Where does thought fit into the 5 aggregates?

Hey All and Bhante @sujato

So now that I see sankhara is synonymous with kamma in many instances, does that mean that mental formations in the 5 aggregates is kamma and not simply thoughts and concepts.

The reason why I ask is because I have been using the 5 aggregates to label phenomena as they arise so as to become disenchanted with them. I’m wondering if Bhante @sujato and anyone else who knows can help me with the 5 aggregates so I am viewing them more clearly.

Up to now, I have been viewing them as such.

  • Body (physical body) as not self
  • Feeling (physical and mental sensations or feeling tone) as not self
  • Perception (liking and disliking) as not self
  • Mental formations (thoughts, images and concepts) as not self
  • Consciousness (awareness of phenomena) as not self.

Is this correct or do I have things mixed up in categorization or understanding?

Thank you for you help.




Indeed, yes. Sankhara in the five aggregates is simply “choice, volition”, especially in ethically relevant contexts. Not every thought is a choice!

Later Buddhism wanted to stack everything in sankhara, but that’s not really what it’s there for.


Yes. Quite often they are driven by conditioning: past & present.

An example would be like simple knee-jerk reactions to certain stimulus, and pet-peeves all the way to unconscious decision pattern choice( some times self destructive, but one is unaware of the long term trend or oblivious to why certain results keep presenting themselves).

Also choice/volition is influenced by traits carried into this birth via the bhavaṅga


In the narrative of suttas, a thought is usually described after “etadahosi”.

Then it occurred to me:
Tassa mayhaṃ, bhikkhave, etadahosi:
‘When what exists is there rebirth? …
‘kimhi nu kho sati jāti hoti … pe …

Does it mean “thus I/he/she thought”?

The reason I make this question is to find out if in Pali we have broad sense verb like to think denoting the action of performing mental verbalization.



Yes, this is a common idiom, almost exactly parallel with the English “it occurred to them”.

Vitakka is used for more considered reflections, like the “thoughts of a great man”.


This is a good question. I can see how this could be confusing with the close association, but it never occurred to me before. :sunglasses:


So is there a place for “non-choice” thoughts in the model of the aggregates? And what about emotions?

The concept or label of “emotion” is a quite recent one.
I am not aware of there being an equivalent term in Pali or Sanskrit.
This does not mean things we now label under the broad label of emotion would not have a place in the teachings as found in EBTs.
They’re just framed differently and in line with the four Noble truths.

Well, the point I would make is to first acknowledge that there is an issue.

The five aggregates have their definitions and applications in the Suttas. When we look at them, there are various interpretive problems—as with any subtle teaching!

The cases that you raise are interesting, and worth considering. But how to resolve them?

The Abhidhamma—of all schools, apparently—solved the problem by extending the scope of the sankhara aggregate so that it could include such things, whether “thought” (vitakka), emotions (eg. saddhā = “faith”, mettā = “love”, etc.) or other mental functions (eg. sati = “memory”).

Were they right to do so? Well, it’s a complex question. It’s part of an evolution of ideas, and the way that certain teachings are handled in one context may not suit how they are handled in another context.

Why does this issue arise? I think it’s because the aggregates are probably a pre-Buddhist set of categories for classifying self-theories, and was originally meant as a rough-and-ready way of sorting out different theories, which over time was seen to have rather wider applications.

But the important thing for us as students is to recognize what the situation is in the Suttas, and not be in a rush to explain things away or rationalize them. We can accept that the sense of these things in the Suttas is somewhat different from that in the Abhidhamma, without condemning the Abhidhamma for getting it wrong, or defending it as the ultimate source of truth, or imagining that our solution is so much better. Take the time to appreciate what the Suttas are saying in and of themselves, and then ask, “How does this relate to my experience?” And maybe it doesn’t!


Sorry to belabor the question. So, to be clear, when I am saying in my mind, “mental formations are not self” internally meaning “thoughts are not mine or self” is this the correct way of viewing this aggregate? So is this aggregate, “thoughts that arise which are arisen and there is a choice whether to follow them but they are not self?”

I have been dismissing all of them basically and only looking at them if they are conducive to wholesome mind states but ultimately letting all go except the mind feeling itself to try to lean towards jhana.

What I’m saying is that the sankharakkhandha solely consists of choices or intentions, and has nothing to do with “thoughts”. Be aware of thoughts, sure, but that is dealt with a different meditation. See for example AN 4.41, which lists aware of thoughts and contemplation of the aggregates as distinct meditations.


Hi aminettalove,

This thread might be of interest to you:

At that time, I came out of it with the understanding that thoughts belonged to the ‘formations’ aggregate, but not to the mental formations but the verbal formations, as defined in MN 44 nya14-15 (and SN 41.6):

(Bhante Sujato’s translation)

“But ma’am, what is the physical process? What’s the verbal process (vacīsaṅkhāro)? What’s the mental process?”
“Breathing is a physical process. Placing the mind and keeping it connected (vitakkavicārā) are verbal processes. Perception and feeling are mental processes.”

“But ma’am, why is breathing a physical process? Why are placing the mind and keeping it connected verbal processes? Why are perception and feeling mental processes?”
“Breathing is physical. It’s tied up with the body, that’s why breathing is a physical process. First you place the mind and keep it connected, then you break into speech (vitakketvā vicāretvā pacchā vācaṃ bhindati). That’s why placing the mind and keeping it connected are verbal processes.

(Bhikkhu Bodhi’s transaltion)

What is the verbal formation? […] thought and examination (vitakkavicārā) are the verbal formation […]”
Why are thought and examination the verbal formation? […]
First one thinks and examines, then afterwards one breaks into speech; that is why thought and examination are the verbal formation.”**

And in my present-day understanding, the attainment of the second jhana would be the minimum attainment when one becomes certain, by personal experience, that verbal formations are not self. The fourth jhana would do the same for the bodily formations.

But most in- and out-breaths are not a choice, yet they are the bodily sankhara?


I’d assumed that the extension of the sankharas aggregates was to make the 5 skhandhas model inclusive, to include all aspects of experience.
So basically the sankharas aggregate is equivalent to the sankharas nidana?

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Yes, that does seem like a significant distinction. It’s also interesting to compare these with the classification represented by the four frames of Satipatthana. There seem to be various overlapping models and frameworks in the suttas, different ways of categorising and analysing experience ( the fourth frame of Satipatthana contains some significant ones ).



And the Abhidhamma took it upon itself to resolve and systematize all these.


While we’re discussing thoughts, I’m still not entirely clear about mind-base ( mano? ), one of the six sense-bases - sometimes translated as “intellect”. Does mind-base take just thoughts as it’s objects, or are other mental objects included? And how does this relate to contemplation of citta in the third frame of satipatthana - there seems to be a wider scope here?

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Well stated.

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