Turning shoulders and casting off aggregates

There are two discourses (SN 4.23 and SN 22.87) that deal with the highly unusual circumstances that brought an arahant to “use the knife”, that is, commit suicide. These suttas have been frequently discussed, and in this little note I’m not taking on the many interesting ethical and philosophical issues they raise, but simply noting a difficulty with one term.

In both cases when the Buddha sees the monk after committing suicide, they’re described as lying on their cot, vivattakkhandha. This term is found nowhere else, and it would seem that it should have a highly specific meaning. However the exact import of the term is unclear.

The etymology of vivatta is unclear, but it would seem to have the basic sense of “turn”. It’s only found in one other case, vivattachadda—usually translated as “one who has drawn back the veil [of the world]”—but the reading is confused with vivaṭa, and the meaning is similarly unclear.

As for khandha, in addition to the well-known sense of the five aggregates, it’s used to mean “trunk, shoulder, torso”, as well as a “mass” or “group” of anything.

Under vivattacchadda the PTS dictionary says vivatta-kkhandha is a curious expression (“with his shoulders twisted round”?). This reading, which is supported by the commentary, has been followed by Ven Bodhi and the PTS translation.

But under khandha the same dictionary suggests “one whose khandhas have revolved (passed away)” i.e. dead. The Chinese parallels support this reading. SA 1265 has 見跋迦梨死身,有遠離之色 “saw Vakkali’s dead body, detached from form”. SA 1091 has 殺身在地 “dead body on the ground”. There are two other Chinese parallels, but as far as I can see they don’t have an exact parallel of this term.

It would seem that we have two, completely different, possibilities. It could refer to the dramatic and violent death scene, in which case it would be “with limbs strewn about”, “with twisted torso”. This meaning is perhaps supported by the Sanskrit term śayyāprāntavivartana, “rolling from one side to another of a couch”. The commentarial explanation, which depicts the monk on his back with a slight turning of the shoulder, seems like an attempt to make the deceased monk’s deportment more dignified.

Or else it follows the similarly obscure vivattachadda, in the sense of “with aggregates cast off”. This too can claim Sanskrit support, as vivartay can mean “to cast off (a garment)”. Given the support of the Chinese texts, and the fact that in both cases this leads up to Mara searching for the consciousness in vain, I tend to favor this reading.


Vivattachadda occurs in the Aṅguttara, at AN 4.40. Ven. Bodhi has a long note on this term, which you may find useful. K.R. Norman has discussed this term at length in his collected papers, of which I believe you have a copy. Here are BB’s comments:

Readings of this enigmatic term vary here and elsewhere across the Nikāyas. Here, Ce has vivattacchaddā, Be vivaṭacchadā, Ee vivattacchadā. The expression often occurs in the stock passage on the two courses open to one with the thirty-two bodily marks of a great man: if he remains at home, he will become a wheel-turning king, but if he goes forth into homelessness, he will become a perfectly enlightened Buddha, described as “one in the world who vivaṭacchado” (variants: vivaṭṭacchado, vivaṭṭacchaddo, vivattacchaddo). See e.g. DN 3.1.5, I 89,8–9; DN 14.1.31, II 16,8–9; DN 30.1.1, III 142,4; MN 91.5, II 134,28; Sn 106. Though the origins of the term and its exact meaning are problematic, the commentaries consistently analyze and explain it in the same way. Since Mp (on the present sutta) does not offer an explanation, I cite the Dīgha Nikāya commentary, Sv I 250,34–251,3: “Vivaṭṭacchado: Here, having been born into the world, he dwells having entirely removed the covering in the world (loke taṃ chadanaṃ vivaṭṭetvā), in the darkness of defilements covered by seven coverings (chadanehi): lust, hatred, delusion, conceit, views, ignorance, and misconduct.”
The old canonical commentary, Cūḷaniddesa, commenting on Sn 1147, says: “Vivaṭacchado: There are five coverings (chadanāni): craving, views, defilements, misconduct, ignorance. Those coverings have been removed (vivaṭāni) by the Blessed Buddha; they have been dispelled, uprooted, abandoned, eradicated, settled, stilled, burned by the fire of knowledge so that they are unable to arise. Therefore the Buddha is one who has removed the coverings” (Nidd II 251,18–22; VRI ed. 204).
Norman (1991: 71–76) had proposed that the Pāli expression was to be derived from the BHS form vighuṣṭaśabda and thus meant “one whose name (or fame) had rolled in different directions” or “one of widespread fame.” In a later work (2006b: 228–29) he changed his position, stating: “although I was correct to see a connection between the Pāli and Skt words, the direction of the development was in the reverse order, and must represent a hyper-Sanskritisation from vivattacchadda.” At Sn 372 and elsewhere he renders this “with deceit removed.”
The Chinese translators of the Āgamas must have worked with texts that read vighuṣṭaśabda or some variant with the same meaning. Thus a parallel of 4:40, SĀ2 90 (at T II 404c6) has , “whose name is heard extremely far away.” The parallel of DN 30, MĀ 59 (at T I 493b7–8), reads: ; “he necessarily becomes a Tathāgata, unattached (= arahant), fully enlightened, whose name spreads around and is heard in the ten directions.” MĀ 161, the parallel of MN 91, has the same at T I 685b2–4. Though various conjectures might be proposed with respect to the original expression and its meaning, given the difficulty of settling these questions across Buddhist textual traditions, the most expedient course open to me is to translate the term as it has been preserved and interpreted in the Pāli tradition.


Thanks. I have BB’s notes, but not Norman’s papers. In any case, as far as vivatta goes they both seem to settle on “removed” or something like it. If it is the same term as in vivattakkhandha (which seems likely to me) then it would support “with aggregates cast off” rather than “with shoulder turned”.

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I like “with aggregates cast off”, or something to that effect. It is doctrinally meaningful, whereas “with shoulders turned” doesn’t really say very much.

I am wondering, however, whether the context allows for it. The Pali says:

Addasā kho bhagavā āyasmantaṃ vakkaliṃ dūratova mañcake vivattakkhandhaṃ semānaṃ.

Which could be rendered as:

The Master saw Venerable Vakkali from afar, lying on a bed, vivattakkhandhaṃ.

Of course, Vakkali didn’t exist any more at this point, and all the Buddha saw was the physical remains. To say that he “saw Vakkali … who had cast of the aggregates” is therefore not quite accurate. This would only be applicable to a living arahant. “With turned shoulders”, on the other hand, would seem to fit well, since it relates directly to the physical body. Usually the Buddha is very precise in the way he speaks, but since this is narrative perhaps there is some poetic licence? I am not entirely sure what to conclude.

Also, are you using “aggregates” for khandhā throughout? I have to admit I am not particularly keen on this word. Have you considered alternatives? How about something like “personality groups”?

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and it sits well with subsequent Buddha’s declaration of them as arahants


I dunno, that seems a little pedantic. It’s just an expression.[quote=“brahmali, post:4, topic:2949”]
are you using “aggregates” for khandhā throughout? I have to admit I am not particularly keen on this word. Have you considered alternatives? How about something like “personality groups”?

Well it’s kind of like deciding who to vote for: the least worst alternative. “Personality groups”; feels too clumsy to me.

Probably the best would be “mass”. Literal, handy, non-Latinate. But I’m not sure if it can be made to do the work. Walshe uses “groups”, also a possibility.

The thing with “aggregates” is that sometimes its not a bad thing for a technical term to stand out. Take say the title of this article. We know exactly what I’m referring to. But if it said “Turning shoulders and casting off masses”, or “casting off groups”, I don’t think it would be clear. Same with the text. The “aggregate-bereft Vakkali”, or however we want to render it, is quite clear. But can we say “the massless Vakkali”, or “Vakklai, who has thrown off the mass”, and so on? I don’t think so.



Maybe a glance into Sanskrit is helpful:
Monier-Williams (among others) gives for

  • vivṛtta = turned or twisted round
  • vṛtta = deceased, dead (Ramayana) / completed, finished, absolved (Maitri-Upan.) / past, elapsed, gone (Manu-Smriti…)

I’ve gotten used to ‘aggregates’ but it really is a terrible word. Maybe ‘collections’? A bit more technical than ‘heaps’ or ‘piles’ but also more universally understandable than ‘aggregates’.

I basically agree that ‘aggregate’ is terrible - I still don’t know what it’s supposed to mean. Surely when I hear the term I don’t think ‘Ah, he means feelings and perceptions’. It became a technical buddhist term, but for every outsider and newcomer it’s one of the terms that create a big question mark and the impression that buddhism is about fancy philosophy.

I think it was Neumann who translated it as ‘Daseinsgruppen’ - groups of being/existence, which I like.

‘aspects of being’? ‘components of being’? (more focusing on khandha in the meaning of ‘chapter’)

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I sometimes use ‘vectors’ when thinking of the aggregates.

i think Richard Gombrich offers a good hypothesis on what aggregate was originally supposed to mean

Since even the core of the fire metaphor was thus early forgotten by Buddhist tradition, it is not surprising that its extensions were forgotten too. The word upadana has both a concrete and an abstract meaning. In the abstract it means attachment, grasping; in this sense it is much used in Buddhist dogmatics. Concretely, it means that which fuels this process. The P.E.D. s.v.: ‘(lit. that [material] substratum by means of which an active process is kept alive and going), fuel, supply, provision’. So when the context deals with fire it simply means fuel. The five khandha, from form to consciousness, are often referred to in the texts as the upadana-kkhandha, and this is usually translated something like ‘the aggregates of grasping’. While not wrong, this translation has lost the metaphor.

In my opinion it is clear that the term khandha too was a part of the fire metaphor. I would trace it back to a small sutta which has caused a good deal of trouble in the history of Buddhist thought: the sermon about the burden at Samyutta Nikaya Khandhavagga, sutta 22 SN III, 25–6. Like most of these short sermons in the Samyutta Nikaya, this has no narrative context. The Buddha simply begins by saying: ‘Monks, I shall teach you the burden, the bearer of the burden, the taking up of the burden and the putting down of the burden.’ He is expounding a metaphor. The burden, he says, is what we may call the five upadana-kkhandha; he then names the standard five, from matter to consciousness, calling each an upadana-kkhandha. Each is being metaphorically called a bundle of fuel. The normal fuel was firewood, and we can, if we like, extend the image to being one of the brahmin student (brahmacarin), one of whose daily duties was to collect the firewood to feed the sacred fires.

The sutta caused trouble because of the next section of the metaphor: the Buddha says that the bearer of the burden is a venerable monk here (ayamayasma), an individual (puggala) with a certain name and clan. His taking up the burden is craving (tanha) and his laying down the burden is the complete stopping of craving. Later a whole school of Buddhists, the pudgalavadin, took this text as their main authority for claiming that the person was a sixth entity, separate from the five khandha, since it was that person, not the five khandha, which was subject to craving and so picked the khandha up. We can see that this interpretation is nothing but the too literal application of a metaphor, a piece of rather absurd pedantry.

There is a short text a little later in the Samyutta Nikaya, at SN III, 71, which states that the five khandha are on fire (aditta), so that one should stop caring for them. I wonder whether this was not the original form of the metaphor of ‘being on fire’: the experiences of the unenlightened are like five bundles of firewood which are on fire. That would make them very uncomfortable to carry! Indeed, I wonder whether these two short texts, SN III, 25–6 and SN III, 71, were not originally together.

Once one understands that the five processes that constitute our experiences are being compared to burning bundles of firewood, or at least to bundles of firewood to feed the fires of passion, hatred and delusion, this also makes sense of the old terms for the two kinds of nirvana: sa-upadi-sesa and an-upadi-sesa. As the P.E.D. s.v. upadi tells us, upadi upadaja. The attainment of nirvana during one’s life (the only time when it is possible to attain it!) is called sa-upadi-sesa, but this does not mean that one still has a residue of grasping – just a little bit of vice! If we follow the metaphor, we understand that at the moment when we extinguish the fires of passion, hatred and delusion we still have the five khandha, that which experiences, so we still have a residue (sesa) of fuel (upadi); however, it is no longer burning. When the five khandha cease to exist, i.e., when we die Enlightened, we have no more potential for experience; we have run out of fuel.

This was apparently forgotten at a very early stage. Because of phonetic similarity, upadi in this context was changed to upadhi. The latter means basis, foundation, and in particular was used to refer to the basis for craving (tanha). As this made satisfactory sense, no one noticed that there was even a problem with the original terms.

“How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings”

his hypothesis would gain much credibility should khandha/skandha or its dialect forms be found in colloquial usage around the time of the Buddha to mean bundle (of firewood)

so how about sheaves or trusses , or bands if it comes to the pinch ?


Or “faggots”. It would give so many things a fresh meaning. :sunglasses:

But more seriously, this is a good reminder, thank you. I agree totally that the fire metaphor underlies the use of khandhas, although it is already somewhat dim by the time of the suttas. Perhaps “bundles” would be a good rendering. It hints at the fire metaphor, while also containing the idea of things “tied together”.

Perhaps we could even say something like “the bundle of form as fuel for grasping” for rūpupdānakkhandha.

Now we just need a decent word for rūpa

If khandha/skandha meant firewood I would expect it to be in the rgveda. After all fire has a prominent role in agni rituals of old. But in the whole rgveda I could find it only one time as a compound where it means shoulder. If I browse through the (very diverse) sanskrit meanings there are one main and two minor connotations I would say:

  • part, section, division, region, multitude, quantity
  • the stem or trunk of a tree (especially that part of the stem where the branches begin), a large branch
  • the shoulder, upper part of the back or region from the neck to the shoulder-joint

eh, some terms are so vague and even the pali experts seem to fish for precise literal meaning. I know it doesn’t help to keep terms untranslated (with a commentary), but at least it would show that we simply don’t really know which of the connotations were original. After all we have thousands of latin and greek terms in the part-germanic languages like english and german as well and got used to it.

(the very clearly main rigveda term for firewood btw is samidha)


i think if we interpret khandha as

the firewood allegory still works to give it some grounding in reality

Personally I wouldn’t take it as a justification. The sanskrit meaning of ‘part, section, division, chapter…’ is far more prominent. Just to give the variety, yes it can mean the trunk of a tree, but also a bough, a prince, a lake, a teacher, an agreement, and most importantly the ‘equality of height in the humps of a pair of draught oxen’ :slight_smile:

Just to throw another connotation into the mix - considering that the khandhas are
more or less the consecutive elements 2-6 in the dependent origination, I would see also the possibility of ‘coating of grasping’ or ‘layer of grasping’. This would be of course not a literal but a specific functional translation.

That’s great, thanks for doing the research.

I don’t think Gombrich is suggesting that khandha means firewood. It clearly means bundle, group, etc. He’s suggesting that, in the context of a range of imagery that is associated with fire and its fuel, the use of khandha may fit with that imagery in the sense of a bundle of firewood.

Nonetheless, the fact that this sense can’t be attested elsewhere certainly makes this suggestion dubious. Given the centrality of fire to Vedic ritual, you’d expect it to be used somewhere if it’s a common phrase.

Well, yes, but in this case that’s not really the problem. The meaning is clear enough. We’re trying to find something that is more fluent and accessible English, and perhaps capturing something of the metaphorical associations as well. But strictly in terms of meaning, aggregate is fine.

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The fire metaphor in relation to the khandhas also pops up in MN72 and SN 44.9 which deal with the post-mortem condition of an arahant.

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Well, the fire imagery is there, but the question was whether the term khandha is clearly a part of this set of metaphors. SN 44.9 doesn’t mention the khandhas at all. And while MN 72 does mention them, it doesn’t use the word khandha.

So while it’s certainly not an implausible suggestion, there’s still no direct evidence that the underlying metaphor of the word khandha was linked with fire, rather than simply “mass, group”.

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