the knee, the sight of a flower, the
smell of the honeysuckle, etc. It all fits in very clearly and
appropriately with basic practice.

I am sorry this is rather long and intricate for a contribution to a discussion forum,
but it does seem to make sense of an important but rather obscure part of the teaching.


What about SN 22.22, which states:

The five groups are the heavy load, The seizing of the load is ‘the person’…”

1 Like

Thanks for this, it was a nice reflection.

“The five groups are the heavy load, The seizing of the load is ‘the person’…”

Yes, a very interesting verse, but I think I would take its thrust differently from the ‘chariot’ idea. I see it as pointing out that while we have a body with outward turn senses with their pleasures/temptations (assādā) and pains/consequences (ādīnavā) we must be careful to just let it run itself out without making the burden even heavier by turning them into UPĀDĀNA-khandhā. Of course, the best way is to get rid of the sense of being the ‘puggala’ carrying them! Then, who is carrying them?

This raises the interesting related question, that if we really ARE just the constituent parts of a chariot, who or what is the driver? Or is it just out of control?

I suppose the driver is also one of the aggregates & all the driver is truly capable of is avoiding suffering through non-attachment about the inevitable crash of the chariot.

1 Like